Detroit native Jemell Cotton began his professional career as a freelance web developer when he was about 25 years old. He built websites for more than 13 years before moving into app development, and subsequently into media. Now, he is leveraging his experience as a web developer to launch Urban Now TV (https://urbannow.tv), a streaming service for Black culture. Cotton talks to TNJ.com about the transition and his hopes for his new venture.
TNJ.com: What is your academic background?
Cotton: I just made the decision to go back and finish up my degree, so I’m actually still at Davenport University and will graduate with my business degree within a year and a half. I had dropped out in order to start my web development company.
TNJ.com: How did you get into web development?
Cotton: A friend of mine knew someone who had a chiropractic practice and needed a website. I had been dabbling in web development and went online and found this website builder for $400. I told my friend that I do websites and I’ve been in business ever since. So I was self taught. I learned some HTML, moved into WordPress, and then I moved into app development. I’ve been able to build Urban Now TV’s website and our app because of my experience doing it for other clients.
TNJ.com: Do you come from an entrepreneurial family?
Cotton: My brother just opened his third salon in New York City. He’s very entrepreneurial. My mom is in the process of launching her business. I started my first business when I was probably nineteen years old, providing legal services.
TNJ.com: Did you have mentors?
Cotton: I had a mentor named Gus Dixon. He was the father of my childhood friend and a serial entrepreneur. He taught me everything about entrepreneurship – from sales to marketing; how to get a client; customer service; and financing — every component or element of entrepreneurship. I tell people, I went to Gus Dixon University. I was Gus Dixon’s mini-me and I would spend hours with him at his office, just learning. That was a changing point in my life. He told me that one day I’d be a great businessman and I believed him.
I also have some media mentors. I don’t know them individually, but I’m very much in tune to what they have accomplished over the years. John Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, is an icon to me. I listen to his autobiography at least twice a month. I read everything I can find about him – who he was, what he built, what he accomplished while he was alive – his entire story, from start to finish, how he built his empire. To this day that story plays a major role in my life.
TNJ.com: What’s one key thing you learned from studying John Johnson’s life?
Cotton: I learned how he basicallty took Black culture and promoted it in a magazine. He was the first person to take Black culture and lay it out and tell the story of Black America in that time and in the format of a magazine. Robert Johnson of BET pretty much did the same thing, but he did it in television format. Kathy Hughes did the same on radio.
TNJ.com: What was your vision for your streaming service?
Cotton: There was no single destination that was very well organized, where people could browse video content of Black culture, so that’s what I set out to build with Urban Now TV – a video-on-demand streaming platform that streams curated content highlighting Black culture and the Black experience in America.
TNJ.com: How is the business structured?
Cotton: Urban Now TV is an LLC registered in Michigan. I’m the majority owner, under my company, Urban Now Media Group.
TNJ.com: Where are you in terms of funding the business?
Cotton: We’re now in our second round of raising funds. We’re in discussions with some much larger investors.
TNJ.com: What is the company’s mission statement?
Cotton: Our goal is to create a one-stop destination for Black culture. And so, whether you are African-American or someone in another country who is interested in African-American culture, you can go to our website or download our app to get access to hundreds of hours of content, unscripted content. We want to make sure that our content is always authentic, unscripted, and reflects what’s going on in urban America.
TNJ.com: How do you source and curate that content?
Cotton: We retrieved content from various sources over the Internet. We’re covering everything from blogs, web series and business, to music, fashion, documentaries, movies, and comedy. We also have user-generated content. So if you’re a creator, have a camera and you want to submit a video, there’s an area on our site where you can do that. This is Phase One. In Phase Two, which we’re moving into toward the fourth quarter of this year, we’ll be getting into producing exclusive content. Right now Urban Now TV is free and that content will always be free. As we move into producing exclusive content, that’s going to come with a small subscription fee. We’re going to build different shows and web series around different topics.
TNJ.com: How big is your curator team and how do you program the channel?
Cotton: I have a team of four people. We spend a lot of time every day looking to see what’s new that’s relevant to the African-American community, including important breaking stories.
TNJ.com: What is your long-term goal for Urban Now TV?
Cotton: Ultimately I’d like to get picked up on a service like Roku or Sling. By early next year our goal is to have our subscription base model set up with 15 to 20 shows exclusively available on Urban Now TV, which we produce or work with other producers to distribute.
TNJ.com: What would you say to those who want to venture into entrepreneurhsip?
Cotton: Take the time to research and perfect your ideas. Make sure that you connect with the right people before you move forward. It may take a year, two years, three years, or six months. Only you know when you’re ready. A lot of times young people, myself included, have an idea we think is great and jump in without dotting our i’s or crossing our t’s. We don’t check into the legal piece part of it, or we don’t connect with more experienced people. My second piece of advice would be this: When you’re ready, go all in. Commit yourself one hundred percent to the business. Drink it, eat it, do what it takes to build. Keep building until you achieve your vision.