William Leonard

Hey everyone! Welcome back to the Atlanta StartUp Podcast. Did you know that 83% of African American teams play video games on a weekly basis, but only 2% of video game developers are African American? Ryan Johnson and the Cxmmunity team are hyper-focused on bridging this gap in increasing representation in the space from both a competitive angle and also an academic perspective as well. Ryan, who is a lifelong gamer joins me to talk about the strides his company community has made both on the nonprofit and for-profit side of their business. He will talk about what record acquisitions and consolidation in this space mean for early-stage e-gaming startups and how his experience of door-to-door sales as an undergrad student at a small university in Alabama. {He} Helped community land partnerships years later, with enterprises and brands like Microsoft, Nike, Twitch, Verizon, and others. I’m incredibly excited for this conversation as Ryan’s unparalleled perspectives are something you won’t want to miss out on. Ryan, good to see you, man, and welcome to the podcast.

Ryan Johnson

I appreciate it. Thank you for the opportunity to be here and to continue sharing our story and what we started to build.

William Leonard

Awesome, man, I love it. I certainly have a lot of context on what you’re building but I would love for you to just dive in and give our listeners a quick overview of what Cxmmunity is and then can you talk about the Ryan Johnson story a bit more?

Ryan Johnson

Cxmmunity is the leading eSports and video game organization helping increase the representation of people of color in the space. Two and a half years ago, we found while doing our research that nearly 83% of African American teams play video games on a weekly basis, but only 2% of video game developers were African American. We wanted to launch an organization that could increase not only the representation from a competitive side but also from an academic [side]. It’s allowed us to really go into two different areas, one being centered more around a career in workforce development and internship placement in scholarship development, but then the other side is around competition and consulting. We’re helping organize and really create a platform for these young students to showcase their skills and also helping brands create programs that are not only meaningful but are sustainable, and actually lead to impact within communities of color.

William Leonard

That’s an interesting statistic. You started out with 83% of African American teams playing video games but only 2% of developers are African American. It’s a huge disparity which means there’s an opportunity for innovation, there’s an opportunity to bridge that gap a bit more. We’ll dive into that a bit in a conversation but what’s your background? Talk to us about your story.

Ryan Johnson

I was born on March 26. I told you my birthday is tomorrow of all, ironically enough. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina, and spent maybe a year or two there, but I was predominately raised in Maryland, which is where my family still lives. I went to a very small HBCU in Alabama called Oakwood University but I think it’s pretty cool. Now looking back at it, the size or the notoriety of the school doesn’t necessarily matter, as much as what you build once you come out of that ecosystem. I’ve been able to give back and my school has been awesome also throughout this journey and process. I finished college in 2015, ironically enough, with my undergraduate degree in pre-physical therapy at the time, I wanted to become a physical therapist with either Division I college or the ABA franchise but of course, I didn’t get into a physical therapy school. Instead of retaking classes, I was like, “Let me figure out what else I can do.” Just through searching, I have always had a passion for sports. I’ve always had a passion for connecting with people. My first job actually landed doing outside technology sales for a voice-over IP phone company that was located in the DMV area at the time which was called iCore Networks. I worked at iCore from I recall it May of 2015 for the first year and a half out of school, but within the first five months of me working at iCore, Vonage acquired that organization. Through that acquisition, after five months I was relocated to Metro Atlanta to help kickstart and open up the outside sales team in this new market. I ended up doing that for about a year and a half. It was literally the worst job ever, cold calling, going business to business, getting kicked out of high rises the whole time. After doing that for about a year and a half, I switched over to a consulting company called ADAPTURE which is located in the King & Queen Towers in Metro Atlanta Area. What was really unique about that opportunity is that while I was interviewing the owner of the business, he basically gave me a shot because once I got the job, I saw that it was a minimum requirement of seven-eight years of experience in order to have that role, but he basically took me under his wing. For about two years, I got to work at a much higher level within the business. We got to work with much larger clients or much larger deals but every morning it seemed that we will go through these exercises around business acumen and how to actually work with customers the whole nine. Through that process is where I really got my feet wet in talking with decision-makers and understanding more so difficult and more complex business structures and business deals. Simultaneously while I worked at ADAPTURE, I went back to graduate school at Georgia State and got my Masters in Sports Administration. I think that’s where everything clicked for me, working in technology and then going to school full time and studying the business of sports. The marriage of that, ironically enough, was like eSports and gaming. The reason why I’m so drawn to that industry is that it’s really an intersection of a passion of mine, which is gaming, there’s an element of traditional sports, there’s traditional entertainment, and there’s also music that converged within this space. After I left corporate America in 2018, I ended up working for a year at a venture investment fund in Atlanta that focused on early-stage entertainment and media companies. With that process, one of the first relationships that we established was with an eSports entity in Atlanta, and then lo and behold, found myself in the space full time. To speed this up, a year later left that and ended up starting Cxmmunity. This is now January of 2020, launched the organization through WeWork Labs, which was a new program that was in downtown Atlanta focused on media and entertainment companies. And then, of course, two and a half months later the pandemic hit so that’s my very short but I think unique background getting here considering I never studied business, never studied marketing, never studied technology, but found ourselves in the space and in just two years of work, self teach, podcasting, reading is really how I was able to navigate and understand this space at large.

William Leonard

That’s a heck of a background, man. From physical therapy to outside sales to consulting and now, eSports and gaming. Did you ever imagine yourself taking that journey when you were at Oakwood? I assume you had that passion for eSports and gaming basically your entire life but did you have the vision to get to where you are now eventually?

Ryan Johnson

No, I’ll be honest, I don’t think I understood where I was going with it. I just knew that I’ve always been super intentional. I’ve always wanted to make effort. This has always been important to me. One thing is, only three people know this, funny I’ve been telling more people now but in my last two months at Oakwood, I actually completely ran out of money. My test to figure out if I actually wanted to get into sales was I got this job off Craigslist, one of those commission-only sales jobs. This was 2015. This was the year we were actually switching from swiping our debit cards to inserting the chip so that was actually coming that subsequent October. This job off Craigslist was really selling these new credit card/debit card machines to mom and pop shops in Huntsville, Alabama. In my first month, I did three or four sales and I was like, “Hey, I think maybe if I got trained in this process, I’ll maybe not do so bad.” I remember getting out of class, putting on a different uniform, for lack of better words, going to hit the streets in Huntsville, come back out in shade. It was really interesting. What led me here, honestly, didn’t think it will be down this road, I have been a gamer my whole life. I play basketball my whole life, played basketball at Oakwood, it was really just how can I create a world where I get to do the things that I love every day? The output of that is essentially what Cxmmunity has become so far.

William Leonard

That’s awesome. Talk to us more about Cxmmunity and who you’re serving and how you’re serving them today?

Ryan Johnson

One of the first things you’ve always asked is, why do we use x in our name? The biggest disparity that we found early on in gaming is those who have access growing up to consoles versus computers. Also, the data behind the people that grew up with computers in their ability to work within STEM or technology careers are substantially higher than those who did not grow up with computers in their homes. For us, x is the only button that is across the keyboard, a PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo. Just being very intentional not to have this segmentation within the space. Cxmmunity again, our target market is really connecting the underserved communities and exposing them to careers within gaming. It wasn’t until I turned 26/27 years old that I knew that you can even work in the video game space. It’s just an idea that never crosses your mind because historically in African American communities, video games are always what is deemed as a tool of distraction and never a tool of empowerment. Our organization that we’re solving solutions for, traditionally inner-city schools and charter schools that cannot afford to either bring in people, resources, or the technology to be a part of this space. We’re also serving HBCUs and I will say one of our largest supporters but also our largest customers is our corporate partners. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a massive influx of corporate dollars and support flow into these communities. Let me take a step back. You saw a lot of announcements of commitment to spending dollars in certain communities but behind the curtains, a lot of the brands don’t know where to spend those dollars or how to allocate them appropriately. It actually leads to programs that are impactful versus just writing checks and checking a box. One of our biggest groups is actually our corporate partners, where we’re able to go in and work with them from a consulting basis, help them think of ways to create programs that actually lead to sustainable change and drive impact but then also help around one of our favorite things to do which is creating original content that is ownable and can be scaled and repeated over time. I think we’ll get to this a little bit down the road but we’ve also just recently made some investments into the Web3 space. We’re going to be able to leverage the blockchain and also cryptocurrencies to encourage our students to learn and earn throughout that process, but also now play and earn which is very much a new concept in this Web3 blockchain gaming space.

William Leonard

That’s awesome. As you think about that transition into this new Web3 space, play and earn are also new. You have HBCU eSports. Talk to us about that and how the intersection of those two concepts is empowering HBCU students now.

Ryan Johnson

For those who may not be as familiar, I think eSports and gaming are like in their essence. About two years ago, we started essentially a video game League for Colleges, historically black colleges, and universities. In popularity, this has grown over the last three to five years. There are about three to five major collegiate operators. Ironically enough though, going into 2020, there’s roughly only one HBCU that was competing in any of these other leagues. For listeners, we created an eSports League for HBCUs where these students can showcase their skills, they can earn scholarship dollars, and get connected to corporate partners that are looking to hire a diverse and employable workforce. Also, we’re building out eSports infrastructure or arenas at these campuses, just like you have traditional colleges and universities and PWI for the students that have a place on campus to convene and gather. Our first year, we had a little over maybe 13 or 14 schools competing with us. This year, we have over 25 that are working within the league. It’s been awesome just to see the growth. In year one, we actually did over 14 million live viewers of our program. Our main corporate sponsor in season one was Verizon. We’re actually in the middle of our second season right now. We’ve already hit our number from last year, 14 million. We’re really optimistic that we’ll get somewhere between like 17 and 21, which would be huge for us. This is actually where the story gets a little interesting from the nonprofit to the for-profit. HBCU eSports League is a 22-week long season, divided across the fall and spring semesters. Each semester, students are competing in an 11-week schedule. Basically, Howard plays Morehouse, Hampton plays Oakwood University, Fisk University plays Clayton College, in the various games with the NBA2k, Call of Duty, Fortnite, and we’re actually able to pay out students for their participation and then support institutions through our corporate partnerships. In the middle of season two, we have Verizon, we have Discover, and we also have Nike, which are paid sponsors and advertisers of the league.  I can’t share this yet, but in season three, we actually have just closed five sponsors as well which we’ll be starting in September which is awesome for us. A huge milestone, man. Thank you for that. It’s actually really cool this Sunday, for those who are able to, I’m not sure when this will drop, you can go back and watch it if it doesn’t come out by Sunday, but on March 27th, we will be hosting our Verizon HBCU program. This will include people like T-pain, Mike Evans, Brett Gray, and pretty other cool names that are just a part of our community and really helping us elevate and raise the voices of these black gamers.

William Leonard

You’ve got some serious brand sponsors and guests coming on as well. I’m curious because you said you’re helping these HBCUs establish eSports and gaming teams, right? My assumption is that they just don’t have the infrastructure, the labs, the physical space, the gaming systems, how are you all helping them through your corporate partners really get up and running to get these programs launched nationwide? 

Ryan Johnson

For sure. It’s almost the opposite, right? A lot of times the students have what is needed in order to compete, right? A lot of the kids have their TVs, they have controllers, the games, the consoles, what is lacking or what was lacking, not as much anymore, in this space was the actual process and someone to bring these groups together to have consistent programming. It was really getting the students in reverse engineering and helping us get in touch with the adviser, then helped us get in touch with the VP of Student Services on the campus, and then helped that process actually create what is now the official club on these campuses. One of our early goals was to create one of the largest national networks of underrepresented schools because we view ourselves as like the AAU of eSports. As you have that pipeline for traditional sports, football, basketball, soccer, etc, we’re looking to establish that pipeline within the gaming community, but to answer your question, though, for us, once we understood holistically what the two or three major needs were for all of the institutions, it was just about communicating and telling that story to our corporate partners. As an example, last summer, we were able to work with Xbox, Microsoft, and Warner Brothers where we created this really cool experience for the release of Space Jam: A New Legacy. Through that campaign, through Xbox, we were actually able to give 100 brand new Xbox Series Xs to 50 HBCUs. Basically, 50 of the schools that were connected got two brand new consoles when they weren’t even available to the general public. Let’s just be able to work with our partners and tell these unique stories. I think one of the sticky points for that story was like, “Hey, Xbox, Warner, and Microsoft, if we can make this happen in this timeframe.” In a very unique space, HBCUs will actually be ahead of the curve in one specific area than any other university or person at that given time concerning the Xboxes were unavailable. It’s really just telling those stories and then matching the story to a sustainable program that a brand can support over and over versus a one-time event.

William Leonard

That’s incredible how you all are really bridging the gap between these large brands and these HBCU sports gaming programs. Speaking of the brands, I feel like that’s a huge part of Cxmmunity’s success right now. I’m curious if you have any advice for maybe some other startup founders where brands are pivotal to their early success? How do you navigate those conversations? How do you meet the brands, pitch them, and really solidify some of these partnerships to grow your business because it’s not easy having brands as partners or customers at this size and stage of the business?

Ryan Johnson

To be honest, man, a lot of it was just fortunate in the fact that I came from like three years of corporate sales previous to launching the business. A lot of the rejection, pushback, and awkward conversations, I got that stuff out of the way years ago. But I would say it’s just about really being intentional and one thing I’ll share is that every corporation just like your startup business has values, right? They have what sometimes they call pillars. And then for us, it was just reaching out to the companies that we knew shared those same values and pillars and then telling the story. I think a lot of times, especially over the pandemic, I think a lot of folks have gotten comfortable and not in a negative way, but with just having these types of conversations, Zoom calls, meetings, and the lost art of actually shaking someone’s hand is really what makes a difference, right? They’re very transparent. I know Darrell wouldn’t mind if I share this. Darrell’s one of our biggest supporters that works over at Microsoft and we do a lot of our events and different opportunities. The first time we met was over zoom. The next time we’re like, “Yo, let’s grab dinner. We talked for about five to six hours on a Saturday night.” Because it was just really that 5 to 6-hour combo is what led him to understand our business deeply enough. That then led to a very firm and strong relationship with Microsoft and coming from the sales world especially, I knew the validity that certain corporations bring to you and for us being a startup space business in a very competitive space. That’s what I knew was going to be our major market differentiator, our ability to tell this story, work with corporate partners, and then also provide an amazing work product that gave them something to be proud of. One thing I will say is to think very empathetically, the goal of any partnership in my mind is to help the person on the other side get promoted. If you feel as if you can execute and you can show that you can help someone go from a Manager to a Senior Manager to your partnership, that’s usually how you win and then also just the follow-up. I always just go back to being intentional, if you’re going to reach out to someone understand not only the first level but maybe levels one through five of what a relationship with him could look like. Everybody wants to work with Coca-Cola, everybody wants to work with Mercedes Benz for obvious reasons, but it’s what type of value out the gate can you provide to them that actually shows that there’s some substance there. Once you get in the door, you got to do everything you can to stay in those partnerships because getting it I don’t even think is the hard part, I think it’s maintaining it, and then keeping it over a period of time is where I think a lot of folks, at least I’ve heard from my mentors and peers, it’s probably one of the more challenging parts.

William Leonard

Having that sales background was key for you but also the element of being a storyteller, articulating how these partnerships are going to change the lives of students, and diversify the industries that they are operating and investing in. Being incredibly intentional about cultivating that relationship from that first call all the way to the 50 calls that you have with that partner. 

Ryan Johnson

I’ll say this, too. The last thing I want to add, I think, is out the gate, personally, I don’t think asking for a partnership on the first call is the wisest thing to do. Because first and foremost, it’s assumed that you wanted a partnership, that’s why y’all are on the call. My old boss used to say, “You ask for money, you get help. You ask for help, you get money.” One thing that we’ll always do is create these super, super low barrier entry type opportunities for our partners, just so that they can engage with us and see what that process is like. They can see the timeliness and see just different areas, and then again, that small touchpoint transitions for us. As a gamer, I think there are just different ways people go about business. I learned that process when I was working at the consulting business I was at for two years, our first engagement with the company was always a free cybersecurity audit. Not that we will go into every detail but just running things that most people would charge 5-15k for. I’m always like, “No, we’re just going to do this for you for free. We’re going to give you your funding for a free look, if you like what we found, or we found something that you don’t have, give us a callback.” And then that worked literally 85% of the time and I kid you not that’s kind of the same methodology and principle that I’ve leaned into that I think has also helped bring in a lot of the brand and such that we’ve been working with the last couple of years.

William Leonard

That’s awesome. Cxmmunity is a nonprofit but are you all exploring any endeavors in the for-profit space as well?

Ryan Johnson

Absolutely. It was really interesting going back to how we started talking about HBCU eSports League. In the very beginning, I went to Oakwood, an HBCU. Chris, one of our co-founders went to North Carolina Central, an HBCU. We really started the league with those two schools. How can Oakland scrimmage NCCU? And then that began school to school to school, that being said, we looked at that as a social and philanthropic effort from day one, right? Where things got really interesting about 10 months ago, we actually have started a for-profit organization to support a lot of the business that was coming in that had nothing to do with our philanthropic cause or our actual direct goals of impacting the community. As an example, brands would come to us just from seeing the work that we would do. They’ll say, “Hey, look, can you all create a week-long experience with this talent in this?” We would actually be white labeling as a consulting partner in a lot of those spaces. But what I will say is that it really dawned on us with HBCU eSports League, because just like now you have the NFL, you have the NBA, we own a media property. We own a property that gets massive viewership that has major corporate brands, investing not social impact dollars, but actual sponsorship and media dollars, right? The challenge of having all that flow through is that it actually has nothing to do with it. To answer your question, we started a completely separate organization. I’ve actually transitioned away from being the Executive Director of the nonprofit and now sit on our board just to make sure that we’re still moving and trending in the right direction. But with that being said, our for-profit endeavors are really focused on helping these corporate partners with their multicultural marketing strategies and their media strategies, but then also within the Web3 space as we talked about. About two weeks ago, we actually onboarded our first partners from Africa to work with us. and within this space that we’re now creating, over the last two years, we’ve been using disparate third-party technology to manage our students, to payout our students, and to monitor the games themselves. Recently, we’ve actually brought on the development team and we’re building out our own proprietary platform that will allow all of this management administration and financial transactions within the spaces of gaming to really help bring us into the Web3 environment. To your point, our Web3 strategy is really centered around our eSport strategy. We built up this massive community, we have a ton of students, we have a ton of corporate partners, and a lot of those same corporate partners, i.e. Nike, Microsoft, Verizon, they want to be in these Web3 spaces as well. For us, this technology that we’re developing under our for-profit entity is what’s going to be the ownable piece that we plan to leverage to scale out the number of students, corporate brands, and partners that we’re working with across the board.

William Leonard

It sounds like you all have an incredibly busy year ahead, right? You had 14 million views last year, you’ve already hit that total, you’re aiming to almost double that number, and you’ve got five corporate partnerships that are new to the fray. Now, you’re adding this play to earn and Web3 development to the business. I want to transition the conversation here a bit to the world of eSports and gaming, right? I was reading an article the other day and it said that there were 12 deals in January. 12 M&A deals and they all totaled the value of the 2021 deals. You had Activision and Microsoft was like $67/68 billion. They bought Zynga for $12/13 billion and then Sony got Bungie for $3 billion. What do these acquisitions mean for earlier stage companies in this space? Because these companies were a bit more mature when they were acquired but that could be a positive signal for early-stage companies like Cxmmunity as deal activity and acquisition activity picks up in this space. What are your thoughts on that?

Ryan Johnson

I think it has been super interesting across the board. I think what’s really cool though, by way of these acquisitions, our partnerships are getting stronger. We didn’t have a deal with Activision Blizzard, but we did with Microsoft. We have that coming into the fold. But to your point, I think it is unique if you watch not only what’s going on in gaming, but across the board, right? You have all these major titans and industry leaders acquiring medium, large, and also startup businesses, that they’re looking to kind of grow within that space. I would say for us just as I look at this space holistically, it’s just about positioning, right? That’s what we did a couple of years ago, it was knowing that if we looked across the landscape, there are a couple of groups, Black Girls Code, BLACK GIRLS ROCK!, etc, that were in this space, but there was nothing specifically for people of color like HBCUs to have their own unique lane within gaming. I think for us, we just doubled down for the last two years and made sure that we were the industry name that came to mind. We were the industry leader when it came to events, our own events, and third-party events. I think to your point, though, Will, what it is going to do for us unique is that it’s a consolidation of relationships. For us, being able to work with Take-Two was we worked with them on their internship placements through NBA2k. How can we expand our goals and objectives and what we can do as our corporate partners expand their portfolio and their capabilities as well? We already talked to Microsoft about doing an HBCU Halo League. How do we create the same type of methodology for Call of Duty?  To your point, it’s actually been really interesting. I think a lot of what’s happening is still very new and very early. I think we’ll see what’s to come but to your point, holistically, I see these acquisitions happening not just for the gaming side, but around new IP. I wouldn’t be surprised if you started seeing a Call of Duty TV series and these games are utilized in different ways outside of their immersive experiences. I think today or yesterday, the Halo series on Paramount plus, right? I think we’re just going to start to see this new engagement of how games are being used outside of the gaming element themselves.

William Leonard

I love how you said it’s really a consolidation of relationships, which is so true. Now it’s going to be easier, maybe you already have a relationship with Zynga now, so with Take-Two, it’s going to be much easier to break into that fold as well. I think that’s a pretty neat insight and definitely gonna be meaningful as we have a lot of founders and equally a lot of investors who listen to our podcast who want these insights that individuals like you bring to the table and share your boots on the ground building in space. Definitely appreciate you joining me today, Ryan. I think this was a fascinating conversation around your background of almost being in the physical therapy space to now you’re here with Cxmmunity, leading them to grow and empowering thousands of students and gamers across not only the US but now in Africa, as well. I’m excited to see how you lead the company to grow. Appreciate you sharing your story and the Cxmmunity story as well, Ryan.

Ryan Johnson

I appreciate it, man. I’ll say just keep us in your thoughts throughout these years. It’s gonna be really cool, really busy but as I mentioned, we’re raising capital. That process is, as you know, a process nonetheless but now we’re here and again, or people that are tuned in, if you have kids that are gamers or if you’re a gamer, we’d love to connect with you. For alumni, current students, prospective students, and everything. I really appreciate this platform and the time this morning as well.

William Leonard

How can people find out about Cxmmunity on social media and online?

Ryan Johnson

Cxmmunity, just X is spelled in all of our social handles across the board. And then for me, Ryan Johnson, very traditionally on LinkedIn, but on Instagram and Twitter, my handle is @ryanranitup. Again, this is exciting, and have some updates to share with you offline as well. 

William Leonard

I love it. Looking forward to it, Ryan. Thanks, everyone. Take care, man.

Lisa

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