UBO lives

Urban Box Office's editor responds to Salon's article on the company.

By Joel Dreyfuss
September 28, 2000 11:38PM (UTC)
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When I left a comfortable job as a columnist at Fortune magazine to join Urban Box Office in March, I knew that I would be stepping into a cauldron. Having one failed start-up under my belt, I came to my new job with a pretty good idea of how hard it is to build a company that works. And no one could deny that UBO's ambition was very large. In fact, what convinced me to make the leap was the dream: to create a new media company that would give voice and access to talented urban artists and innovators.

But I've been baffled by the knee-jerk negativity of my colleagues in the news business to UBO's goals -- and to all the players in the urban Internet space. The same journalists who hyped every dubious deal and every instant millionaire last year have become permanent skeptics since the tech stock crash earlier this year -- especially, it seems, when the label "urban" is attached to the venture. They've questioned the very existence of an urban Internet audience -- and they've been willing to embrace any suggestion that we don't have the competence to make such a business work.


"A Dot-com Disaster" (as it was originally headlined), a polemical piece about UBO by a former employee that Salon published on Sept. 7, is the kind of article that fits into the current journalistic consensus about urban Web sites, and it may explain why Salon chose to run it without checking a single fact with us -- or the overarching premise that we're about to go out of business. Ironically, while Salon's epitaph for UBO is making the rounds of the Internet, we are in the midst of closing the largest round of financing any consumer-oriented Web site has received this year. Investors, who can't afford to base their decisions on the opinions of the boys on the press bus, are ready to give our dream their most important vote of confidence: the money to turn our vision into a viable, profitable business.

The article by Nasoan Sheftel-Gomes, one of our former employees, clearly shows her deep disappointment about her experience at UBO. And I can understand her frustrations; she joined the company with high ideals and high expectations and we failed to help her fulfill her dreams. While there were errors of fact in the story as originally published, I would be the first to concede that we made many mistakes and failed to manage UBO as well as we should.

But are our troubles any different from many other Web ventures? As one who has reported on numerous start-ups, I would argue that any company trying to marry a solid business to the fragile technologies of the desktop PC and the Internet is bound to stumble from time to time. Companies as large and successful as AOL, Amazon and IBM have faltered -- and recovered. With barely a year under our belt, we think we're entitled to some benefit of the doubt.


Ms. Sheftel-Gomes was at the heart of our learning process and she wrote from her specific experiences and disappointments. As one of my colleagues put it, she served well in combat, but convinced Salon that she was qualified to write a piece about foreign policy. Her perspective was personal and for the most part true about her own experiences. But she also included foxhole rumors and barracks tales that were absolutely incorrect. And she lacked perspective. Coming from a corporate environment to the dot-com world can be incredibly frustrating. In a start-up there are often no systems, no procedures, no structures. Some people thrive in this environment; others complain.

Putting up one Web site is a challenge for most companies. Our plan to build a network of sites serving overlapping slices of the broad urban audience is incredibly ambitious and we've suffered some pain for our mistakes. We underestimated our staff needs, the expertise and the management it would take to make it all work smoothly, and we didn't handle very well our explosion from five to 350 people in 12 months. But we've spent the last six months bringing in the management we need, hiring technology consultants and creating policies and procedures that will help us meet our goals. We've signed an agreement to move our entire operation to Harlem next year, where we will be the community's largest employer.

Most important, our dream remains intact. And it's a bit baffling my former colleagues in the profession can't understand the difference between UBO and other sites that wear the "urban" label. Sites as disparate as BlackPlanet, BET.com, 360HipHop and Africana.com have been lumped together into a single, vague -- and presumably doomed -- category. Our vision of urban is not a pseudonym for "black." In my very first meeting with the founders, I discovered that I shared a common belief with the late George Jackson -- and Adam Kidron, our CEO, and Frank Cooper, our COO -- that you can create a first-rate product rooted in the black experience, produced by a diverse staff, and appealing to a broad multiethnic and multiracial audience.


That clearly differentiates us from most of the other "urban" sites. Some are explicitly aimed at a black audience, in the mold of traditional black newspapers and magazines. They have decided to be racially exclusive, which enables them to speak intimately to their audiences. Robert Johnson, the chairman of Black Entertainment Television, makes no bones about his goal. "I'm not interested in 'urban,'" he once told me. "There's too much competition there; I'm happy with 'black.'" He's entitled to that exclusionary approach -- and so far it has made him fabulously rich. Others are exclusively focused on hip-hop; for us, hip-hop is just one of several important cultural trends we want to build on.

We didn't invent the inclusionary urban model. Give credit to the trans-racial market created by hip-hop and to magazines like Vibe and the Source (and to companies like Motown three decades ago). The raw, uncompromising work of rap artists sold to a predominantly white audience and opened a market larger than any had dreamed possible. On the Internet, there are even greater possibilities for inclusion. It's already a truism that the Web eliminated the boundaries created by geography and distribution, but not a lot of people have given much thought to how it works ethnically; while you can target a black audience by selling a paper or magazine at certain newsstands or particular neighborhoods, the Web makes such boundaries unnecessary -- unless you choose to be exclusive.


So while we may all use the term "urban," UBO and BET and BlackPlanet and Africana.com have fundamentally different visions of their market -- and fundamentally different strategies. Yet my fellow journalists prefer to lump us all together into a neat little stereotype that can't possibly succeed when "broader" content plays are failing. If they ever bothered to ask, we could tell them that UBO is launching broad sites that are consumer-oriented and vertical sites focused on business-to-business components; that the uniqueness of our original content -- including serial animated and video dramas and news from an urban perspective -- puts us in a different universe from sites that are regurgitating what is already widely available in mass media; and that we've never seen UBO as a pure Internet play.

In the eyes of our founders, who came from the entertainment industry, the Internet is just our development platform; when we have a successful property, we will try to exploit the options in film, television, wireless and, yes, even print. We believe that by serving this hip, young, international audience, one that is exciting and attractive to major advertisers and sponsors, we can build a profitable business. It's a unique strategy and our investors have shown their confidence in the ultimate fashion. We're just disappointed that our journalist friends lack the curiosity to figure out why.

Joel Dreyfuss

Joel Dreyfuss covers technology for Fortune magazine. He is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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