Building Your Small Business – Memories and Insights from Women in Business I Admire


To be an entrepreneur right now is challenging and wonderful. In this uncertain world, it is one thing you can be in control of and pour your passion into. While so many are experiencing furloughs and layoffs, to be a small business owner or to have your own brand or consulting business waiting on the side is a Godsend.

Right now, I know many people out there are on the sidelines, wondering if they should make the plunge. I say, if not now, when? And then there are more questions, like how do you begin? Where do you begin? Thinking about all of this made me look back to my own beginnings. My business began as a hobby and a passion project. The thing I did as a release from my 9 to 5, grew into my career.

When I first began, I had no idea I would need to become Afrobella LLC. I didn’t know I would need to learn how to read 10-page contracts full of legalese. I started Afrobella in 2006, and by 2009 I was at the point where I had to make real-time decisions about opportunities I was fielding. Did I want to keep the security of my day job? Or take a real risk and leap of faith with my passion project? You’re reading this right now, so you know which I chose. Before I made that choice to jump off the day job diving board, I had a lot to learn in building my small business. In fact, I’ll say I’m still learning more every day. 2020 has been a year full of lessons. This year I have found myself having to look to my past, to the things that inspired me and led me to know my writing could take me closer to my dreams.

What were the first investments I made when I realized my hobby was becoming a business? For me, it was business cards and a decent printer. I still remember the excitement of opening my first box of business cards so clearly. We moved to Chicago from Miami over 10 years ago, and right now I can tell you exactly how to get to the spot where I bought my first business cards back in 2008 – upstairs in a corner of some random strip mall off US1. I still remember getting my heavy box of 5,000 business cards, going down to the parking lot, ripping the box open with my car keys and almost crying because here they were in my hand, real. I felt super official.

When I got my first contract from a brand that I had to review, I knew it wasn’t the sort of thing I could quietly print out at the office. My husband and I invested in our first all-in-one printer in 2007 or 2008. A great all-in-one printer remains an office essential, and right now I’m using and loving the Brother INKvestment Tank MFC-J995DW Inkjet All-in-One-Printer. It’s ideal for entrepreneurs and small business owners — incredibly affordable, easy to set up, the printouts are vibrant and sharp, and it comes with up to 1 year of ink already in the box.

I reached out to some of my fellow entrepreneurs to find out what their first business investments were. Did they also start with business cards and a printer? Or did they need something more like a computer or sewing machine to make it official? I reached out to some entrepreneur experts I admire and love, to ask about the first investments they made into their businesses, and how making that first investment made them feel. The answers they gave inspired me and I hope they’ll inspire you too.

“We’ve bootstrapped our business, so our growth has been slow, organic, and full of many small milestones. Our very first investments were dedicated vessels and mixing equipment. After years of creating my handmade concoctions in my existing mixing bowls and cake mixers, we began visiting restaurant supply stores to get larger vessels or more powerful blenders so we could scale up our recipes. It made me feel like Oyin was slowly edging out of the realm of a ‘hobby’ – we were close to having a real business!

The second work process we outsourced was our order processing – creating and printing mailing labels and packing slips. We’ve been selling online since 2005, and this was long before there are API processes and shipping software solutions that could connect our shopping cart directly to shipping providers. We used to have to manually type every address into the USPS website! For this, we partnered with a friend who was staying at home with her new baby. We purchased a dedicated printer and reams of paper, and she would process our web sales on her own time and drop them off at our house a few times a week. This was a game changer! We just knew we’d arrived at official entrepreneurship!” – Jamyla Bennu, co-creator of Oyin Handmade.

“My first investment in my business was a home laser printer. At the time, I couldn’t afford the amount needed for the minimum order quantity required to have my products labels professionally printed. So I found a home laser printer that would allow me to print decent quality labels from home. It was about $350 and the laser paper cost about $30, the total which was a lot less than the few thousand I’d have to spend with a professional label printing company.”  – Gwen Jimmere, creator of Naturalicious.

“My first investment was an assistant and I felt good, because I had help and it cut down on my stress because I had someone to help me.” – Felicia Leatherwood, celebrity hairstylist and designer of Brush with the Best.

“My first business investment was my website. That’s when I knew I was taking a huge leap to make my dreams come true and sharing my business with the world. It was much needed as a way to showcase my designs and there was no turning back from there.” – Kahindo Mateene, clothing designer of Kahindo.

“The first investment into my business was getting a registered trademark. I committed to the name and my goals for the long term and knew I didn’t want anyone to take it away from me. When I received the email 9 months later that it had been approved, I was thrilled. However, receiving the certificate in the mail made me cry. It made me feel like I accomplished something big and that the vision for my brand was on its way.” – Shannon Smyth, Chief Pampering Officer, A Girl’s Gotta Spa! ®

“Believe it or not, one of my first business investments was actually a Brother [Sewing] product! I don’t remember the model, but I got it at Walmart for $89.99. I remember the price because at that time, pulling together that much money was a struggle for me. I was making costumes for dancers in Atlanta….by hand! One night, I sold all of my costumes and went to buy that machine. I’d had sewing machines before, but this was the first one I paid for with my own money and I thought…maybe I can really do this. And I guess I did.” – Jasmine Elder, clothing designer of Jibri.

All solid initial business investments, and a few reminders of things I still need to do thrown in for good measure.

If you’re an entrepreneur, it can be good and healthy to look back to your early days to remind yourself of how far you’ve come, instead of always thinking about how far you have to go or how heavy things can be now. My business has become leaner, and I have had to find ways to pivot to keep myself afloat. This is that season, of reinvention and ingenuity. In these times, when things are tough we have to lean on our community and do our best to keep going. That goes double for entrepreneurs. Times are tough right now, but society needs you. Your neighborhood needs you; your city needs you; we need you to keep going. Stand firm and keep the faith.

My partners at Brother mean what they say, when they are “at your side” in times of need. We are proud to present the Brother and Main Street America small business grant.

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