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Can Russell Simmons Unite the Hip-Hop Community on The Web?

Back in 2000 hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons bankrolled the short-lived hip-hop news, entertainment, and community Website 360hiphop.com. Now he and a group of investors are trying again.

Recent Web 2.0 technology has enabled surfers to choose from all the news feeds, multimedia, and applications the Internet has to offer to create their own start pages. Web surfers in the urban community, however, might need help finding more specialized content — at least, that’s what Global Grind, the recently launched startpage aggregator, is betting on.

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Visitors to Global Grind, which launched in beta on September 26, can choose RSS feeds, widgets, and other content — confined within windows called “grinds” — from categories such as entertainment, gossip, and “politricks” that are organized into tabs on their homepage. The layout is similar to other Ajax-based aggregators such as NetVibes, Pageflakes, and Google’s iGoogle. But Global Grind has the advantage of a $4.5 million investment from hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, and venture capitalist Jim Breyer, whose company Accel Partners also funded Facebook.

According to last year’s study by MarketResearch.com, this investment, too, holds great promise. The study estimated that the urban community has 24 million members and a purchasing power of $500 billion. Navarrow Wright, Global Grind’s CEO, says he can attract more users than popular hip-hop sites such as SOHH.com, which, according to him, have not yet broken through a ceiling of four to six million users. If Global Grind can reach the untapped portion of the urban market, it can also attract advertisers trying to reach that market.

For Breyer, Global Grind’s specific scope presents a compelling opportunity that recalls some of Accel’s past investments. “Initially, the best investments meet narrow and very defined parameters: for example, Facebook, RealNetworks, and countless other investments,” he explains. “In every case, the initial team had a clear focus and did everything possible to serve the customer around this focus. Navarrow and the team have a clear focus. The upside we’re looking for will come from that.”

Simmons’ previous foray onto the Web in 2000, however, never found the upside. He sold his site, 360hiphop.com, to BET only three months after its launch. Soon after, it folded. Now, Global Grind stands to benefit from that experience, says CEO Wright, formerly the VP of technology for 360hiphop.com. “What I learned at 360 played a huge role in how I went about planning and executing Global Grind,” says Wright. “I think that like a lot of people who were involved in startups during that period, we got a few arrows shot at us, but I’m happy the experience prepared me for this go-around.”

“Back then there were not enough eyeballs or advertising dollars to support the vision,” adds Simmons. “I’ve wanted to reenter the space for a long time.” Soon after the period of his non-competition agreement with BET ended, he invested $1 million to help build Global Grind.

Simmons’ and Accel’s investments, though significant enough, are considerably scaled down from the $14 million to $17 million reportedly put into 360hiphop.com. The Global Grind team seems to be exercising more caution financially, which is promising, according to Omar Wasow, co-founder of Black Planet, one of the first social networks for the African American community. “It’s smart that they have less money going into it. For niche-content efforts, there needs to be a lower-cost model,” says Wasow, who questioned 360hiphop’s chances of longevity after its hasty sale to BET.

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Not only does Global Grind take a more conservative financial approach than its predecessor, it also offers a different method of gathering content from other urban sites. “There are other sites that do one thing very well,” explains Theda Sandiford, Global Grind’s chief marketing officer. “Some sites tend to be a bit tabloid, other segments have more politics, more poetry. We bring all these disparate points of view together.” Because of its niche focus, Global Grind can highlight urban-focused news and media that might be obscured on NetVibes or Digg. The site includes an internal Web browser that allows users to rate and comment on items. Alongside the browser, a “relevance engine” automatically brings up other news stories, blogs, images, and video related to the item being viewed.

These features, plus Global Grind’s position as a “curator” for urban content, offer extra incentive for visitors to stay on the site. “To those of us who grew up with the culture and are frustrated with conventional news outlets, it’s a potential godsend,” says Michael Miraflor, a blogger on hip-hop marketing and media supervisor for Deep Focus, an entertainment marketing company whose clients include HBO.

Simmons, in fact, views Global Grind as a vehicle to unite the global hip-hop community, hence the name of the site. “Hip-hop is the only international culture. There are Israeli rappers or African rappers and they all have common threads,” he says. In addition to bringing hip-hop lovers together, Simmons hopes that the site will allow them to keep track of events in the international community and work together on behalf of progressive causes.

“Young people are more giving and more compassionate,” says Simmons. “If I can bring young people together — I have the Diamond Empowerment Fund, the Russ Foundation, the Hip-Hop Power Summit, all of this is my philanthropic work. And people are responding, so it’s a great reason to tie people together.” As an example, Simmons points to the success of Global Grind’s “politricks” section, a mix of hip-hop-flavored news and opinions on politics that he says has proven popular.

Global Grind purportedly eases the process of finding articles like those featured in “politricks,” which may boost its profile among users who haven’t adopted sites like NetVibes. Giving demos of the site’s invitation-only alpha version during the summer, Sandiford was surprised by how few people were acquainted with RSS and Ajax, Global Grind’s foundational technologies. She, however, is well equipped for the challenge of introducing them. At Def Jam, where she previously served as senior director of new media, she earned the nickname “Theda.com” from rapper Ja Rule for bringing Web savvy to the label.

Still, some observers question Global Grind’s capacity to reach its target demographic. “The thing that strikes me is when you go to the site, you see all these categories, but you don’t know what they are,” Clyde Smith, founder of ProHipHop.com, a hip-hop marketing and business blog, and a former FC Expert blogger, says. “If I was a newbie, I would be confused and turned-off.”

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Wasow adds that offering existing technology in urban packaging may not be enough to satisfy consumers. “I believe that successful sites are driven more by technology than content,” he explains. “It’s not obvious that there’s a lot of innovative technology here.”

Paradoxically, Global Grind’s greatest opportunity may present its biggest challenge: uniting all things “urban” under one umbrella. Like other urban sites, Global Grind emphasizes hip-hop as culture, but by spreading its content offerings across so many areas, it may lose its focus. Its celebrity gossip, for instance, features Britney Spears as much as Jay-Z. And while Global Grind allows visitors to add content of their choice, the site also features grinds that are locked on the page. As a result, Global Grind risks alienating visitors who find its general offerings too eclectic and its selected content too imposing.

Marketing may also pose a challenge. While Wright and Sandiford believe the site’s aggregation tools will offer a catchall for the urban market’s many segments, advertisers may not be convinced. “It’s already difficult to market RSS feeds,” Miraflor notes. “It takes an extra level of energy to communicate what those products are. Global Grind is a step above, so it’s even more difficult to communicate.”

Advertisers have also learned not to target one umbrella site in hopes of cornering the urban market, notes James Andrews, VP, Interactive of Ketchum Interactive and founder of Atlanta strategic consulting firm BrandInfluence. “Before Black Planet won because they were Black Planet,” Andrews says. “Now the approach needs to be different. The dollars are shrinking in the market.”

Despite these challenges, the site captured one important victory even before its launch: successfully publicizing itself to both the urban and tech communities. The Global Grind team accomplished this goal through different strategies for each segment. Sites such as Mashable, CNet, and TechCrunch detailed the site’s Ajax capabilities and overall function. Reviews compared it to NetVibes and Pageflakes, debating whether its level of user-friendliness and innovation warranted a switchover from previous Ajax sites.

Global Grind’s MySpace page focused more on its urban-related content. The site also benefited from promotion, including a blog entry, on Russell Simmons’ own MySpace page. Global Grind also used Facebook, by way of an event invitation, to publicize the launch. In contrast to the tech publicity, all of these efforts focused on awareness rather than an actual description of features. Combined with the initial invitation-only alpha launch, this approach lent the site a mystique that bolstered its anticipation. “They had a smart way of rolling it out with the alpha, the secretive approach,” Andrews remarked.

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The publicity and connections have certainly bolstered Wright’s faith in Global Grind. “It validates the importance of our demographic, and it shows that we’re taking the right approach,” he says. Since the site’s launch, he has been in talks with Facebook, Web-based messaging service meebo, and social media network imeem to form partnerships so that Global Grind users can more easily link to content and services from those sites. Global Grind already includes a locked grind featuring a meebo chatroom. Wright is striving to have advertising on the site by the beginning of next year.

If Global Grind proves successful, it may offer a model for other Web 2.0 niche sites. As sites like Facebook and MySpace have cultivated a large, general audience, Smith says, smaller sites have adopted their technologies in order to appeal to groups not fully served by the larger sites. Thus, other niche aggregators could follow, just as other developers have created social networks for select communities.

In the meantime, Global Grind must prove itself a useful filter for the urban Web while contending with the many other sites available to the increasingly Internet-savvy hip-hop community. Although Global Grind promises to “bring the Web” to its visitors, its target users may have already decided that the Web is theirs for the taking.

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