kweliTV is Streaming for the Culture
By Stacy Julien
If you listen to DeShuna Spencer’s back story, you understand completely. She minces no words or emotions to describe the struggle in launching a Black video streaming platform from scratch. But that the Tennessee native had the gumption to do it in a wildly competitive market isn’t that much of a stretch.
“If I’m determined to do something, I’ll do it,” says Spencer, founder of kweliTV. “That’s why I’ve been at this for so long.”
Born the middle child to religious, working-class parents, her drive was unfolding as a pre-teen. By high school, Spencer had a job at Blockbuster Video and used her earnings to buy a car, pay for extracurricular activities and ultimately, cover her graduation cap and gown.
“I was a self-sufficient kid. That’s been my life,” she says. “I never wanted to wait for something to happen for me. That’s always been my mentality.”
It still is. That drive and determination – and a whole lot of sleepless nights – led her to start kweliTV in 2015. (“Kweli” means “truth” in Swahili.) And it was largely fueled by a desire to provide content that other streaming services only touched the surface on – films created by Black filmmakers for Black audiences. The service features indie films, news, web shows, documentaries and more. On kweliTV, stories that celebrate the global Black community are front and center 24/7, and not just during Black History Month or, lately, when the Black Lives Matter movement makes it trendy to do so.
“When you have these other companies trying to cater to the Black audience, it’s even more challenging to do what I’m trying to do,” says Spencer, who graduated from Mississippi’s Jackson State University with a degree in mass communications.
It also makes it sweeter that PCMag.com recently listed kweliTV on its 2020 list of Best Movie Streaming Services, alongside Amazon Prime, Disney+, and of course, Netflix. Spencer’s company sits right next to HBO Max.
“It was validation for me. When you’re not a part of the behemoth companies, people second guess if they can trust your content. They question if they should pull out a Visa and buy your service,” she says. “Our content deserves to be seen. We deserve international attention. What we have is just as good as what’s on Hulu and Netflix. Our films may not have an A-list actor, but they’re still just as good.”
The onetime radio host knew zip about how to start a streaming service. Through research, aches and pains with developers and the help of $20,000 in pitch competition winnings, kweliTV was born. The first developer started building the project but disappeared before the beta launch. Spencer debated releasing the unfinished product, but stepped out on faith to see if she was on the right track.
“The site was bare bones. It didn’t work that well. I released it to validate if it was something people wanted,” says Spencer, who eventually survived four different technology officers. “As crappy as it was, people were excited about subscribing.”
But by 2017, the company was in the hole and losing subscribers. Funds were low and filmmakers couldn’t be paid. She was ignored by potential investors who didn’t believe Black consumers would support the concept. The platform had technical issues, and it was Spencer who felt the brunt of customer aggravation. With the exception of a small tech team in Rockville, Md., Spencer is a one-woman show. She almost gave up.
Except she hates to quit, she’ll tell you. And she definitely wants to prove the naysayers wrong.
It took a year to get out of the hole, but Spencer continued to raise money and improve the product. Today, kweliTV has more than 35,000 users on the platform, some who subscribe at $5.99 a month or $49.99 annually. Sixty percent of revenue is paid quarterly to content creators – mostly talented unknowns who get a chance to shine.
In addition to unique content, subscribers become part of a growing community with access to film screening events, kweliDEALS (discounts to Black-owned businesses and brands) and kweli merch such as shirts emblazoned with “Streaming for the Culture” and “Black and Binging.”
It’s Spencer’s way of connecting with her supporters who see the value.
Nothing about what she’s accomplished is easy. Even with tight resources, her dream for kweliTV is hard to contain. Original programming has a place, but that’s not even the half of the journey.
“What if we are the company who can IPO and dedicate a percentage of the company to customers? And it changes their lives? That would be amazing to do that. Right now, day to day, we’re focusing on being viable to our customers, but the goal is to become as big as we can.”