Jamarlin Martin, Digital Media's Hot New Emperor
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Bossip founder and Moguldom Media Group CEO Jamarlin Martin’s ability to chase bold visions steadily and systematically might be the secret to any successful business venture.
By Melissa Pandika
Many investors would run from an online media venture — fast. Today, even top publishers are seeing flat or negative growth. And in such a crowded market, it’s hard enough to snag viewers, much less monetize them.
Which is exactly why former paralegal Jamarlin Martin bought a $6 domain name and launched Bossip, an African-American-oriented celebrity gossip website, in 2006. “Taking on the establishment and winning is highly motivating for me,” says the self-labeled contrarian. “Can you do something as well as an independent outsider, that no other person or business has executed?”
He’s boosted traffic himself. All of this success has been without VC support.
Martin has done just that — and then some. Bossip has since grown into Moguldom Media Group, an empire of nine websites aimed at niche multicultural markets, from 24WiredTV, billed as the “African-American Hulu,” to Latina Madre, a lifestyle site for Latina mothers. Last August, Martin catapulted Moguldom to the global stage with the addition of African business news website AFK Insider. A few months later, he launched Moguldom Films, which takes topics that draw the most traffic on his sites and turns them into “docutainment” — documentaries with a hip entertainment flavor.
That’s to say nothing of the New York City-based company’s $15 million revenue last year, up 50% from 2012. Revenues are expected to hit $25 million in 2014. And Moguldom’s sites collectively attract nearly 12 million unique visitors each month — that’s more traffic than BET, Interactive One, Vibe and Essence combined.
Even now that digital content is hotter than ever, few outlets produce meaningful revenues, and fewer still, profits. Yet Martin has done both — and experts say he’s only just begun. ”I do think he can grow a billion-dollar company,” says Devin Johnson, a digital strategy consultant at Gilbert Avenue Venture. “I think, with his global perspective and his appetite for risk-taking, he has the opportunity to achieve a lot. He has the ability to drive profits. He’s boosted traffic himself. All of this success has been without VC support. There’s not a lot of folks that have done that.”
As Moguldom’s CEO, Martin traces his success to a straightforward strategy: “We’re identifying certain demographic trends and looking for undervalued, misunderstood markets that no one is really attacking” — especially multicultural consumers ages 18–34.
As members of their target demographic, Martin and other Moguldom decision-makers have a natural edge. “They’re able to develop content that engages, because they have their fingers firmly on the pulse of what’s hot now, with an eye towards what will be hot next,” says Elania Jemison-Hudson, an assistant professor of marketing at Morehouse College. Moguldom dishes on celebs before they hit it big; Bossip was the first media site to cover Kim Kardashian, publishing an exlusive interview a few months after her sex tape leaked, Martin says.
And like their audience, most Moguldom decision-makers grew up with the Internet, making it easier to innovate outside of the traditional media box. “To have a sustainable business model, media companies … need to play in the realm of scarcity, where there’s not a lot of competition,” Martin says.
Ignoring skeptics who attributed Bossip’s success to luck, Martin launched one site after another.
Martin credits his mother with his out-of-the box thinking. Creative and insatiably curious, her interests ranged from opera to Malcolm X. His father, who grew up in a violent housing project in Watts, California, held down multiple jobs since he was 13. Martin followed suit, working as a cashier and assistant at his church’s bakery in Norwalk, outside of L.A., when he was 14.
After studying political science at Morehouse College, Martin studied at Syracuse University’s law school for a year before working as a paralegal. A foreign exchange geek, he then started trading currency. He launched a currency trading blog, Detached Trader, generating revenue through Google ads.
In 2006, he stumbled on an article detailing how some ad agencies were dropping six figures to advertise on celebrity gossip blogs. So he bought a GoDaddy domain and built Bossip using Google’s free blog-publishing platform. Along the way, he noticed that legacy media companies weren’t aggressively investing in African-American digital media — yet African-Americans have $1 trillion in buying power, and advertisers spend over $2 billion a year targeting them.
As Bossip grew, Martin suddenly saw it as much more than a blog site. “There was a massive opportunity to use Bossip as an anchor to build a leading digital media company focused on African-Americans,” he says. With Bossip’s valuation surging, he decided to forego VC funding. Ignoring skeptics who attributed Bossip’s success to luck, he launched one site after another.
But Martin made some early mistakes, too. In 2007, he launched Livesteez, a social media platform catering to African-American youths. Around the same time, the social media landscape shifted dramatically with the rise of Facebook, and Martin’s lack of engineering experience made it hard for Livesteez to keep pace — so he shut it down. “No particular business idea should be allowed to put the business and employees at risk,” he says. “If something’s not working, shut it down quick.”
Much of Moguldom’s traffic comes from its “positively addicting content,” Johnson says. ”Their headlines draw you in and you can’t stop clicking.” Headlines like Madame Noire’s “Zero Tutition?! State Passes Bill, Allows Students to Attend College Without Paying a Dime!” and Bossip’s ”Has T.I. Moved a Sidechick Into His Newly Leased Bachelor Pad?” Moguldom’s bite-sized stories also drop hilarious nicknames — calling Jay Z a “camel,” Beyoncé “Beysus” and interracial dating “the swirl.” And they title their story categories using street and hip-hop sayings, like “When the Checks Stop Coming In” for broke celebs and “People Ain’t Isht” for crimes and other shameful acts. The result? Fun, irreverent, irresistible content.
But if you’re seeking original, in-depth analysis, look elsewhere; Moguldom often reposts content from other outlets, with many stories including only a few sentences of the writer’s own commentary and a question for readers to debate. And while Moguldom has a pulse on trends, it still tends to take a reactive approach to news events. ”I would love to see [Moguldom] do more real-time content,” Johnson says. ”If they could build a newsroom-like mentality and start scooping stories, that would be the icing on the cake.”
”You have to innovate every year.”
In his downtime, Martin loves saltwater fishing and traveling; so far, he’s visited over 30 countries, including China, Turkey and Mozambique. Tapping into that adventurous spirit — and his inner numbers-nerd — he relies heavily on research and site analytics to chart his empire’s trajectory. And he’s aggressive about innovation: “You have to innovate every year,” he says.
Like when he noticed that the new Google Play and Amazon Instant platforms required videos to be at least 45 minutes long — and offered zero documentaries for multicultural audiences. Meanwhile, viewers left comments praising Moguldom’s 3–5-minute-long videos, asking for longer pieces. So last year, he launched Moguldom Films to produce 15 docutainment videos a year. The first, A Genius Leaves the Hood: The Unauthorized Story of Jay Z, ranks as the No. 2 documentary worldwide on Google Play.
Martin also had his feelers out for Africa’s fast-growing business potential. He came across a PricewaterhouseCoopers report predicting that consumer spending in Africa would almost double in the next decade, among other studies. Yet there were no high-quality resources for prospective investors — so he launched Johannesburg-based AFKInsider. Now, he’s chasing the $20 billion sub-Saharan Africa tourist market with AFKTravel, which will become the only information platform on travel in Africa when it launches next month.
Whether these bold moves are signs of ambition or hubris, only time will tell. “I haven’t really been skeptical in terms of how big the business can get,” Martin says. “I’m reinvesting my own capital because I believe it’s a billion-dollar opportunity — and it’s just getting started.”
- Melissa PandikaContact Melissa Pandika