The Jay Kim Show #20: Benny Luo (Transcript)
Today’s guest is Benny Luo, the mastermind behind the website NextShark.com.
NextShark is a news aggregator and they specifically target the English speaking Asian youth around the world. His website puts out a lot of edgy evocative content that’s highly relatable if you’re part of that target demographic.
Benny shares a lot about his background today which I found fascinating. He started making money in very non-conventional ways such as playing online poker and then jumping into the dark side of internet marketing which he tells us all about.
Since then, he’s parlayed those skills into becoming SEO and social media marketing expert and he leveraged his niche to build up a site that now drives over four million unique visitors a month. I know you’re going to enjoy this episode. Let’s jump right in.
Jay: Benny, hey. How are you?
Benny: Good, man. How about yourself?
Jay: Doing great, man. Thanks for agreeing to be on this podcast, it’s going to be great.
Benny: No, awesome. I’m excited to be a part of it. How are you doing?
Jay: I’m doing fine, man. Asia, everything is behind here, I’m not sure how. Have you spent any time in Asia by the way?
Benny: Not in recent years. The last time I went to Shanghai and Hong Kong back in 2010. Actually, I went to Japan last year. I’m going to go to Japan and Taiwan this coming December.
Jay: Great. Okay. Your family is originally from Hong Kong is it?
Benny: My family was originally from Guangzhou but I have family that are based in Hong Kong too so I’ve been back a couple of times since I was growing up and everything.
Jay: Okay, good. Next time you’re out here give me a shout, man.
Jay: We’ll link up. Benny, thanks for coming on to the podcast. I’m excited to have you here on the show. For the listeners, if there’s anyone that is current with social media right now and I’m sure you’ve seen Benny’s site, NextShark. I’ll let him explain it to you but why don’t we start with who you are, Benny and what do you do for a living.
Benny: Yeah, I’m Benny Luo. I was born in California, went to UC Irvine in Orange County, California. I started off my career as an internet marketer back in college. We did a lot of PPC and search engine marketing.
Jay: Sorry, I interrupt a lot, I hope that’s okay.
Benny: No, please.
Jay: Can you explain what PPC is to our listeners?
Benny: PPC is just like pay per click marketing, it’s literally just pay per click. If you’re advertising on Google Adwords and you’re targeting specific keywords and bidding on those specific keywords for your audience to see and click on, that’s pay per click marketing.
Jay: Okay, you’re doing this during college as a side gig?
Benny: Yeah. I worked multiple jobs in college. I mean, my first job was when I was a freshman. I was doing campus marketing for Dell computers and so I was basically involved with helping increase sales on campus for Dell. Within the first six months of me being on board, our school was ranked in the top ten universities in the nation for quarterly unit sold and I believe at the time we actually beat out Apple in sales for our particular campus. Then in year two which was my sophomore year, Apple actually approached me and so I started working for Apple for a little bit. Around that time I met a guy in class and he was playing online poker. I was like, “Hey, are you playing for real money?” He was a little arrogant, just like, “Yeah, of course I am.” Then I’m like, “Cool.”
I just basically blank his name and just asked, “How big is your bank roll?” As college kids we all played online poker, it was legal at the time and all of us would have like let’s say 50 bucks in our account or 100 bucks. It was all for fun. Then this guy was like, “I have 250.” I’m like, “Cool, 250 bucks, that’s so much money.” It was really like 250 grand that was my first taste of making money online. This guy took me under his wing and I started learning a little bit of online poker and naturally I met a lot of successful people. I mean, in the poker scene and in the gambling scene you tend to meet a lot of successful people that didn’t make their money from poker, they are entrepreneurs, actors, celebrities and whatnot and that gave me my first taste of the high life and meeting all these high level people that made it in life.
Jay: This guy was a classmate of yours? Was he an outsider?
Benny: No, he was a classmate of mine. He sat next to me in class. He was a couple years older than me. I think he was three or four years older than me and the reason why we were in the same class was because he basically was so focused on poker that he basically took a break from school. After he became successful, his parents forced him to finish up his degree because Asian parents are like that.
Jay: Yeah, there’s no negotiating with immigrant Asian parents, you got to do what they say.
Benny: Exactly, exactly. I would say he was like an early mentor of mine. He came from a family of entrepreneurs. He came from a lot of money. While my classmates same age as me were like out partying in their frat parties, I was partying with him at like the presidential suite at the Bellagio during a series of poker week or something. I was a very different experience. While I did missed out a lot on the typical college experience, I definitely made up for it with living such an interesting life early on by following this guy.
Jay: It’s like you’re living the dream when you’re a college student. This was like your first light bulb moment where you’re like, “Okay, I don’t have to go to college necessarily other than pleasing my parents to be able to make money,” right?
Benny: I think after that moment, honestly I was focused on trying to get good grades. I was struggling a little bit. I’ve never been like that good of a student academically but at the same time I knew I wanted some comfort and so my goal back then before meeting this guy was like, “Hey, I’m going to get a good job maybe at Dell, just work really hard and then just naturally go off from there.” It never fathomed to me of if I talk about it it seems like this guy is a complete douchebag, but he was really, in a sense he was but he’s also taught me a lot of things as well like for example, he would say things like, “Hey, how much money did you make last month?”
I’d be like, “I worked at Dell, I was getting paid like 12, 15 bucks an hour so maybe like a 1,000, $2,000 a month.” He’ll be like, “My outfit is worth more than that,” or something like that. It didn’t fathomed to me where people would pay for $25,000 watches or $500 luxury zip up hoodies or whatever. It just never fathomed to me so when I went into this world that was just very interesting, it was like a movie to me. Seeing all these people living in riches and just throwing money like it was nothing like I would be attending these poker games where there will be hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash on the table and it would just be like really fascinating to me.
Jay: It’s just sitting there and then they go to the bathroom and leave the stack there and no one touches it.
Benny: I remember I was staying in Vegas with him and we were about to leave and then in the corner we see this chip, right? We’re like, “Hey, I’m about to leave, I’m just doing one clean sweep of the place,” because I tend to do that and then he was like, “No, let’s go. We’re in a hurry.” I took everything and then in the corner I see this yellow chip, it’s like a $25,000 chip. I was just like, “What the hell?” Obviously, he dropped it and then we went about our way.
Jay: Pocket change, right?
Benny: Interesting things like that that you don’t really think about. I’m still a starving student by then but I guess long story short, I got into poker, I got a little bit of success.
Jay: Would you say you’re a good poker player now?
Benny: I would say I’m above average but I wouldn’t say I’m a pro. I did poker well enough to where I was able to buy my first car. It was just like a used car like $6,000.
Jay: That’s pretty good for a college kid, right?
Benny: Yeah, it’s good. I didn’t make like hundreds of thousands of dollars but I made enough to see some mild success but overall it really wasn’t something that I was passionate in perse. I was just on my computer playing multi tables everyday, sometimes I would just wake up without brushing my teeth and I will play until let’s say I wake up in the morning for 9 a.m. tournament and then I wouldn’t be done until like 7 p.m. and not leaving my seat, haven’t brushed my teeth, haven’t really eaten or I would order pizza, really unhealthy. It wasn’t a lifestyle that I wanted and just wasn’t leaving the house. It got so bad to the point where I started wearing sunglasses while playing because the light was just irritating my eyes so much at that point.
Jay: Then, you’re doing this lifestyle, you’re grinding away, you’re like this undercover night time poker player or day time, whatever, wearing sunglasses. What’s the next transition to the next point in your life?
Benny: Then I would say maybe junior year came along and then through my connections and meeting cool people, a friend hit me up one day and he’s like, “Hey, Benny. You mentioned that your poker mentor made up to 50K a month in poker, right?” I’m like, “Yeah, why?” He’s like, “Okay, I want to introduce you to the 16 year old kid. He makes up to $15,000 a day.” I’m like, “Really, doing what?” He was like, “He does affiliate marketing.” Basically what he does is he goes to a lot of these affiliate networks and companies that have affiliate programs and he signs up for them and then he basically sell his products using his own unique link and whatever sales that come through he gets a cut of it.
Jay: Which is actually in the world of online businesses, that can be a very lucrative revenue stream. A lot of the big name online business guys out there, there’s some guys like Pat Flynn, they put up their monthly income report and a large part of that does come from affiliate marketing.
Benny: Yeah, exactly. It’s a big business. I would say now it’s a little bit harder to make money but back then it was really, really easy and to be completely transparent, a lot of our tactics of driving traffic was very gray area. Hypothetically speaking, let’s just say, what’s a big brand? Let’s say Nike as an example had an affiliate program. Me and a team of him and five people, this 16 year old kid, we found a way to not only bid on copyrighted words to drive traffic to our site but also have our ad rank higher than the official ad of a particular company because our ads were much higher performing and we were able to get a really, really good … We were getting one cent clicks that’s how good our campaign were.
Jay: That’s really good.
Benny: Obviously, a lot of these were like short term stuff. We will probably get shut down within like a month at max and then we will move on to the next thing. It was extremely lucrative. I mean I think that we would easily make up to six figures a month just off of doing some of this campaigns and whatnot.
Jay: You were working with this 16 year old guy?
Benny: Yeah, dude.
Jay: Did you set up your own thing?
Benny: No, no, no. We were working with him. He took me as a mentor. It was crazy because I didn’t really believed my friend after, I was like, “Okay, I’ll go meet this kid.” We drove to this luxury apartments. A lot of celebrities were living there at the time. We went out to the top floor. The guy literally comes out smoking a cigarette, with a robe on in his boxers, he’s just completely drugged out, chilling and he had an Aston Martin. It was crazy. It was a lot. This 16 year old kid was living like the dream.
Jay: This is light bulb moment number two for you like, “Okay, wow.” With poker you could make a lot of money. This kid is 16 years old and he’s just rolling in it, right?
Benny: Yeah, he’s rolling in it like crazy. We were making really good money but over time I mean, a lot of these campaigns were very short-lived because we will get shut down or we got banned from using Google AdWords for a little bit.
Jay: You have to stay on the cutting edge because Google keeps changing their algorithm, right?
Benny: Exactly. Needless to say, that was a great time of my life in a sense where I was making good money, I was in a good place but at the same time, me and the rest of my friends were way too young to be able to understand money management. I never was really in the spot where somebody taught me money management. I mean, a lot of the lifestyle they were very degenerate and poker players are very degenerate too. I was being really stupid with own money and so was the 16 year old kid. I mean, this guy was making really, really good money but it was going out faster than it was going in. I mean, he was throwing crazy parties that he shouldn’t be throwing. He was doing a lot of drugs.
Jay: Was he Asian?
Benny: Western, yeah. It was a very unhealthy lifestyle and so a lot of the money was just going out. At the time, it ended up a sad story because for me I was mismanaging my money but two, this kid started the top me everything, start making excuses and asking to lend him money or whatnot. Saying that, “I have a wire coming in but I need to borrow money for this or that,” he’d be like, “Hey, can you help me co-sign for this Hollywood apartment? I’m under 18 so I need somebody to help me co-sign.”
Jay: You saw the red flags popping up?
Benny: At the time, not really because I was so addicted to seeing what he had because I saw the SMR and I saw all these things that he was doing. I saw him blowing all these money on things. I thought that I could be able to live this guy’s life and I didn’t really let the red flag sink in if that makes sense. Long story short, I mean I got completely screwed over by this kid. Just to give you an example, the Hollywood apartment that I helped co-sign with him, it racked up like five figures in damages just on that that I was on the hook for.
I guess as a lesson there I learned that even affiliate marketing, it wasn’t really something that was fulfilling for me. I made good money but I was getting shut down really quick. It wasn’t something that I could tell people, it wasn’t something I could really be proud of. I was just setting up campaigns. I was looking at numbers the whole time, everyday sitting at a computer. It was like the same thing as poker, I was just sitting there looking at numbers and it didn’t really feel fulfilling for me.
Jay: Yeah, I mean that sort of stuff as when you’re younger and you’re a little bit less mature, like you said you’re addicted to the money and the lifestyle and all that stuff you’re attracted to that. That’s not really legacy like how you’re going to … You’re not proud of what you do but when you look back and say, “How did you make your money?” “Oh, well, I played poker and I did some kind of shady stuff to do affiliate marketing and I made a bunch of money.” It’s like are you really proud of yourself at the end of the day, right? No.
Benny: Yeah. It just wasn’t something that fulfilled me and so by the time I graduated college, like I graduated college, I walked the ceremony on a Saturday and I had to start work on a Monday because I was basically in debt by the time I graduated college. I was actually on the verge of going into bankruptcy too but for me I felt like I had to take responsibility. I had to try to settle with the collectors and work things out with them and then I went to work on a Monday. I started working for a Dutch startup as a community manager, social media, do stuff like that and that’s when I started doing social media marketing.
Jay: What kind of startup was it?
Benny: It was a company called Symabloo, it’s still around. They’re a tech startup and they focus on … It’s pretty interesting, I mean, when you go to Symbaloo.com you basically create these like visual … It’s like a visual favorites bar, like you add, you bookmark things on your desktop. This one is like a visual bookmark and you can share specific bookmarks with other people.
Jay: Okay, interesting, interesting. You started off as a social media marketer, community manager there and that’s kind of where you started learning more about how to do social media marketing?
Benny: Yeah, and then about like I would say 6 to 8 months later I started working for a company called Centercode which was basically the number one beta testing company I would say. The number beta testing company in the industry, like they’ve done projects with Google, Logitech, a lot of big gaming companies. They’re like the masters when it comes to beta test management.
Benny: I started working with them, started learning about beta testing and I was marketing manager for them. Helped write blog post and copy and then I think about like maybe a year working with them I started branching off on my own. I started doing social media marketing for myself and I started doing social consulting work. I would help let’s say small businesses like restaurants and maybe small office companies to help them drive leads through.
Jay: What year was this?
Benny: This was back in I think 2011.
Jay: Okay, this is sort of right when that space was … It was still a little bit early like now it’s very, very … Everyone, all the big corporations have Facebook, Twitter, blah, blah, blah. Back then it was still kind of the movement had just sort of started and gone mainstream, right?
Benny: Yeah, exactly. I would say that it hasn’t really … Back then I would say it wasn’t really mainstream that much yet, I mean right now like social media experts “are literally everywhere.” I think back then it was still … Social media marketing was just starting to get like coin and people were just starting to realize the potential of everything. Yeah, I started doing social media marketing and I would help small businesses just like drive leads online whether it’s to Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook, what have you.
Help them setup their pages like very simple stuff and then overtime I started getting bigger clients, I mean, one of the biggest clients that I did was I did a project with Billboard and MGM. I mean they did like a KPop concert. I was the social media strategist to help them build engagement and ticket sales and setup a social media campaigns for the event. We would work with some of the KPop stars, some big celebrities on creating cool campaigns to drive engagement to promote this concert.
Jay: How did you actually learn all this stuff? Was it just a matter of you sort of AB testing stuff yourself and you kind of just researching online and or were they any influencers, guys that you look out to online whether it be or in the industry that you follow that you learn specific tactics from?
Benny: No, it was all basically just like AB testing myself, trial and error, I mean, for me it’s very simple. I mean, internet marketing is very, very simple and you’re basically trying to find a way to arbitrage or pay for a targeted traffic to a specific source with the intention of getting that traffic to buy something or do something that builds your brand, right? A lot of the stuff that I learned through internet marketing like pay per click, search engine marketing kind of translated over to social media. Social media in a sense I really, really like social media and I had a lot of passion for social media because there was one key difference between that and pay per click and social media. There was a human side of it where you could produce content, you could talk to people directly, I mean there was an engaging factor to it that made it interesting for me, if that makes sense.
Jay: Right, yes.
Benny: It was much more interesting for me as well because I felt like social media was one of the few mediums that allowed you to generate a lot of buzz and traffic without necessarily paying like crazy amounts of money for it because with pay per click, I mean you pay for the traffic and you try to make sure that whatever you pay for you get more money back in return, right?
Jay: That’s right. It’s almost like more of a meritocracy, it’s like if you do good work, if you say right, evocative copy a really good campaign then you can get rewarded for that and you don’t have to pay for it.
Benny: Yeah, I mean at the time like, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Old Spice the deodorant.
Jay: Yup, sure.
Benny: I mean back then this was like 2010, 2011, I mean Old Spice was still not that recognizable but then they did the whole like social media campaign with the Old Spice man where he was basically answering questions live through every single social media whether it’s Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. I mean, he answered questions all over and within less than a week, sales for Old Spice skyrocketed and they became the number one men’s body deodorant in less than a week just off that social media campaign. Something like that is much more powerful than paying for a billboard or paying for a TV spot, you know what I mean?
Benny: That’s why I was so excited about it.
Jay: Okay, at this point in your life you had branched off and you were doing sort of social media consulting on your own, you had your own business, right?
Benny: Yeah, exactly.
Jay: Okay, and then so what was the next step then?
Benny: Before I go on, I did read a book that was very helpful. I guess for anybody that wants to get a start on understanding how to market online, pick up the book called, “The Inbound Marketing,” it’s written by the guys over at HelpSpot. It’s probably the best book that I’ve read in terms of like breaking down exactly how internet marketing works and they break down every single medium too whether it’s social media, videos, SEO and what not. I think anybody that wants to learn they should pick up that book.
Jay: Wow, Inbound Marketing. Okay, we’ll have that in the show notes.
Benny: The next thing was, this was like maybe mid 2011 that’s when I started … One of my clients brought me on board to help them on a project. Essentially that client turned into an investor for my first company which was newmediarockstars.com and that was basically an online magazine focused on covering the digital entertainment space. Back then if you look at the whole ecosystem online there was a rise or internet celebrities like YouTubers and bloggers were really starting to pick up steam. There really wasn’t like a specifics out there that really cover that industry. I mean there were mainstream media sites that were still covering like traditional media celebrities but no one was really focused on internet celebrities. That’s why I created newmediarockstars.com and so he became my first investor. For the next like I guess two years like I was building this company and we ended up doing really well, I mean we had a lot of really high moments like for example like Justin Bieber tweeted our site twice.
Benny: We’ve done like big projects. We did a lot of big interviews with let’s say people like Brian McKnight, Bill Nye the Science Guy, all the top YouTubers at the time. Then in 2013 I sold that company to a company called Zealot Networks and then after that I started NextShark.
Jay: Okay, wow, and then NextShark is basically New Media Rockstars 2.0, kind of?
Benny: I guess you could say it’s a 2.0 as a startup but in terms of like direction it’s completely different but same industry obviously. It’s still in the media industry.
Jay: NextShark is, tell us exactly what NextShark is and that’s NextShark.com, right?
Jay: What’s the spin, I mean because there’s tons of news aggregators out there, there’s tons of websites. The flood of content on the internet right now is almost unmanageable. How does NextShark differentiate from any of other sites that do similar things?
Benny: NextShark actually started of as like a online magazine on business and tech in entrepreneurship targeting millennials. Back then, I thought that there was a need for entrepreneurship in business content targeting young, hungry, business-minded people. We ended up doing relatively well but overtime, I mean I think that the company has been around for three years and I would say maybe about like eight months ago while we were getting really good traction I felt, number one I never really feel that fulfilled. Number two, I didn’t really think that we were building the community, a strong enough community that I wanted. I was just kind of just digging through our data and I noticed something interesting.
When I started I notice that a lot of our Asian-centered content was doing really well, for example whenever we cover the startup in China or whenever we cover entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia or something or we covered news in that area. Even in the U.S. if we covered anything Asian-centered in particular, we were getting a lot of engagement. I’m not sure if it’s because like since I’m Asian and I have a lot of friends and friends on Facebook that are Asian that shared really well. We would get so much traffic and engagement and share just off of that and I kind of realize that there was a need for this sort of content.
I would say eight months ago we actually pivoted the site to basically become a online publication focused on targeting the Asian youth market. We cover like very different verticals, we cover tech, culture, sports, fitness. It’s basically a media destination targeted towards young English speaking Asian across the world. We think that there’s a need for this and we think that there is a big market for this because traditionally speaking, I mean Asians in America and Asians in Asia are culturally different, right? That’s kind of like there’s some differences there culturally and beliefs and everything.
Jay: Yup, absolutely.
Benny: I think that what the advent of entertainment and media I feel like those and the internet on top of that, those things are starting to really converge. If you look at let’s say KPop, right, like KPop as an industry, I mean it’s not just big in Asia anymore like it’s really traveling to Europe, it’s traveling to U.S. where hundreds of thousands of people are attending these concerts in the west. If you look at even Asians in Hollywood, I mean a lot of like money from China is diving into Hollywood. They specifically said that they are looking to put more Chinese and Asian characters into the big screen.
Benny: If you look at even in the YouTube space a lot of these top YouTubers like Ryan Higa, Wong Fu Productions. Even though they’re U.S. based, their audience, they have a large, large, large audience all over Southeast Asia. I think that there is a commonality that we can meet on and I think that there is interest and I think that for us we looked to produce content and we aim to be the voice for the Asian youth all over the world.
Jay: Yeah, that’s awesome. I love that because I think you’re absolutely right, the trend is definitely going that way, I mean Asia is blowing up. China obviously is a world player now, you cannot ignore what’s going on there.
Jay: Southeast Asia is a huge, huge market I know especially for the early stage scene, in entrepreneurship scene. I love what you guys are doing over there. I follow you guys on Facebook and stuff and I love your post, your post are always really … They’re done really well, I have to say. They’re either calling someone out or they’re really humorous and it definitely has that Asian feel because it’s usually stuff that all Asians can relate to. That’s really good.
Benny: Yeah, that’s our goal, that’s our thing, I mean we want something where it’s kind of like, “I’m Asian and I get it,” you see what I’m saying?
Jay: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Jay: Okay, we’re going to wrap up here soon, Benny. What’s in store next for NextShark? What do you see? What are your goals for 2017? How are you guys doing on sort of building the company up?
Benny: Yeah, I mean, we’re doing really well, I mean, I think that now we get up to like, I think I would say on average three to four million readers a month, three to four unique visitors a month. We’re going from there, I mean our video content is doing really well too, we start a video like on Facebook may be a couple of months ago and we’ve gone over 75 million video views already on Facebook. In the future is we’re definitely looking to really … We want to definitely do more original content. I think that curating and looking through other sources and then rewriting it is really cool but I’m really passionate in traveling and going to interesting places and producing really cool and original content. I would say look out for more original content in the future and look out for more video content because we’re going to be putting out a lot of cool stuff.
Jay: Fantastic and guys you got to go and check out Nextshark.com. I guess that’s the best place to find you and then are there any links or social media places that you would want me to direct the audience to?
Benny: Yeah, I mean just Nextshark.com. Tell them to like us on Facebook at Facebook.com/nextshark and then I have a Twitter too, it’s Twitter.com/BennyLuo. Yeah, all that good stuff.
Jay: Okay, awesome. We’ll get that all linked up. Benny, thank you so much for your time. It was really great catching up with you. We’re excited that you’re going to be on the show especially because of the work that you do that sort of focused on Asians and Asian-Americans. Thanks again.
Jay: We really appreciate it.
Benny: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Jay: All right, good luck.
Benny: Good luck. Bye- bye.
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