MLK Day was pretty slow for me. I woke up late, checked the teh twitterz, had a good therapy session with my Xbox One, and generally bummed around until about 3pm. When I finally stepped outside, I was glad to find it was bright and brisk in Oakland. Invigorated by this, I biked my way to Grit Media’s office downtown and sat down with founder AJ Chan. Grit Media is, as you’ll come to find out, a sports media company focused on telling the day to day stories of athletes, both big and small (literally and figuratively).
AJ himself was a few years ahead of me at our shared alma mater. Ever since graduation he’s been out in the real world making moves. Along with a couple others, he was holding the office down over the holiday to gear up for Grit’s launch earlier this week. With a smile and general aura of warmth, he’s the kind of cat that’s accommodating, so I was thankful he carved out some time to get this interview in.
Over the course of about an hour we rapped about Grit and the dynamics of presenting great stories in a new media space. After much transcription and a new loathing of my own voice, what follows is a consolidated version of that convo. But considering the fact that I didn’t wanna cut any of this up too much, this will be a two part release. Here’s Part I.
Tell me about yourself. What’s your background? Let’s start with passions and where you are now.
Okay, so, I kinda grew up in an interesting background. Obviously, I’m visually Asian. But my parents are from Trinidad & Tobago, so I have more roots there than the traditional Chinese/Asian roots. I think that’s really shaped a lot who I really am: my beliefs, and the outlooks that I have because of the fact that I’ve never fit into a box. I’ve always been in between a lot of different things.
My parents weren’t a 9-5, they were traditional immigrants; opened restaurants, I worked in the restaurants. So from an early age I learned how to anticipate the needs of people, like: how do you make someone happy? how do you make someone smile? Just very basic things like that and almost in a way [that was] the starting point for me being an entrepreneur. Because, I learned from a really young age that the output of effort, whatever it may be, brings in a return which is— [laughs] money, quite frankly, right?
There’s kind of that side of it. And then the other side of it is my parents; they are every empathetic, very giving people. So while yes, there’s this whole sense of having enough in this world to be comfortable, there was also this whole side of being philanthropic. That’s always been something that’s driven me quite a bit. And for me, that’s always been kind of interesting because there was always this path, this plan in life—it was, “be a doctor,” then “oh, go to Wall Street.”
Then I think, as I learned about more opportunities as I became more independent, what became fascinating to me was that individuals really could change the way the world consumed product, and interacts with certain things, and the way we interact with each other. And once I learned that, it was like, “oh, that’s called a start-up.” The skills necessary were no different than things I had to do at a young age— it was just amplified. So, my sophomore year [of college] I started my first real company. We did NFL and NBA Combine training in Oakland and I ran operations out of my dorm room.
What was the name of the company?
AMB, ANTS Mind and Body (The company got renamed after being sold.)
And you ran that out of your dorm room?
So how did that work out?
I had a partner and he did the day-to-day—the training. I hired a friend from Wesleyan who was a year older and he took care of the operations. We had a lot of trainers we hired out. I did all the product marketing, sales, development, all that stuff. And it worked out well being in Connecticut at Wesleyan, being an hour and a half away from New York, that’s where a lot of agents and a lot of brands are.
And you’re three hours ahead, so you had that too.
Yeah, so you know, spent a lot of time on that doing different things. But yeah, that was kind of my first experience doing my own thing. After graduating from college, I came back [to the Bay] and worked on that a little bit longer. Then I was kind of at this crossroads where in the Bay Area you see so many folks with an abundant amount of opportunities and can do things that scale and touch more people. So I was like, “how can I take my passions and scale it out?” So I sold my company and jumped into the tech space.
That’s actually a great segue here. So who is and what is Grit Media? You kinda explained it a bit earlier but, how did that idea come to you? And how did you build that to what it is currently?
I think it’s really a culmination of all my experiences of up to this point, right? I think growing up as this person kind of in-between, not really having a true identity, I always used magazines and documentaries as my example of how you should be in America. Like how a business person is supposed to act, how an Asian person is supposed to act, how an athlete is supposed to act, a student is supposed to act. That was kind of my teaching. I consumed a lot of media [laughs] and I finally started making media at my first company. And, then YouTube came about. So I didn’t have to wait for Sports Illustrated to come out that week or whatever; you could really be there with people.
I would always have friends joke like “how do you know about that 12 year old basketball player in Indiana?” or “how did you know so and so’s mom passed away and that’s the reason for X?” And it was because that was what fascinated me. So first you take my sports background and my media background. Then I worked for a mobile start up Pocket Change, and that’s kind of where I gained and picked up a lot of my technology background.
I remember running into you there, like, the summer right before I got hired [out here].
Yeah, hosting that DigitalWes event?
Yeah that was a good summer.
Yeah, so you know, I think that that Pocket Change experience was the next step for me to start thinking about what I wanna do next. Like, was I gonna stay in the tech space and specialize, being a product person or whatever it may be? Or do I really wanna continue pursuing the things that I care about, and the beliefs that I believe I have the skills to be a strong contributor [to]?
And there’s more than enough people already in tech out here.
Yeah there’s a ton of people. And so, this is a really long answer about how I came to Grit. But I was thinking about what I wanted to do next and the core principles I care about. How do you do something that you’re impassioned about? How do you do something that actually helps people? Yes there are products that help you become more productive in the workplace, and that helps you. But really for me, it was on this personal, emotional level—how does that help you?
Solid media is a great way for you to add value to other people. So instead of saying “buy me, buy me” it’s “yo, this is something that’s really dope and something you can learn a lot from and can get something out of.” So instead of trying to sell you something, I’m just going to give you something. And that’s kind of how I’ve always felt about media. And video is the most engaging form.
So a culmination of all those things, plus looking at trends, as far as: I don’t own a TV, I don’t know too many who do. I watch most things online. And as far as seeing the shift in the media landscape from people like the Buzzfeed’s and the Vice’s of the world actually being able to do something in the media space made me rethink what a media company was and what it’s purpose was. It felt like more than than just an advertising vehicle. It felt like a way to actually connect with people on a deeper level. So because of that I was like, okay, let’s get going in this direction with Grit, wrapping around all my interests and having really strong storytelling. And really focusing on sports culture, that was really important to me. I always joke with people like “let’s go to a bar but we need to get there like ten minutes early,” because I wanna see the locker room pre-game, the introductions. And yeah, I’ll watch the game we’ll catch up in the fourth quarter, but for me it’s about those individual stories. I really want to get to know the people.
Right. I think that’s interesting. I was watching the Cavs play [over Christmas]. It’s interesting because there’s this whole psychology around your playing the game and you’re playing your heart out. And the the first thing that happens when you come out the locker room is you have like—to be blunt—they look like these dicks in [LeBron’s] face, and the last thing you want is all these microphones in your face after you put your all on the court. [But] they all want this hyper personal moment from you, right? Same thing with Marshawn Lynch right now. On this show, Negroes With A Podcast, they were positing how he may have a fear of public speaking. So it’s this crazy situation they’re putting him in where he has to say something.
So to circle back around, it’s interesting that you don’t get all those personal moments that you’re talking about, in this full program. They want a good quote for the byline, and then a good quote for a byline after the game. But in terms of the really deep, nitty gritty stuff that ya’ll do, I think it’s cool that that’s your lane. What I’d like you to talk more about is how ya’ll create these human stories and not just “this person plays basketball and then, this is why” It’s like, what are the motivations? How does this sport, and this practice weave into the other parts of their lives?
I think sports is this really interesting vehicle because it transcends so many different things: race, socio-economics, geography. You throw a ball out and that’s a universal language, right? And it’s a way for people to connect and bond and that’s that mutual tie. And that just opens up this conversation for everything else. We [talk] about breaking bread at the table. It’s the same thing with sport. But I think with sports it’s more personal, more intimate. So I think the other thing that’s really interesting to me [is]: learning about pro athletes, knowing pro athletes in my last company ,you realize that these are just normal ass people.
My best friend plays for the [San Francisco 49ers] and I text him like “what are you doing?” and he’s like “playing video games.” And I’m like “why don’t you get the fuck up, you’re lazy as shit.” [laughs] But he’s a normal person: he has go to IKEA and make furniture, he goes out to eat, and he just happens to be on TV. But we have this—I think the term is paranormal social behavior—where we feel like we know these people on a certain deep level even though we never met them, and don’t know them at all. So people will be like “LeBron’s my boy.”
And because of that, they end up being role models. Whether they want to believe it or not, they are. Obviously some people are better than that than others. But because of that I feel like when you take the time to really get to know somebody, you realize they’re just like you and me. They may have skills and talents that you don’t have, and you may have skills and talents that they don’t have. It’s just that as a junior copywriter no one’s being like “ yo yo yo, let me get your autograph” because it’s just not as public, it’s not in that sphere.
But with pro athletes you put them on a pedestal. And I think that’s totally fine. Different skills in this world are valued differently: teachers and doctors should be making the most money whereas not pro athletes, but that’s just the way it is. So one thing I think we try to do at Grit here is we really want to immerse the audience in a viewer into what’s kind of happening. The videos that go viral online tend to be these raw human moments. They’re just unscripted, like “shit, I can’t believe that just happened.”
With our videos, I think we wanna make documentaries. We just ask questions and just follow people around with cameras and treat them like a normal person. And hopefully conveying that, hopefully, a lot of these messages are things that people can relate to and connect to. Or things you may not have known or something that really empowers you and inspires.
That’s something that we say here at Grit, everything that we do needs to fall under 1 of 3 buckets: it needs to inspire you, inform you or empower you. And if it’s not one of those three, then it’s not Grit.
To Be Continued Saturday.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope