An ‘African-American Groupon’

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From left to right, Jamel Williams, Natasha Williams and Delandon Mason (wearing glasses) are working to develop a daily-deals website for African-American owned businesses. The site, whose name is a play off of the idea of marking an event and the black community’s often-hidden marketplaces, launches January 16.

Christopher Nolen, an independent film director and producer, enjoys using Groupon coupons to get half-off deals at restaurants. So when he found out about a new deals website dedicated to black-owned businesses, he signed up.

“This is the African-American community’s Groupon – it’s a great way to give African-American business owners some notoriety and help them in this economy,” said Nolen, a Roseland native who teaches eighth-grade algebra in addition to running Nferno Productions, Inc., in Calumet City.

The site, Blackmark-it.com, whose name is a play off of the idea of marking an event and the black community’s often-hidden marketplaces, launches Monday (JANUARY 16).

Its first discount is for a 40 percent off tax-preparation service by Chicago accountant Emerging Business Solutions Group, LLC.

The first deal will run for one week, as will the next three.

After the first month, the website’s creators intend to offer two deals per week and gradually ramp up to daily deals.

The deals extend beyond spas and nail salons, with discounts ranging from professional photography services to 50-percent off the price of “The Veil of Victory,” a non-fiction book by author Yorli Huff about her experience as an undercover cop.

“As a business owner and filmmaker, it’s incredible when I see other African-Americans helping each other in business,” Nolen said. “We need more of that.”

Blackmark-it.com is the work of Oak Lawn couple Jamel and Natasha Williams, both 33, who financed the web startup on their own after they grew disappointed that so few offers from Groupon and LivingSocial featured black-owned companies. Jamel, a truck driver who manages the couple’s catering business, Covenant Café, and Natasha, a marketing consultant at The Nielsen Company, aim to keep the deals manageable for merchants, and to help strategize other ways the businesses can grow.

“We’re setting maximums (of deals) as low as 25 to 50 to make sure the merchants can meet the demand, and then we can revisit growth strategies,” Natasha Williams said. “For many minority-owned businesses, advertising feels like more risk than a gain.”

Delandon Mason, 34, a jazz and classical-music trumpet player and friend and former college classmate of the Williames at Northern Illinois University, is recruiting subscribers and helping implement strategy. He is using the experience to inform his own entrepreneurial ambitions and to learn how to build a personal brand.

The Williamses are only too aware of the widely publicized missteps of daily deal giant Groupon, including the latest dispute in which a contractor-bidding company alleges that Groupon changed the terms of their deal after both parties had signed off on it.

The Williamses frequent their clients’ businesses and tweak discounts so the merchants maintain their profits.

They’re also cognizant of Groupon’s elaborate list of merchant-help tools, including a scheduler, a rewards program and location-based offers that alert consumers to deals at places near where they are standing and at times the merchant needs more customers.

Compared with most daily deal sites that take half of the cut, Blackmark-it.com takes 20 percent to 40 percent of the revenue from each deal, depending on the deal’s amount, the quantity sold and other factors.

To track each coupon as it is redeemed, merchants may log in to a Blackmark-it web portal; scan coupons set up with their preference of barcodes or QR codes to update the redemptions at checkout in real time, and keep up-to-date with spreadsheets that the Williamses create.

Blackmark-it also will offer for an extra fee a one-minute video commercial, which the merchants may use for their own marketing, Jamel Williams said.

Some analysts say the ability of smaller players to offer better terms poses a threat to the Groupons of the industry, while others say the market affords massive opportunities for all players.

Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note to investors, “While we believe Groupon taps primarily into the $500 billion (worldwide) advertising market, of which $100 billion is local advertising, with Groupon’s expansion into travel, goods and events, the total addressable market is well more than $10 trillion.”

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