The Wash

New online marketplace looks to help next generation of D.C. small businesses, entrepreneurs flourish

The platform allows small businesses, many local, to sell their products and services directly to consumers. It also teaches young entrepreneurs how to navigate the world of digital commerce.

Emerging small businesses and entrepreneurs in D.C. have a new tool aimed at helping them flourish in the marketplace, the Shop DC SBDC website.

The new site is the brainchild of Carl Brown, executive director of the DC Small Business Development Center. The online marketplace, which launched Nov. 8, allows businesses to sell directly to customers. 

So far, over 30 businesses have signed up to use the marketplace, and the products featured on it range from books and food to educational services and yoga gift cards.

The DC SBDC has been around for 40 years and provides resources for small businesses to grow, develop, and flourish. It works with businesses to help individuals get jobs, as well as helps secure loans for those businesses. 

The center is housed within Howard University, and receives its funding from both Howard and the U.S. Small Business Administration. It services the community at large.

Carl Brown sits in his office at the DC SBDC.

Carl Brown, executive director of the DC SBDC, said that he and his team created the new site, among other things, to teach the students at Howard University who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs about e-commerce.

The marketplace presents an opportunity to learn the tools of the trade.

Sellers on the site collect 100% of their profit, an aspect that Brown said was not common among other marketplaces.

While an individual who sells on Amazon might take home 70% of the profit and pay a 30% premium to Amazon for being able to sell there, Brown said sellers get the full amount of their product sales on the Shop DC SBDC website.

For local business owners who don’t have a lot of experience marketing themselves online, the new site assists with product photography so sellers can get the best possible photograph to entice buyers to purchase their product.

This type of care and attention to detail for promoting local businesses is another aspect that separated the Shop DC SBDC platform from other online marketplaces, Brown said.

The program’s entrepreneurial mentorship extends to students beyond Howard University. Brown said students from other schools in the area like Georgetown, George Washington, Catholic, or American universities are welcome to use the site and learn through Brown and his team at DC SBDC.

“I’m trying to show you my hand, so you can play the best hand that you got,” Brown said when discussing how he wanted to use the lessons he learned as a young entrepreneur to pay it forward.

He wanted to see exponential financial growth for his students and mentees specifically.

Brown has acted as a mentor to a long list of individuals. Having worked for 25 years in a variety of capacities, most notably in consulting and training, he’s traversed the public and private sectors. 

The front page of the Shop DC SBDC website.

He’s held positions at the US Patent and Trademark Office and the Department of Treasury, as well as at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

He said it was sad to see former individuals he’d known who didn’t strategize for their future, making the same income they were making 10 years ago. He wanted those individuals to be making millions.

The shift in generations was changing things though.

“The difference is, these young folks don’t want to make the same $100,000 year after year. They want to see exponential growth year over year. That’s what I want to see,” Brown said.

He derided older entrepreneurs who complained about a lack of opportunity.

“You hear the same BS over and over again. ‘Oh we not getting opportunities.” No, you not getting opportunities because you bring the same dumb shit to the table every time,” Brown said.

Area business owners were excited about the opportunity to reach a wider audience and to take advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunity Brown had set out to create.

Van Strother runs Lord Made, a company that helps with content branding and advertising through photography and videography. He said he relished the opportunity the new website presented.

Strother said the marketplace offered him a chance to gain more exposure for his business, adding that it provided an important service to start-up brands like his.

“I hope it brings clients, hope that it brings awareness of the level of photography that Lord Made does,” Strother said.

A motivational message above the TV in Brown’s office.

Many sellers had only just begun using the Shop DC SBDC website and were yet to see tangible results regarding its financial benefits. But the optimism about what it could bring was evident.

Blum Tea’s Keisha Cofield praised the marketplace for promoting small businesses that are the “lifeline or bloodline to the community.”

More importantly, it provided a platform for her to showcase the fruits of her intense labor.

“I have a cool business, I worked really hard,” Cofield said.

Sharon Wise runs Wise Workz, a company that offers sensory items for people with autism and other cognitive disabilities, and said she sought to create products and services for individuals who needed help mentally coping with the same issues she did growing up.

A survivor of abuse, Wise said she ran away from home and was in and out of jail during the early part of her life. She said she committed low-level crimes to be able to access the mental health care, like cognitive behavior therapy, that was only available in the prison system.

Since then, she has committed herself to self-care, for herself and others, and made it her life’s work.

“People’s lives are being restored by virtue of the fact mine was destroyed early on,” Wise said.

She was looking forward to the services the online marketplace could provide.

“What I hope that Shop DC SBDC brings to my business is visibility, heightened marketing, and promotions of our products,” Wise said.

Riley Ceder

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