July 21, 2022

Inside The Shade Room Media Empire with Angie Nwandu

How Angie Nwandu built the TMZ of Instagram


Angie Nwandu started The Shade Room in 2014 with nothing but an Instagram account and a love of celebrity gossip. Today, The Shade Room is a media empire that covers culture, politics, investigative stories, television, and more across a host of platforms. And that Instagram account now has more than 26 million followers. She tells Nora about how she bootstrapped the business, why she decided to only take one singular VC investment, and how she monetizes the business. For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out realvision.com/businesscasual. 

Host: Nora Ali

Producer: Bella Hutchins 

Video Editors: McKenzie Marshall and Christie Muldoon

Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus

Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder

Fact Checker: Kate Brandt 

Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop

VP, Head of Multimedia: Sarah Singer 

Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm

Transcript

Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. 

Now let's get down to business. What does it actually mean to turn your side hustle into an empire? Angie Nwandu started The Shade Room in 2014, with nothing but an Instagram account and a love of celebrity gossip. Today, The Shade Room is a media empire that covers culture, politics, investigative stories, television, and more, across a host of platforms. And that Instagram account now has over 26 million followers. We get into the business of it all with Angie, how she bootstrapped The Shade Room, why she decided to take just one indie venture capital investment without even really reading the paperwork—not something she'd recommend, but she trusted her gut on the investor at the time. How she figured out monetizing the business, including her strategy around how much to charge for ads on her platform, when she quickly realized she was charging way too little in the beginning. Now she has a robust and thoughtful set of advertiser offerings. And she also shared her ambitious plans for the media brand's future.

Angie told us that when she started out, she had nothing to lose, and that allowed her to take some pretty big risks. Now, she says, she has to draw from who she used to be and fight perfection paralysis, but it's all part of making The Shade Room into what she called the hub for Black culture. Angie is a self-made media mogul in an industry that is hard to break into, especially as a woman of color. She was an absolute delight to chat with, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. That's next, after the break.

You're kind of a big deal, Angie, so I'm looking forward to this. I do want to start with a little bit of an icebreaker that we like to ask most of our guests. I want to know if you have a professional pet peeve. So, something that we do at work, a commonly accepted courtesy that might annoy you. For me, it's things like Reply All, or just getting messages that you don't necessarily need yourself. That sort of thing.

Angie Nwandu: I would say, late night texts. When people text me after 8:00pm or text me before 7:00am, that's my pet peeve.

Nora Ali: Yeah. You gotta create the boundaries. So, Angie, at least around 27 million people know what The Shade Room is, because that's, at the time of this recording, how many followers there are on Instagram. But for those who aren't familiar with it, how would you describe what The Shade Room is and maybe where it started? So, what it was when you first started it to where it is now.

Angie Nwandu: So, when I first started The Shade Room, it was a salacious gossip site, when it first started, I'll be honest with you. At the time, I loved media, I loved media sites, I loved celebrity news. And so I would go to Media Takeout, Bossip, I would go to TMZ. I would go to all of the sites. You know what I mean? Because I just loved to know what was going on. I was unemployed at the time when I created The Shade Room, and I was really down to my last option, to be honest with you—I really had no other option at that point. And I remember I would call my friends and they were in law school, grad school, being successful after college, and here I was doing nothing and frankly, running out of money. So I remember calling my friends and I would be the one who...I was their personal media site. I would call them and be like, "Did you hear what happened? This is what happened?" And they would be so entertained. And finally, one of my best friends, who's still my best friend today, she said, "You're so good at this. Why don't you just start a site? Since you're not doing anything, you're at home unemployed, just start a website and see how it goes." And I was like, oh, good idea. And for me I had nothing to lose, because if I failed, oh well, I was already unemployed. You know what I mean? Like to me, life was already tanking, so what could I lose? So I started the website and then it did well. 

And so at first it was a gossip site and I did a lot of things back then that just, I didn't understand the impact of. So over time as I began to get an audience and as I began to get influence, I began to kind of look at the content and look at the business and see how I could elevate it from what it was. So now what I would say is, it is the hub of Black culture. A third of Black people in America follow The Shade Room, statistically, and everyone else...a lot of other races; it is very diverse. But now what we do is we...I will say we're a stage for Black culture, because that's what we focus on primarily. I mean, we post other things, but primarily our goal is to talk about Black culture, Black trends, Black conversations. We're a place for conversation. A lot of people come to The Shade Room to talk about what's happening. They don't care if they've seen the story on 10 million sites, they want to come to The Shade Room to talk about what's happening. But it's also run by the people. So it's like a, "for us bias" type of thing. The audience runs the platform. So yeah, I would call it a cultural hub for all things Black culture.

Nora Ali: So at the get-go, you didn't take on that much investment. That was sort of a risk in itself. You took what, just $100,000 in a convertible note from investor Bryce Roberts, and you used that single investment pretty effectively. You famously bootstrapped, really, as a company. How were you able to use those dollars to scale the account and scale the business so quickly without requiring outside funds?

Angie Nwandu: It's so funny. I'll tell you this story with the investment. Bryce Roberts is a very interesting VC. He doesn't actually believe in taking investment all the time. His philosophy is that you need to build a company that can make money on its own. And you take investment when you need to expand, or depending on the needs of the company. So he preached a lot about cash flow. Is your business able to be profitable? Focus on your business and trying to make a model that is profitable on its own without investment. Because if you can't make money, you know what I mean? And I take other people's money. That's just his point of view. I'll tell you how he happened to be my only investor, how it worked out. If I never met Bryce, I would've taken millions of dollars of investment—who wouldn't? But what happened was Bryce saw me in an article with The New York Times. And so he reached out. The New York Times did an article that said, oh, the TMZ of Instagram. And he said...Mind you, at this time, I didn't have an LLC. I didn't have an accountant. It wasn't even a real business. It just was a page at that time. So he reached out and he said, "Hey, I want to invite you into my program and I'm going to give you $100,000. Here's the application." But I only had two days. The program started in two days. So I was like, well, look, I don't have no money to get a lawyer. So I just signed the deal. When I tell you I didn't even read it, I didn't even read it. But I'll tell you that I would never recommend that to anybody else.

But I knew when I spoke to Bryce, there was something about him that I just had a very good instinct. I'm a person of instincts. I move on instinct more than anything else. And I just knew that it was the right decision. So I signed the deal. By the way, I lied, too. He asked me how much I was making a month. I told him $10,000. I was probably making like $5,000, but whatever. I signed it without looking, and he let me into the program and gave me money without checking to see if I really had the money. But once I got into his program, I realized that the money he gave me, it wasn't the money. It was the program that was most beneficial to me. You gotta think about it. I was a girl from Hawthorne. I was born in Inglewood; even though I did go to college, I didn't even know really what investment was. You know what I mean? All this stuff I didn't know. So when he brought me into his program, he put me in a room with people like the founder of indeed.com, and the founder of Square. You know what I mean? He put me around people that I just was able to learn from. And he told me, he was like, "Listen, I don't want you to take investment money, because I think you have a model that can make money on its own. And if you do take investment money, think very carefully about it." 

And once I found out that there was a way that I could do it without investment money, I was determined to do that. Because I had heard horror stories of people taking investment money, getting their businesses stolen from them, having these board of directors that fire them as CEOs, or having the investors put so much pressure to make money that the business loses this appeal and its edge or not being able to adapt. I just from there started to build a model that would make money. And I focused on making sure that my business was profitable. And then I think it was like three years later, I paid the $100,000 times five, which was the deal. And you know what Bryce did for me? And this is why I say I went with my instinct and I was right. I never read the contract. So when it was time to pay him back, I started reading the contract and I'm like, "I didn't know that after I paid you, I still have to give you equity." It was a lot of things I didn't know. So I told Bryce, I said, "Bryce, I'm going to pay you back. Can I have my equity back?" We did a deal. Initially he had 7% equity. Now he has 0.7% equity, and he didn't have to do that. He did it because he believed in me.

Nora Ali: Yeah. You built that trust where even though something's written on paper, it's okay for you guys to renegotiate, because he saw that you could really legitimately build the business. I do want to go back to one thing you said about trusting your instinct. Because I think a lot of startup founders now have to assess, is this a venture capital partner that I can trust, who can help me build long term and not just write a check? What was it about Bryce and what did your instinct tell you about Bryce that wanted you to sign on with him in the first place?

Angie Nwandu: I can't even say; it was just a feeling. When I spoke to him on the phone, I felt extremely comfortable with him. You know how somebody has a good spirit and you can talk to him. You're like, this person is a good person. I just have great discernment. So when I spoke to him, I was like, he seems like a good person. I had peace. Even now I have people reaching out to me to invest. And it's just like, my spirit is all jumpy. I just don't feel peace. I get red flags. There was no red flags. He was like, I just like what you're doing. And I want to support a Black female founder. He was just very cool. And I just knew that he would be a great person. Until this day me and Bryce are extremely close. I just spoke with him yesterday. When I'm in tears wanting to quit, I call Bryce. It was just discernment. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

Nora Ali: It's a talent. It's a skill. It's a skill. It's that gut feeling. We will take a very quick break; more with Angie when we come back. We started talking or you brought up your business model and the fact that your investor Bryce wanted you to build this model that made money on its own. What is the business model for The Shade Room? And has it evolved over time?

Angie Nwandu: The business model, it's an advertising model, but it's not your typical advertising model. So if you look up the statistics, like the Black audience is an extremely...They have a high spending and buying power. I think the buying power is like a trillion or more. It's really big. And they tend to buy from media companies that either reflect their culture in some type of way, companies that are about social justice and things like that. But basically they're more likely to buy from a company that represents them than anything else. So here we are, we're a Black media company and we were able to build this ecosystem of Black businesses that support us and we support them. So it's like this cycle. So they're Black businesses. They want to reach Black people. We put them on our site and they get bigger and then they spend more money. So it's like that. But then now we've branched out into content. So we've made money from content. We have shows on Snapchat, we've done shows with Facebook. We have deals in the pipeline for shows and programming, but also obviously programmatic ads on the website and different ways like that. But mostly advertising.

Nora Ali: I was taking a look at your media kit, which is available on The Shade Room's website, and it's very beautiful, well put together, all the different options for advertisers, which makes sense. Now you have a whole team who's thinking about advertising experts in marketing, but in the early days, how do you even decide how much to charge early on and what the right fees are for different brand partners, in the early days of The Shade Room?

Angie Nwandu: In the early days, I didn't know how much to charge. I think I had like either 500k or a million followers when I started to monetize, I don't remember. I think it maybe had been 500k. I just was about to get evicted and you know what I mean? I needed some money right away. So I charged $75 per ad. Literally they got one over on me. Because I didn't know what people were charging. And I'm like, okay. They would ask me, how much is the ad? I'm like, $75. And the people that bought the ad for $75 will never let me forget it. They still come, they're like "You used to charge me $75 for an ad." At first I just made up my own price. But over time there were people who would say, "Wow, that's really cheap." So what I would do is I would make a fake email account and I would go and ask other brands with similar audience numbers. And I would be like, oh, I'm looking to do an ad. How much do you charge? And when they came back and said thousands, I said, oh. So that was how I was able to kind of figure out what I should charge. I think you just need to get a ghost email account and reach out to people that are similar to you and see how much they're charging.

Nora Ali: That's such a good idea. I'm going to try that now, too. How much do you charge for speaking in front of this number of audiences, and then you're just doing your market research, secretly.

Angie Nwandu: Yeah, see what they charge.

Nora Ali: Yeah, that's awesome. So you've previously described The Shade Room's history in three different phases. The first being this Instagram sort of gossip blog. What was the feedback you were getting from your so-called roommates, the people as a part of the community, what sorts of feedback did you start getting that made you realize, okay, maybe we need to pivot a little bit? Maybe we need to cover more news. Maybe we need to do more investigative journalism. What was some of the feedback that you got that made you realize, "Hey, let's expand a little bit more."

Angie Nwandu: It was my peers and it was the people we were reporting on that had me thinking differently about what we were doing. And honestly, the times that I got deleted, I actually think I deserved it because of some of the things that we were doing.

Nora Ali: What happened there? If I may ask, why did it get deleted? What happened?

Angie Nwandu: They said it was a mistake. Because let me tell you what happened. When we got deleted, all the sites were posting about it. CNN Money and all these, BuzzFeed, they were like, The Shade Room got deleted. This was during the time when BuzzFeed was on Facebook. Remember? So a lot of brands started to come to social media. So everybody was scared and they were on Instagram, like, why did you delete The Shade Room? Because they were scared like about the landscape. You know what I mean? And so, because they were reporting on it, all of their audiences were like, "Well where's The Shade Room?" So it was like that. So Instagram was just like, "Look, we made a mistake, whatever. Let's give them their page back." So I never knew why it was deleted. So I learned a lot of lessons through things like that.

And I just had to think about it. Also, I grew up, I was 23 when I started the brand. And I was growing into a woman and I knew that my impact and what I was doing and my influence was getting bigger and I just had to do some soul searching and it just wasn't fitting for me anymore. So I was like, I would pray. I would be like, what can I do with this platform that I created? How can I make it better? I still do that today. And we were able to do that.

Nora Ali: Yeah. So talk to me a little bit more about that expansion. So I understand that you plan on investing 16.5% of revenue this year outside of Instagram. That includes hiring producers, journalists, expanding investigative pieces. What is your pitch to bring on seasoned journalists onto the platform? Why should they leave the CNNs and even ESPNs of the world to work for The Shade Room?

Angie Nwandu: What brings people here...because I did take somebody from a big network. He was a news journalist and he was an Emmy winner and we brought him here. And usually the pitch is that they don't want to be stifled. They want freedom. They want to be able to try things. They want to be able to do news for the community and they want to break out of the traditional structure. Honestly, it's crazy. Because ever since we started TSR Investigates with the reporter that's an Emmy winner. He was like, look, I've been on TV every week. He was like, and I've never had this kind of reaction as I have when I'm on The Shade Room. And so the show that he has gets millions of views every week and I think it's over like 60 million total. And ever since then, it's been so much easier pulling people from these networks because they see the benefit personally for them. And then they also like that they get to just kind of break out of the mold. And that's what a lot of people want to do. It's the same thing with executives from these big companies. We pull people from the Grammys, had people from BET, had people from TV1. You know what I mean? It's not that we offer them any benefits. I mean, we offer them good benefits. Let me stop saying that. But there's no comparison. There's no comparison to a $400 million company; we can't compete. But usually they come here because they believe in me, they believe in the mission. They want to see a Black media company thrive, an independent one, and they just have that passion for that. So that's the pitch. It's like, "Hey, you want to do something that's never been done before. Come over here." You know what I mean? And they do. So it's really about the mission.

Nora Ali: The mission, the freedom, and just trying different things, which I don't think you can do as easily in these older, more traditional platforms. We are going to take another quick break. More with Angie when we come back. Angie, we were talking about some of the draws for journalists and producers to come work at The Shade Room. And one of the things you pointed to is this community. There's a very engaged audience that you have for The Shade Room. And I had a conversation on this podcast recently where I asked this question: Can you be a musical artist, a new artist of today without social media? Is it possible to grow organically without having a strong social media presence? And the answer I got was well, social media is music right now. Songs go viral on TikTok. The top whatever lists are usually full of songs that grew on TikTok. So do you think it's possible today to grow a modern day media company without having a strong social presence and social engagement? Or is it sort of a prerequisite at this point?

Angie Nwandu: It's a prerequisite. I don't think you can build a media company these days without...Because a lot of people don't go to www dot anymore. You know what I mean? Like a lot of people get their news from social media. I know I don't go to www dot anymore. You know what I mean? I don't remember the last time I did that. If you don't have a presence on social media, how will people know where you are? It's like, if you're selling a product, but you don't have a website or a storefront, how are people going to know? So I definitely feel like if you're going to be in media, you need to have some type of social media presence, unless you've already been here. TMZ probably doesn't need social media as much, because they've already built it. But if you're new coming in, you definitely need to get the word out, for sure.

Nora Ali: And that's the best way to just interact with your community too. You're not going to do that from your website. You said, Angie, in an interview with The Hustle previously, that there's this importance of focus in your life and homing in on one project to make it the best it can be. As we talked about, The Shade Room is on a bunch of different platforms. You have a lot of different projects. You're in the Hollywood sphere as well. How do you approach focus when you are trying to do so many things?

Angie Nwandu: Here's the thing with business that is so challenging, especially when you have like a platform like media: You can do anything. There was a time where I wanted to do college dorm room stuff, because I'm like, oh the roommates. Like roommate college dorms. I wanted to do emojis, merch. I wanted to do TV. You know what I mean? It was just so many things that I wanted to do. And then I realized that if you try to go after everything, you literally will...By the end of the year, you're going to look back and say, we did nothing. We didn't accomplish anything. Because we did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, Jack of all trades, master of none. And so over time I realized that you may want to set three goals for the year, three solid goals. And then you want to create these markers every quarter to see how you're advancing towards those goals. But I would say, two to three strong goals. 

Where I learned focus was from when I had a conversation with the founder of indeed.com. Because I asked him, I was talking about Craigslist and I said, "Craigslist is so just..." I mean, I'm like, "Why don't they add color to it? And why don't they add this?" You know what I mean? Like Craigslist is just so matter...It's just like so straight to the point, boring, you know what I mean? And Indeed was just like...You know what I'm saying? I was like, why don't you add all these things? He said, "Because our audience comes to us for one thing, and we do it very well." And when your audience comes to you for something and you master it, there's nothing more powerful than that. And he told me, you have to master what you do before you begin to do something else. There was a time I wanted to do Shade Room Nigeria, Shade Room UK. And then they were like, wait, whoa, have you mastered Shade Room United States first? How are you going to build more platforms if you haven't mastered the model? Locus is very important. And when you zero in on what your audience wants, they know you for it. They know you for it. We know if we want to get upscale home stuff, but not too expensive, we go to Target. You know what I mean? We know if we want to get cheap things that are home stuff, we go to Walmart. We know exactly where we want to go, and it's because they keep giving us what we want and they keep doing it at a great level.

Nora Ali: Great advice. I do want to go back to the "nothing to lose" point that you brought up. Because I spoke with a creator recently for this podcast named Alex Warren. And he said the same thing. He was homeless at the time when he went all in on content creation, and he said he had nothing to lose. So why not? So do you think if you hadn't been unemployed or if you did have a steady, secure job that you could lose, do you think if you had that job, you would have gone to launch The Shade Room, or is it because you had nothing to lose that you were able to go all in on it?

Angie Nwandu: So, both. I'll say both, because my job was also a nothing to lose situation. I was making $13 an hour. And when I was working that job, I did go after my dreams. I wrote a script and while I was at work, I was working on the script and it ended up going to Sundance. And that was when I found out that, oh, I can do something and might see success. So when I was unemployed, I was living off of a grant that Sundance had given me, but it was an independent movie. So I was never going to make money off of it. I think I made $17,000 off of that movie, but I worked on it for like four years. You know what I mean? So I don't know if that's like a penny an hour, but I was never going to make money. You know what I mean? So for me, my career, I couldn't get into grad school. I took the LSAT and I think I got a 140 on it, which is bad. My GPA from college was a 2.8. I barely graduated. So I didn't have anything to lose in the sense that there was no safety net anyway. $13 a hour, I was barely paying my rent anyway. But sometimes I look back at that girl and I try to pull things from her, because I'm not her anymore. I'm a different person because of the things I've gone through. But I now sometimes am more scared than she was. And sometimes I think about it. I'm like, why am I so scared to launch a project or to do something the old me would've did it? And you know what I mean? I had more freedom back then and I realized it's because I had nothing to lose. Now I have a lot to lose. So when you have a lot to lose, you sometimes suffer from perfection paralysis. You sometimes are scared of failure because now a lot of people will see, versus before where if you failed, it was like whatever.

Nora Ali: How does that factor into the risks that you take with The Shade Room? Because I know you're across multiple platforms, going into new lines of business, lines of revenue. Because there is so much to lose and you already have such a big community. How does risk play into your decision-making now?

Angie Nwandu: I think that my dreams are bigger now, so they require more money. But see, the thing is that I'm more scared of risk now. Because like I say, I have bigger dreams. So let's say, I say, oh, let's do this venture. I know it's going to be a large investment. I know that I have to get my team on board. And if I fail, not only is it going to be massive, public, everybody's going to know. But my team...It's just like the money is going to...So I have to force myself to take risks now. And like I said, I try to pull on inspiration from who I used to be. Because I was very bold. When I look back at those days, I'm like, wow, how did I even get the strength to do these things? And so like, I remember when our page got deleted at a million followers and I was like, I started over after that. How? Now if the page gets deleted, it's over. I'm not starting over from 27 million followers. You know what I'm saying?

Nora Ali: Yeah.

Angie Nwandu: Yeah. I have to do a lot of soul searching and say, to do risks now, I do force myself to do it, but I do struggle with perfection paralysis. It's like, I almost want to know that it's going to succeed before I do it. And that's just impossible. You know what I mean?

Nora Ali: Well, Angie, we appreciate you being so transparent, and I do really get what you mean, but before we let you go, we do have one final game on this episode. And one bonus question. So the bonus question is for a segment called Shoot Your Shot. So Angie, I want to know, what is your moonshot idea? This is your biggest ambition, your biggest dream, your biggest goal. It could be for Shade Room. It could be for Angie. Now is your chance to shoot your shot. So go for it.

Angie Nwandu: I want to get into programming. I really love programming and I want to create shows. I want to be a director and a screenwriter. And that's my passion since I was six years old. I have dreams for The Shade Room. I want The Shade Room to be the number one...It is number one cross platform, but I want it to be the number one. I want The Shade Room to be able to...You know how, when things happen, the only news sites that really have access are like Fox or CNN. We all have to just get our news from there. I want to break that barrier so that we can be on the scene for certain important things. I want to be able to have a Black media company be represented in that space, to where we also have our own perspective that's not fed to us by this media that it seems like nobody can get in.

Nora Ali: Sounds like you're on track for all those things, Angie. Our final segment is a game, and it's a very simple game of This or That. So I'm going to give you three things and you choose this or that. So the first thing is, when posting Shade Room content, this or that, Snapchat or TikTok?

Angie Nwandu: Oh, TikTok.

Nora Ali: Okay. Next, this or that. Choose between these two things. When in the office, dressing casual or stunting? I had to look up what stunting means. It means showing off.

Angie Nwandu: I gotta stunt. See, I was the type that would go to the office with heels on. My make up will be done. I gotta stunt. I like stunting.

Nora Ali: Love that. Love that. Final one. When writing an email, this or that, do you like to use complete sentences or stream of consciousness? What kind of an email writer are you?

Angie Nwandu: Stream of consciousness. I consider myself a good writer, but I hate grammar. I hate sticking to the grammar thing. It's just too much. It's too much. It's too much. Stream of consciousness.

Nora Ali: It probably saves you time at the end of the day. We're all about efficiency and focus. Okay, great. Angie, that's it. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. We enjoyed your time.

Angie Nwandu: Okay. Thank you for having me. Bye guys!

Nora Ali: This is Business Casual, and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli, and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments, thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, shoot me a DM and I'll do my best to respond. I'll at least read your DM. You can also reach the BC team by emailing businesscasual@morningbrew.com, or call us. That number is 862-295-1135. If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and a review. It really, really helps us. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Bella Hutchins. Additional production sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus, and Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.