As this last week of August – Black Business Month – comes to a close, we are spotlighting three African American business owners who are growing their businesses, in some part, using the power social media. Visit tnj.com every day this week to read about how the savviest entrepreneurs utilize tools from Facebook and Instagram to build and engage an audience, and keep them coming back for more.
First up is Nisha Blackwell who launched Knotzland, a line of custom-made bow-ties, after making a hot-selling hair bow for her friend’s daughter’s birthday party. It caught on quickly and before she knew it, Blackwell had a creative business on her hands that evolved into men’s bow-ties after a parent at the party inquired about back-to-school accessories for boys. “I had a ton of orders, and was able to support myself for the entire summer just from making and selling those bows!” she told TNJ.com.
You would think she spends loads of money on fabric, but instead, she sources material from local artists, designers, tailors and upholsters as well as larger companies to create an environmentally-sound company that offers sustainable fashion products retailing from $16 to $75.
What’s more, this Pittsburgh, PA-based entrepreneur has found an economical and practical approach to her production methods. She has tapped into a team of seamstresses who turn her product around in a timely fashion to help her meet the demands of her growing customer base.
Here, Blackwell tells us how she’s created an environmentally-friendly company, and how social media has been the icing on the cake.
TNJ.com: How has social media contributed to the success of your business?
Nisha Blackwell: A lot! When we first started out, we immediately established our website and Facebook and Instagram accounts. Because we have fashion product, I knew it would be helpful for people to see and visualize our offerings through still photos as well as photos of people wearing our products.
TNJ.com: Did you launch the company on Facebook?
Nisha Blackwell: No, but we have used it from the beginning as a tool for growth. And among our customers and business owners, it’s been useful for engagement.
TNJ.com: In what way?
Nisha Blackwell: People interact with the photos and comment that they like a particular bowtie. That feedback helps us know that that design is a good fit for the collection. People also message us and DM us on Facebook and Instagram for orders.
TNJ.com: Do you have a brick and mortar store or is the ordering done online only?
Nisha Blackwell: We don’t have a brick and mortar store but we have a studio where we make the bowties and people can come there and pick them up if they don’t want them shipped. We also have wedding consultations there. But the majority of our sales are done online through our website.
TNJ.com: What are your short-term goals for Knotzland?
Nisha Blackwell: We’ve been slowly starting to grow in the wedding market, so we’ll be working with our ad manager to figure out where to find out customer base for the wedding market. Currently, most of our wedding business is local, so we want to figure out how to find people looking for bowties in San Fran, NY, and everywhere!
TNJ.com: How will you use social media to accomplish that?
Nisha Blackwell: We will utilize the tools we have from Facebook and Instagram to get more reach. Also, we have been engaging with a lot of small boutiques, which is harder because you never know who a buyer of a shop is. But we’ve been engaging with the actual shops themselves on social media so they can see a presence.
TNJ.com: You’ve also come up with a way to salvage material to make your bowties. Tell us about that.
Nisha Blackwell: When I made my first bow, I made it out of fabric from a garment that I was going to donate to the Salvation Army. For some reason, I didn’t want to give it away because I really liked the print and the fabric type. So, I decided to remake it into something else.
I knew as the business grew that I wanted to explore what it was like to use fabric and materials that already exist, and in that, I began to approach upholstery and fabric stores, and anyone I thought would make a good partner. So, I googled “textiles in Pittsburgh” and an upholstery store came up in the search. When I contacted the store and inquired about fabric, the owner told me to come to her location and pick up a bag of fabric she was getting rid of.
In that moment, I realized there might be more fabric waste than I could have ever imagined so I tried to figure out how to create a business around using it and keeping it from going into landfills. And since then, our partnerships have been growing. It’s basically been one big opportunity to help retailers do right by the environment.
TNJ.com: You also use Instagram Stories to give your customers a behind-the-scenes look and connect on a more intimate level. Tell us about that.
Nisha Blackwell: Instagram Stories is a part of Instagram in which you can upload photos or 15-30 seconds of video. It’s like an intimate version of Facebook. Instagram users click on it and they know they’re about to see something that’s not available on your page.
We do that to show what’s going on in our studio, maybe there’s a fabric drop-off going on, or someone comes in to introduce themselves. Sometimes, we’ll feature a seamstress on the video as they’re woking, and it helps keep us accountable and shows a level of transparency – that this is our practice behind the scenes that is not shipped out, but made right here in Pittsburgh.
TNJ.com: How was the Seamstress Program formed?
Nisha Blackwell: All of the bowties are made here in Pittsburgh, and in order to grow, we developed a Seamstress Program in which we train, recruit and hire an entire group of women in and around the community. They essentially come to the studio, pick up their pieces, take them home, make the bow-ties, bring them back and they get paid. It helps us grow the economy while keeping out products local.
It started out by word of mouth and grew from there. We have women all ages sewing for us, and it’s really an opportunity to be a part of something bigger. Selling has the ability to transform someone’s day or life. The program has become a sub-community of Knotzland.
(CLICK HERE to read about Facebook’s recent partnership with the National Urban League.)