I’m not new to entrepreneurship. In 2009 I quit my newspaper reporting job to start a blog full time. But I am new to commerce — creating a physical product that I sell to the public. In this capacity, I’ve never been more acutely aware of my status as a black business owner. Navigating the small business world is really rough and tumble, but there are some misconceptions I wanted to address.
Misconception #1: Servicing a mostly black customer base is difficult
I have customers from all races, cultures and walks of life, but I would estimate that my current customer base is about 70 to 80% black. Once people hear this they seem worried for me, whispering that black consumers are cheap, demanding and unreasonable. I can only speak from my experience, but this hasn’t been true at all. To the contrary black customers seem to go out of their way to express pride and support for my business. I also think black folks are really good at spreading word of mouth on social media or in real life when they find something they like. This month alone I have had two black women purchase 100 or more 0.9 sample sizes of my whipped butters as wedding/anniversary favors.
Horrible customer experiences cannot be avoided, and I have had maybe three or four particularly nasty incidents with customers in the 3 years I’ve been around. Otherwise it has been a lot of support, big ups’ (as they say in Jamaica) and pride from other black folks.
Misconception #2: My branding is isolating to non-black customers
This is one I got ALOT when I first opened my storefront. Black folks would wander in, compliment the decor, then ask if white folks were mad at my ‘Black is Beautiful’ tagline. I wrote an in-depth article here about how BGLH Marketplace came to be, but basically it is an extension of my now-defunct black beauty/natural hair blog — Black Girl with Long Hair. The blog tagline was ‘Black is Beautiful’, so when I launched the shop I reflexively carried it over. I will be honest, I have had moments of doubt where I thought the tag line needed to be changed because it might be interpreted as racist or xenophobic. But so far this has been a complete non-issue. None of my non-black customers have expressed offense at my branding, and many are repeat customers. Sales have increased year over year, and I never get the sense that my branding is holding me back or hurting my chance at revenue. I do still get anxious at times. We are in an era of virality and I would hate for my branding to wind up in the wrong digital hands and be blasted as ‘reverse racism’. But at the moment my logo mostly gets compliments for its vibrancy and color.
Misconception #3: You cannot grow a business by catering to a mostly black customer base
I don’t know how my customer base will trend in the future but at the moment it is overwhelmingly black. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that black people have a greater familiarity with my core ingredients — shea butter, mango butter, cocoa butter and African black soap. But I often encounter people who are pressed and tell me that my business cannot thrive or grow without me catering/pandering to non-black populations. I find this laughable honestly. There are millions of black people in America. And we love to talk about our collective buying power, but then contradict ourselves by saying our buying power is not enough to support black-owned business. Like ??? My storefront is located in Bed Stuy, and if I could convince every family in this predominantly black neighborhood to buy my products, I would be a millionaire. And that is *one* neighborhood.
When companies like Shea Moisture and Carol’s Daughter are acquired, a lot of it has to do with their desire to gain reach outside of black/“ethnic” America. White people are still the majority after all, and there is a lot of revenue potential in that. But those companies are looking for a ubiquity that I don’t feel I need at the moment. Do I want BGLH Marketplace to have a wide reach some day? Yes, of course! But there are thousands of businesses with just a specific regional/local/cultural reach that are doing NUMBERS on revenue. Additionally, black folks are early adapters and a lot of the things that start in our community cross over to the mainstream. Either way I am not worried. The black dollar is powerful!
Now that I have addressed misconceptions I want to talk about some of the challenges of being a black business owner.
Challenge #1: Lack of Visibility
This might seem contradictory because I was just talking about word of mouth, but black America is still pretty fragmented. I mean, we are just 12% of the population spread out across 50 states. I have found that there is a lack of affordable opportunities to reach mid-sized (10K to 500K) black populations online. Part of this is because there aren’t many mid-sized black digital communities that aren’t directly on social media. Ironically, the blog I left behind to build BGLH Marketplace was one of the few that had a large and active following outside of Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr. (And I really feel that black content shouldn’t be so concentrated on social media because we don’t own it… but that is another article for another day!)
Challenge #2: Lack of Funding
I discussed this at length in a previous article, you can read it here.
Challenge #3: Racism/Sexism from Vendors/B2Bs
How much time do I have with this? I have dealt with overt/covert sexism/racism from my trash pickup company, my commercial landlord, a shipping fulfillment company I worked with, a digital marketer and the list goes on. To be a black woman in business is to be constantly on your guard. I have learned the hard way to document E-VER-Y-THING. I don’t even take calls with vendors anymore. I do everything by email so there is a paper trail. Vendors will prey on the lack of credibility black women face so, for example, they might inflate a price or demand payment for services that weren’t rendered. The sickening undertone is, ‘Well when it comes down to it, who is going to be believed more? Me? Or you?’ It really sucks.
And there you have it! As always, let me know your thoughts!