Embarking on the entrepreneurial journey is an exhilarating endeavor filled with both hurdles and prospects. We turned to seasoned black small business owners in our portfolio for guidance to illuminate this path and honor National Black Business Month. Through insightful interviews, business owners Marcus Ponder (Sankofa Health), Elizabeth Carter (United Schools Associates Inc.), and Terry Speigner (NGEN) reveal a wealth of advice to steer aspiring business owners and entrepreneurs toward success. Whether you’re on the cusp of launching your venture or are already waist-deep in business ownership, their words of wisdom unravel the secrets to starting out, surviving, and thriving in the competitive business world.
Structure and Community
It is crucial to have effective structures in place for business success. Before starting their entrepreneurial journey, individuals can draw from experiences gained in structured work environments. Marcus Ponder, owner of Sankofa Health, suggests that aspiring entrepreneurs “consider how they can model the systems, processes, and policies they observed that worked well for their employers before embarking on the entrepreneurship journey.” Carrying those working structures over to their new businesses can benefit entrepreneurs by giving them a blueprint to follow.
Marcus also recommends that entrepreneurs get buy-in from the community they serve. A key to getting community buy-in for a new business is for entrepreneurs to communicate their mission, products, and services to the community. Sankofa Health achieved this by inviting local officials for a tour before opening their brick-and-mortar space, which later proved beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their guests got acquainted with Marcus and his wife and co-owner, Dr. Tamisha Ponder, and saw what services their center intended to offer the community. Sankofa Health was top of mind with the councilman, and as a result, the councilman’s staff were sent Sankofa Health’s way for COVID testing. During the pandemic, the company fulfilled the needs of many others because of the support they gained from connecting with the community and city officials.
Patience, Personal Finance, and Networking
The first three years were tough for United Schools Associates, Inc. Due to a lack of name recognition, it took a lot of work for the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth and Wendell Carter to attract customers. Most people wanted to go with big-name companies. However, they did not give up; the insurance company owners were patient. “We affiliated ourselves with donors and started a ‘give back’ campaign, which enabled us to not only serve our community with school supplies and free lunches but also build good relationships with our niche market,” says owner Elizabeth Carter. Their niche was schools, and eventually, word began to spread about their charitable deeds, opening the doors to business expansion.
In addition to patience, having one’s personal finances in order is crucial. Without sound financial health, partnering with a bank can be difficult because lending organizations want assurance that they’ll be repaid. Carter advised that “entrepreneurs will need support from a financial institution, and making sure that their ducks, including finance, are in a row is one of the variables that will make obtaining the financial support they need easier.”
Carter also recommends entrepreneurs network with industry organizations and attend conferences to gain valuable advice, build relationships, and form partnerships. Attending industry conferences and networking eventually led to partnerships with more prominent insurance organizations. Carter learned from experienced professionals what to avoid when building their business. “We would meet and exchange business cards with people who just presented and follow up with them; maybe they would call us back, and maybe they wouldn’t, but we were persistent, and we would call them back,” shared Carter. The company is going into its eleventh year of business.
Mentors and Customer Service
According to Terry Speigner, owner of the IT services company NGEN, entrepreneurs should communicate their desire for mentorship and demonstrate their willingness to do the work. The will to succeed in business is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to succeed. When entrepreneurs find a mentor with whom they resonate and follow Speigner’s advice, mentors are willing to provide their time, input, and advice to help the entrepreneur succeed.
Another piece of advice from Speigner involves delivering excellent customer service. “If you are not focused on customer service, you will not be in business for long,” says Speigner. Entrepreneurs can differentiate their company from competitors by providing excellent customer service. NGEN believes in treating every customer like they are the only one they have and delivering an exceptional customer service experience, according to Speigner. Having customer service that meets and exceeds customers’ expectations inspires customers to want to share your company with other businesses who, in some cases, may be experiencing unresolved issues with vendors and are seeking other options.
The advice from these small business owners is grounded in years of business experience and offers valuable insights for anyone seeking business success. Finding a mentor and networking within one’s industry were common points emphasized by all our interviewees. FSC First’s Level Up program provides entrepreneurs with complementary networking activities to attend as well as opportunities to connect with coaches and mentors. By being mindful of these nuggets of advice, and making informed decisions, entrepreneurs and budding early-stage small business owners can better navigate the business-building journey, paving the way for long-term success.