An Interview with Anthony Frasier

"There’s always a lot of things when it comes to Black people in America, where it can make a young person feel like, why even try? It can create so many mental barriers for a young person. So if I can do my part in trying to break those down before they even build up, I’m gonna do that."

by The Editor & Anthony Frasier on February 24th, 2016

Anthony Frasier is a fixture in tech and entrepreneurship: from his work founding the Phat Startup and the legendary Tech808 conference, to his current work as host of the new Disruptor podcast, and author of the forthcoming book “Don’t Dumb Down Your Greatness” for young Black entrepreneurs. We sat down with Anthony to discuss his career and the lessons along the way, along with the ties between hip hop and hacking, how cultural appropriation functions in the tech industry, and Black youth on the path of entrepreneurship today. Check it out!

MVC: To start out with, wow, you’ve done a whole bunch of different stuff over the course of your career so far. Tell us a bit about you, your background, how’d you get into tech – what’s you story?

Photo of Anthony wearing a Phat Startup t-shirt and a hat, arms crossed.

Anthony: I got into tech, I wouldn’t say by mistake, but it was more so I just saw an opportunity. I was a big gamer, and so I went to E3 one year and I saw a friend of mine who had started his own company in the gaming industry. He had rented out this nice house and he was just having all this fun, and I was like man, I want to be like you. I was working at a retail job in the graveyard shift, and I was like, something’s gotta give. I started going to the library everyday, just teaching myself about tech, even some basic coding front-end type stuff. I was like, maybe I can just sneak into the industry, cuz I didn’t have a college degree or anything like that.

I ended up getting an internship at a startup that was actually based in Jersey, then I got hired full-time. Then like most startups, that one failed. I said, OK, let me pitch this idea I have to one of the main investors. He liked it, so he invested. In hindsight I probably would’ve did things a little differently, but I’m just a kid from Newark, you know, excited, trying to find my way. So I took that money and I went to Silicon Valley and I was part of an accelerator called NewMe. All the founders lived in a house together. CNN was interested in it so they started filming, and their documentary came out in 2011 called Black in America. I got featured on that and just shortly after that I launched my app, Playd, which was like a Foursquare for video games. Check-ins was really popping at the time. We had a good launch, 30,000 active users within three months, on our way. We had a deal with THQ that was about to go down. Unfortunately, THQ went bankrupt. Then I started not getting along with my investor and co-founder. And then we started losing access to the APIs. You look now, Microsoft and Sony, they kinda wanted to do those things for their own platforms. A lot of things kinda happened at one time, and we had to fold the company.

I was going to a lot of events, just trying to figure out my next move. I met James Lopez, my co-founder at Phat Startup, and we just bonded over video games, hip hop, tech and startups. We were like, let’s start a website where we just talk about the gap between hip hop and entrepreneurship, let’s bridge that, let’s show the parallels and how you can be from urban culture, from hip hop culture or identify with it, and still feel like yourself when you want to be a tech entrepreneur. Where you don’t have to wear jeans with dress shoes and blue shirts, you can wear a fitted hat, some sneakers, and whatever, and still be yourself and still feel like you’re accepted.

MVC: Tell us about the Phat Startup conference — Tech808– and how that evolved from where you started on a smaller scale and eventually bridged out into this huge event.

Anthony: We started the Phat Startup movement, it was getting kinda big online, we had a lot of people that were in the New York Area. So we started to do a meetup. We invited DJ Mick Boogie to the first one and we packed it. We didn’t make any money, it was horrible money. But it was like wow, we actually have something here. We teamed up with a coworking space called The Alley NYC. We featured people in tech like Gary Vaynerchuk or Ben Horowitz, Ryan Leslie, Devo Springsteen. We would have hip hop legends come out to our events, and just sit in the crowd like it was regular.

We were like, what do we got here? If people were coming just to see one person talk for two hours, why not do a full-fledged, all-day conference? So Tech808 was born. We had two members join the team came up with that name. The 808 is the most popular drum machine in hip hop, matter of fact the most popular drum sound in hip hop. We were fusing both worlds. The idea was to create that same safe environment where you felt accepted, where you felt like you didn’t have to go out of the way to be in the tech industry.

A Roland TR 808 drum machine.

Photo CC-BY fr4dd.

It always surprised us, what the audience looked like. We knew we wanted to do a conference for mostly African Americans, but when you actually see that… You read the news and you read online, it makes it seem like African Americans aren’t interested in tech. Or like we’re not doing anything, or we’re not launching companies. But every time we did an event, we knew that was a lie, or something was being hidden, because when you come to a Phat Startup event, we’re proof our community not only is hungry for this information, but is pretty active in tech.

MVC: Your conference accomplished some really amazing things. We loved your recent post on How to Create and Host a Six-Figure Tech Conference. What are the biggest mistakes that you made over the course of the event, or that you see people make all the time when they start out?  

Anthony: The biggest thing was not having something to sell. We did have merchandise, you can see Phat Startup shirts all over the world, which is amazing. But I was speaking to someone who works at Motivating the Masses, who was like, why aren’t you selling people a program between the breaks, or something else that you can upsell? We didn’t even think about that. We were in it for the value, we were in it for the people that would walk away feeling like they learned something, but as a business, that would’ve been a great move too.

Another big mistake that I’ve made: panicking. You can’t panic. There’s a million ways to to panic. I sweat the small stuff entirely too much during a conference. Like if a speaker don’t come at the time they’re supposed to show up at. I’m thinking about the audience. I don’t want to keep them waiting, I don’t want to stall. But we did some really good stalling sessions. We turned them into networking hours like yo, let’s network, everybody shake hands. What’s amazing is people are emailing me, like: that was the best part of the conference.

MVC: We wanted to talk a bit about corporate sponsorship. Tech companies have access to such money, that’s such a good revenue stream for anyone doing events or media or anything like that. So when you’re just starting out, and you’re new, what’s you advice on how to get that sponsorship?

Anthony: You really need a record of success. Sure, there are people out there who just start out and they kill it. But basically, we had to have a record of success. I was a Black boy from Newark and James was a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. If we woulda come out and ask for all the things we asked for, we wouldn’t get the response that we wanted. So we had to show people that we knew what we were doing. We had a record of success when people saw that we were able to get all of these different notable names in tech to show up and do events with us.

I always tell startups that I talk to, especially minority founders, traction is your biggest friend because you’re not going to have the same privileges or the same shortcuts. So you gotta make sure your numbers are on point, and as long as your numbers are on point, that’s something that no one can take from you, no matter where you’re from, no matter what you do. Nobody can take your numbers away from you.

MVC: You were active doing the Phat Startup for about three years, but now you’re graduating and starting a bunch of other stuff. You just launched your new podcast — Disruptor — which is focusing on entrepreneurship, making money, productivity. What are your plans?

Promo image for the Disruptor podcast, with a photo of Anthony and the title.

Anthony: The podcast is definitely a big part of me providing value on a weekly basis, talking with a lot of founders, figuring out the how-tos. I’m putting out a book as well, for young Black entrepreneurs. It’s called Don’t Dumb Down Your Greatness. Because I feel self-confidence is something a lot of young Black entrepreneurs face, and I’ve interfaced with hundreds of young Black entrepreneurs. So I wanted to write something that helps them. It’s more of a mind-state thing, it’s not really filled with a whole bunch of tech how-tos. I’ve been in rooms where I was the only Black person in the room. I’ve been in situations where I felt like I didn’t have a shot. When you look on media and TV, there’s always someone Black being shot, or there’s always someone being criticized heavily for being proud of themselves and what they represent. There’s always a lot of things when it comes to Black people in America, where it can make a young person feel like, why even try? Why even try to be successful, when this society is going to knock me down anyway, or I’m not going to get funded anyway? It can create so many mental barriers for a young person. So if I can do my part in trying to break those down before they even build up, I’m gonna do that.

MVC: A common thread throughout all of your career, is the connections between entrepreneurship and hip hop. Can you say more about that and how it shapes your work and focus?

Anthony: Hip hop was created by hackers. DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx, he basically took something big, which is a whole record, and he niched down, he found small breaks in the records, and he made a mural out of all of these different breaks. That’s entrepreneurship in a nutshell. We’re going into these big industries, we’re finding the parts that we’re struggling with the most — or these little breaks — and we’re making whole new industries and whole new creations. That’s how you hack an industry and that’s what hip hop did to American culture.

Hip hop was created by hackers. Grandmaster Flash, he was a literal hacker. He used to go to the junkyard and get small parts and he basically got a lightswitch one day, attached it to two turntables and made a switchboard. That’s what I like to teach young people from hip hop cultures: don’t think you’re from a generation or a culture of dummies. This thing we call hip hop was created by some of the smartest and most innovative people that America has ever seen. You need to take that same culture, that same pride and apply it to everything that you do, whether it’s building a tech startup, whether it’s starting a barber shop.

MVC: One thing that we see in tech, is this thing where there’s a lot of white people walking around talking about “the hustle,” where it’s white people using hip hop culture as branding or whatever, and really benefitting from that.

Anthony: There was someone, when we first started Phat Startup, who claimed, “this is not what a Phat Startup is, a Phat Startup is when a VC firm does this and that,” and so on. I was like, how are you gonna take a word that was born from my community, and make it into some super technical jargon? This doesn’t belong to you. The same thing goes with hustle and all these different things. There were definitely people who came at us and said we stole things from them or something like that, and we were just like, hold up. This is US. This is what we come from. This is how I grew up. This is my LIFE. Like, how did we steal “hustle” from you?! My LIFE’s hustle.

We would ignore it after awhile. The thing is, no matter what color you are, you know what authenticity is at the end of the day. That’s why the Phat Startup reigns supreme, because people knew we were authentic. When you heard us interview someone, even if you listen to my podcast now, you hear me talking — this isn’t fake, this is where I’m from. Newark New Jersey, I’m from what they call Brick City. People understand: he’s going to ask the questions that matter to me, because he sounds like me. He’s gonna ask Ben Horowitz, what if I’m a single mother and I don’t have time to code? He’s gonna ask Gary Vaynerchuk, “I don’t have a million dollars, I don’t have the influence network that you have, so how do I build that if I don’t have that?”

I can’t tell someone who is a fan of hip hop that they can’t be a fan of hip hop. But I think if you’re gonna be a fan of something, it’s cool to know the history and know the struggle and know what that word comes from. It’s so funny because doing your homework is something that people don’t do today. I was just on Twitter, I saw someone responding to the Beyoncé thing that’s going on. This white guy was very very angry, he said: you should not be supporting the Black Panthers, they were way more dangerous and way more gruesome than the KKK. And I just scrunched my face up like, where did THAT come from? Does he even know WHY the Black Panther party was formed? Does he even know what the KKK *did*?

The KKK was a terrorist group, and still is in my opinion, in this country. They dragged people out of their homes, they burned them on their yards, they burned crosses on people’s lawns. And they were your law enforcement. They were the sheriffs, the police. They wonder, where did Black people’s distrust of police come from? Well, let’s think back to when they were putting on white hoods and hanging us in the Jim Crow South.

These are facts. And so, I think people don’t really have a history of what happened in this country, and they don’t have a history of Black people in general, of our culture, of anything. Nothing we’re witnessing today is new. I was just listening to a Tupac record where he was talking about why a cop kills a Black person, he becomes a hero? I just started thinking about the whole George Zimmerman thing, how he instantly became a hero when he killed Trayvon. When that other guy killed Mike Brown, he instantly became a hero. And so Tupac did this song in the 90s, and here we are in 2016 and nothing has changed.

They’re making Black Lives Matter out to be some kind of big, Black Illuminati thing that’s so scary and big. It fascinates me the way mainstream media is making this movement into the boogey monster. This isn’t scary. This is people who are fed up about the way they’re being treated. Why is that wrong? Why does that scare you, that we are fed up with being killed? If anything it should have you be concerned as well.

MVC: Throughout the interview we’ve gotten to touch on a few of your hip hop inspirations over the years — from DJ Kool Herc to Tupac and some of the contemporary artists you’ve worked with over the course of Phat Startup. So who’s inspiring you these days?

Anthony: Definitely Wayne Sutton is a big inspiration to me. He’s the reason why I’m even on the phone with you right now. He always looked out for me, always held me down, making me feel comfortable when the whole tech world didn’t look like me. He kinda held my hand through this whole process of just becoming an entrepreneur. I wouldn’t be who I am without his contributions to my life. I like Gary Vaynerchuk, I’m inspired by his SnapChat, I’m always watching it, seeing what’s dope. I know DJ Khaled is a thing right now, I’m enjoying watching all his inspirational messages. I’m enjoying Blavity, Morgan DeBaun, she’s a boss. I love following her career and seeing how large she is becoming in the Black media. I think it’s about time that Black media gets disrupted, so I’m happy to see that she’s doing that.

MVC: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today, this has been completely great. How can people follow and keep up with your work, and support all the new stuff you’re working on?

Banner image for Don't Dumb Down Your Greatness, with the title of the book and an 8th grade yearbook photo of Anthony.

Anthony: is really the best way. Join my email list when you go there, so you can keep up with my posts, all the gems, the podcast, you get everything. I’ll be putting out a lot of different things. A lot of people are asking me to create some courses for them, so look out for those. And I’m speaking at a bunch of places. But right now it’s really all about this book I’m writing for young Black entrepreneurs, my mind is really gonna be focused on that.