Since The Shade Room launched in 2014, it’s gone from a small-time gossip account to a full-blown pop culture powerhouse. The Shade Room’s spin on hot topics speaks directly and authentically to its largely black community (affectionately called Roommates), and spans across its website, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. But it got its start and has the strongest presence on Instagram, where it has more than 15 million followers.
According to The Shade Room, it was the second most popular publisher on Instagram last year in terms of likes and comments. It receives more than 1.5 billion impressions and reaches about 32 million people per week, and it’s grown at a rate of 5 million or more followers per year. (Instagram couldn’t divulge analytics of a specific account, but a representative did say The Shade Room is one of their top accounts.)
It’s the kind of growth that has attracted flush investors, but The Shade Room founder and CEO Angie Nwandu says she’s only accepted a relatively modest investment of $100,000 from venture capitalist Bryce Roberts, who also gave her some invaluable advice.
“If I had never met him, I would’ve taken millions of investors’ dollars, because that was my idea of what a healthy company looked like,” Nwandu says. “Every media company [like BuzzFeed and Vice] was blowing up and that was the key to success in media–to get as much investment dollars as possible. But [Roberts] was advocating for the opposite.”
Roberts pushed Nwandu toward focusing on organic growth by staying lean and bootstrapping resources. The result has been a doubling of revenue every year. Nwandu didn’t disclose exact figures, but she did says The Shade Room’s net profit is about 50%.
The media startups that took fat checks to fuel quick growth have run into such problems as overly relying on Facebook and seeing their audiences dissipate when it’s changed its algorithms, chasing fads, and more. Some, like Mic, failed entirely, while others, like Vice, are diminished. But Nwandu is playing the long game, and it seems to be working for now. The Shade Room has the reach and engagement any media company would kill for. The question for Nwandu is what exactly she wants to do with it?
Celebrity Culture: Leap of faith
Nwandu started The Shade Room on a total leap of faith. After winning a $5,000 writing grant from the Sundance Institute in 2014, she had to choose between attending the writing courses or keeping her job as an accountant at a motorcycle shop. Nwandu chose to follow her true passion, and while the film she co-wrote, Night Comes On, eventually premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and won the NEXT Innovator, at that time in 2014, she had a dwindling bank account and no job. A friend convinced Nwandu to turn her interest in pop culture and celebrities into a website.
Not knowing the first thing about how to build a website, Nwandu launched The Shade Room on Instagram, which pulled in more than 10,000 followers in its first two weeks.
“That showed me that you have to think outside of the box when you don’t have all of the money on the table,” Nwandu says. “Because I know for a fact, if I had $5,000 in my account, I definitely wouldn’t have started on Instagram. I would have started as a website and who knows where that road would have led me. It wouldn’t be The Shade Room, I’ll tell you that.”
Making the most of limited resources has become the bedrock of The Shade Room’s strategy and not always because of economic austerity, but because that homespun feel is what resonates most with their audience.
“For instance, we see a lot of companies going to the red carpet and they often have these really nice cameras and we’ll go with an iPhone and a light and the footage will perform better,” Nwandu says. “We know that our audience is used to being on social media so they like authentic-looking content because that’s what they consume most of the day: authentic content from their friends and that type of video.”
Celebrity Culture: More than gossip
Of course, figuring out what an audience actually needs versus what they think they want has come with a considerable amount of trial and error.
“That is the hardest part–listening and knowing when to move,” Nwandu admits. “I always say we know our Roommates better than they know themselves.”
In 2016, The Shade Room started pivoting away from just gossip posts to cover a wider spectrum of pop culture and politics.
They also started to include more positive posts, like their “Daddy Duties” series, which spotlights celebrity dads, or, more controversially, posts on religion.
“They were like, ‘How dare you bring God into this!” Nwandu recalls. “When I thought about how to diversify The Shade Room, I thought about the people that we are servicing. And those people are very spiritual people. It’s in the culture to be spiritual, so it’s only natural that we would incorporate spirituality into our content. That wasn’t something that people felt they could do because you’re doing gossip; obviously, you can’t talk about God. It took a long time for them to understand or to be comfortable with that.”
While cultivating a vibrant (and flexible) relationship with The Shade Room’s audience, Nwandu has been just as diligent in growing the clientele within the company’s ad network.
In the beginning, The Shade Room relied on programmatic ads. But after getting backlisted by Google in around 2014 (“back when we were doing salacious stuff . . .” she says), Nwandu had to think of a new strategy for monetization.
“The businesses that did the best on our platforms were black businesses, because black people love to buy from black businesses,” Nwandu says. “So we just fit right into where we’re supposed to be.”
Tapping into black entrepreneurs proved to be the right move. To date, The Shade Room has helped launch and/or aided in the growth of more than 400 black-owned businesses through its ad network. But it’s an achievement that also brings a dilemma.
“There was a time when [The Shade Room’s Instagram] following just blew up and everybody was saying, ‘This is what all the other accounts are charging for.’ But that would have changed our clientele. We would have slowly started moving into higher-end businesses,” Nwandu says. “It’s almost like gentrification. I look at The Shade Room like a block. It’s a neighborhood, it’s a community. And so in this community, we have these black businesses that are advertising to black people who are then spending their money back with the black businesses. Obviously not all of the companies on our page are black businesses, but we have a very affordable rate that black businesses can pay. And we’ve kept that rate for so long. So imagine we just say, ‘Your money, it’s too low–all we want are the bigger brands.’ That’s like them buying space and real estate on that block.”
Celebrity Culture: What’s next
It’s evident that Nwandu has found meaningful success in a fickle media industry–and on her own terms, no less. But can she keep the same energy for The Shade Room’s second act?
In a bid to broaden their content offerings, Nwandu recently announced its first slate of original programming exclusively on Instagram, including Petty Court (“a court show for guests to air all of their petty grievances”), Struggle Chef (“a cooking competition series featuring celebrity guests”), and F-boy Chronicles (“an investigative look into guys known as F-boys”).
“Everybody wanted The Shade Room show, but we had the idea doing different shows and different content and programming. We saw ourselves bigger,” Nwandu says. “What’s the point of begging to be on a television platform when we have 15 million Roommates and we can just broadcast right now?”
There are numerous unauthorized Shade Room pages across social media that people use to talk about specific topics, e.g. band groups, dancehall music, etc.–think subreddits or even local chapters of Jada Pinkett Smith’s hit Facebook show Red Table Talk.
But one Shade Room page in particular caught Nwandu’s eye. “This girl named Tiara was working on a page called The Shade Room Teen, and we liked what she was doing. And one day she came to us and said that she was going to have to quit doing it, because she didn’t see where it could go,” Nwandu says. “So we ended up saying, ‘Well,