BET Founder Bob Johnson Shares the Challenges He Faced Building His Business Empire

Multimillionaire BET founder, Bob Johnson, isn’t your ordinary businessman. According to the business mogul, there are moments during his journey that he felt like breaking down, but pushed through to the finish line despite having no prior business acumen.
During an ‘Answers to Correspondent’ session at Strayer University in November, Johnson shared with CEO Jon Steinberg how it took perseverance and optimism to see his fledgling Black Entertainment Television (BET) program gain traction.

He mentioned how he would travel to New York to meet advertisers, but most of them couldn’t understand his vision for the network and choose not to work with him.

“Sometimes you walked out of that agency after talking to a 25-year-old white guy and… you think this person does not understand how important this is, and what I’m doing. I’m changing the world for black people,” he said.

Back then, several advertisers targeting black people would advertise on Cosby. Working with a network that was just starting didn’t, therefore, appear to present a sensible approach. Some would also tell him that “Black people can’t afford cable,” but that didn’t stop him.

Later on, cable television picked up the platform and it became quite successful. When he finally sold the network to Viacom in 2001, he raked in a whopping $3 billion; making Johnson the first African-American billionaire.

One advice that Johnson has for those going into business is that “you’ve got to be optimistic. You never lose faith or confidence in your belief. Because the moment you do that, the moment you give up on yourself, you can bet your bottom dollar everyone else is going to give up on you too.”

Although he went through challenges while building his company, Johnson, who’s now the chairman of RLJ Companies, says that there are those who kept him going.

He remembers one lady saying that “Black Entertainment TV is going to succeed because Bob Johnson is such as nice guy.”

Johnson also told Mr. Steinberg that BET was his first business, having no previous experience in running a company. And to start it off, he secured $500,000 in funding from John Malone, a friend and billionaire CEO of TCI.

That check marked a huge turning point in his life – having lived in a small town of Freeport, Illinois, it would soon turn Johnson into a multi-billionaire.

Johnson says that to do something big you must be daring and stay focused on what you want to do rather than “what will hurt you.”

“As an entrepreneur you just believe there’s a future out there, and somewhere in your DNA is an ability to see over the hill before somebody else sees,” he said. “You have to have that blinded belief that you can do it.”


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