The following conversation was conducted over email and edited for flow and clarity.
Acquania Escarne of Wealth Noir (WN): Hi Uzo, I am excited to share your story with Wealth Noir readers. Before we dive into your life as an entrepreneur, can you please tell our readers more about yourself and explain what is BlackOakTV?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: My name is Uzo Ometu, and I am the founder of BlackOakTV, a subscription video-on-demand service exclusively creating and distributing content for black people. Prior to starting BlackOakTV, I worked at YouTube and Google for seven years.
In my most recent role, I was charged with helping grow YouTube’s news vertical in North America. It was an extremely interesting time to take on that role as it was right after the 2016 election when there was a lot of concern over how the platforms mismanaged the dissemination of disinformation during the run-up to the election.
That first year after that election, I felt like I was waking up to a new issue, concern, or complaints about how the news and information content on YouTube was doing a disservice to viewers. And while that was an extremely trying time, I learned a great deal about how teams manage product issues, explain themselves to the public and the government, and, most importantly, make sure they learn from their mistakes. All of that has set me up very well for launching a new product into the market as I feel more strongly than ever that I will be able to adjust and course-correct should my own launch not go as planned.
WN: Uzo, what inspired you to launch BlackOakTV?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: I love television–especially black TV. I watched way too much of it as a kid, and I probably still watch too much of it as an adult. Working at YouTube didn’t help! And for those of you that are older millennials like myself, you grew up in the 90s when black television was somewhat-relatively abundant, with a number of black shows on NBC, Fox, WB, and UPN. But a bunch of those shows disappeared in the late 90s and throughout the early 2000s. I never really thought about that until they had long come and gone. But as everyone started talking more openly about the lack of diversity in media, I actually went back and studied what happened.
Long story short, major networks in the 90s leveraged the hungry and loyal TV viewing of the black audience into solid ratings; that allowed them to build up platforms big enough to take chances on more “mainstream” shows that were targeted at bringing in wider audiences, i.e., more white people. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time that happened, as it happened in the 70’s as well. So after learning that, and while being in the middle of the birth of the “streaming wars,” it dawned on me that we have all these major companies vying for relevancy and massive audiences. This means that it is entirely possible that after a bit of a resurgence in media, black people could be left behind again if these behemoths decide they need to go after “mainstream” audiences in order to succeed.
With me knowing how black TV brought families, friends, and colleagues together around funny, inspiring, and uniquely black visions of the world, I decided I couldn’t let that possibility become reality. So, I created BlackOakTV to make sure we didn’t go another decade in which our prevalence on TV was diminished and to help move the culture forward by making sure there is both a fictional and non-fictional depiction of our stories that accurately reflects black people in the media–both here in America and abroad.
WN: What did you do before launching BlackOakTV to know there was a need or demand for your business?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: My entire career has been in media and entertainment in some form or fashion. In middle school, I published the school yearbook. In high school, I wrote a book on our family’s communal Gateway desktop. In college, I put on a variety show, and still regret not launching the “morning show at night,” an idea I pitched to the college radio station.
After that, I had stints at Inc. Magazine, ESPN, CBS Sports, and the aforementioned Google and YouTube. I say all that to show that my professional interests were always aligned with my personal love of media and entertainment. And as I learned more about the content business in those roles, I became interested in not just great content, but the business behind how great content got made. It was through that education that I saw how hard it was for black creators to get a chance at getting their content out there.
From morning TV to sports journalism, black people have it rough coming up in the media business. As a result, it means there are fewer of our stories told, leaving me to think that the demand for black content outweighed the supply of black content being produced. And with the positions I have held in the past, I’ve been able to see the ratings, viewership and ticket sales numbers to back up that belief. So somehow, someway, I knew I wanted to address that problem.
What I didn’t know until maybe a few years back is exactly how I might do that. It was around the time of Issa Rae’s show on HBO, “Insecure,” launching in 2016. When it finally had a premiere date, it was crazy to me that this super-talented, clearly smart and entertaining black woman, whose web series I knew about way back in 2011 didn’t manage to get on the air until late 2016.
Don’t get me wrong, not every internet sensation goes from YouTube to Hollywood overnight, but Issa not only had a successful web series, but she also had a very loyal audience that would follow her anywhere, and I feel that any TV executive with sense would make sure they brought that audience to their network as soon as possible. It was looking on at that experience that I realized there was an opportunity to give talented black creators, 90% of which never get distribution, a better chance at reaching the black audience, which ultimately should help solve the underwhelming black content supply.
WN: That’s an interesting perspective. Why do you think there are so few platforms Like BlackOakTV?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: Money. I could go into systemic racism, politics, or exposure to the arts, but at the end of the day it comes down to the access to capital. If black people had the capital resources and were socially enabled to take risks on their creative ideas and businesses in the same way that most Americans are, we probably wouldn’t need a service like BlackOakTV or one like it.
Simply put, we’d be able to invest in our movies and productions and make sure that we own the intellectual property to our stories. But as it stands, the best chance for a black creative to get their content out there is usually through mainstream distribution. Because of the influence, black people have on culture, we help make those mainstream outlets more successful. And while there is nothing wrong with getting our content on ABC, NBC, CBS or HBO, without ownership, we’re constantly at the whims of people who haven’t necessarily experienced what we’ve experienced.
That’s why I love what Tyler Perry has done as a media mogul. But you can’t tell me that he is the only black creative who should have been in a position to build a studio. Yes, his business acumen may be unparalleled in the industry, but there are black movie stars and TV stars who reached much higher heights of popularity. For whatever reason, they just weren’t able to turn that popularity into what he did. Was it just a case that those people didn’t have the foresight to build something for the future, or is it that only the more lucrative and risk-averse opportunities were put in front of them?
WN: What a great overview of the problem and how you plan to change it. How did you make the decision to go into business for yourself?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: From the time I was a kid, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but for most of my adult life, I either didn’t have the right idea or my finances in line to take that leap. At one point in 2009, however, I did leave a job to run a blog network, and while it never turned out to be a super long-term thing, it was a great learning experience. I ultimately shut it down once I figured out I was in a space I couldn’t actually compete in.
That taught me the importance of not just having an idea but also identifying your audience and your competition so that you can leverage or outmaneuver both of those to your advantage. This idea formed once I realized there was a lane for a black streaming service that had not been taken amongst the major streamers and smaller black streamers alike. I made a goal towards saving up enough money to feel comfortable leaving my job, and with privilege, I reached that goal and made the move. I actually had some offers for other roles at the same time I was leaving YouTube, but I knew that if I didn’t take this chance after feeling comfortable enough to do so, I didn’t know when the next “right time” would come.
WN: How did you financially prepare to become a full-time entrepreneur?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: BlackOakTV is still very much at the beginning stages of its existence, so the investment to this point has been relatively small to what I hope to invest in it in the near future. That said, I put a lot of planning into getting to the point where I was comfortable leaving my job.
First, I decided how much I would invest in the business myself and how long I wanted to be able to live off my savings without any income. I wrote the sum of those two numbers in a spreadsheet and charted out how I could get there with my monthly savings, the shares from Google that had or would vest, as well as one-off events like consulting gigs, tax-refunds or some of the writing assignments I took. Ultimately, my own personal plans meant scratching off buying a home in the near future. This was me essentially deciding to put my future house on the line.
From there, it was pretty much about checking that spreadsheet every now and then, recalculating, changing the number from time to time, and just making sure I reached the goal as soon as possible. For me, ASAP meant five years if I was going to be able to assure financial security for my family during the time I planned to have no income. Obviously, I was fortunate to have a great job at YouTube, because I certainly couldn’t have saved what I did at my prior jobs in media.
WN: So you saved your way to freedom and launched a business. What are some of the challenges you faced in launching your business?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: Right now, we’re in the middle of a Minimal Viable Product offering, which is basically us exclusively curating some of the highest-quality black web series out there and putting it on our YouTube channel. I wouldn’t say there have been many challenges there, except for getting the word out about our series, as YouTube is just a very hard place to grow organically in a short period of time.
While trying to get awareness for our series is tough, a lot of my focus is on raising money so that we can make our full service available in January 2021. As you can imagine, raising money in the middle of a pandemic has its challenges. And while I enjoy being able to deliver my pitches in my pajamas from the comfort of my living room, venture capital (VC) firms are in a tough position these days, with many of them choosing to focus on their portfolio companies that are having rough times given the shelter-in-place designations. So, it looks like I may be facing a very uphill challenge over the next couple of months.
While I don’t know when I’ll overcome it, the one tip I know I can share is that persistence here will really matter. The more strategic VCs I can meet over Zoom, along with trying to grow users and revenue on my own platform, the more likely it is that I will get the investment or opportunity I need to take the next step of this journey.
WN: It’s true today’s events have transformed the way everyone is doing business. Glad you are moving forward anyway. What is a day like in the life of Uzo Ometu?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: With shelter-in-place in effect, my days are not at all what I imagined they would be when I was getting ready to quit my job. I imagined my wife, 2-year old, and 10-month old daughters would all be out of the house during the day, giving me the time I needed to work on my business until they came home. Then I could spend 3-4 hours parenting, cooking, and cleaning, before getting back to work. Instead, everyone is home, 24/7, and now my daytime duties are one-part working on BlackOakTV and one-part trying to entertain and educate my kids. And as a solo-entrepreneur (although I’m looking for a technical co-founder!), I can’t be completely shut-off for entire parts of the day. So my day is extremely regimented.
Essentially, I wake up at 5 am ( I wouldn’t call it a deadline but more of a suggestion), work straight through to 10 am–usually trying to do whatever major goals I need to accomplish, like starting a new marketing initiative or fixing something on our beta website. If I get lucky and finish those daily goals for the day ahead of time, I’ll go for a run. At 10 am, my wife gets the majority of working hours to focus on her day job, so it’s now my turn to take care of the kids up until their 12:30 pm nap. That time is very regimented with kids yoga, reading time, a 30-minute worksheet, and lunch.
Once they go to sleep, I try to have scheduled about two hours’ worth of calls and pitches before they wake up. Then, at 2:30 pm, I’m back on duty, where I split time between monitoring my daughter’s learning apps on her Kindle and getting caught up on email. At 3:30, we brave the pandemic world and go for a family walk, wearing masks, a day’s worth of stress, and a slight fear of people coughing on my children. We’re back at the house around 5 pm, when I might be able to sneak in one more hour of work and spend the rest of the time cooking, cleaning, parenting, reading, and bathing kids until 8 pm when both kids are asleep. My wife and I take our first breather of the day to eat together and watch something on TV–after all, it’s part of the job description. If I’ve been effective during the day, I’ll allow myself another episode or two before getting back to work.
WN: Wow, what a jam-packed day. What are the upcoming initiatives, services, or products forBlackOakTV?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: We continue to work on the MVP on YouTube, which ultimately is helping us build a funnel for when we launch in January 2021. However, we also just made our beta subscription available, so subscribers can now get early access to our YouTube content, without ads, and a few bonus videos. We see this beta as a great first step to take us to our full launch in January. There’s a free 7-day trial, so you can check it out at beta.blackoak.tv free of charge before our $2.99 per month fee kicks in.
And while we’re excited about giving black people a place to watch quality black content, we’re probably even more excited about the content itself. We recently launched a new series, “The Retreat”, and it’s an amazing suspense-filled drama that is unlike most web series out there. I think anybody can get into a series like this, which is why we’re not surprised it’s been watched as much as it has. It’s made by some really awesome folks at Nuanse Entertainment, and it’s just one example of the type of quality content we hope to distribute much more of when we launch in full next year.
WN: That’s so exciting. I’ll make sure to check it out. What was the greatest lesson you learned as an entrepreneur?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: I shamelessly watch “Big Brother” every single summer, and one of the common refrains on the show is “Expect the Unexpected.” From my business back in 2010 to my early days here on BlackOakTV, things never panned out the way I planned. And while I still have a long way to go before I can claim to be a successful entrepreneur myself, I know I’ve felt the most successful when I’ve been able to navigate the unexpected, not when things went as “predicted.” For anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur, I would warn you that nothing worth bragging about goes as planned, and when it does, it’s probably luck. So be nimble. Be prepared. Expect the unexpected.
WN: I love it! That’s great advice. What is the most common question you get asked or you see come across from your community of followers?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: While most black people are super excited about what we’re trying to be, I still get the occasional question, from black people, about whether we need our “own black Netflix.” After all, the last few years have seen a few awesome black shows like “Atlanta,” “Insecure” and “Power” do very well.
But if you look closely, each of those shows is being used in a very specific way, for a very specific goal, by a distributor whose average customer does not look like us. So sure, we have some good shows out now, and I’m certainly a fan of them all, but what’s the motivation for those distributors to keep churning out shows like this in the quantity that we demand? As I alluded to before, this stuff has ebbed and flowed in decades past, and I don’t want to see a retracement on black content in the streaming world set us back yet again. The only way we can assure that doesn’t happen, while controlling the narrative of our story, is to make sure the ownership of stories stays with us. So that’s why we need our own streaming service.
WN: OK here is my last question. If you could flip a switch and get everyone to do one thing related to their personal finances, what would it be?
Uzo Ometu of BlackOakTV: I’d have everyone use goal-based financing. I made up the term, but for me, it just means you account for your monthly expenses, set goals, have the money to save for those goals come out of your take-home salary automatically, and forget about it until you get that email saying you’ve reached your goals. Rinse and repeat. And if for you that means having to wait five years before you can start your own business or two years before you go on that dream vacation, bide your time.
You can’t let the day-to-day of the world get in the way of the bigger financial goals in your life. So if you’re in a lucky position to have money to save, then save it, work hard, get a raise, save more, and rinse and repeat. It’s boring, I know. But my secret to managing the strictness of goal-based finances is that as long as you’re staying true to ALL of your savings goals, any extra money you earn can probably go to whatever you want. Yeah, you should probably put some of the extra money towards your goals, but if you’re truly on your savings path, you actually don’t have to feel guilty about spending that extra money.
WN: Well Uzo thanks for sharing your entrepreneurship story. Guys, please support BlackOakTV by checking out their content on YouTube, IG, and Twitter. Also, remember you can sign up for the free trial subscription today!
Acquania Escarne is the creator of The Purpose of Money, a community of women building generational wealth for their families one dollar at a time. As an entrepreneur, real estate investor, and licensed insurance agent, Acquania has always been passionate about financial literacy. On her website, Acquania blogs about ways to help you improve your money habits, create wealth, and invest in real estate. Follow Acquania on social media for daily tips.