The walls of Rodney Evans's cluttered New York City office give you a sense of who he is. There is the Knicks home schedule scribbled on a whiteboard. There is a certificate of merit that his daughter received at nursery school. There are framed photos of Muhammed Ali with Malcolm X that Evans bought for five bucks from a street vendor, and also a huge poster of Aretha Franklin. And by the door is a photo of the U.S. Capitol taken on October 16, 1995, the day of the Million Man March.
Evans snapped that shot himself, standing on the fender of a truck for a better vantage point. The event lives in his memory as a turning point. "It was good to see so many African American brothers from places like Alaska and New Mexico," he recalls. "We talked about really helping ourselves, so when I came back, I gave two weeks' notice, quit my job, and started a company."
Seven years later, Skyline Connections Inc. [#3] has grown to revenues of $14 million. The company started out as a hardware reseller but has evolved into a business that sells network and information-technology services to clients like Lockheed Martin and Bank of America. Evans says his ambition is to take his business to $100 million. With a five-year compound annual growth rate of 124%, his claim cannot be dismissed.
STRAIGHT-UP COMPETITION: "It's not my style to sell anything other than my services and products."
Skyline happens to be the highest-ranked minority-owned company on Inc's fourth annual Inner City 100 list. Many entrepreneurs would consider that credential a major achievement, but Evans has historically approached the "minority" label with some reluctance. "Obviously, when I walk in the door and hand you a business card that says I'm president and CEO, you know that Skyline is a black-owned business," Evans says. "But it's not my style to sell anything other than my services and products. I like to compete straight up." The CEO, 49, asserts the standard Skyline pitch is to "sharpen a pencil and come up with some good numbers."
His way is not the only way, however. Among the entrepreneurs on this year's Inner City 100, quite a few offer a provocative contrast to Evans's "numbers first, identity second" approach. They seem much more comfortable crafting and then selling a story around their own identity, ranging from their background to their skin color. Davin Wedel, who runs Global Protection [#94], a condom manufacturer, wraps his company in slacker slickness by telling people how he started it from his college dorm. Veronica Rose, CEO of Aurora Electric [#5], says 80% of her potential clients want "all the details" about what her life as a female electrician is like. Divorcée-cum-CEO Carol Latham, who employs many former welfare mothers at her polymer manufacturer Thermagon [#16], was cited in Thomas Petzinger Jr.'s The New Pioneers, a noted business book. And Lanre Olotu, who emigrated from Nigeria in 1980, says he details his background on almost every sales call he makes for his company, Printing Methods [#61].
STARTING FROM SCRATCH: "I don't have connections. I haven't lived in this town for 40 years. I was born in Brazil, and my parents are both immigrants. I think I lose a lot because I don't have that network that goes back a generation. That's a very big deal."
Using your life story to sell your company is one form of what experts call emotional marketing -- getting customers to take an interest in your business not just because you offer a snazzy value proposition but because they feel something about your company. If CEOs are comfortable talking about themselves -- and can connect their story to their customers' needs -- emotional branding can be a freebie competitive advantage for a small business. "I never wanted it to be about me, but people got such a kick out of me," says Rose. "That's what I needed to do to get my foot in the door." But as Rose and other CEOs on the Inner City 100 can attest, tying a company's identity to its leader can be a tricky proposition, both for the emotional toll it can take on the CEOs themselves and for their companies' long-term growth.
Ivan J. Juzang, CEO of MEE Productions Inc. [#20], is among the most adept of the emotional brand builders on the Inner City 100 this year. His communications-research and media company, located in blighted North Philadelphia, offers its take on the tastes of black urban youth to customers ranging from New Line Cinema to the National Institutes of Health. Like many entrepreneurs who engage in emotional marketing, Juzang honed his story when he was looking for investors. "People like the story of how we started," he says. "I was head coach of a little league basketball team in Pittsburgh -- I went to Carnegie Mellon -- and I saw how young people gravitated to hip-hop music and hip-hop culture."
From there Juzang went to IBM and then to Wharton for his M.B.A. As a class assignment, he wrote a business plan for a company that would make videos that blend hip-hop music with a self-help motivational message geared toward kids. Juzang's team presented the plan to some venture capitalists that his professor brought to class. But their reaction to the idea was negative. "They kept asking me, 'Where's the research?' " Juzang recalls. "They wanted to know what did I know about low-income African American urban youth? I was this guy from Wharton." It was then that he realized there might be a marvelous market opportunity for figuring out what inner-city kids like and want, and why.
After Wharton, Juzang honed his pitch and started shopping around his business plan. The new and improved version mitigated the VCs' criticism by promising that the start-up would extensively survey at-risk youth to get feedback on its videos. Juzang even suggested that the company would employ urban street kids in the making of its videos as a means of ensuring the work's street cred.
"I don't think in a company that's had our growth we ever plan for a downside. There are always setbacks, but everybody's always looking for it to go up. I think it's better to look ahead than stand around trying to figure out where you were."
Even though Juzang was starting an "asset-lite" media consulting company in the midst of the 1991 recession, some people found his story irresistible. Calvert Social Venture Partners, a Virginia venture-capital fund that invests in companies that it sees as both moneymaking and socially responsible, decided to invest $50,000 in the start-up. An angel investor who read about the company in the Philadelphia Inquirer called Juzang out of the blue and invested $50,000. And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded a $50,000 grant to study the impact of the foundation's ubiquitous "This is your brain on drugs" ad campaign on at-risk youth.
Juzang's story still evokes strong emotion among his backers. "I love him," says John May, managing partner of Calvert Social Venture Partners. "This is the classic case when the founder is visionary, and you back the jockey, not the horse. That company wouldn't be what it is without him."
Juzang's story may sound like one in a million, but it isn't even one in a hundred. Two other entrepreneurs on this year's list similarly pitch their companies as connectors between urban minority communities and the mainstream economy. One is Eugene Morris, CEO of E. Morris Communications Inc. [#59], a Chicago agency that creates advertising that targets African Americans for big consumer marketers like General Motors.
The other is Glynn Lloyd, founder and CEO of City Fresh Foods [#81], which mirrors MEE Productions in many ways. For instance, it tailors the services of big institutions to their minority constituents. City Fresh Foods is paid by city health agencies to provide ethnic food to the homebound elderly. Lloyd sold the idea for his company to customers and investors based in part on his history in the largely African American neighborhood of Boston in which the company was going to be based -- and whose residents would be its meal recipients. "It helped us that we're from here and that our folks are from here and that my grandmother lives down the street," Lloyd says. "We're real and we're authentic."
Like Juzang, Lloyd wrote a business plan and shopped it around to investors, even though catering, like focus-group research, is not a market chock-full of venture-backed start-ups. And like Juzang, Lloyd was successful. City Fresh raised $190,000 in equity from two socially conscious funders in 1995 and has since grown to revenues of $1.3 million on local government contracts.
NEW MARKETS: "I think that there is a lot of opportunity out there because, even though the economy is suffering, I think finally there are companies out there who realize the importance of the African American segment. Even though it's a segment, it's a very viable segment."
Lloyd, 34, says that his pitch is boosted by his company's essential mission: cooking soul food for little old ladies. "The food we're putting out works in our favor," he says. But so does the fact that he's a local guy looking to do a little good. "Politically and businesswise, being local helped us maneuver," Lloyd says. "We could say that, missionwise, we wanted to create jobs and create capacity and wealth here. When I had to, that was the conversation I had. And it wasn't bullshit, either -- it was true."
Even though some investors might eat up the love-me-love-my-company pitch, a sales call is perhaps a bigger deal. How does a CEO infuse emotion into an initial contact without turning it into an uncomfortable "pity me" kind of conversation? After all, prospective customers just want a product or service hassle-free. What do they care about the CEO? The answer, according to Inner City 100 CEOs, seems to be that many customers will actually create the opening, particularly if a company is small or young like many on the Inner City 100. "People buy from who they know and like to be around," says Lanre Olotu, the Nigerian émigré-turned-entrepreneur.
The CEO, whose $10-million business is based in Rochester, N.Y., devised his emotional branding pitch during the early days, when he was Printing Methods' principal salesperson. When he called on clients, his West African cadence served as an icebreaker of sorts. Prospects almost always asked, "That's a strange accent. Where are you from?" Olotu says. He was happy to field the question. "I tell them that I'm from Nigeria, that I went to London and studied printing, that I came to America in 1980, then went to the Rochester Institute of Technology and got a degree, and became a citizen in 1992," Olotu says. "I tell them all of this so that they can see that I know what I am doing."
Veronica Rose, the electrician based in Queens, N.Y., says that she is always egged into sharing her history with potential customers of Aurora Electric, her $5-million, 25-employee business. "I'm a novelty," she explains. "I'm six feet tall, I have long blond hair, and I can tell you what size turbine you need."
Having been in business since 1993, Rose has boiled down her life story into a two-minute sound bite for sales prospects. But for her the purpose of painting a vivid picture of her life is to then turn the tables. "When people ask me about my background, I ask them about theirs. If my price is the same as somebody else's, and they feel I've taken the time to know them, I'm the one who's going to get the job," she says.
Marina Inez Poropat, CEO of Intaglio [#71], a printing and graphic-design company based in Los Angeles, has also found that her customers want to get a good sense of who she is. Back in 1991, when she bought the company, her first sales prospects were particularly interested to know how a woman as young as 28 years old came to own her own business. "People were always shocked at how young I was," she says. "Just to have a female owner in a male-dominated industry was weird for some people, but youth was the biggest thing and the toughest thing for me."
"People don't expect a manufacturer who's doing well in New York City to stay in New York City. People usually move away to Texas or Florida."
Because of those factors, Poropat never went the emotional route. In fact, the entrepreneur was so afraid that people would stereotype her business when they met her that she briefly considered having no title on her business cards. When potential customers asked her about herself, "I would sidestep!" she says with a laugh. "I would say, 'Tell me about your company.' " Now that Intaglio has grown to $2.2 million, Poropat could reassess her options and start describing herself and her company in classic pluck-and-luck terms. But still she avoids revealing much about herself. Why? "I've never sold that way," she says. "I don't see the business as being an extension of me. I see it being the result of a vision I had to deliver services. So I sell the idea that I have a team behind me, an entire organization that's going to take care of you."
John Alan Laurie, president of Jack Laurie Commercial Floors Inc. [#21], a 52-year-old company in Fort Wayne, Ind., that was founded by and named after his father, also sees more value in projecting a sense of scale than a sense of intimacy. Laurie, a Harvard Business School graduate who previously worked for Procter & Gamble, took over the company in 1995. The business's positioning then played on themes of familiarity and longevity. Laurie's father's story was the stuff of family and local business lore. "My dad drove around in an old Chesterfield cigarette truck with one helper," Laurie says. "To have his last name attached to the company means a lot because people who buy services like to deal with an owner."
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: "I physically go over to the airport, to the facility-man-agement offices of each terminal, and stop in to see what they got on the desk and ask if I can help with anything. I can be in constant contact with my potential customers ... the squeaky wheel always gets the oil."
While the family brand provided a superb competitive advantage in Fort Wayne, however, Laurie had the ambition to expand regionally. Thinking strategically, he made the hard decision to junk the paterfamilias from his company's identity. In the seven cities in which he's opened stores in the past four years, Laurie does business as a franchisee of DuPont Flooring Systems, licensing the name of the large manufacturer. "I don't know if I could have gotten into other cities if I didn't use the DuPont name instead of Jack Laurie," he says. "It would have taken too long to ramp up profitability and sustainability as we built brand awareness."
Of course, all CEOs have personal stories, and in the case of most growth companies the tale's central role in sales and marketing almost guarantees that it will become part of the pitch. But the CEOs of the Inner City 100 fall into a special category, since all of them can claim to be urban pioneers -- and all have embraced that position, to varying degrees, for their companies. Aside from working in inner cities, many of the entrepreneurs on the list can also brand their companies by highlighting such characteristics as gender and ethnicity. Thirty-three of the 100 are members of ethnic minority groups, and 15 are women. How much they wish to brand the company around their identity is a choice they have had to make early on.
"In some areas it works against you; in some areas it works in your favor," says Olotu, referring to printing work he has gotten through the supplier-diversity initiatives of companies like Verizon and Johnson & Johnson. "For the people who think it's a plus, sometimes they feel sorry for you, so they give you an order. Which is OK. I'll take it any way I can."
But not all Inner City 100 entrepreneurs find it that easy to ignore the source of their customers' motivation. When Rodney Evans started Skyline, in 1995, he wanted no part of the federal government's 8(a) program, which sets aside certain contracts for businesses owned by women and minorities. Far from helping his company, he feared, the 8(a) designation might actually limit what Skyline could accomplish -- making his business overly dependent on government contracts. "A lot of companies don't have the commercial base," explains Evans, "so when they have to give up the 8(a), they fail."
Evans's qualms about the "minority-owned business" label are evident in the company's marketing material even today. An article about the company posted on Skyline's Web site states: "For many fledgling minority and women entrepreneurs, securing federal contracts is the first order of business. In keeping with its commitment to be different, Skyline went the opposite route -- pursuing commercial contracts. Their first clients were the brokerage houses of Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley." Skyline's printed brochure only briefly mentions the company's certification as a minority-owned business. Neither Evans's name nor his picture appears. "In the commercial arena you can't use that," he says.
"Our goal is to be the best place to work in the Southwest, and the inner city has allowed that to happen."
Slowly, Evans has learned to reap some of the benefits of the minority label. Last year he finally applied for his 8(a) certification. These days Evans frequently takes the high-speed Acela Express train down to the nation's capital, making as many as four government sales calls before boarding the return train home. The recession has taken its toll on his business, he explains. He would be foolish to not pursue 8(a) work now. "I'm going to take a piece of that pie," he says, adding, "in the federal arena, if they like the people who run the company, they can get contracts without bidding."
Veronica Rose would certainly encourage Evans to use his unique story when he's promoting his company -- whether in D.C. or other markets. "I do it 100% because I believe that my company is different from other companies, and I believe with all my heart and passion that it's a good difference," she says. At the same time, she has moved subtly away from depending on emotional marketing. "I've learned that if that's how I operate, I will have created a job for myself, but I will not have created a great company," she says. "I want to still be the spokesperson for this business, but when I give my two-minute spiel, 30 seconds will be on how I got there, and then I'll talk for the next minute and a half about all the great people who came on board."
Mike Hofman is a senior staff writer at Inc.
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MIKE HOFMAN was previously editor of Inc.com and a deputy editor at Inc. magazine, which he joined in 1996. The site was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in 2010, and was named the best business website by Folio Magazine. In 2006, Hofman was part of a team of writers nominated for a Webby Award for best business blog. He lives in New York City.