For Founders of Small Businesses, the Personal Story Matters
Making It Work is a series is about small-business owners striving to endure hard times.
Hakki Akdeniz, the founder of the Champion Pizza chain in New York City, speaks freely about his past. When he first moved to the United States from Canada in 2001, he was homeless, sleeping in subway cars and at Grand Central Terminal before staying at a shelter for three months.
Mr. Akdeniz’s experience is featured prominently on the website of Champion Pizza, and the company’s dedication to supporting people who are homeless is key to its mission. Mr. Akdeniz, 43, is part of a growing group of small-business owners incorporating some of the most intimate aspects of their private lives into their company’s brands, according to experts and business observers.
Company founders telling their personal back stories is not a new phenomenon. These stories are often straightforward, rosy accounts of a determined person who sets out to solve a problem. But a new generation of founders are distinguishing themselves with narratives that aren’t clean-cut, easily digestible stories of how their businesses came to be, experts say. They include tales of homelessness, addiction, incarceration, mental illness and physical health.
Many small-business owners say they are choosing to be transparent about a difficult period in their lives and, in turn, build deeper relationships with their consumers. But what happens when companies reveal some of the darkest moments of their founders’ lives? Will consumers relate or be turned off by too much information?
In recent years, an increasing number of small-business owners have been divulging sensitive details about their past in company messaging, said Tulin Erdem, a professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business and the chair of the university’s marketing department. Dr. Erdem said it was a “positive trend” that could inspire connection with customers, as long as it was genuine and relevant to a company’s product or service.
“Some people won’t like it,” she said, but added that those who don’t are probably not the target customer.
Angela Lee, a professor at Columbia Business School who teaches about venture capital, said that she, too, had noticed more founders opening up about past struggles. But she said that business owners should “proceed with caution” when it comes to oversharing, especially about complicated topics. She said, “Nuance is hard to convey when someone is quickly scanning a bio, or a social media post.”
Ms. Lee is also an investor and the founder of 37 Angels, a network of female investors. She said that the lines between people’s professional and personal lives are increasingly blurred and that founders should be upfront when pitching investors because their past may surface in background reviews. “The days of one person at work, and one person at home, are behind us,” Ms. Lee said.
The “About Us” section on a business website is used to set a company apart by explaining what it does better than competitors, said David Gaz, the founder of the Bureau of Small Projects, a branding agency that also creates websites for small businesses. The agency found that the “about” page was the second-most-visited section on a business’s site, after the home page, Mr. Gaz said. (The company builds about 100 websites for small businesses per year, he said.)
Mr. Akdeniz’s biography is on the Champion Pizza website, but he emphasized that the intention wasn’t to put himself at the center of the brand. “I want to be an example for a lot of people, but not cocky,” said Mr. Akdeniz, who is Kurdish. He often gives slices to homeless people who frequent his pizzerias and volunteers once a week with two organizations that support people experiencing homelessness, donating pies that he serves himself.
Originally from Turkey, he arrived in New York as an asylum seeker after being deported from Canada because his tourist visa had expired, he said. He had learned how to make Italian-style pizza in Canada, where he lived for several years, after already mastering lahmajoun, a Middle Eastern flatbread with meat, in his home country.
He eventually secured a job washing dishes at an eatery in Hoboken, before he started making pizza in restaurants himself, and he opened his first shop in 2009. He said he was granted the EB-1 green card, which is given to people “of extraordinary ability,” after he received the highest overall score at a pizza-making competition by Pizza Marketing Quarterly, an industry magazine, in 2010 at the Javits Center in New York City.
There are 33.2 million small businesses in the United States, according to the Small Business Administration, and scores of owners have most likely experienced challenging periods — the National Institute of Mental Health estimates “more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness,” for example. Historically, most have not revealed these hardships publicly through their business platforms, said Dr. Erdem, the marketing professor from New York University. But some who do are finding that their personal narratives resonate with their target consumers.
George Haymaker, the founder of ReThink Ice Cream, is one of these business owners. Mr. Haymaker, 62, described a period of drug addiction in his life as “circling down a toilet drain.” Eating large amounts of ice cream played a significant role in Mr. Haymaker’s early sobriety, he said, and it helped him stay away from drugs and alcohol.
This experience is integral to his company’s identity: “ReThink Ice Cream was born out of my addiction to alcohol and pain pills,” reads the first line of the “The Story” section of the company’s website. He had gained more than 30 pounds when he first got sober, so he developed a healthier ice cream recipe with reduced sugar.
“Whether there’s a stigma attached to addiction or mental health, I don’t care,” Mr. Haymaker, who lives in Northern California, said. He said his message of recovery had especially resonated with colleges looking to address the mental health of students. He now sells ice cream at 30 colleges in California and one in Oregon, as well as in stores, and he has given talks on campuses about recovery and entrepreneurship.
Alli Ball, a food consultant who is based in San Francisco and advises start-ups selling packaged food and beverages, said there were no hard rules about what founders should or shouldn’t talk about. “If it’s gimmicky, it hasn’t really shaped you and you’re just doing it to craft a more engaging story, I think people can see through that,” she said.
She advises clients to be upfront about their values, explaining that it can draw in the types of customers a business wants to attract.
One business owner who has been determined to be upfront is Nadya Okamoto, a co-founder of August, a start-up that sells feminine hygiene products. Her company, which sells products online and in some Target locations, allows consumers to build their own personalized packages of menstrual products to be delivered at home.
“My whole brand, from the beginning, has been unfiltered, talking about periods and blood and mental health,” she said.
Ms. Okamoto, 25, said she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder six months after she conceived the idea for the company. She shares stories about her mental health struggles, including one in which she said she was sexually abused, on her Instagram and on TikTok, where she has over four million followers. She acknowledges that her approach is not for everyone.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s a significant marketing incentive,” said Ms. Okamoto, adding that if there was any advantage for August, it came from creating sincere connections with her followers.
She said that her openness on social platforms had led to a sense of loyalty among many of her customers. But she admitted that her candor could invite judgment, cause some people to be more cautious of her and even repel others, adding, “I get a lot of hate online.”
Meg Smith, the founder of Love, Lexxi, a lingerie company that specializes in bras with smaller cup sizes, agrees that customers value transparency. “Consumers are just so smart today, and they care about authenticity and genuine motives that brands have,” she said.
Ms. Smith, 38, said she developed an autoimmune disease after receiving breast implants and eventually had to have the implants removed. She said that plastic surgery was taboo in the community where she grew up, outside Portsmouth, N.H., and that she hesitated at first about opening up about her cosmetic procedure and health struggles for fear of judgment.
Eventually, in a video on the Love, Lexxi website, she talked about wanting to feel beautiful after having struggled with her body image and health. In hindsight, she has no regrets about sharing, she said, because her story reveals the honest motives behind her company.
Ms. Smith said that, for the company, her transparency shows, “Our founder had been through the wringer.”
Business owners who have been incarcerated said that sharing their past could be a risk to their professional reputation, but some said it had been worth it. When Marcus Bullock founded Flikshop, a website and app in which people can send postcards to incarcerated loved ones, in 2012, he initially kept private his own experience of going to prison.
“I didn’t want to become ostracized from the business community,” Mr. Bullock said.
He spent eight years in prison, starting at age 15, for carjacking, and for the last six years of his imprisonment, his mother sent him a letter every day. This inspired the idea for his company, whose mission is to end recidivism by helping people imagine life after prison through letters from loved ones.
After a customer expressed how meaningful the app had been for her family, Mr. Bullock decided to share that he understood where she was coming from because he had spent time in prison.
“I felt the power by owning, completely owning, a narrative that I ran away from for so long,” said Mr. Bullock, who is based in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, he hopes that being transparent can help destigmatize assumptions about formerly incarcerated people.
“Our customers were shocked to know that the tech that they used every day was started by someone like their loved one in one of those cells,” Mr. Bullock said. The Flikshop website said that the service operates in over 3,700 correctional facilities. He has since hired other formerly incarcerated people and created Flikshop Neighborhood, a project that connects organizations to people behind bars and educates employers on creating hiring policies to give a second chance to people with criminal records.
For Mr. Bullock and others, including Ms. Okamoto, openness about their personal lives led to a feeling of liberation.
“I hid so much of myself for so long,” Ms. Okamoto said. “It would take more emotional energy for me to filter myself and think about who I’m talking to and how I want to show up.” She added, “So, I might as well just be myself.”