Johnny Taylor, CEO, Black Web Enterprises
Interview conducted by Kristina B. Hill
Can you tell me a little but about your background, and specifically, RushmoreDrive.com, search engine technology – how did you get involved in this field?
I'm sort of an odd bird in that regard, I'm a lawyer by training. I began my career as a litigator at a large law firm, then went in-house as a corporate lawyer working for Blockbuster Entertainment and I basically stayed at media companies. Blockbuster Paramount, and for the next seven or eight years. And then I began during the middle of this career, I went from the lawyer person, to sometimes, an HR executive. Professionally throughout my career I've professionally been a lawyer, then an in-house corporate lawyer, and then I became an HR executive for a number of companies. And just before taking over and basically being the founding CEO of RushmoreDrive.com, I was the head of HR for IAC. IAC is the parent company to RushmoreDrive, Lending Tree, Ticket Master, Home Shopping Network – all these various brands – Match.com, go through the list. And so, I was the head of HR, living in NY. And I one day, just basically said I've done legal, I've done HR, real estate, I've done administrative, all of the back office functions, it's time for me to run a businesses. And then it was time for me to find out what that business would be. I wanted to do something I was passionate about which is technology. I also wanted to do something that I was most passionate about, which is black people.
I mean, that's at my core. Aside from the fact that I am black, I'm so interested in elevating the black consciousness and the Internet is the new medium. You know, you've had television, and radio, and film, all of those traditional media; this is the new medium. And, I think as an opportunity to really deliver content to black people like never before. One thing about radio in largest part is that it's local, so it's hard to find out what's going on in California if you're in Charlotte, save some national news. Then you have print. Charlotte Observer is going to do what it does and then NY Times is gonna do what it does. So, this was the opportunity to do something and I found that the Internet really created the opportunity to do it. So I was intrigued by the Internet from a technology standpoint. So our goal here was to celebrate blackness – so to be appropriately celebratory, but also constructive. And to critique our experience.
Some people come from the position that all things are black or white. Our goal was to build a premium product that no one had ever seen. Sure, you've seen Google, but there was no one who'd ever crawled the World Wide Web for the black community. That's what RushmoreDrive.com is. So, it wasn't a better widget, it was a new type of widget.
You mention Google, and that RushmoreDrive.com is a unique product, not like anything else out there. You have some people who might say, well, we have Google, we have YAHOO, we have countless other search engines, why would we need a search engine specifically targeted to – I won't just say African American people – but black people all across the world.
I was on NPR and someone called me and took me on to task and said, you know, "We don't have a white Google, we have Google. Why do you need a black Google?" And I said, well first of all, people refer to us as "Black Google" because everyone understands Google as a search engine. You ask most people what's a search engine and they don't know but if you ask if they use Google, they get it. So, it's a term of art.
To answer your question, search engines are a proxy for the majority. So what they do is, they're trying to figure to when you type in the word "Whitney" what you mean. And the way they figure it out is the number of people who click on links that are presented to you – and that's how things come to the first, second, or third search page of a search result page. Well, because we are a minority group, minority in number, no mater what we do, we're not large enough to really influence what appears on the first, second, or third page.
So as I explain to people, you do have a white Google – it's called Google. And therefore, the need is for black people to go somewhere and get something, and not just black people, but other identity groups. But ultimately, our goal is when you search, is to find.
And that's all Google's doing. For the majority of the community, there goal is to let people search and find what they're looking for quickly. Well, what better way to help people find what they're looking for, than to find those common traits, characteristics that they share in the community, and deliver a more relevant search experience. What's beautiful about the technology that we filed for patent for is that it's not a "black technology," it's called "identity search." It can be for the black community. We can introduce a Latino product; we can do gay/lesbians. It's all about making the search experience a find experience. So, when the black community is launching this business for example. And let's use "King" as an example. If you were to type in King in a Google search result. "Martin Luther King" doesn't appear on the first page of a Google search result. Whereas, it knows by virtue of the fact that if you say "King" to a black child or a white child, nine times out of 10, "King" means something to that black child that may include Elvis, but is more likely to include Martin Luther King. It's all about relevancy.
The point is, you launch a business called RushmoreDrive.com not to exclude the majority, because our results are a blend. It is a blend of mainstream results plus highly relevant information for the black community. This is not – and even a lot of black people don't understand this – a black search engine. We are a search engine for the black community. This may sound like semantics, but a black search engine would crawl the Web and look for only black sites. And what we heard from our focus groups, when really doing the work to build this business was, don't assume that because I'm black and type in the word "restaurant" that I want a soul food restaurant only.
How do you ensure that you're results are not being stereotypical?
We give you mainstream and black search results – that's the key. So I'm going to give you Whitney Museum and Whitney College. I'm also going to give you Whitney Houston and Whitney M. Young. Which is the differentiator. Google would likely not give you Whitney M. Young from the National Urban League because it just doesn't mean anything to the majority of its audience. Unless you type in "Whitney M. Young." So what we do, and this is what I think makes us better than Google, Yahoo, or MSN, is that we give you both. I'm going to give you everything. There is not a tradeoff when you come to RushmoreDrive.com as a black person. You're not saying "okay, I'm going to go to Google and then RushmoreDrive for all things "black."' You get both. The real differentiator for the product is a more relevant search. And no search engine is a crystal ball. So for example, you go in and type "football." Depends on where you're from, football in most countries is soccer. So, if you had Google in the UK, you'd expect those results to be soccer related. You do Google in the U.S., the idea is for it to be football, like the NFL. There's nothing wrong with Google having a different algorithm for U.S. citizens vs. UK citizens.
Now, that doesn't mean that the person in the UK when they typed in football didn't mean NFL, but it is more likely than not. So what would Google do? They'll give you some NFL and some soccer. We do the same thing. We're not going to assume that because you're black that you want all things black, where going to give you both. But at least you will get some of the black stuff, which acknowledges black people.
Earlier, I mentioned to you why I'm so passionate about this because it's about elevating black on two levels. Functionally, what we do is we elevate black search results from page 50 or 100 to page 1, 2, or 3 so that people can find them. Google will have most of everything that we have, except, it will be on page 50 or 100. And you know, after about page 3, if you type in something and can't find it, you abandon the search. That's how functionally, we're about elevating black. Then, more globally, it's about elevating the black consciousness. It's about making sure that black children, when they go in a type an inventor, that there are people there who look like them. That it acknowledges on page 1, 2, or 3 that black people actually invented something and you don't have to type in African American inventor or black inventor, just inventor. I'm going to give you Benjamin Franklin, but I'm also going to give you Fredrick Douglas
And that's what's fascinating about this, it's not excluding anyone else, it's actually including a group – black people – who are generally excluded in our history.
So, did you pitch this concept to IAC and they were in agreement with it, or is this something that they already wanted to develop?
Totally my baby. I was in a meeting, and again, I was head of HR for the company based in New York. And we were sitting in a meeting, and I said that I want to do something in affinity groups, and in particularly the black community. Well, there are in the Web community, basically three different types of businesses: content sites, social media sites or social networking I should say; and then we said, content and social media areas are serviced. There was no one in the search space. And so I went and said that's what I want to do – if we can. No one had ever even tested the technology to see if you could build. Because everyone thought that the way you do it, the simplistic way, is you take the word comedy, and you put black or African behind the scenes. So you don't see us do it, but you type in comedy and behind the scenes we automatically but in the suffix black or African American.
So IAC, Barry Diller, our Chairman, said you know what, go put together a group of people and see if you can build this. So we assembled a group of engineers from Pisa, Italy, Oakland, California, Edison, NJ, and Charlotte – four different cities – and they worked for about four months on building a prototype to see if we can make this happen. Because I was telling you about comedy, you think you can just prefix black or African American but the problem is that if you put black comedy in, you don't get Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence, you get dark humor. So it's not as simple as somehow magically putting in black, it really is an underlying technology where you have to figure out what do black people more likely than not mean when they put in different search terms. And it's complicated because all black people aren't looking for the same stuff.
Now you always hear companies pushing diversity, what was it that prompted that room full of people and you to say, "you know what, there's nothing else out here like this and we're going to actually see what we can do for this audience."
First of all, I believe in my business. And I would advise anyone, when you think you're on to something, you have to be the sales person of all salespersons and you have to believe deeply in your concept. And it's very difficult when you're creating something that's never exited before because everyone can tell you why it's not going to work. And so we had the conversation about essentially the three areas. We didn't want to get into content, we didn't want to get into social networking, and the underserved literally unserved space was in search. And all we wanted to do was create a type of search that was not just for the black community, although that's where my passion is, it's called "identity search," which means that we can roll it out for different identity groups. The technology worked, and after about three or four months, our prototype worked and we were off to the races. We launched April 10th of 2008 and I have to tell you, mainstream media loved it, the technology community said this is a real technology – it's not just prefixing or sufficing black or African American, and the black community has embraced it because it's ours. And it is not intended to exclude black people or be anti-white, it's saying it's just a more relevant search result for a group of people who need a relevant search experience and there are other groups of people who will similarly experience the BWE experience.
And let me tell you about that, too. IAC is our parent company; BWE (Black Web Enterprises) is the division that now houses RushmoreDrive.com and other businesses that are to come. So I run BWE Inc. and one of its businesses is RushmoreDrive.com and there will be other businesses that will flow from that, but the first of the businesses that we've launched is RushmoreDrive.com.
Since the article is coming out in December 2008, can you tell me some of the things that we can expect from BWE in 2009?
Yes. Email. We have found that the stickiest of online products is email. And that's because everyday, you need to go check your email. And it reminds you that this is your place, your community. And that's what RushmoreDrive.com the name is all about, it's a place. And so, we're going to roll out an email product, actually October 20th. So by the time this comes out, it will be about a month old. We're going to offer an email product to the black community for free that's literally as good as anything you've seen out there from Gmail or Yahoo, or the others. The second one is we're going to be launching a new product focused on black businesses. When I say product, it's not like we're selling anything, all these things are free, but it's intended to really highlight the black businesses. So that one of the challenges that we have in communicating what a search engine is is people will come in right now and for example type "plumber." And they think that it's going to tell them the name of a black plumber in Charlotte, sort of like 411. And that's not what we are. Our job is to crawl the World Wide Web and find relevant information about plumbing – how to, the large plumbing companies, etc. But we are going to offer a specific feature to connect black consumers with black businesses. That new product (we haven't named it yet and won't have announced it by December) will be a new feature to connect black consumers and black businesses owners.
Will the email account be affiliated with RushmoreDrive.com?
Yes, absolutely. People will have choice. They can choose either a email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
And all of the products or services coming out under BWE will be targeted towards the black demographic?
Do you feel that you have to defend why you're choosing to focus on a specific segment?
It's not a lot, but sometimes, nine people say positive things and one person says something negative and we focus on the one. There are people who are of the belief that we don't need anything targeted. And I've said to them, there's MTV and we still created BET. There is a Sports Illustrated that focuses on men's interest, and not exclusively, because there are women who like Sports Illustrated, and there's a Martha Stewart Magazine. Oprah, targeted at women. There is nothing wrong with serving up to a particular segment of the population what it wants. It's not exclusionary. Anyone who wants any of those magazines that I mentioned can have them. But they are intended to deliver a product to a specific segment of the population, and we are no different.
What motivated you to name RushmoreDrive.com after the street your office is located on?
We spent months looking for a name, talking to brand marketing people and focus groups looking for a name. And out of pure exasperation one day, I looked out the window and asked myself what are we going to name this place? And I said to my team, "what are we intending to be?" And they said, "the place, the online home, for the black community to search." And the sign "Rushmore Drive," was right in front of my face. And I literally turned around and said "that's it, it's easy to spell and it's just simple." And the name was available and we were off to the races. Sometimes the answer is right in front of your face, and that's really beautiful when you think about a search business.
You were originally based in NY with IAC. You could have been in Silicon Valley, Chicago, anyplace else. Why have your base here in Charlotte?
I have lived in Charlotte off and on for 10 years, since 1998. I love this town. I'm from Fort Lauderdale so we could have gone back there. So, there were really two reasons: I absolutely think that Charlotte is the up and coming city for the black community. There's no doubt for me. Secondly, I like the climate. And thirdly, 55% of the black population lives in the south. So it was Atlanta, Charlotte, a southern town.
I was looking at RushmoreDrive.com and it said that you all are committed to the community, so what things have you been able to do locally?
It's interesting, we are based in Charlotte, but like Coca-Cola in Atlanta, we are a national brand. So, when we say the community, we started our launch for example with a gospel brunch tour. And we took it to 10 communities – Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte. So we took it all over the country to the local community. It's all about helping the various local communities. We love the Charlotte community, but we're not a "Charlotte" business. We're headquartered in Charlotte, just like Bank of America.
RushmoreDrive.com is shaping up to be more than search. You have video, there's an editorial team here. How is that all fitting together and how will it look in the future?
Great question. We are at our core, a search business. Quickly, there's portals, like Yahoo and then there's a pure search engine, like Google. You go to Google and there's that one search box. At Yahoo, you see search, but you see content, there's buying and selling, etc. We are smack in the middle. We didn't want to go pure search, and we also didn't want to become a portal, like AOL, trying to be everything to everyone. We are at our core a search tool, which is why we say "discover more here." We do three things: search for information, search for jobs and people in our job networks, and we provide searching for news and views in our editorial. If you look at what we do in our news, we actually only have two people on our editorial staff. In large part, what we do is crawl the Web for editorial every 10 minutes and we update the hottest stories so we're a news aggregator. So instead of you having to search all over to find out what's happening in politics, we've already crawled that for you so you search "politics" and we deliver up the results. It is all search – searching in job, searching in news, searching search.
When people have tried to push and say "aren't you a portal" we say no, we are a search engine at our core and we search for three things. We do have different features because we allow people to search for videos, search for news, and search for images. So those aren't features, per say, they are utilities within the site.
What has been the response thus far in terms of traffic, etc. since your launch?
Amazing. It was like meteoric. We hate to give exact numbers because we are publicity traded, but well in access of 750,000 in unique traffic. We experienced a summer lull as all search engines do because people go on vacation and they're not working and schools out. We are now back in the fall and numbers are ramping up – 20% month-over-month growth. Consistently. So, it's been really, really good.
Do you contribute this growth to your different marketing activities?
Yes. Marketing – radio. Marketing – print. And, marketing – events. We spent a lot of time in the market as we said with our launch. We were in the market with our Gospel brunch tour with Regina Belle in 10 cities. We are also partnering with a number of major partners on a national level – The National Urban League, The National Alliance of Black School Educators, Thurgood Marshall College Fund. HBCUs. So we are partnering with them on a national level to help get the word out. And radio, we've been on Steve Harvey, we've been on Tom Joyner, we've been on Tavis Smiley. You go, we've been there.
Where do you think identity search is headed? And how does RushmoreDrive.com fit into that?
If you think about what has been the most successful Internet business, its search, it's Google. Period. So identity search is doing nothing but giving people a better chance of giving people a more relevant result. As we said in the beginning, anybody can search, but can you find. So what we're going to do is take this billions of pages of information and the better you can get in making sure that when you type in a word I kind of know what you mean, we're really getting into something. And the more that I can rule out the things that you probably don't mean, the better it gets. Search is in its earliest stages as well. I mean, Google just turned 10. Do you know how young that is? I think we are hitting it right at the right time. We're going to continue to develop this technology and fine tune it to make it better and better and better. And what's going to happen to identity search? There are going to be several different identity groups and BWE will have a number of properties, RushmoreDrive being just one of them – right here in Charlotte.
I've met some of your editorial team, what other departments do you have at your headquarters?
We have a marketing team, a community partnerships team, an editorial team, a sales team, a technology team, and finally, a products team. And just to put them in a box. The products people focus on the experience. The technology people enable that experience. The marketing people talk about that experience and push that message out. The community partnerships people take it grassroots to the community. Editorial, we intentionally did not hire out a big editorial staff. Our job is to use our editors to go through and identify what topics we should be talking about. We are to aggregate news, deliver it, and then write some commentary about things that are relevant to the black community. So it's a small team, never going to grow to a huge group of editors. It's to give you something different than just aggregated news.
And then the sales team?
They go out and sell it. That's how we make our money.
I was reading Adage.com today and I think it was the CEO of Facebook or another bigwig who said that the next step in Web dynamics in general is to figure out a way to monetize the Web because we know the demographic that's online, we know whether they have high speed, dial up, and other types of things. Are you facing the challenging of making money in the online space?
Well, that's what's so beautiful about search. Search is the monetizeable size of the Internet because unlike social networking, the nice thing about search is that the model is very different. When you deliver up a set of results, and you click them, we get paid. So we have found a way to monetize this already. We've had revenue from day one. I can say that everyday we generate revenue, from the day we opened. So we get advertisements, and we get sponsored results.
Is it easier to secure advertisers because you have a targeted audience and you're doing the targeting for them?
Do you know that 55% of our traffic is from people who make over $60,000 a year? That's an amazing metric. So we have an absolute higher end users and member – and those are frankly more of the people who are more interested in issues, like healthcare. So a pharmaceutical company says that I'm looking for a slightly older demographic who are educated and more interested in their healthcare. GlaxoSmithKline wants to come advertise here. That's where you do that.
How do keep the search engine relevant to groups, like young people, who don't focus on race in comparison to older groups who may think along those lines more?
We do a couple of things. One, we make sure that they see mainstream and black search results. And that was that big point about us not being a black search engine, but a search engine for the black community. So that's the first thing so that you make sure that you get everyone. So if you look at our images, there's a black man that pops up. But there's also a white man and a white woman. And the other thing, is that if you go to the front page, you'll notice that the name doesn't say anything "black." The homepage doesn't say anything "black." It was, don't tell me that you're black, show me. There was a big debate over whether we should name this business something like "Blacksearch.com" or "Searchblack.com." And we heard loud and clear from people – no don't give me that. Don't tell me that I'm black. Show me. Let the results speak for themselves. So we find that when the younger generation gets here, they want to go to MySpace, not Blackspace. Our new generation doesn't think along those lines. But they do want to know that when they search for something, it recognizes them. It acknowledges them at a minimum.
Do you have a lot of Caucasian people, and not just Caucasian, Mexicans, Asians, etc. that come to the site for different things?
It's so fascinating to me the number of times that we get older white people who want recipes. And they type in recipes. Now, they get Martha Stewart and Betty Crocker, but they're also going to get things that are unique to the black community. I've found that our white viewership is pretty significant. And what we hear consistently is that you get the most comprehensive search on the Web. So not only are you pulling up a link, you get an image search, you get news, you get video, you get blogs. And not knocking Google at all. Say you searched recipes, you only get links. So all together the interface is so much better. Whereas on Google, if you want images you have to do an image search. If you want blogs, you have to do a blog search. We deliver it all in one click.
Do you have a guestimate of what percentage of the site traffic is other than blacks?
It's a guess, but we are now about 60% black and 40% other.
I'm curious to know, when people were getting called in for the focus groups, what was there reaction when you told them what you were trying to do?
People consistently asked "Can you all do that?" No one believed that we can do it. And then the second thing was about quality. It is amazing in the black community the concern that people have about quality. One woman said "I thought it was going to be janky." And when we shared the interface and front page, they started to say "wow." But there was a huge concern about whether this was something that they would be proud to look at.
And you said that the focus groups were held throughout the country?
We did focus groups and individual interviews. So we went here, we went to Atlanta, we went to Oakland, we went to New York. So a combination of focus groups and individual interviews around the country in advance of deciding what the product was going to be. We tested the names with them and none of the names worked and that's how we decided on RushmoreDrive.
Now to take this back full circle, you mentioned that you have a law background, and then you went to HR. How does technology fit into this? That's king of a huge step to go from those different places to leading a search based, 21st century company.
The CEO of any company is ultimately just a leader, a manager of people. So I have a heck of a technology director, editorial director. You can't be and do it all. That's somehow the misnomer, the fallacy, is that you're supposed to be able to do it all to go do it. What they hired me for is my strategic visioning and leadership on this team. What's going to be our strategy and vision and who will lead and develop the people.
So, is all of your team based in Charlotte?
We have an engineering staff in Pisa, Italy and Oakland, California – small, there are one or two people in each place because that's where they were living and they didn't want to move.
Is there anything else that you want to add, or say to the Charlotte community about RushmoreDrive.com?
I think that the rap up comment I would make is that we chose Charlotte specifically when there were tons of other places to base this business. One could have gone to RTP because they have more universities and research or Silicon Valley purely on the West Coast or New York because of advertisers. Charlotte really does represent the future, particularly for the black community. Everyone refers to Charlotte as Atlanta a decade ago. And that's the exciting part – to build your business in a place that is growing.
There are a lot of successful business owners in this city. What is it about Charlotte that allows black business owners from Chicago, New York or other places to come here and find success?
That's the key. Charlotte is a new town. You don't have to have lived in Charlotte for 50 years and you don't have to be 2 generations of Charlotteans to be successful and embraced by this city. Literally, what I love about this city is that I moved here in 1998 and did not know a soul and I was embraced. It was just open, it was a new town. And that's the beauty of being in a new town. The opportunity is yours to have as opposed to spending a lot of your energies getting an audience – you're just welcomed from the beginning.