Bleu Magazine Founder on Building a Black Men’s Media Startup

Dishing on everything from working at Def Jam Records to launching a media startup for black men, DéVon Christopher Johnson recently spoke with Black Enterprise about building his media startup BleuLife Media, which includes Bleu Magazine and the female-focused digital brand Bombshell by Bleu; the importance of black faces in publishing; and why it is necessary to stay on brand.
Black Enterprise: Describe your work as a media startup in today’s environment. 
DéVon Christopher Johnson: The world is digital. We would be foolish not to embrace technology and harness its power to double down on our initiatives and core brand values. There was no “digital” media format when we started so our foundation has always been a tangible product. With that said, we began to diversify our digital offerings. Bleu Magazine still leads with print. However, we have grown from a single-printed publication to a suite of products that includes BeauxBox (a men’s grooming subscription box), the breakout platform Bombshell by Bleu (our multicultural female-focused digital brand), our annual Maverick Awards and Gala (celebrating men of color in business) and Connect-Us (an event and panel series connecting Gen X and millennials). Any successful entrepreneur continues to learn. I went back to school and received my graduate degree at Harvard University. I sat in classes with students much younger than I am and I found that motivational. The way media and journalism are taught has evolved tremendously and I wanted to learn those skills in real time.
Why is Bleu Magazine‘s presence necessary in this present-day digital age?
Print is not dead. That’s a false narrative perpetuated by digital marketers looking to cash in on lucrative marketing budgets from brands. Is it the same? As the digital space gets more and more crowded by the millisecond, we are novel and unique. We are constantly approached by our readers who are grateful to touch and feel a tangible product that reflects who they are and the communities they live in. People collect printed media. They don’t collect website tabs. While we embrace technology to grow and enhance the brand, we are not giving up on print.
(Photo Credit: Ebony Allison)
Explain the inspiration for creating a publication focusing on style and culture for men of color.
I saw a void and tried to create a solution. That void still overwhelmingly exists. Just think about the uproar that still persists over athletes kneeling to protest the systematic abuses of power by police in communities of color. Kaepernick should still be playing. But the league couldn’t accept him as being more than a product, literally property, whose job it was to throw and catch footballs. He’s human first. We all are, but for some reason, little black and brown boys are only supposed to aspire to be athletes or entertainers. I rebuke that notion. It has never been my personal doctrine. We are traveled, educated, fashionable, sexy, savvy and, of course, full of swag.
I asked why can’t the all-American boy look like me? And that’s how Bleu was born. In a nation that has never reconciled its racist DNA, we have attempted to normalize black. So when I walk into a store the salesperson sees me as a shopper, not a shoplifter. Or when I order the seafood tower at a restaurant the server voluntarily tells me the price as if I didn’t see the cost on the menu. It’s these passive examples of ignorance that can only be chiseled away by creating images and narratives that illustrate the future of Americana.
Placing black celebrities in mainstream publications has become a trend in recent years. What are thoughts on this issue?
It is interesting that you asked this question. I recently did an Instagram post regarding this. I am actually troubled by the over-excitement of black people to praise traditionally white media outlets for using black images to sell magazines. It reminds me of the Amos n’ Andy radio show. To me, it’s essentially blackface except now they are using actual black faces.
This is not the time to flee to outlets that traditionally have marginalized and left us out. This is the time to lean into black-owned media. Black media exists not just to showcase pretty photos and trendy outfits. We are literally the gatekeepers of the culture. When it’s time to march and protest we are the ones on the front line, not these other publications that showed up 100 years late to the table for a photo op without any regard to the daily struggle of people of color. We’ve always been great sellers of products. We’re great performers. But when asked if our lives matter, there’s radio silence until diversity and inclusion becomes part of the marketing strategy to boost sales. That marketing strategy more often than not does not include black-owned media.
How has the business of Bleu Magazine changed from inception to present-day?
For starters, the office is no longer in my Harlem apartment living room. Talk about bootstrapping. There’s staff on payroll instead of my friends volunteering their time after work to create content. And we now work out of an office steps from One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan’s financial district. Our core principles haven’t changed much. We still are a very lean company. We don’t overspend. We carry no debt. We have evolved in many other ways too. We are no longer a single issue publication.
Bleu is not just a magazine. It’s a lifestyle, an aspirational one that is the antithesis of negative stereotypical media representations. We get actual seats at fashion shows instead of just standing. Our phone rings more than we dial out. We have a seat in the room, if not at the actual table. We have witnessed an awakening of black male beauty and are happy to pat ourselves on the back for playing a role in that. Our present-day is a double down on all that has made our presence a necessity.
Describe a typical day in your life
My day starts at 5 AM and ends somewhere around midnight. I’ve challenged myself to read 12 books and visit 12 countries in 12 months, so I read about 20 pages a day. I am currently reading Imagine it Forward by Beth Comstock. Almost 80% of my time is away from my desk so I rely on my Google Calendar to keep my life in order. Around noon, like clockwork, my ninety-year-old grandmother sends me a text to make sure I ate. I’ve been known to skip meals if I’m in the middle of a project or traveling.
 At 11 AM, we have a team stand-up meeting; everyone actually stands up and shares their daily tasks. I’m big on teamwork and collaboration; we use these meetings to see who needs assistance or strategy to overcome a roadblock. Then the rest of the day is filled with meetings and research. No day is the same. That is the way I like it, no dull moments, no idle time. I’m building a 100-plus year company, not just a right-now brand. So the work is never done.
How did your work in the music industry prepare you for the publishing world?
There are many parallels. Content is king and so are the people who produce it. Without a quality product, then there is no point of existing. Having brand advocates and brand ambassadors are key to longevity and work ethic and tenacity are paramount to survival. I treat every issue release of Bleu and Bombshell like it’s an album release. After all, my first job out of college was at Def Jam Records. It was such a long time ago and I had an entry-level position. But, friends still reference the scene in Jay-Z’s diary on VH-1 where I was reviewing his album artwork with him on camera. Being present and taking advantage of opportunities are skills that I still carry. Hiring the right people that possess not just the skills, but the passion to be great. People want to be part of something big or at least have the possibility to be bigger than they are. I still have all my notebooks from my seven years in the music industry. I reference them often.
What tips do you have for an up-and-coming digital millennial newcomer?
Do the work. At the end of the day, those who possess the skill set and experience will make it to the finish line. Career trends are just that —trends. Everyone can’t be an influencer, someone with 10 more followers than you can easily usurp your place.
Go off the grid at least once a week. Read a book. A real one with pages made out of paper. The future will be some sad augmented version of what’s left of real human experiences.
Failure is OK. We have to take the training wheels off of adults. Social media has conditioned us to seek praise and validation from avatars, so we only show the sunny days. So when real life rainy days happen we can’t cope.
Baby boomers still roam the planet. Gen Xers are the executives approving budgets and signing off on that pitch deck you just submitted. Respect your elders.
What role does social media play in distributing your message to your audience? 
Social media is an immeasurable asset to the company. Not only are we able to measure and see what our audience likes and dislikes but we can make modifications in real time. And let’s be honest, I’m an advocate for print, however, social media can’t be denied. Instead of wasting money on expensive consultant agencies, we can test new product lines and content directly to the audience we want to reach. For a small business that is tens of thousands of dollars in savings.
How important is it to create a clear message and stay on brand?
There are still folks who are the gatekeepers at agencies that don’t see the value of black men as consumers. But we believe in our mission and still are passionate about it today. Would it have been more lucrative to lean into stereotypes and create the images they were accustomed to seeing?  Absolutely. But this was never just about the money. I’ve watched similar brands shift from their core values to please account managers and end up losing their audience and not even win the account. Those publications aren’t around anymore. We create content for black men through the lens of fashion, travel, and culture. That’s who we are. That is who we have been. That’s who Bleu will continue to be.