Ep. 37

Turning a Side Hustle Into a Full-time Business with Martina Abrahams Ilunga

Martina Abraham Ilunga’s story begins in 2016. She had recently moved from the East Coast and was living in the Bay Area at the time. Martina was working in sales and marketing at tech giants like Google and Square—but being in the Silicon Valley gave her an itch to start something of her own.

Martina and her now husband were taking a stroll around Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA when she began asking about his life growing up in South Africa. With her phone set on record, Martina soon knew exactly what she wanted to bring to life with her own business.

Martina’s website: http://www.youhadmeatblack.com/

Jessmyn:
All right. Hi everyone. And welcome to Interact’s Creator Stories podcast. As you know, I am Jessmyn Solana. With me today I have, Martina Abrahams Ilunga, wanted to make sure I said it right.

Martina:
You did. You did.

Jessmyn:
We had a whole conversation about names right before this. So I was like, oh my God, did I forget? But I didn’t.

Martina:
No. Good job.

Jessmyn:
Thank you. Anyways, this episode is really interesting. And the reason for that is because I talked to you a couple of days ago, we talked about your story and you guys actually just launched. So you’re kind of in this space where we talk about all the time, you’re in the thick of it. And of course, I will want to follow up with you on this as we go on, but before we get to that part of the story, do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself, your business and then go back to the start of it all and tell us what your story is?

Martina:
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really happy to be here. So I’m Martina Abrahams Ilunga. I am the creator and co-founder and CEO, and a whole bunch of other things, of You Had Me at Black. And we are a platform and community on a mission to reclaim the black narrative, and we do so by passing a microphone to everyday people to share their true life stories in their own words. We think of our business in three ways. We have a podcast, we a publishing arm, which right now as our podcast. And that’s what most people know us for. We’ve been running our podcast is 2016. We’re about to hit our fifth birthday in May, which is crazy. And then we have our experiences arm. So we do live storytelling events. We do creative workshops and a whole bunch of other things.
And then we also have our studio where we partner with brands and agencies and organizations to create really compelling human centered storytelling branded content. And this week, actually, we just launched our new community. It’s a digital community called the Kinship. And it’s really meant for people who are looking for a creative outlet, but need a little bit of structure and nurturing to get started. They’re looking for a creative community. They’re looking for some creative instruction. They want to get deeper into their craft. They’re looking for just a little bit of inspiration, and as adults, that can be really hard to find. And so, that’s what the Kinship is for and we just opened that up this week.

Jessmyn:
Exciting. How do you feel right now? I know we’re going to go back into the whole story. How do you feel right now?

Martina:
How do I feel right now? I feel excited. I’m happy that it’s Friday. It’s been a crazy week with any launch week, of very little sleep, with just kind of running on adrenaline. But the response so far has been really positive. And it’s really cool to see the months of work out into the world and have people respond to it and be a part of it. And so, I’m feeling hopeful. I’m feeling grateful. I’m feeling hopeful. I’m looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow. So, yeah.

Jessmyn:
Of course, it’s Saturday.

Martina:
Exactly, exactly. And I’m proud of what the team and I have done so far. So it’s a good feeling today.

Jessmyn:
That’s good. That’s awesome. So when we talked the other day and you told me a little bit about your story, you mentioned that this entire business was actually your side hustle at one point. Do you want to go back to that time, tell us a little bit about how you got started and all that good stuff?

Martina:
Absolutely. So my story with You Had Me at Black begins in 2016. I was living in the Bay Area at the time. I was a recent transplant from the east coast. And I had told myself that I couldn’t leave the Bay Area, the Silicon Valley. I was working in the tech industry without starting something. I was like, this is where people start things and I want to start something, too. And a few years prior, when I was living in New York, my friend and I had an idea for something called You Had Me at Black. We didn’t quite know what it was going to be. We knew we wanted to have black folks sharing stories and exploring different topics and things that are interest to our community.
But we just weren’t disciplined enough, we couldn’t really kinda nail down on what that would look like, whether it was a book or a documentary or whatever. And so, it’s 2016 and I’m feeling kind of a creative itch. I want to get something off the ground. And my husband, he was my boyfriend at the time, he grew up in South Africa. Yeah. And his parents are Ghanaian and from the DRC. And so, he just has this whole diasporic background. And where does walking around the Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. And I’m just asking him questions about his childhood and his identity.
And I’m recording him on my phone, just because what he’s saying, I’m like, “This is really interesting. We should save this for later because you’re spitting some real good stuff right now.” And I was like, “Ooh, I should make a podcast.” And so, that was really the start of it all. It was like, okay, going to make a podcast. What should the podcast be about? And I’ve always been someone who just loves listening to people tell stories from their lives. I was the kid who would hate… I never liked to play with other kids. I wanted to be in the room with the adults, at their feet, just listening to all the things that they’re talking about, their gossip, their stories from their lives. I loved my grandparents would tell me about their childhood, my parents.
And so, that was really the inkling and the impetus for You Had Me at Black. We decided to make a podcast that is just where people are just telling stories in an authentic way. And really as a response to some of the media narratives that are of black folks that are just very one dimensional and singular and often negative. And we wanted to kind of give people the space to be their whole selves in a way that were typically not in media. And I keep saying we, and I should say that I started You Had Me at Black with my sister.

Jessmyn:
Ooh.

Martina:
Yeah. My younger sister, she is in entertainment. She produces and writes and directs and I didn’t know how to edit audio, and I knew she knew how to edit video. So I was like, “You can edit video, you can edit audio. Do you want to start this podcast with me?” And so, she was like, “Yeah, sure.” And I kind of dragged her along.

Jessmyn:
I love that though.

Martina:
Along into this world with me. Yeah. Yeah. But from there, I side hustled You Had Me at Black, so I was working full time. And I would record, I started doing research with friends and trying to understand, because I didn’t listen to podcasts at the time. So I was trying to understand, okay, how do you make a podcast? What makes people listen to podcast? My professional background was in marketing, so I was very much focused on who my audience is.
And I did a little work in product development, so I really approached it like developing a product, getting customer and market feedback. Trying to hone in on who are we trying to reach? Where are we reaching them? And that’s how we really arrived at the place that we were. And I side hustled it for three years. So reporting on nights and weekend I would record at work, in a conference room.

Jessmyn:
I just need to conference you guys, one second.

Martina:
No. Exactly. Yeah. On the weekends, I don’t even know how I did this, but I got a key to the office. I was cool with people on the office management team, I got a key to the office. And the marketing team had a room where they would film webinars and so they had a Yeti microphone and they had some of that foam on the wall to help soundproof the room. It was literally just like a little closet, but they made it a studio. And so, I just went there and I would invite our storytellers on Saturdays, and I would just book it out. It would be like two hour slots, and I would have people in those slots. Yeah. And that’s how we got our first season off the ground.

Jessmyn:
Oh my gosh. That’s awesome. I love that. I love that. And I think it’s so funny. I don’t know, I just pictured really that like, “Hold on guys. Just going to go in the room real quick.” I know it wasn’t like that but it just-

Martina:
No. I never recorded during the work day, but I would take calls pertaining to the podcast during the work. I would run out and take a quick call if I had to talk to someone, or I was trying to book a guest and I needed to get them on the phone. Just tried to keep them separate, work and personal projects separate, but it’s kind of inevitable that they always blend together. I think anyone who side hustles can speak to that.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. I’ve been experimenting online, mostly just for fun, on Instagram. And it’s just, props to everybody who does two jobs at once because it’s so much work. And for me it wasn’t something that I was like, oh, I have to do this so I just… It’s almost, it’s on the weekend of I’m bored. But if you are actively doing… obviously, correct me if I’m wrong, you want it to have that regular income but still chase after your dream of getting this podcast up and running. So what was that like, with your schedule and balancing even just regular relaxing time and so on?

Martina:
Yeah. You can see my face right now. I mean, it was a lot, it was a lot. And I can’t ever say that I got good at that balance. I was constantly trying to test and tweak and try to try new things that would work for me. At one point it was doing everything at night after work and on the weekends. And then I would get home and I’d be exhausted just from work. Mentally exhausted in meetings all day, running around the office. So I was like, maybe if I gave You Had Me at Black the first part of my day, right? So I’m really, instead of giving it my crumbs of when I’m exhausted at the end of the day, let me start my day.
So I decided to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier and try to spend an hour a day in the morning doing whatever I needed to do. And that worked for a little bit. But I mean, I burnt out so many times, I had so many breakdowns and it was fun at first. And then went to one of those things or where like this train where you’re like, okay, people are expecting things of me and I’m an overachiever. I put a lot of pressure on myself, too. It was really hard. And I wasn’t doing it alone, again, my sister and I started together. So she’s not currently working on You Had Me at Black. But we had a team of friends who everyone was volunteering their time and we were all exhausted. We definitely burnt out.
And I got to this point where I knew if I wanted to see this become something more, and if I wanted to grow the community and really develop this into something that is sustainable, I couldn’t continue doing this 9:00 to 5:00 and 5:00 to 9:00 life. I needed to give You Had Me at Black my full attention. And so, that ultimately led to me putting You Had Me at Black on ice and then preparing to leave my full-time job, and then picking You Had Me at Black back up.

Jessmyn:
So what-

Martina:
Yeah. Go ahead.

Jessmyn:
Oh, yeah. Something came into my mind where it’s like, I’m sure you went through this thought process of like, “Yeah, what do I do, right.? What do I do next?” So when you decided that pivot in that moment, what did that feel like?

Martina:
It was scary and exciting, but it’s also freeing and liberating.

Jessmyn:
I love that.

Martina:
You know, because I had received many messages that I was taking the right step. Right? So I felt like I was getting confirmation in different ways that, okay, I’m not… This sounds crazy, right? I’m leaving my job. And this business that I’m working on, this has not made a real money yet. We had had to throw a different event and we’d sold tickets, but nothing that could cover my rent or replace a full-time job I was leaving behind. And so you tell your friends that and they’re like, “Yo, you’re crazy.” And they knew I’ve never been, I’m not someone who’s afraid of risk like that. I believe in following your calling. Things will work out in the way that they’re supposed to.
So I was definitely nervous, but I was more excited and I felt so relieved because at the same time, the job I was in were starting to become more toxic. And the team that I was on and some of the people that I worked with, even if I didn’t have, You Had Me at Black, I knew I would have needed to leave that team and that role in the coming months. And so, it all kind of coincided together. And I took that as another sign I feel like I’m getting pushed out of this role, and the only other option, I feel that I have peace within my soul, is to give You Had Me at Black a try. And even after I quit my job, I didn’t jump right into You Had Me at Black. Again, I was exhausted.
And so, I took three months off. I was living off of savings, and took three months off and that was really helpful. Just because I just needed that time to decompress. And I didn’t want to jump right into one work into this entrepreneurial life that I knew would be crazy, and have its ups and downs. And my husband, he’s also an entrepreneur. So watching him on his entrepreneurial journey before I took the plunge into mindful time, I knew what I was getting into. I knew what the lifestyle is like. I knew how you have highs and you have lows and you’re managing a team and fundraising, all these things. I saw it firsthand. And so I was like, I think I need to chill before I jumped into that. I need a buffer. And so, I was able to take that time, which was great.
And then I hired a business coach, who is kind of an executive coach, but she worked with black women who were entrepreneurs, and people who are looking to move into management in their corporate jobs. And so, she really helped me go through that transition of, okay, I’m this passion project side hustler to now I’m a CEO. And what does that mean? And help me think through all of the ideas I had around turning, You Had Me at Black from this podcast really into a business. And so, we started to test different things and she really helped me with some frameworks. And so, I felt like I really prepared myself for the next step. And I didn’t just jump right into it. And I think that’s been really helpful.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. I love that. When you said that you took a much needed break, that makes sense. And I think anyone going from doing pretty much two jobs to putting everything into your own project, you do kind of need that break. Was there anything in that time besides, or well, let me ask this first, did you take the three months and then you hired a business coach? Did I get that right?

Martina:
Yes.

Jessmyn:
So in the three months, what did you do to decompress and kind of help yourself back, recover from the burnout before coming back into your project?

Martina:
What did I do? So it’s funny. My last day at work was June 28th. July of 1st, my husband and I moved back home to the East Coast, New York. I grew up in New Jersey. My parents and my family are all in New York New Jersey.

Jessmyn:
Oh, nice. Yeah.

Martina:
Are you from-

Jessmyn:
My fiance’s from New Jersey.

Martina:
Oh, I love it. Yaay, yeah. So it was just like, and it was summertime. So I just spend it spending a lot of time with my family because I hadn’t seen them for months before we moved. So I was over my parents’ apartment. Every week seeing my siblings, catching up with friends. At first I felt like I had to spend the time productively. Right? And that’s kind of from just like, oh, I have to do something. Maybe I’ll learn a new skill. And one of my friends was and my husband were both like, “You really need to learn how to just chill.” Right. So I was like, “Okay.” So I was like, “All right, I’ll have this really…” It was weird. It was weird.
I felt like I had this Stepford wife life. I woke up when I wanted to and I went to the park and I worked out and I read a book and before you know it the three months were up. It’s only three months of my life. But it took a while for me to feel comfortable resting and learning what rest looks like. And for me, that’s a lot of sleep. That’s reading. That’s praying. That’s going to the park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And so I didn’t pressure myself to learn or to work or to do anything. I did all the chill things, which was really nice. And the summer made it easy to do that, too.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. Because the weather’s really nice. You can walk outside.

Martina:
Yeah.

Jessmyn:
I like how you said you needed to learn to actually rest because even in entrepreneurial life it’s hard to, right? You don’t really know what that is, and especially now everyone’s working from home. So I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who forget to turn off their computer and forget to turn off their work brain because they’re working and relaxing at home. Yeah. So I love that a lot. And I guess, was there anything that you wish you did differently or was that exactly what you needed to fully get yourself out of burnout?

Martina:
I kinda wish that I took a longer break. To me, I thought three months was going to be the, I was like, “But that’s such a long time. How do I not work for three months?” And now I’m like, I wish that I had taken a year off. I wish that something that I had planned for, and that I did. And now that like we’re back up and running and things are moving and stuff, it’s harder to take a long break. But I really do wish I had taken a whole year. It felt crazy at the time. I wouldn’t have done it then, but looking back, I wish I had.

Jessmyn:
I like that. I think, I don’t know, it’s just something that people forget, to take breaks.

Martina:
Yeah. No, absolutely. Absolutely. We need to. What I’m realizing is that, rest is part of work.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. Oh my God.

Martina:
It’s like it’s a cycle, it’s a cycle. It’s just like we have four seasons and winter time everything hibernates and goes in and goes to sleep and then blooms in spring. And then it thrives in summer. We’re like that, too. And so, I try to think of my work in a cycle like that. And so that means being more intentional about factoring rest into my work week, factoring rest time into projects, with some of our clients and making sure that there’s space between projects.
And making sure that when I give deadlines and I’m factoring in, okay, am I resting in this deadline? Or am I just trying to push through and get it to them as fast as possible, You know? So it’s something that I’ve had to learn in order to literally stay sane and literally to be able to keep going because my anxiety can be at an all time high. And yeah, I’ve burnt out so many times and I’m like, I’d never want to feel that feeling again.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. It’s hard. It’s so hard. So from there you got your break. What was your transition like going from getting this rest and then jumping back into it?

Martina:
Yeah, I was excited. I was nervous. It was a slow start. Again, I was really cautious of making sure I don’t want to burn out. So I want to be really intentional. Be really intentional about how I do this.

Martina:
So what was that like? Yeah. So for me I was nervous and I was just trying to take it slow. I wanted to be really intentional about how I was building this because when I started, You Had Me at Black, I’m someone I just jumped right in. I don’t know if you guys could tell, I quit my job without knowing what I was doing. I’m like, once I decided I’m going to do something, I’m all the way in. I’m not much of a planner. I’m just like, we’re just going to do it. And we’re going to figure it out. And having done that for three years and seeing how challenging some of that was it was really rewarding.
And I’m glad that I did that because I think if I had planned too much, I might’ve scared myself from starting. But I knew that this time around, I was like, I know what happened when I just jumped right in. I was like, let me see what it’s like to plan. So that’s why I started working with this coach. That’s why I wanted to lay this foundation. I wanted to make sure that when I bring people on I can afford to pay them well. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t biting off more than I could chew, in that whatever we set out to do, we could execute that excellently and then build from there. I wanted to just make sure I wasn’t trying to boil the ocean and then failing at it and starting from ground zero again.
So, yeah. I was just really intentional about some of that planning. And so, that was figuring out, okay, really going back to our mission and our goals and what we’re trying to accomplish and figuring out what are different revenue models and revenue streams, which ones do we think that, and I say we, my business coach and I, which ones do we think that I was well positioned to go after, or and then the other right now, versus needing more time or needing more resources and the support to execute. And just kind of laying out a roadmap. And then we started to do small tests and things. And after I worked with her for three months, so it was three months, three months of working with her and then I was ready to kind of start picking things up again.

Jessmyn:
That’s awesome. So then what did you launch from there?

Martina:
Well, from there we launched another season of the podcast because by that point it had been a year we had been off the air. And I knew that the podcast and that audience was our primary customer base, so I had to make sure that they were like engaged. They’re excited about us still. They were still into us because I knew that from that audience and from that community would come a lot of the other opportunities that we wanted to explore. And then also, launched our, what I call the studio, where we work with brands on different projects. That’s where I kind of, was able to hone in what kind of brands are good partners?
How do I find them starting, the outreach, creating the pitch deck, doing some of that initial work. And we were able to land our first client partner in March of 2020. Yeah, so those were the two things that came out of that time with my coach, is just creating more content and making sure that, our community, we’re engaging them and they have things from us and we’re top of mind. And then some of the B2B stuff.

Jessmyn:
Was that hard trying to re-engage the audience after taking a year off for the podcast?

Martina:
I think the audience was ready. There was a lot of excitement for what we were doing and what we were putting out. I felt a little nervous coming back to them. Right. Because it’s like, why have y’all been gone for a whole year? And it’s hard to explain like, “well, I haven’t trying to get myself right so I can continue to serve y’all.” So I was more nervous like, will people still like us? But it went well, it was good. I think that season ended up performing really well and people received it well. And we’ve been able to keep going from there. So it went well, but I was definitely nervous coming back. I felt, yeah. I was like, hey, knock knock.

Jessmyn:
It’s me again.

Martina:
That’s definitely how I felt. It’s us again.

Jessmyn:
I totally get that. I mean, I follow a lot of people online and once in a while they won’t post for a week. Right? And there’ll be like, sorry, I’ve been gone. And it’s funny to think where you’re like, oh my gosh, I’m so scared to come back. But everyone loves a comeback story. It’s always happened. Especially mostly with, I guess, singers is what I’m thinking of. But I think that is really scary, but people love it.

Martina:
Yeah. They want to see… Yeah. If they liked what you put out, people want to see you do that. And so, yeah, it was exciting. It was exciting. I think for us before we took our break, we did a whole Kickstarter campaign. We did a five-city tour and we were doing live storytelling event and recording them and putting them on the podcast. And it was just kind of, we got to this point where we couldn’t sustain the momentum because we just didn’t have the resources. We didn’t have the funds.
We didn’t have the time because everyone was part-time doing this, again, nights and weekends. And so< I was also trying to, people were like, what took you so long to come back? And I was like, everything we did before, we weren’t ready for it. We didn’t have the infrastructure. So now we’re trying to do this right so we don’t create all this cool stuff and then have to stop because we can’t sustain it so.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. I remember when I first started here, I mean, we’re still a startup, but we were really early in. And our CEO, Josh, I remember him telling me like, “Hey, it’s awesome that you want to work a lot, but I’d rather you give yourself 100% and then take some rest, rather than giving 110, 120% everyday and then you get tired. Then we don’t get anything done.” And that was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone kind of advise me to do that because I think, I don’t know, at least for me growing up, that’s what was always said, right? You got to work really hard. You got to keep going. Stop taking breaks, things like that. And so, that was really crazy for me to hear. And so, I totally identify with that. I think it’s so important.

Martina:
Yeah. And that’s a great that, you said that was the CEO of the company?

Jessmyn:
Yeah.

Martina:
I mean, that’s an amazing leadership. That’s amazing leadership, and it’s something that, I have a team now and I try to make sure that I say, we need to move at the speed of our wellness. Right? And that takes a lot of trust and communication. So I think as a CEO now, and having a team it’s constantly trying to reiterate those values of, we don’t need to kill ourselves. We can get this done. And we just need to make sure that we trust our teammates to do what they say they’re going to do. And that as teammates, we’re communicating when we can’t do something or when a deadline is slipping or whatever support we need to get things done.
And that’s not that’s not very common in workplaces. And so, it’s something that we are learning together and it’s constant reiteration and conversation around it. And there’s a lot… It takes a lot of intentionality.

Jessmyn:
I think it’s great too, because you experienced the burnout. So now you’re like, okay, in order for this to keep going, I can’t let anyone else do that, too.

Martina:
Exactly. Exactly. I mean, it’s the worst feeling, it’s the worst feeling. And so, yeah, I’m constantly trying to check in with my team. I’ve even brought in like, we’ve had sessions with a therapist who’s very into mindfulness and wellness and he lead different sessions for the team and helping them. So they have the tools to check in on themselves. Because I think that’s also something that we have to learn too if we’re always in go mode. We don’t stop to do a scan of how we’re feeling and how our work is affecting us. And so, I’m really intentional about trying to make sure that everyone I work with is equipped in that way too, so that we can all take care of ourselves and do good work because at the end of the day, we’re not saving babies.
So if we have to push our season back a week, it’s okay. Right? And I think this year we’ve been really fortunate even with the clients we’ve worked with. Also, just doing this in the pandemic, I think it’s slowed a lot of people down. So we’ve been fortunate to be able to work through the pandemic in terms of having work because a lot of creatives have not had that opportunity. But I feel like everyone that I’ve worked with on my team and other teams, we’ve all been on the same page of like, we’re going to slow this pace down. We’re going to get it done. Or we’re going to make this work, but we recognize that there’s a lot going on right now.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. I love that. I think that’s important. And I guess my question for you from there is, are you constantly trying to learn new ways to prevent burnout? Or do you feel you have a good method for yourself, and what it is?

Martina:
Ooh, I feel I’m just constantly trying new ways. I don’t feel I have it all figured out. One thing I have learned about myself, I need eight hours of sleep, and I was not the person that got eight hours of sleep from, like once I hit college, I was a four and a hour a night personal through college. Yeah. I mean, and then I’m like, this is why you felt crazy in college because you weren’t getting any sleep. But I was trying to get schoolwork done, all my extracurriculars, I wanted to hang out with my friends. And so, I always put that on the back burner. And even as an adult post-college I was a six hour person. But there was a time, there was a one week where I got eight hours each night and I felt like a whole new person.
And I was like, wow. So that is a huge priority for me. I know I need sleep. And I have to sacrifice things to make that happen. I also try to keep my weekends as much as I can, especially Sunday, Sunday is a no work day for me. And I make that for the whole team, too. I feel like I’m Chick-fil-A. Well, not in a, you know?

Jessmyn:
Not because of the food, but.

Martina:
Also, because they have issues when it comes to homophobia and all. But Chick-fil-A in that they’re closed on Sundays. We’re closed on Sundays just so that the team has a day off and that at least they’re not working on You Had Me at Black stuff on Sunday. Because everyone is a freelancer on my team, are like independent contractors. So everyone is like juggling different projects. And I was like, I don’t know how you manage your schedule, but I’m not making you work on this day. And I would say those are my two biggest things.
I think I’m also learning that I can be creative in how I structure my day. Right? And I’m trying to pay more attention to my natural energy cycles so that I can arrange day in that way. Because at first I was like, okay, I’m used to working in corporate. I’m used to join office at 9:00, leaving the office at 6:00, having my evenings open. And I’m like, I realized that in the middle of the day, I’m like I could work out.
And that feels really good. And I used to only workout in the morning or the evening. Or kind of giving myself a break and maybe reading in the middle of the day. And then I have energy sometimes after dinner and that’s like, “Okay, cool. I can do some of that work then.” So I’m realizing that I don’t have to stick to this rigid, the same 9:00 to 6:00 schedule that made me tired before. I can, if it’s 3:00 and I’m feeling kind of sleepy and sluggish, I can go lay down for a quick nap. I can read a book, I can do something to rejuvenate myself and pick up my work in an hour again. So I think that’s been cool. So that’s something that’s kind of what I’m in the middle of right now.

Jessmyn:
I really like that. Because you’re listening to your body and what it needs. And if it’s telling you like, hey, you can’t concentrate right now for a reason please go or like [crosstalk 00:33:49].

Martina:
Exactly. Exactly. Whereas if I was in an office, I would push through and I would have to go to all these meetings and be awake and super present, even though my body is telling me, please sit down. Please lay down right now. So I’m trying to listen to my body more and work according to when my body feels the most energized and just giving it the rest when it feels like it is telling me that it needs it.

Jessmyn:
I think that’s so good. I actually noticed now that you said that, there’s some times where I’ll take a break and I’m just like, I just don’t want to think, but I don’t know what else to do. So I’ll watch an episode of some show or whatever I’m watching and just turn my brain off and just watch something for an hour and then I’ll be like, okay, let’s get back into it. It’s weird if you just allow yourself to do that, you don’t realize it feels good and that you end up doing better at work because you’re taking that break versus if you’re going, I just got to keep going.

Martina:
Exactly, exactly. You’re right because there’ll be times where, because I’m still producing stuff, too. So I still have to like write for the episodes. And then there’s also like the business side and sometimes it’s like that mind switch can be a lot mentally and I’ll find myself needing to write something. And I literally can’t focus on what I’m writing and the creativity just isn’t there. And it’s just like, this is a good time where, yeah, you need to turn your brain to something else or just turn this off for a little bit. Yeah.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. That’s awesome. So, okay. So now you guys recently launched this week and-

Martina:
Yeah, the Kingship.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. So what was that process like, in you have multiple parts of your business, the podcast is going well and you’re doing more stuff. From what point were you, now, I’m ready to pack on more. And what was that process like, continuing on what you were already doing and then launching something totally new?

Martina:
Yeah. So we kind of arrived at the Kinship for a few different reasons. Right? I think one, is we have this community that listens to our podcast, comes to our events, pre-COVID and when they were in person, that is just really eager about what we do. But we actually never formally brought the community together or had anything that’s for them. And we talked about, what are different things that… How could we serve this community? And it’d been a question that I’d asked for years. And last year one thing I kept hearing is people really wanting to express themselves, was a very charged year with the murders of George Floyd and Briana Taylor and the racial uprising and then the pandemic and a lot of emotions, a lot of feelings and people wanting to get them out and not really having a space to not.
Some people having imposter syndrome. I had so many friends who had projects they wanted to finally get off the ground because they’re thinking more about what they truly wanted out of life. And so, we felt we’re a storytelling show. We’re all about telling stories and we want to help people tell stories however they want to, and that was really the impetus for it. But another thing in the background is, there are a few ways that people typically monetize podcasts and the bigger shows typically monetize through sponsorships and ad placements. And our show while we have a good listenership for an Indie show, we can’t like command the same type of ad revenue that these big network shows can. And so, ad sponsorship one, I think we’ve always struggled to kind of convey our value to advertisers.
And even if we did, the amount of money that we get wouldn’t be enough to sustain the whole team. Right? So we had to get creative around different ways of making money. So our live shows are one way in which we started to do that. And it was, okay, the community, the Kinship was another way for us to think about like, okay, if we have these people who really love what we’re putting out, would they be willing to support us financially? And so, that was another impetus for launching it. And so, I did a bunch of research over the summer and into the fall. I would call people that were subscribed to our email list and I would just ask them questions. I had some hypothesis about what people might need, but I wanted to validate them.
So I asked them questions to learn more about them, some of their needs. Some of the things that, the ways they’re looking to connect with other people to connect with their creativity. And then I would run some of our ideas by them, just to get real feedback. And I asked them about pricing. I was like, how would you price this, if you were to get this every month? How would you price this, if you had access to this every month? And I was taking a lot of, like I’d mentioned, I was a product marketer prior to being a full-time entrepreneur. So launching products is what I know how to do. And so, I just apply the same process to this.
So getting my customer feedback and having to develop the product. And then we ran an alpha, we ran a pilot, we did that for four months.We announced it only to our email list which had a few thousand people in it. And then we were able to get together a small pilot, which worked out really well. And during the pilot, we were able to keep tweaking the programming to, what hypotheses could we validate further? How do we make sure that this is valuable for the amount of money people are spending on the each month? How do we make it sticky? And so, after four months of that, we felt ready to open it up more broadly. And that’s what we did this week.

Jessmyn:
That’s awesome. I like that you… Pretty much what I heard throughout your whole story, even from the beginning, was you do a lot of planning.

Martina:
Now I do.

Jessmyn:
But it’s good though. Right?

Martina:
I didn’t in the beginning. Yeah.

Jessmyn:
You like the foundation which I think is super important. And my question for that is, really just, where do you start? How do you know where to start? And I know you said before you talk to a coach, but if in any case somebody listening doesn’t have access to that, where would you start in laying the foundation?

Martina:
Yeah. That’s a great question. I mean, the internet is a great, great resource. Right. And so thinking about like this community, I started first with the people I knew around. Actually, I’m going to start with how I started with You Had Me at Black because I had no foundation, right? And it was like, I think I want to do a podcast. I don’t really listen to podcasts. So I started talking to my friend who I knew did. I went on Facebook and I was like, hey, who listens to podcasts? What do you listen to and why? And all the people who replied, I messaged them. I was like, hey, can I call you for like 15 minutes? And I asked them straight up, why do you listen to these shows? What do you like about it? And I learned so much about, what some of these key things are important in a podcast.
Making sure you’re publishing consistently, making sure that the format of your show is consistent show to show, little things like that. Yeah, it makes sense, but I might’ve not known that had I not asked. And so I usually start, I think because of like my marketing background, my interest in talking to people, I usually start by talking to people and kind of seeing, what do you want? Can I make this useful? And then from there I go and do research on what else, I also do this with the Kinship, what else is out there? What other things that are like this is out there that might feel similar and try to identify the gaps. Where is that open space so that I know I’m differentiated and I’m not copying or mimicking intentionally or unintentionally?
I don’t want someone to be like, well, how is this different than this and me not having an answer. I need to know that like, oh, they do this really well. But they don’t do this one thing, and that’s what we do. And that’s something that I’ve learned through just my time in product and marketing. And you know, how do you develop products that are remarkable? And so, that’s something that I take into this work, too. So I always start with like, who is the customer and what do people need? How can I deliver something of value? And then what else is out there that might be meeting this need? And what are they missing? And can I be the one to deliver that and fill in that hole?

Jessmyn:
That’s awesome. That’s a lot of good work, too. And it’s so important I think, I mean, I used to think people just launched things and I didn’t know that you should actually talk to who you’re trying to launch to. Such [crosstalk 00:42:45]

Martina:
There’s a whole buildup. A launch is usually, there’s a pre-campaign, right? Unless you’re Apple and you’re just like, we’re going to launch an iPhone. And then people line up. If you don’t have that audience built up… Beyonce can launch an album in the middle of the night and then it’s Platinum the next morning because she’s Beyonce. But if you’re starting off with no audience or a very small audience, you kind of have to build people up. So even building up for the podcast in 2016, we announced it in February and we spent three months generating buzz. We spent three months creating our Facebook and our Twitter and our Instagram. We’re trying to get people to join our email list. We were giving out teasers of the episodes and some of the content that people can get excited about.
We tried pitching press. We didn’t get any press before we launched, but we were reaching out to journalists and reporters like, “Look at this amazing podcast we’re about to launch.” They were like, “We don’t care.” But we were trying, we started just talking about it to people. And the same thing with the Kinship, we had a short pre-campaign period where we announced it. And then we were getting people excited so that when it’s open it’s like, okay, you can come and join us now. That wasn’t when we were introducing people to it, we introduce them to it beforehand. And I think that’s something that a lot of folks sometimes miss or they just think that they put something out and that people will come flocking, but you really have to lower the people to you.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. Yeah. I agree with that. I’m learning that a lot also. And in our own work here, it’s an actual science I think. It’s wild but, I mean.

Martina:
It is. It takes a lot of work. And when you see something has a lot of faction, just know that there was a lot of thought and practice. And there’s a lot of work behind that. Some things just go viral, but most things don’t just go viral.

Jessmyn:
It takes time. Yeah. I agree with that. Nice. I’m trying to think if I have any last minute questions, but do you have anything else in your part of the story that you think would be cool to tell?

Martina:
Do I have anything else on my part of the story? I don’t think so. I mean, I want to-

Jessmyn:
It’s always hard unless you ask a specific question. It’s like, I don’t know. I don’t know where to go.

Martina:
Yeah. I just want to encourage, I guess, other creatives, other entrepreneurs because our journeys are never linear. Right? We can start something and then pivot and then start something new or pick the thing back up. And I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and the world puts pressure on us too, to have a very clean story. Right? You think of Facebook, for example, started this in college and it blew up. And now Mark Zuckerberg is Mark Zuckerberg. And most entrepreneurial stories and creator stories don’t look like that, and think we need to start paying more attention to what the norm is versus the exception.
Right? And most people, I think they say, it takes five to seven years for most businesses to really take off. And it takes most entrepreneurs, it takes them a couple to start and fail at couple of businesses before they have their first successful business. So I mean, that’s like years and years and years of toil and working and trying to make things work. And so, that can be encouraging to someone who might be in the same position I am. And the days whether it’s frustrating or hard, just know you’re not alone, this is what this journey is all about. And you’re not crazy and you’re not doing the wrong thing, right? Because I think sometimes there are days where like, am I crazy? Why am I doing this?
And you’re not crazy. This thing is meant to be hard. It’s meant to be hard, unfortunately. And it’s persistence, the things that stick or because someone’s stuck around to keep going. And so, I hope that can encourage someone that, like continue to stay the course, it might look different from what you thought it would be but it’s still worthwhile and useful and valuable. And so, I just want to encourage someone.

Jessmyn:
I love that. It’s not going to be as cool as what I’m going to say next, but no, that was really, really good. I love that a lot. So then my last couple of questions are really just a little bit more to get to know about you specifically outside of-

Martina:
Yeah. Cool.

Jessmyn:
So what are three things that people don’t normally know about you?

Martina:
What are the three things people don’t normally know about me? I used to be a cheerleader.

Jessmyn:
Wow.

Martina:
Yeah. I cheered actually from middle school through college. I was captain of my college to your team, but I’m someone who, I don’t know if you all can tell, I’m pretty monotone. My energy is very mellow. So when people meet me, they’re like, “You were a cheerleader?” And I’m like, “Yeah. I used to love that.” That used to be my… Eat, sleep, cheer, repeat was my life motto for 10 plus years of my life. But yeah, that’s something that a lot of people don’t know about me. I think I’m a lot sillier than people also think. People are like, “Oh yeah, you have it all together.” And I’m like, “I really don’t.” And I’m a big goofball. I don’t take myself very seriously. And what else’s something people don’t know about me? I don’t know.

Jessmyn:
It’s hard. I know, it’s a hard one.

Martina:
Yeah. I’m not too sure.

Jessmyn:
Okay. We can stick with two.

Martina:
Yeah. We have two, I was a cheerleader and I’m hella goofy.

Jessmyn:
I love that. My last question is just, if you could give yourself a single piece of advice at the start of it all, what would it be?

Martina:
Ooh. If I could give myself a single piece of advice, it would be, don’t be afraid to think big. And don’t be afraid to embrace the bigness of what you’re working on. I think I have a tendency to scare myself. I’ll be like, oh, okay, that’s too much. That’s too big. Or I can’t handle all of that. And I think if I hadn’t been afraid to think big, You Had Me at Black might have looked differently sooner. But for a while I was definitely like, I can handle this little podcast.
And so, it’s definitely something I’m also trying to work on with myself, too. Just that belief that I can do it, too. Being a woman, being a black woman in the world, doesn’t tell you that. But now I wholeheartedly believe that. And I wish I felt some of this confidence in myself then, but it’s nice to have it now.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. It’s never too late. But I think that’s [crosstalk 00:50:05] piece of advice. Because I mean, I’ve talked to so many people and they’re just like, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to do it. Or so-and-so said it probably won’t work. And you know, you got to stop listening to those voices and just be like, just do it.

Martina:
Exactly, exactly. Because there’s going to be so many more people who tell you that you can’t do it or you shouldn’t do it. And oftentimes that’s more of a reflection of where they are. Right? And reflection of how they feel about themselves versus a reflection about you and what you can actually do. And so, it’s just, yeah, you got to vet through those voices and that some of the feedback and advice you might get from folks. Yeah.

Jessmyn:
Yeah. Nice. Well, thank you so much for being on the show with us today.

Martina:
Thank you for having me, Jessmyn.

Jessmyn:
Of course, of course. Well, that’s all I got for you guys, and I’ll see you next week.

Martina:
Cool. Bye everyone.

Jessmyn:
Bye.

Martina:
Thanks for having me.

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