For Founders of Small Businesses, the Personal Story Matters

Making It Work is a series about small business owners trying to persevere through tough times.

Hakki Akdeniz, founder of New York City’s champion pizza chain, has been candid about his past. When he first immigrated to the United States from Canada in 2001, he was homeless, sleeping in subway cars and Grand Central Terminal before staying in shelters for three months.

Akdeniz’s experience champion pizzaand the company’s dedication to supporting homeless people is key to its mission. I am part of a group of small business owners who are adopting.

Company founders telling personal backstories is not a new phenomenon. These stories are often straightforward and optimistic accounts of someone determined to solve a problem. But experts say the new generation of founders set themselves apart by not telling the brief, easily digestible narrative of how their business came to be. They include stories of homelessness, addiction, incarceration, mental illness, and physical health.

Many small business owners say they are choosing to be transparent about difficult times in their lives and build deeper relationships with their consumers. But what happens when companies reveal some of the darkest moments of their founders’ lives?

Turin Erdem, professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business and chief of marketing at New York University, said that in recent years, many small business owners have begun to reveal sensitive past information in company messages. says there is. Dr. Erdem said it’s a “positive trend” that inspires customer connections, as long as it’s authentic and related to a company’s products and services.

“There will be people who don’t like it,” she said, adding that those who don’t like it probably aren’t the target customer.

Angela Lee, a professor at Columbia Business School who teaches venture capital, also said she’s noticed more and more founders opening up about past struggles. But she said business owners should “tread carefully” when it comes to over-sharing, especially on complex topics. It is difficult to convey nuances when

Lee is also an investor and founder of 37 Angels, a network of women investors. She said the lines between people’s professional and personal lives are becoming increasingly blurred and that founders should be candid when pitching to investors. review. “Gone are the days of one guy at work and one guy at home,” Lee says.

The “About Us” section of a company website is used to make a company stand out by explaining what makes it better than its competitors. Projects Authority founder David Gaz said. According to the agency, the “about” page was found to be his second-most-visited section on the company’s site, after the homepage, Gaz said. (The company builds about 100 of his websites a year for small businesses, he said.)

Akdeniz’s biography is posted on the Champion Pizza website, but he stressed that he had no intention of putting himself at the center of the brand. “I want to be a role model for many people, but I am not cocky,” said Akdeniz, who is Kurdish. He often gives slices to homeless people who frequent his pizzeria and volunteers once a week at his two organizations that help people experiencing homelessness, which he provides donating pies.

A native of Turkey, he arrived in New York as an asylum seeker after being deported from Canada because his tourist visa had expired. Later, I learned how to make Italian-style pizza in Canada, where I lived for several years.

After eventually finding work washing dishes in a Hoboken eatery, he started making pizza in restaurants and opened his first shop in 2009. EB-1 The Green Card was awarded to people of “extraordinary ability” after they received the highest overall score in a pizza-making contest held by the trade magazine Pizza Marketing Quarterly in New York City’s Javits Center in 2010. increase.

there is 33.2 million Small businesses in the U.S. are most likely going through tough times for many owners, according to the Small Business Administration – an estimate by the National Institute of Mental Health.More than 1 in 5 adults in the US have a mental illness,” for example. According to Dr. Erdem, a professor of marketing at New York University, historically, most companies have not publicly disclosed these difficulties through their business platforms. Some have found it resonates with consumers.

Founder George Haymaker rethink ice creamis one of these business owners. Haymaker, 62, describes his period of drug addiction as “spinning down the toilet drain.” Eating large amounts of ice cream played an important role in Haymaker’s early abstinence, helping him stay away from drugs and alcohol.

This experience is integral to his company’s identity. company websiteHe was over 30 pounds overweight when he first gave up drinking, so he developed a healthier ice cream recipe with less sugar.

“I don’t care if there’s an addiction or mental health stigma,” said Haymaker, who lives in Northern California. He said his message of recovery resonated particularly with colleges looking to address the issue. mental health students. He now sells ice cream at his 30 colleges in California and his one in Oregon, as well as stores, and gives talks on recovery and entrepreneurship on campus.

San Francisco-based food consultant Ali Ball, who advises startups selling packaged food and beverages, said there are no hard and fast rules about what founders should and shouldn’t talk about. rice field. “If it’s a gimmick, it’s not shaping you, you’re just doing it to create a more compelling story. I think people can see through that,” she said. I got

She advises clients to be upfront about their values, explaining that they can attract the type of customers the business wants to attract.

One business owner who decided to be candid is co-founder Nadia Okamoto. Augustis a startup that sells feminine hygiene products. Her company sells products online and in select Target locations, allowing consumers to create their own personalized packages of menstrual products for delivery to their homes.

“My whole brand is unfiltered from the start and talks about periods, blood and mental health,” she said.

Okamoto, 25, said she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder six months after coming up with the idea for the company.she shares a story about herself mental health struggleincluding one of she said she was sexually abused, on her Instagram and TikTok, she has over 4 million followers. She admits that her approach isn’t for everyone.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a huge marketing incentive,” Okamoto said, adding that if August had any benefits, it was by making genuine connections with her followers.

She says her openness on social platforms has led to loyalty among many of her customers. However, she acknowledged that her candor could lead to her being judged, making some people more cautious of her and even repulsing others, saying, “I get a lot of hate online.” I remember,” he added.

Founder Meg Smith love, lexi, A lingerie company that specializes in small-cup bras agrees that customers value transparency. “Consumers today are very smart and concerned with brand authenticity and genuine motivation,” she said.

Smith, 38, said she developed an autoimmune disease after having breast implants and eventually had to have them. She said plastic surgery was taboo in the community she grew up outside of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and was initially reluctant to open up about plastic surgery and health issues for fear of judgment.

in the end, video On the Love, Lexxi website, she spoke about wanting to feel beautiful after struggling with body image and health. Considering it, she said she doesn’t regret sharing it.

Smith said her transparency for the company shows that “our founders have come through hard times.”

The imprisoned business owner said sharing his past could damage his professional reputation, but some said it was worth it. flick shopa website and app where people can send postcards to their loved ones in jail.

“I didn’t want to be banished from the business world,” Block said.

He spent eight years in prison from the age of 15 for carjacking, and during the last six years in prison his mother sent him a letter every day. This inspired his company idea. Its mission is to end recidivism by helping people imagine life after prison through letters from his loved ones.

After a customer mentioned how meaningful the app was to her family, Bullock decided to share that having spent time in prison, she now understands where she came from.

“To fully own a story that had escaped me for so long made me feel empowered,” said Block, who is based in Washington, DC. .

“Our customers were shocked to learn that the technology they use every day was started in one of those cells by someone like a loved one,” Block said. . According to his website on Flikshop, the service operates in more than 3,700 of his correctional facilities. Since then he has hired other previously imprisoned people, Flikshop Neighborhoodis a project that connects organizations with people in prison, educates employers to create employment policies, and gives people with a criminal record a second chance.

For Block, Okamoto and others, being open about their personal lives has been liberating.

“I’ve been hiding myself for a long time,” Okamoto said. “I need more emotional energy to filter myself and think about who I’m talking to and how I want to appear.” I can’t,” he added.

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