Blazing a trail for Black Business Founders

Courtney Scott, founder of Balms etc., a natural deodorant and skincare business based in the South East of Kent, believes that the key to any successful business is problem solving. “Find a problem and design the solution around that problem.” Here, he talks about his journey and how to overcome the barriers faced by many black business founders.

The Journey

My journey as an entrepreneur started in secondary school, selling sweets in school halls that my peers couldn’t get hold of. As I matured, so did the business ideas and I've had a wide range of businesses over the years, all with the same common denominator - I always tried to solve a problem that I believe existed within the market. 

My current business, Balms etc. is the parent brand behind the UK’s first refillable natural deodorant PITT BALM and our skincare range is stocked in over 125 stores across the UK. 

Across all the businesses I've been involved in, there are two things I try to keep in my mind at all times: 

1. Solve a real problem 

The key to any successful business is problem-solving. Find a problem and design the solution around that problem. The chances are that if you have noticed a problem within a particular area of your life, somebody else has that same problem. If you can design a solution to that problem, the economics should follow. 

2. Build good systems 

This concept is often overlooked but is one I learned from a great book called The E-Myth. The author, Michael Gerber, talks about the importance of having robust repeatable systems and his fundamental idea is paramount to creating a business that can scale and grow. 

Barriers

Every individual has a different lived experience when it comes to barriers they encounter. The issues that women face in business may never be an issue for me as a man, and those born in Britain may encounter less difficulty in business than first-generation immigrants. As a Black founder, the barriers that stand out for me include: 

1. Business role models & mentors from the community 

“In black communities, Black Founders in the 21st century are the trailblazers.” 

Many of our parents and grandparents came from a working background. They don’t always understand the power of entrepreneurship. Success to that generation was: ‘go to university and get a well-paid job’, rather than ‘build an understanding of the world of business in order to maximise on the range of opportunities to ensure financial prosperity’. Robert Kiyosaki describes it as the difference between a “Rich Dad” and a “Poor Dad”.1

It’s rare, in Britain, to see Black Entrepreneurs who are not in the entertainment business. Worldwide, most of the influential black figures are entertainers. With entertainers as our main role models, it’s easy to see why inner-city children want to grow up to be sports stars or musicians. When it comes to more traditional business models, we’re typically starting from a lower knowledge base. 

Many of our peers from other communities have had this knowledge passed down at the dinner table. They have parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents to help them navigate the world of business. Trailblazers within their community, who may have made mistakes already, that they can learn from and build on. 

In black communities, Black Founders in the 21st century are the trailblazers. We typically haven’t had people in the community to look up to for guidance in business and it sometimes feels as though this is a space that we don’t belong in. This is, of course, not true. We may have a slightly rougher road to travel but with the right application we, as black entrepreneurs, can also arrive at our intended destination. 

2. Access to capital

Raising capital for your business is another huge barrier. Recent data suggested that just 1% of all money invested in early-stage entrepreneurs went to a black founder. Black founders represent around 16% of all entrepreneurs in London. Although they may not tell the whole story, these two figures demonstrate just how disproportionate the funding distribution is across various communities. 

Without the institutional funds available to us, or family knowledge to support us, it is extremely difficult to get access to the start-up capital needed to get you on your way. This has been personally one of the most challenging things for me. Almost all businesses require some level of start-up funding, as well as injections of capital along the way to help the business scale and grow to the next level. Even established and hugely successful companies like UBER are reported to have raised large amounts of capital every single year since their inception in 2011. 

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There has been a slight shift over the last few years and there are increasingly more initiatives created specifically for Black founders to level the playing field. With groups like Cornerstone Partners, Impact X together with business angels like Andy Davis, who go above and beyond to help black founders succeed, the situation is improving.

Breaking barriers

So how can the black founder succeed? How do we break these barriers down? How do we overcome the issues I've discussed?

It goes without saying that you first need to have a solid solution to a real problem. This is not unique to the black community. This is the same for everybody. PITT BALM, our flagship natural product, solved a huge existing problem. The market wanted a natural deodorant that was plastic and cruelty-free but actually worked, but having a good product was not enough. We needed to work on creating buzz and letting the masses know about the product, but without the marketing budget that the larger operators enjoy.

One of the other things I've managed to do is extensive networking. I leveraged my existing network and worked hard to expand my network to try and open as many doors as possible. When my network couldn’t help, I went down what some people call ‘Route One’. I simply walked up to the door and knocked on it, really hard, until somebody opened the door for me. Using this approach, I have managed to put Balms etc. on the map nationwide.

Work with your networks and do the gritty groundwork. Make the phone calls. Speak to as many people as you can about your business. In the early days, I spoke to everybody and anybody that would listen about Balms etc. I spoke to potential customers, as well as other entrepreneurs in and outside of my field. There is a lot of information out there that we can all learn from, the key is being open to learning from everybody. Your customers. Your critics. Your supporters. Your competitors. 

The difficulties we may face as a demographic shouldn’t prevent us from pursuing our business ideas. In those pursuits it is necessary to understand that there may be unfair barriers in front of us. We need to work on setting ourselves up to succeed despite their existence. With enough energy, desire, tenacity, and a really strong business plan/roadmap we all can go forward and build incredible businesses. 

I believe that there is space for everybody in business, as long as you have: 

  1. A good grasp of the problem you are trying to solve 
  2. A robust system to solve those problems 
  3. The agility to navigate the challenges you may face along the way. 

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