DeShuna Spencer knew practically nothing about the inner workings of streaming services when she set out to create her own.
For years, Spencer had dreamed of building a service that told Black stories, with a focus on independent films and documentaries. But as a former journalist and magazine editor, she had no connections in Hollywood, no tech programming knowledge, and practically no budget. Getting the service off the ground and keeping it afloat has been a constant challenge.
But after launching KweliTV in 2016, Spencer’s work is finally starting to pay off. While the service still operates on a small scale, with 47,000 registered users who have access to 600 pieces of content, she recently raised $100,000 from New Media Ventures, plus another $100,000 and counting through the crowdfunded investment site Republic. The actor and comedian Lil Rel Howery also began curating comedy programming for the service in 2020, and in January, Apple picked KweliTV as one of five apps to showcase from Black app developers.
Being a niche streaming player is never easy, and the list of failed ventures is long. But as major streaming services become more expensive, bloated, and cumbersome to navigate, it may create an opportunity for smaller companies with a more specific point of view–KweliTV among them.
“We’re really about changing the Black narrative, and that means everyone—no matter what they look like—we want them to experience the Black experience from our perspective,” Spencer says.
Starting from scratch
Spencer says she first had the idea for KweliTV about a decade ago while flipping through cable channels. What she saw felt shallow and stereotypical, and when she started looking into streaming services, the situation wasn’t much better.
“I was looking for more Black history. I was looking for more independent films. I was looking for more, and I just couldn’t find it,” she says.
To Spencer, the notion of creating a streaming service from scratch didn’t seem outlandish. As an independent contractor for a small not-for-profit in Washington, D.C., she oversaw all of its communications, including content creation, ad sales, and budgeting. She had launched her own online magazine, called emPower, along with a radio show on WPFW and a corresponding event honoring local Black and Latinx leaders.
Still, building KweliTV—the name comes from the Swahili word for “truth”—turned out to be a much bigger proposition.
Spencer’s first attempt raise money in 2012, through a pitch competition for women in media, was met with skepticism from judges who weren’t yet sold on streaming, she says. Soon after, she suffered a series of personal tragedies, including two deaths in her family, her father’s cancer diagnosis, and a fibroids diagnosis that ultimately required surgery. Dealing with all of that almost made her give up on the idea entirely. (Spencer says she and her father are both healthy now.)
Her big break came in 2014, when she won a $20,000 pitch competition from UNITY: Journalists of Color, which was for minority journalists who wanted to launch new media ventures. Spencer had applied on a whim, and had to empty the last $250 in her business account to participate in a critical series of workshops for finalists, but by the end of 2015, she had enough money to start building a streaming service in earnest.
Building in bits and pieces
By Spencer’s admission, the beta version of KweliTV was pretty basic when it launched in 2016. She had embraced Reid Hoffman’s famous philosophy of shipping a bare-bones product instead of a perfect one. She had a $20,000 budget and was working with flaky developers. And since she found herself getting ignored by the film festivals she’d hoped to partner with, she had to spend months convincing individual filmmakers to take a chance on the fledgling service. She rounded up a modest 38 titles to start with, and when the site finally launched, it was in such rough shape that she had to manually reset customers’ passwords herself.
“It could play movies, and it could take people’s money every month, but that was about it,” she says. “It was so clunky.”
While KweliTV’s beta managed to attract some paying customers, Spencer had trouble getting investors on board. To stay afloat, she relied on funding in bits and pieces—including a $10,000 stipend from an incubator, a second pitch competition worth another $10,000, and several small investments totaling less than $100,000—while attending accelerators and starting a WhatsApp group to build her network.
Money was so tight that in some cases it even hindered her ability to make more money. In 2019, Spencer was on the cusp of a deal with Comcast to pre-load KweliTV on its Xfinity cable boxes, but she didn’t have the $10,000 for subtitles in other languages that the cable giant required. Brian Brackeen, the cofounder and general partner of Lightship Capital, stepped in to cover the necessary costs after being introduced to Spencer over Twitter by a potential investor in his fund.
Brackeen says this kind of “capital injustice” is commonplace for underrepresented founders.
“What if she didn’t get that money? Or what if times were too tough that she ended up closing down before the pandemic? We would have been robbed of a successful service for a temporary cash crunch,” he says.
Today, KweliTV is on more solid footing. With a $100,000 investment from Motley Fool Ventures in 2021, Spencer was able to hire a full-time employee and begin making tech upgrades to the service. The additional funding KweliTV raised from New Media Ventures and Republic will allow it to expand its almost-nonexistent marketing budget, invest in further tech improvements, and potentially get into original programming.
Just reaching this point has been a major struggle. “It’s taken years of me holding the company on my back by myself, until we got to a point where we could grow,” Spencer says. “It’s been extremely difficult.”
All about authenticity
The business case against niche streaming services—as exemplified in this Twitter thread by investor Matthew Ball—is that they’ll always lose out to larger companies that can simply absorb the best niche content into their own catalogs. Indeed, if a company such as Netflix or Amazon wanted to carry more independent Black films and documentaries, it would have no trouble outbidding KweliTV.
But if a niche is focused enough, it can serve viewers in ways that would be difficult for a larger company. Spencer’s advantage is that she can appeal to Black creators who’ve been slighted by larger platforms, giving them a service that celebrates their work along with a 60% share of KweliTV’s profits.
“The niche is why we invested,” Brackeen says. “Generalized content is an all-out war in which people are losing money to win share. In the niche space, you need authenticity and quality.”
Whereas Spencer initially had to plead her case with filmmakers, some of them are now starting to seek her out.
David Weathersby, a Chicago-based filmmaker, says he reached out to Spencer two years ago after hearing about KweliTV from a friend. Although he had won several film festival awards for his 2019 documentary, Thee Debauchery Ball, on the city’s BDSM-themed house music scene within the Black community, his attempts to land it on other streaming services went nowhere. After a lengthy conversation with Spencer, the film debuted on KweliTV later that year.
Weathersby has since brought a second film to the service—The Color of Art, on the current renaissance of Black art in Chicago—and has a third film on the way. While getting a share of KweliTV’s revenue is nice, he’s mostly just happy that when someone asks him where to watch his films, he has an answer at the ready.
“I’m just thankful that it exists, especially for independent Black filmmakers,” Weathersby says. “It allows us to speak to our community.”
Spencer says that even filmmakers who’ve made deals with larger streaming services may want to work with KweliTV, as she’s promising to showcase their work instead of letting be buried by an opaque algorithm.
“Those big platforms, they can’t promote everything. They have too much stuff,” she says. “They promote the films they probably paid the most money on, or the things they produced themselves.”
Although KweliTV has come a long way in five years, its success as a niche streaming service isn’t guaranteed, and Spencer continues to run into obstacles today.
The biggest involves finding new avenues of distribution for KweliTV’s content. The service is currently available on Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Android TV, along with iOS, Android, and the web. It’s also in the process of adding an Amazon Prime Channel, and has just launched its linear channel on the Comcast-owned free streaming service Xumo. However, Spencer’s been unable to break into some other sources of free content, such as The Roku Channel, Pluto TV, Sling TV, or Samsung TV Plus.
It’s not for lack of trying. While Spencer is careful not to call out any particular companies, she describes several instances in which a contact seemed interested in KweliTV’s content, particularly right after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, only for those conversations to run cold in the months that followed. It’s frustrating, she says, because those kinds of distribution deals would be transformative both for KweliTV and its creators.
“It seems to me that the reason the internet started and that people were trying to get away from cable is that these cable networks were being gatekeepers,” she says. “And now, these other companies are doing the exact same thing.”
So just as she’s always done, Spencer is taking a scrappier approach. She says she’s not interested in raising money from Silicon Valley, and is instead pushing to raise more money on Republic, a site where individuals can purchase an ownership stake in startups. So far, KweliTV has raised $113,000 from individual investors; Spencer’s goal is to reach $1 million.
If that happens, she’s already thinking beyond just streaming. Eventually, she wants to expand the brand into other areas, such as audio, gaming, interactive content, and community programming. The hope is to build a mission-driven media company that exceeds even what she originally dreamed of.
“We want to encourage our followers and fans to take part in it, because we talk about being responsible for each other and supporting each other and supporting our communities,” she says. “What better way to do that than to support Black-owned media, where there’s so few of us out there?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that KweliTV was not available on Xumo or Amazon Channels. It has just arrived on the former and is in the process of launching on the latter.