This founder built a company on $3,000—now it's a leading source for Asian American news

Benny Luo is the founder and CEO of NextShark, a news and culture site covering issues related to being Asian American.
Courtesy of subject

Benny Luo remembers the day he realized racism and violence toward Asian Americans was going to get worse due to news of the coronavirus outbreak. On February 24, 2020, his NextShark team received a tip about an incident caught on video, where an elderly Chinese man was taunted, chased and had his aluminum cans stolen from him while collecting recyclables in San Francisco. With Covid-19 spreading, U.S. politicians using racist characterizations of the origins of the virus and rising U.S.-China tensions, on top of a history of xenophobia and scapegoating of Asians in America, Luo knew this one viral incident wouldn't be the last.

As founder and CEO of NextShark, a news site dedicated to covering issues about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Luo recalls beginning to get tips to cover racially charged hate incidents back in 2016. The team would field one or two leads a week, though many times sources weren't willing to go on the record, and there wasn't enough evidence to fully report on the incidents.

But starting in February 2020, emails and social media messages about increasing hate incidents came pouring in, as many as 50 per day. As NextShark covered these stories, more tips came in, and the site became a leading source for collecting and reporting on hate incidents at the local level. Luo says site traffic has increased five-fold over the past year to roughly 5 million monthly visitors, and the startup's social media reaches up to 20 million people per week across their active Instagram and Twitter pages.

It's a big task for NextShark's small team of 10, which Luo launched in 2013 using $3,000 of his own money. It started as a general interest site about millennial success, but after several AAPI-led stories became traffic hits, Luo recognized the opportunity to center the triumphs, challenges and experiences of being Asian in America. Over the years, the site has expanded into coverage of AAPI business leaders, politicians, pop culture icons, athletes and now activists driving change in the name of ending anti-Asian hate.

Luo, 33, spoke with CNBC Make It from his home in L.A., shortly after the birth of his first child, Enzo, about the ups and downs of being an AAPI leader squarely covering anti-Asian hate in the last year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you always think you'd become an entrepreneur?

Back in college, I wanted to be as financially independent as possible, so I worked up to four jobs at once: delivering computers to faculty members on campus, working as a campus notetaker for people with disabilities, as an Apple campus rep and for a GMAT test prep service. Toward the end of my college years, I learned about affiliate marketing, producing content online and audience building.

I launched my first company, New Media Rockstars, an online magazine covering the lives of digital celebrities like YouTubers. In 2013, I ended up selling it. As I was thinking about what to do next, I came up with the idea for NextShark, took $3,000 of my own money, built this company and we've been bootstrapped ever since.

I never really thought I'd have a company, let alone a "successful" one. I never had a clear plan or path of exactly where I wanted to go. I just let my interest guide me. It's ironic I have a publication, to be honest, because I struggled with writing my entire life and through college. That's the reason I'm not the editor of my own site. If past writing teachers saw me now, they'd be surprised. So it just goes to show you never know where you might end up in life.

What has it been like covering incidents of Asian hate?

I was born and raised in San Francisco and experienced a lot of racism and discrimination growing up, whether in school or in public. So Asian American identity has always been personal to me and something I had an interest in, but I didn't think I would become part of an industry that could give back to the community in this way.

In the last year, it's been very mentally draining to have to cover all these incidents. So I find myself making sure I'm checking in with our workers. Despite the limited resources of being a startup, we give paid mental health breaks.

It hits you on a personal level. When these incidents happen, it's against people that look like you or people you relate to. It's been hard in the last year for myself and our team. But we're doing our best to remain in good spirits. We find solace in knowing that we're hoping to make a positive contribution back to our community.

My wife, Nina, has been a big support system for me. I've also learned a lot from my team members, whether it's becoming a better writer or leader.

Do you worry about public fatigue over the news?

There's some fatigue already. In February we posted a message on Instagram for our audience. We said, "Hey, crimes against Asian Americans are rising, and we think that there's going to be more reports, unfortunately. These incidents can be mentally draining. So if you need to mute us or unfollow us temporarily, we completely understand."

It's not fun for us to do this type of content. It's mentally draining. It gets us viewership. But it's not brand friendly. We lose out on a lot of advertising opportunities, because who wants to run ads against this content? We're able to keep going because we set up a news fund, and we've been smart about saving our money to continue operations moving forward.

How do you hope the conversation around anti-Asian hate evolves in the next year?

It starts with awareness and education. We're seeing more mainstream media coverage of these incidents.

I'm also seeing more Fortune 500 companies making statements and speaking out on the issue, which I've never really seen before. It's a great first step.

And we're seeing more organizations like GoFundMe using their platforms to distribute back to local and national organizations that need resources and capital to help advance Asian American communities forward.

So I think that by next year, I'm hoping that a lot of these organizations that needed the attention and resources for a long time get what they need. And I hope the conversation steers more toward: What initiatives are set up to not only advance our community but also help support other communities as well?

How do you balance coverage of difficult news with stories that uplift AAPIs?

NextShark as an organization never wants to claim that we're the voice for Asian Americans. We merely see ourselves as observers in the space.

We know there are bad things happening, but there's good, too. Whether that's about a 13-year-old middle school student in San Francisco putting together a #StopAsianHate rally, where hundreds of people attended. Or [Chloe Zhao], an Asian American woman becoming the first woman of color to win a best directing Oscar. That's incredible. We're still making strides.

I also just promoted one of our managing editors to become editor-in-chief. He's been with us for five years, starting off as an intern working minimum wage to now. So we try to share those things because we want our community members to know, hey, we're people like you behind the screen. We're doing our best for our community and to inform them in the best way possible.

How do you measure your own success?

A lot of people ask me what I want to do with NextShark. As a company, do I want to sell it in five years for a bunch of money, or take it public, or something else? For me, in five to 10 years down the line, if I'm offered some astronomical amount of money for it, I'll consider it as long as it benefits the hardworking people that have helped me make this company work. But honestly, if NextShark's story is just to inspire the current and future generations to do it bigger and better than me, that's all I could really hope for.

In talking about representation in online media, there have been pioneers that paved the way: Angry Asian Man, Giant Robot, Yolk magazine, A magazine, Hyphen magazine. If I can make some sort of positive impact in any way, shape or form, that would be a success to me.

Check out:

‘I feel like I was meant to do this’: Asian American activists reflect on their work in the last year

How millennial Nobel Prize nominee Amanda Nguyen’s viral video sparked coverage of anti-Asian racism

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