How Angie Nwandu leveraged Instagram to build The Shade Room into a media empire

One of the most influential Black-focussed media companies in America turned a celebrity gossip Instagram account into a leading multi-platform media operation.


February 25, 2021

Let’s play a quick game. Guess which one of these Instagram accounts has the most followers: CNN, TMZ, BuzzFeed, The Shade Room. 

Answer: The Shade Room, which — at 22m followers — has an audience nearly as big as the other 3 combined. 

A bootstrapped operation, The Shade Room has a very atypical story for a heavyweight media company. Born in Los Angeles, Nwandu grew up in a foster home after her mother was killed by her father in a tragic episode of domestic violence. 

After high school, she went to Loyola Marymount University and ended up on the path to become an accountant. She took a detour when she was admitted into Sundance Labs, a screenwriting incubator. 

It cost her an accounting job, so Nwandu pivoted to find a source of income. The initial idea for a blogging website on Black-focussed celebrity gossip quickly morphed into Instagram posts due to Nwandu’s lack of web development skills.

In 2014, she launched The Shade Room and began sharing blog post type stories on the photo app (a fairly new use for the platform). The format exploded and Nwandu built it up to 500k followers before monetizing it.

Today, The Shade Room employs 20 people and stretches across all social platforms.

The Hustle spoke with Nwandu to find out more about the growing media empire. 

***

Hey Angie, would you be able to share numbers on the business? And what the main sources of revenue are? 

We don’t share numbers but The Shade Room has done better every year since we launched. I’d say 90% of our revenue comes from advertising. We’ve also done merchandise in the past and are looking to roll out a marketplace of products from our advertisers.

[Editor’s Note: In a 2019 podcast, The Shade Room’s previous investor Bryce Roberts said the company was doing 8 figures in revenue and is profitable]

To get to where it is now, The Shade Room has only raised a $100k convertible note investment from Indie VC. Are you considering taking VC money to further expand? 

[Indie VC’s] Bryce Roberts really taught me to look at investments in a new way.

Before meeting him, I would have taken as much money as I could. But he taught me the importance of having a business that can survive on its own merits. One that can generate profits.

Bootstrapping has made our business adaptable, because we don’t have to worry about paying back investors. In fact, I’ve bought back most of my equity from Bryce. 

Can you explain what you mean by “adaptable”?

The Shade Room is just a completely different company than it was 5 years ago. We are able to focus on exactly what our users — who we call “roommates” — want. 

We don’t have to chase revenue and growth for investors. 

Can you talk about the different company phases?

I’d say our company phases look like this: 

  • Phase 1: When we started, it was more personal. It was me giving my opinion on celebrity news like a blog.
  • Phase 2: Then, it became clear that the audience didn’t want to hear just my personal opinion. Our roommates started submitting tips, stories and ideas. So, we turned into moderators and curators for the community.
  • Phase 3: With a large audience, we are going into programming and touching all topics. In addition to celebrity news, we talk about politics, music and fashion.

The Shade Room is one of the biggest communities for the Black community. We want to be the voice for that community, whatever the topic is. 

How much community content is submitted every day?

We have a text line, DMs and emails. Probably thousands a day and we go through all of them. 

The reason is that one big tip or story can make the day.

Another Instagram account — @Daquan — was acquired by UMG for $85m. What did you think of that acquisition? 

That was very big for us. The acquisition of a “meme company” on Instagram validated The Shade Room. And, we do so much more than just memes. We’re a newsroom for the Black community. 

Many investors reached out to us after that news. 

Having built such a successful business (and audience) on Instagram. Are you worried at all about platform risk? I know that your first account — that got to 500k followers — was taken offline and you had to rebuild from scratch. 

It’s very scary building a business on one one platform. This is why we’ve been very intentional about expanding our reach:

  • Snapchat: We get millions of views as a Snapchat Publisher partner.
  • Website: We get millions of views at TheShadeRoom.com
  • TikTok: We’ve already hit nearly a million followers on TikTok
  • Twitter: We’re growing on Twitter [and it has 370k+ followers] 

Our goal is to be on every platform that fits our brand and style of reporting.

How do you approach a new platform? 

Clubhouse is a good example. That is a very personality-driven platform. The Shade Room isn’t itself very personality-driven so we watched how our audience use Clubhouse to understand what we can do for them.

What we noticed is that many of our roommates create “clubs”, which are rooms that people can converse about trending topics. When Jeff Bezos stepped down, we saw lots of Clubhouse rooms pop up discussing that in real time. 

So, for us, creating a presence on Clubhouse for our audience would be to make the club rooms and potentially bring in personalities that want to talk about relevant news. 

Ultimately, each platform has its own language. We won’t rush into a platform. We want to watch how others use it first. 

Who are your business heroes? 

Here are 2: 

  • Elon Musk: He is someone I look up to because of how creative he is in trying new things. He doesn’t keep himself in one box. His mind is very versatile. Seeing someone that is able to express their creativity freely is very inspiring. 
  • Alexis Ohahian: I love what he did co-founding Reddit. It’s a community-based platform that has been cultivated very well. 

[Editor’s note: Nwandu’s versatility includes a film project called Juju in collaboration with HBO superstart Issa Rae]

What’s the best advice you’ve received? 

Focus. It’s the best advice I’ve been given. I was the type of person that wanted to release 10x products a year but have learned to stay focussed. 

Do you have a request for a startup? 

I would pay for a company that I could sign up for a membership and they would send gifts to all my family and friends whenever it was a special event like a birthday or anniversary. I just need to put in the dates and then the service would send personalized gifts.  

Your friends and family would love it and It would make you look like the most thoughtful person ever.

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