Podcast Transcript – Series THREE, Episode 51
ROD JOHNSON, BLK & BOLD July 2022
[00:00:00] Rod Johnson: Had enough in reserves where I think I could have withstood the storm that was to come, but, you know, maybe I didn’t need to quit my job at that time. Cuz it, it all works out in the end. Everything comes out in the wash, so to speak, but maybe not quit it right away, but at least quit it sooner than I did. And that’s more so for me, not for anybody else who was straddling the fence between being an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur within your job, but it does lend [00:00:30] itself to taking some self inventory and go, all right, what, what is it that I really want? And, and how can I position myself to fully realize that? And, and at that time that the job was just in the way.
[00:00:42] Dan: What’s up Unfound Nation, Dan Kihanya here. Thanks so much for checking out another episode of Founders Unfound, that was Rod Johnson, co-founder of the preeminent black owned coffee company in America, BLK&Bold, which was founded with the desire to unite coffee and tea lovers worldwide, through a common interest of [00:01:00] investing in community. I can’t tell you Unfound Nation, how excited I am to have rod on the podcast. I’ve been a consumer and a fan of BLK&Bold for quite some time. Rod grew up in the working class city of Gary Indiana, and eventually went on to Indiana university and a career in development and giving, but he soon had a restlessness that only business ownership could fix along with his lifelong friend Pernell. Rod set out to find their entrepreneurial calling. One that could match purpose with profit. And so [00:01:30] BLK&Bold was born in 2018. Since then Rod and Pernell have grown BLK&Bold into a national brand carried by the likes of target and whole foods. They have a rare licensing deal with the NBA and have been celebrated by Dwayne Wade on the Ellen show. All this completely bootstrapped from their headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa. Rod has a great story. You will wanna listen in.
[00:01:51] Our episode is sponsored by AfriBlocks, a global Panafric African freelance marketplace and collaboration platform. A great resource for devs designers [00:02:00] and virtual assistants. Check out the link in the show notes.
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[00:02:24] Now on with the episode, stay safe and hope you enjoy.[00:02:30]
[00:02:37] Hello and welcome to Founders. Unfound, spotlighting, the best startups you don’t know yet. We’re bringing stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented and underestimated backgrounds. This is the latest episode in our continuing series on founders of African descent. I’m your host, Dan Kihanya, let’s get on it.
[00:02:54] Today we have Rod Johnson, co-founder of BLK&Bold, a company formed from lifelong [00:03:00] friendship and shared values with the desire to unite coffee and tea lovers worldwide through common ,interest and investing in community specifically for the. Welcome to the show. Rod. We’re super excited to have you on. Thanks for making the time.
[00:03:12] Rod Johnson: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.
[00:03:14] Dan: Terrific. As I was mentioning before we recorded, I’m so excited to have you on the show. I’m personally a big fan, especially for the last couple of years, but for the few who might not be familiar with BLK&Bold, tell us what is the company about?
[00:03:27] Rod Johnson: Yeah, no, I, I think you, you summed it up perfectly in, [00:03:30] in the onset, but you know, we are a four year old coffee company that started in my friend’s garage with this intent to bridge the gap between community impact and the beverages that those communities consume on a daily basis. So ultimately we are a coffee roastery that gives a portion of our proceeds back to organizations that support youth in need. So this, this brain child that has blossomed into a business ultimately is a pathway for people to [00:04:00] reciprocate the love back to the communities of our consumers.
[00:04:03] Dan: I love that. And I think one of the things I talk about is that a lot of the modern brands today are brands as movements. Really the products and services are sort of a byproduct of that context. So we’re gonna dig more into BLK&Bold for sure. But before we get there, we’d love to hear a little bit about your story, where you from, where did you grow up?
[00:04:21] Rod Johnson: Yeah, well, born and raised in Gary Indiana. Uh, it’s about 30 minutes outside of Chicago. Very interesting community [00:04:30] has a lot of historical relevance if you will, in the sense that it was the epicenter for the steel industry.
[00:04:36] And infamous for a few other reasons as well, like being the birthplace of Michael Jackson and the Jackson family. And it was featured in the music man, musical, and, and again, a lot of different nuggets, if you will, that that’s tied back to Gary. And that’s a, a huge part of my story and just my overall P O V because it shaped who I am.
[00:04:58] You know, I am [00:05:00] also a father. I am a sibling, I’m a son proud graduate of Indiana university and, and a lover of, of all things, coffee and tea, you know, and that’s just kinda the 30,000 foot view of who I am. And, you know, just a, a guy who, who likes to have a, have a good time over some great beverages.
[00:05:18] Dan: I love it. So tell me as a child growing up, was your family connected to the industrial side of Gary? Did you have a sense of, this is what people in my community do [00:05:30] was entrepreneurship anywhere in there.
[00:05:32] Rod Johnson: Yeah. I was surrounded by entrepreneurship, but not any direct connections. My pops worked in the cemetery industry and my mom was. An administrative assistant for a, a local community college. So no direct connectivity to the industrial side of things, at least not early on. In fact, my direct connection to the industrial industry that is prevalent in Gary [00:06:00] came after my freshman year in college. So I went back home after freshman year and needed a summer job cause I was too young for an internship and I had an uncle.
[00:06:08] Who worked in the steel mill and he’s like, come, you know, get your hands dirty and see what the real world is like, you know how uncles are. And I worked at the graveyard shift for the full summer after my, my freshman year working from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM in the steel mill. Wow. And that was. Absolutely a learning experience.
[00:06:29] What my [00:06:30] biggest takeaway was is that I am better used. not necessarily using my hands. I I’m, I’m more of a behind the scenes, a strategist. I found that out very quickly, that summer.
[00:06:41] Dan: I’ll bet. I can remember. I did the same thing after my freshman year. And I remember finishing that summer experience saying, yeah, I’m gonna stay in college, I think, and see if I have other opportunities.
[00:06:52] Rod Johnson: Absolutely. And listen, I, I, I got a big respect for people who, who do that, cuz that’s hard work. Right? They are earning that living and yeah. You know, [00:07:00] everyone has, has a role if you, uh, is so to speak and that, and I found out very quickly that that wasn’t the role for me. I was more of a distraction than I was in.
[00:07:08] Dan: So when you’re growing up in high school, would you characterize yourself as creative, athletic, analytical? Do you have any sense of those attributes traits, passions?
[00:07:17] Rod Johnson: Yeah, definitely analytical, certainly focused a lot of my time, effort and energy on athletics. I was a three sport athlete. I was a participant in a lot of [00:07:30] different school clubs where there’d been the business club or student council and things of that nature.
[00:07:34] So my goal was to stay as active as possible and took a buffet approach to figure out what it was that I liked and what I was interested in, what resonated with me most was. I really like the study of people. I like watching human behavior. In fact, my, I, I end up majoring in criminal justice and getting a minor in sociology.
[00:07:55] So I kind of pursued that in some degree. And I attribute [00:08:00] my curiosity very early on in landing on that being my discipline.
[00:08:05] Dan: Fascinating. Yeah, I think there’s, there’s a lot of gravitational pull to this idea that we wanna, we want to try to observe, understand sometimes analyze how people around us interact. When you were thinking about college, did you have a sense of that particular major or, or those themes? And did your family come from going to college? Was it encouraged? Was it something new [00:08:30] for your journey?
[00:08:30] Rod Johnson: That was the only option, right? It was like, Hey rod, you’re going to do this. and, and I there’s, no, if ands, buts about it, it’s just a matter of where, uh, and I was a pretty smart kid too.
[00:08:40] So I, I was geared, you know, just naturally wired towards pursuing post-secondary education. My mom is also a college graduate. She graduated from Indiana state and got a degree in accounting. So that was Al always again. That was the baseline. If you will, as to what, what was next? What I would pursue. I figured that out [00:09:00] when I got to college, I had an affinity for law and understanding like why people committed crimes again, going back to just being very observant.
[00:09:09] Growing up in Gary kind of lends itself to that. Because one thing that I didn’t mention that Gary was, and is infamous for is the crime rate. Unfortunately, back in the nineties, in fact, it was considered the murder capital of America and still to this day, bolst some pretty staggering crime [00:09:30] rates and.
[00:09:30] Being surrounded by that and fortunate enough to overcome it. I wanted to understand why people did it. So essentially that is why I decided to want those disciplines.
[00:09:41] Dan: Makes a lot of sense for sure. And I think a lot of times we come out of certain environments and we either want to double down on those environments or figure out why they were like that.
[00:09:51] I’m curious about going to university, Indiana. I’ve been there a couple of times, amazingly beautiful large campus. Was there a cultural [00:10:00] adjustment that you had coming from growing up in Gary to the university setting and sort of like, how was that transition like?
[00:10:09] Rod Johnson: Yeah. Oh gosh. I mean, definitely a culture shock, right? Not that I was coddled at home, but there definitely isn’t codling at a big 10 university. Right? Like you are one of 40,000 people on a campus and you ultimately have to figure it out. Right. There are Def, there are resources available for you to, to take advantage of, [00:10:30] but. You gotta have the insight to know what those resources are for you to actually leverage them to, to your advantage.
[00:10:37] So it did take a little bit of getting used to, and trying to figure out what my niche was and, and how would I be comfortable in that new environment? Ultimately, I think I figured it out and I’m grateful that I took that path because that it gives me a, a greater appreciation for that journey in pursuing that collegiate.
[00:10:56] Dan: And I imagine, I mean, I think for a lot of folks who go to big universities like that, there’s [00:11:00] a new diversity. I mean, not just sort of cultural or racial, ethnic, I mean, there’s social economic and people who come from big cities and rural areas. And so there’s this crossroad sometimes when you get there, like, do I embrace that and try to figure out how to understand other people or do I sort of like find my own group and just sort of hunker down with them. And so it’s, it’s a really interesting journey for a lot of folks.
[00:11:23] Rod Johnson: Yeah, I think I did a little bit of both. I [00:11:30] certainly found my tribe and found my support system. Those that we were like mind that had similar background, similar interests, similar aspirations. And that’s why I spent the majority of my time, but I didn’t let that impact my curiosity and learning and building new relationships in. I pursued jobs on campus that gave me access to different cultures, different personalities.
[00:11:54] In fact, well, my first job on campus, or rather my second job on campus was working for the [00:12:00] Indiana university telephone. So essentially we were the people that were responsible for interrupting your dinners and asking for 20 bucks. Right. I was like, Hey, do you want to give back to your Alma mater? And that one introduced me to the depth and the diversity of our.
[00:12:17] Of all of our alumni, as well as those that were actually on, on campus as well. So I’m very grateful that I embarked on those because that’s what the real world was like. It, it’s not monolithic. And you know, you’re gonna have to encounter [00:12:30] and deal with people from all walks of life. So I took full advantage of getting a head start on that during my undergrad years.
[00:12:36] Dan: Very smart. Very smart, indeed. So let’s talk about that. So you, you came out of school and did you have a sense of where you were gonna go, what you were gonna do, what your career in front of you was going to be.
[00:12:49] Rod Johnson: No, absolutely not. All right. So I remember January of my graduate, my, my senior year thinking, what am I gonna do?
[00:12:58] Because I’m gonna graduate here in the [00:13:00] spring. And I don’t have any job offers lined up nor do I know what I really want to do. But what I had been doing up until that point was building a resume and a resume of some real, tangible results that, that I could ultimately leverage. So by working at the telephone, I was able to.
[00:13:18] Just get some real world experience that I ultimately parlayed into a career. So upon graduation, I continued down the fundraising journey and ultimately was [00:13:30] responsible for managing annual fund centers for different colleges, universities, and healthcare centers across America. So I did that for about four years or so four or five years.
[00:13:41] And continue to ascend up those ranks. Whereas it took me from behind the scenes as a fundraising strategist to more on the front lines and being a development officer and someone to actually curate the relationship between benefactors and the beneficiaries. So did that for, you know, [00:14:00] 10 plus years after college, but it all does date back to that summer job that I picked up because I didn’t wanna go back to Gary and work in a steel mill for another summer.
[00:14:09] Dan: There you go. That’s fascinating. And it’s really interesting that you got a chance to sort of be exposed to that world in a way that was like, Hey, this is a job. Seems like a cool job. I get paid, but then you get to see sort of the many pieces of it. And we’ve had other folks on our show who are entrepreneurs, who came from similar backgrounds in terms of either [00:14:30] nonprofits or fundraising.
[00:14:32] And there tends to be, I think a lot of connections. Fundraising is, you know, there’s a sales element to it. There’s a strategy element, certainly communication messaging, even from a marketing perspective, like with channels and, and that kind of stuff.
[00:14:46] Rod Johnson: You’re hitting a nail on the head, my business partner.
[00:14:48] So I didn’t start this business by myself. My, my friend and I are doing this in tandem. And I joke with him all the time because we have complimentary backgrounds. So he actually worked in sales to some degree while I [00:15:00] was on the nonprofit side of things. And, and I, I tease him and say that I’m a, a better salesperson, considering that I had to sell feelings, I had to sell sentiments and nostalgia.
[00:15:09] It’s much easier to sell a widget, right? Like, Hey, if you buy this thing, then you get the value of it. But to sell someone an idea and convey it as though it’s an investment, it does require a certain skill set. And also embedded in that career. Is this idea of. Persistence and resiliency because not [00:15:30] everyone is looking to be separated from their money, right.
[00:15:33] Especially when they don’t get a widget in return and that not everyone understands the idea of investing in higher education or healthcare. So you get told no, a lot. And that is 1000% synonymous with an entrepreneurial journey. We’ve had a lot of doors closed in our face over these past four years, despite the success that we have been able to amass and I attribute being able to overcome those objections, to cutting our teeth very [00:16:00] early on in our respective careers.
[00:16:02] Dan: I love that. And that gets such a great insight, like this idea of selling ideas, selling nostalgia. I often tell my kids, you know, when they were growing up and doing extracurricular stuff, I said, one of the hardest things to do is to try and get a volunteer to do something because they don’t have to
[00:16:18] And it’s the same thing when you’re asking for donations or contributions, it’s like, that is a skill that. Preeminent, because like you said, they don’t have a widget to take home and say, I got this widget. [00:16:30]
[00:16:30] Rod Johnson: Yeah, no, it, I encourage people to, there’s a couple of careers that people should pursue early on. Right? The working in retail, working in the restaurant industry or working in some type of telecommunication, the skills that you acquire on those respective paths that can serve you tremendous benefit as you continue to grow and do other things.
[00:16:54] Dan: Yeah, that’s so true. So true. So take me into the transition [00:17:00] into being an entrepreneur. Were you at a point in your career where you were looking for something different or did this just this opportunity to just present itself and you, you and Pernell had to say, let’s go do it. How did that sort of evolve?
[00:17:13] Rod Johnson: Yeah. So I, I could speak from my, what got me to that point, the breaking point, if you will. And it was feeling unfulfilled. You know, I had continued to ascend up the ranks in corporate America or in the nonprofit space and pretty much running my, my own shop, if you will. And. [00:17:30] While I appreciated that autonomy. I appreciated being able to run through the finish line and everything that came along with the role that, that I last was in.
[00:17:38] It just didn’t resonate with me. I, I will go home feeling like there is a void, there was something missing and. I was, was longing for that. So simultaneously my business partner was having similar thoughts, right? So as, as he’s ascending up the ranks as a salesperson and, and building small businesses and taking them to retail and scaling them to eight, [00:18:00] nine figures of revenue a years, like, well, all right, I’ve done that.
[00:18:03] What, what else is out there? And can I use these skills in a way that benefits things that I, I care about a little bit more. So it was just having those conversations, having that dialogue and taking self inventory as we were entering our thirties. Right. And just like, okay. Where the twenties were for fun twenties were for us, but okay.
[00:18:24] Now how, how can we be more of an asset to, to our communities? And so [00:18:30] ultimately it was us feeling unfulfilled and wanting to take control of our respective futures as opposed to running the rat race.
[00:18:39] Dan: I love that. And we’re gonna hear a little bit about how that transitioned into what became BLK&Bold, but right now we’re gonna take a short break and we’ll be right back with rod Johnson from BLK&Bold,
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[00:19:28] Dan: So we’re back with Rod from BLK&Bold. [00:19:30] Rod before the break we were talking about sort of that season for you and Pernell about wanting to find something else. Tell us a little bit about how you came together, but before we actually dive into that, why don’t we talk about the fact that you have a relationship that predates BLK&Bold? The two of you.
[00:19:46] Rod Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, we’ve been friends since we were like 13 or 14 years old. I moved to Parnell’s side of town after my freshman year in high school and met him as he was like bouncing a [00:20:00] basketball in his front yard. There weren’t a lot of kids on a block anyway. So he stood out and he also had a basketball court in his backyard.
[00:20:07] So I was like, ah, this dude has to be my. And we have, have been hanging out and, and rocking with each other ever since. And it is that foundation that we’ve used to build our business. So, you know, a lot of uncomfortable conversations that come along when you have a business partner or co-founder, it’s easier for us to navigate that because we have that background.
[00:20:28] We have that history and [00:20:30] therefore it gives us the understanding of knowing this comes from a good place. No malicious intent behind this disagreement or this recommendation or, or anything along those lines. And I’m very grateful because it allows us to focus on the needs of the business, as opposed to the dynamics between he and I.
[00:20:48] Dan: That’s so powerful. I mean, I think a lot of folks, maybe sometimes misestimate just how much of a connection and you know, sometimes people talk about you’re married to your co-founder, cuz [00:21:00] it’s a long journey. You spend a lot of time together. The fact that you have this relationship, you have that dynamic in that you can amplify that through the business. Like you said, and say a one plus one equals five.
[00:21:12] Rod Johnson: You know, that is very true. We, we jokingly say that we are married to each other because we spend more time with each other than we do with our respective families now. And even more so when we were first starting the business at the time I lived in California, while Pernell was here in Des Moines, where the business is, is [00:21:30] headquartered at.
[00:21:30] I mean, we would be on the phone, just throwing ideas back and forth hours at a time and four or five hours from 8:00 PM to midnight. Right. We, we were embodying the idea of a five to nine and that hasn’t dissipated since, and we still spent the same amount of time with each other. And if you’re going to do that, you might as well like the person. So I’m very grateful that, that we have that relationship.
[00:21:53] Dan: That’s awesome. So I would love to just hear, obviously you landed on coffee and neither [00:22:00] one of you have like a tremendously deep background in coffee. What was second choice or what was something that made it to the final selection that ultimately you didn’t do? I’d love to hear that story as well. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:22:12] Rod Johnson: So you’re absolutely right. We don’t have any formal connectivity to the coffee industry or didn’t have any formal connectivity to the coffee industry prior to starting a business. We just enjoyed the product, but what was in the final running, we knew that we didn’t wanna have any services.
[00:22:29] So [00:22:30] everything was going to be a good, it was going to be a widget of some kind, some ideas that we threw against the wall. One was like bed linen. I think that was one of them we had also talked about. I think it was another type of apparel, whatever was on that list. It was gonna have to be easy for us to connect it to this idea of community impact.
[00:22:53] And it’s the more tangible the product, the easier it is for people to wrap their minds around that, this [00:23:00] thing you buy this thing, then it’s doing this good in the C. So, those are a couple of things that we threw against the wall, but it didn’t stick. You know, we just looked at our own habits, looked at our own purchases recently and figured, all right, are we passionate about these things?
[00:23:16] And that’s what propelled coffee and tea above the rest, because those beverages showed up in our lives. And so many D. So many different moments, both good and bad. And we figured that let’s [00:23:30] build around this community that we know exists in relation to both coffee and tea.
[00:23:35] Dan: I love that. And I love the fact that you explored right and had this missional aspect as sort of the filter, right? It’s like, yeah, if we do this, can we connect it to this idea of community and giving. So my own story is I drink coffee in college and a little bit as a young adult. And then I stopped for 20 years and I came back a few years ago and I’m a coffee drinker now. And so I kind of dove into it and I, I do pour [00:24:00] over and, you know, but the thought of me trying to roast my own coffee is tremendously frightening to me. I would love to hear as somebody who was at some point and novice with that, how did you all figure out how to do that.
[00:24:13] Rod Johnson: Yeah. I mean, how does anyone figure out how to do things nowadays? You YouTube , that’s it? You go to YouTube. That’s our north stars, our Bible it’s it’s what governs us essentially. I mean, from learning how to tie a tie to cutting your own hair, to learning how to [00:24:30] rose coffee, the content is out there and that’s essentially how we learn.
[00:24:33] We watched a lot of YouTube videos and coupled that with trial and error, we ultimately landed on coffee. That was consumable. Trust me very early on. Those beans were as black as tar. Like we didn’t, we didn’t know what we were doing, what whatsoever. I’ve told this story before, but you know, if the fire department PJ had the, the fire department called on him because of how much smoke was emitting from his garage, we [00:25:00] retrofitted his garage to be a makeshift roastery. The smoke has to go somewhere. Imagine how much smoke comes when you’re burning a pound of coffee beans. So, you know, people are calling like, Hey man, what’s going on with your household? We see all this smoke coming. And he is like, no, I’m experimenting right now. I’m, I’m trying to learn how to roast coffee. So those were some dark times, no pun intended. very, very early on, but we figured it out naturally curious and, and wanting to figure it out, I think is why we were [00:25:30] able.
[00:25:30] Dan: Think you’re you’re so right. The information is out there and, and you can get to a point where you can feel competent if not work towards mastery. So you figure it out. You know, I love the name and that the fact that you were able to have that name is awesome.
[00:25:45] Rod Johnson: You know, funny thing about that is I wasn’t necessarily against the name, but I wasn’t a huge advocate for it, for what the name represents. It checks off all the boxes for me, but I didn’t know how well it would be [00:26:00] received.
[00:26:00] That was something that we had a lot of dialogue about. We were like, is it too overt? Is that gonna turn people. It’s a double Tandra because it represents the products inside the bag, but then it also represents us as people and how we show up in whatever spaces that we’re in. I was hesitant in naming the company that, but I remember Pete telling me, or giving me this charge and saying, Hey man, if we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna have to do it differently.
[00:26:25] Right? Like we, we can’t. Play it safe. We gotta take some risks. [00:26:30] We had the safety net of corporate America, right? Our, our careers were ascending on their respective paths and it was pretty much set in stone where they were going to end up. And that obviously wasn’t a path that we wanted to continue on.
[00:26:43] So we were like, let’s go take a leap of faith. And if we’re gonna take a leap of faith that needs to be represented in every aspect of our business, including, and especially the name. I’m glad that he talked me off the ledge because most people like what we represent as represented by our name. [00:27:00]
[00:27:00] Dan: That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing that. And there’s a certain irony there, right? Like this name, you had to live into the name and we have to be bold if we’re gonna be BLK&Bold. Absolutely. It’s an interesting story too, in the context of, you know, when I talk to black founders, if their product has that context, right.
[00:27:19] Either they’re trying to serve their community or there’s either a representation or a brand culture element to. There is that tension around? Is that something that [00:27:30] we wanna celebrate? Is that something that we, as a part of it, is it more about the product and the innovation? And I think a lot of founders who don’t have that, that aspect don’t understand that challenge and how difficult that is. It’s not, it’s not a trivial decision.
[00:27:44] Rod Johnson: Couldn’t agree more. And you know, when we, we were having those conversations back and forth, we were like, if it does turn people off, then those are not the people we need to be talking to. Anyway, those are not our customers that very early on, we, we, we set out as to who we wanted [00:28:00] to serve. And we, we knew that we, we can’t be everything for everyone. So let’s make sure that we show up for the people who are actually those that need to be in our ecosystem.
[00:28:10] Dan: I love that. And I, especially with a category like coffee, which is a, both a commodity and like a gazillion choices, you almost have to have a pretty divergent perspective and market position. So you figured out a roast coffee, you start selling. I imagine you start selling online or directly. How did you make that leap into distribution in folks [00:28:30] like whole foods and target and HV? How did you make that leap? And what was that like in terms of like, oh my gosh, it’s not just like somebody pushed in an order online and we fulfill it. It’s like minimum orders and supply chain. And how, how did you make that leap as a company?
[00:28:45] Rod Johnson: Oh man, we did it afraid. Right? I mean, you know, we, we, we are the definition of building the plane while we fly it. So when we launched the business, you’re right. We did launch online only. We are a digitally native brand.
[00:28:58] So we figured out Shopify and [00:29:00] got everything up and running and. It wasn’t until a year and a half later that we actually got significant retail distribution. There were a few local grocery stores here in the Des Moines area that carried our products. And that gave us a little bit of a taste test as to what it would be like to work with a retailer in that regard, but working with target, which was our first national.
[00:29:25] Night and day, right. It was just totally different. And it required [00:29:30] us to grow up as a business very, very quickly because to your point, those MOQs. They don’t care that , that, that you are a small business as if you want your product on these shell, on the shelve, then you, you, you have to meet our requirements.
[00:29:43] You have to meet our minimums and fortunate for us though. We had a little bit insider trading knowledge, so to speak because Pernell’s first job outta college was working for target corporation in min. And so understanding those dynamics and [00:30:00] how that ecosystem works, gave us a, a leg up in the game so that we could build our business for that moment.
[00:30:07] We knew that retail was going to be a part of our go to market strategy. Fact is our primary go to market strategy right now. And, and that’s rooted in making our products and therefore our social impact model accessible. So we built the business with the end goal in mind, and that was competing at shelf with other household brands.
[00:30:28] And. When we finally got [00:30:30] that award, it was all systems go. It was now we need to adopt and we need to adapt very quickly because now we’re the big leagues, right? Isn’t this no longer playing the minors. You know, those pitches are coming at you 90 miles per hour, every single time. Uh, so unless you’re trying to get struck out, you’re gonna have to really stand your ground in.
[00:30:49] That was a learning experience for us. And, and it continues to evolve with new retailers, but we got a good foundation and we we’ve built upon.
[00:30:57] Dan: Was there ever a challenge or a, [00:31:00] or a friction point where you said to yourselves, can we pull this off?
[00:31:04] Rod Johnson: Absolutely. So we started in P’s garage and from there we outgrew it and we’re fortunate to land in the back of a brewery. So there’s a local brewery here that allowed us to lease about, I don’t know, a thousand square feet of their production space. And that’s where we fulfilled our first target order. Again, at the time I, I still lived in California and it was Perella and I, for all intents and purposes [00:31:30] so I would travel back and forth.
[00:31:32] I stayed out here for about a week or so to get that target order out the door. And at that time is when we brought on our first employee, um, because we were like, there’s absolutely no way that we’re gonna be able to prepare. For this national launch, we had to get product in. I think it was about 360 stores at that time.
[00:31:49] And while that may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, when there’s two people, packaging coffee from sun up to sun down, it is extremely exhausting, but [00:32:00] we made it work. And, uh, new immediately thereafter that we had to make the investments in our personnel so that we’re not in that position.
[00:32:08] Dan: Yeah, there you go. I think entrepreneurs reach a point where it’s like, we’re not scalable. we as human beings, we have a finite capacity. So again, we, we started the conversation earlier about how this a foundation of community and giving back. I have two questions on that. One is how did you determine where you were [00:32:30] gonna aim that aspect of your business in terms of what groups you wanted to work with?
[00:32:34] What groups you wanted to support and make an impact? And then my second question is, is E even though you’re still early as a company, has there been tension that you’ve had to address across like, Hey, this is a commercial side of our business, but there’s also this impact side of our business. Have they ever been in conflict?
[00:32:51] Rod Johnson: I can answer the latter question first. The answer is no, and that’s because that’s been a part of who we are since the inception of our business. Since it was an idea, [00:33:00] we knew that we wanted to have some type of community element woven into everything that we did. So to that point, it’s never been a point of contention between the, the social impact and the, the commercialization of our.
[00:33:13] Where there was some dialogue, some disagreement was, how do we bring the idea of social impacts to life? And it was all healthy, fun dialogue. Do we do a one for one, like Toms, for example, you buy a pair of shoes that give a pair of shoes. Do we give bookbags to kids? Do we wanna [00:33:30] support a certain city? Is there a particular initiative like financial litera?
[00:33:34] So we just had a lot of good, healthy conversation, but what we ultimately landed on was a, we knew we wanted to help kids because we wanted to impact our community. As early as we possibly could. Two, we don’t wanna reinvent the wheel. We don’t wanna have ownership of the curriculum or the experience per se.
[00:33:54] We want be a vehicle of, and then three, how can our impact grow [00:34:00] as we grow as a company? And so how that ultimately has been manifested is that we get 5% of our proceeds to 15 nonprofit organizations across America. These organizations are keenly focused on helping youth in need, and they are in locations or in markets where we have a retail distribution.
[00:34:22] So it helps close the loop for consumers. They go to their local target store and they say, Hey, I know that by buying this [00:34:30] coffee, it’s gonna help this no-profit organization. That’s on third street or whatever the case may be. It makes it much more tangible and therefore digestible. For people and the 15 organizations, they are doing some amazing work for kids, whether it be providing them with access to information.
[00:34:46] We talked about how important that is. I joke with my friends all the time. I say, Hey man, your iPhone is for much more than just taking cool photos for Instagram. Like you can do a lot with it. You have the world’s most powerful tool in your pocket and that’s the internet. You have access the [00:35:00] inform. But imagine if you don’t have that access, it’s extremely limiting and you’re starting at a deficit.
[00:35:05] So, you know, we, we partner with comp UOP down in Houston, Texas that provides refurbished laptops for kids to pursue their dreams. We also partner with organizations that promote the idea of a healthy lifestyle through urban farming. So I think about like city growers in New York, Greening youth foundation in Atlanta.
[00:35:26] Again, the idea was to pour into that [00:35:30] demographic, that our, the demographic of kids in urban areas and do it in a comprehensive way, taking into consideration Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We started at the bottom of the pyramid, making sure people have their basic needs, right? Like shelter, food, things of that nature.
[00:35:47] And ultimately try to ascend to the top of that pyramid, which is self-actualization. Which is what it means to, to be your full self and be confident in that. So that was the, the theory in building out our social impact [00:36:00] model.
[00:36:00] Dan: I love that. I really appreciate the fact that, you know, you said that there hasn’t been a contention because by definition you said, we’re not gonna have one. This is, this is aligned. And I, I think that is so powerful when you’re starting as a native brand to have that clear value in mind of how you wanna show up in the world as a business.
[00:36:19] Rod Johnson: Yeah, there there’s so many other businesses that let’s take 2020. For example, we saw a lot of people pivot. Well, you saw a lot of businesses now start to raise their [00:36:30] pompoms and really cheer that we, we support DEI initiatives and we are all for communities that have been over criminalized by the police, et cetera, et cetera.
[00:36:39] But now two years later don’t hear the same noise, right? Like it was performative in my opinion, people were just doing it. Felt societal pressure. They felt that it was trendy. It was something to do for the moment. And it, it, wasn’t genuine. It’s not authentic. And people realized that consumers are much more savvy.
[00:36:55] We got access to information and they make those decisions. They vote [00:37:00] every day with their dollars. And so. We knew that with the rise of conscious consumerism, based on our own experience, you know, our own shopping habits, we, we go by with companies that we, we resonate more with. We were like, we need to build our business for that person, that person that cares more than about coffees.
[00:37:17] It’s thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of coffee companies. All right. What’s gonna make y’all different. What’s gonna make us different. Is that we’re gonna be non pretentious. We’re gonna be welcom. And we’re gonna take something that you do every day and [00:37:30] connect it to something that we know you really care about.
[00:37:32] Dan: Build with values for those who shop with values. I love it. Well, we’re gonna take another short break and we’ll be right back with rod Johnson from BLK&Bold.
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[00:38:18] Dan: So we’re back with Rod Johnson from BLK&Bold. So Rod fast forward a little bit. We were just talking about the journey of the company and the impact aspects, which are foundational. So recent news and recent notoriety [00:38:30] and awareness you’ve had with, uh, the Ellen Degeneres show and hanging with D Wade.
[00:38:34] And you’ve got this licensing arrangement with the NBA. Just amazing, amazing journey so far. But what I’d like to hear from you is let’s just say pick a time in the future three years, five years, 10 years, and BLK&Bold is a success. Not that it isn’t a success now, but the, the ultimate pinnacle of what you want it to be. And Dan comes along and says, Hey Brad, do you think [00:39:00] it was a success? You say, yes. Why are you gonna say it’s success? What is your gonna be your measure of success for our BLK&Bold?
[00:39:07] Rod Johnson: What success looks like to me now, three years, five years in perpetuity is very simple that people mention our company. When we talk about businesses that. Walk it like they talk it that show up for their communities that stand for much more than their own profits, that, that we [00:39:30] ultimately prioritize stakeholders as well as shareholders. I want us to be the premier example of that. That is what success looks like to me.
[00:39:40] If that happens, that means that we are living up to the pledge that we’ve made to the, before our youth initiative. That we are continuously providing luxury products for our community. And, you know, lastly, it’s an ex experience that isn’t limited to people regardless of where they are on [00:40:00] their coffee journey, so to speak.
[00:40:02] So that’s really what success looks like to me is that we embody the idea of conscious consumerism. And we continue to be an example that you don’t have to put one over the other that that purpose and profit can COEX. As harmoniously as you want them to be.
[00:40:19] Dan: Great, powerful vision. I’m on board for sure. So let’s switch gears a little bit, talk a little bit about kind of fundraising and capital and how have you thought about [00:40:30] that aspect of this business and have you, self-funded it, have you thought about getting funding from outside? Have you gone that route? Tell us a little bit about that.
[00:40:39] Rod Johnson: Yeah, well, well completely bootstrapped Pernell and I took some savings and some bonus checks and, you know, just found some, some change in the cup holder and put it towards the business.
[00:40:52] And that’s all who sits at at our cap table is just Pernell and I in, we retain a hundred percent ownership of our company and [00:41:00] that is the plan, at least for right now. And for the foresee. But with that, you know, it’s pros and cons. It, it just compels us to be deliberate about how we grow. Right. We, we certainly don’t want to run into a situation where our eyes are bigger than our stomach or slash our wallets and whatever investments that we do make it is gonna have a very clear ROI.
[00:41:23] That’s B well, for us to this point, we’ve been able to, like I said, retaining a hundred percent ownership and, and that has manifested [00:41:30] itself into being able to donate back to those organizations over a hundred thousand dollars over these past four years. And while that is a foundation that we want to continue to build upon what we’re really grateful and satisfied that we’ve been able to do that to this.
[00:41:46] Dan: That’s great. And there’s a lot to be said for self-determination and growing at a good clip, but not unreasonable or artificially accelerated and, and it’s sort of intentional. [00:42:00] Right. And like you said, the ability to give over a hundred thousand dollars is awesome. I mean, it’s so powerful. Thank you. So, yeah, that’s incredible. Tell me a little bit about being in Iowa is the Midwest. I’m sure there’s advantages and disadvantages to having a business that’s based in Des Moines, Iowa.
[00:42:18] Rod Johnson: For sure. I recently relocated to Iowa, as I mentioned from Sacramento. And while I grew up in the Midwest, Iowa is a little bit different and [00:42:30] not in a good or bad way. It’s just different. I, I will say there is a, a true lack of diversity here through an ethnic lens. But that has worked to our advantage because being a successful black owned business and a community that, that wants to support small businesses, um, we’ve been the beneficiaries of a lot of uplifting moments.
[00:42:52] In addition to that, having a coffee business in Iowa and not in places like San Francisco or Seattle or [00:43:00] New York gives us a competitive advantage because we’re not in a, a crowded space. We’re not diluted. Thousand other coffee shops that, that are on the corner, so to speak. So we’ve just been, uh, we’ve trained ourselves to, to focus on the positives that exist within here being in Iowa.
[00:43:18] Logistically it makes sense because Des Moines, Iowa is at the intersection of two major highways, interstate highways. I 80, which goes east and west. And then you have 35, which [00:43:30] goes north and south pretty much across the whole us. So there’s a lot of advantages that come with being in Iowa. And it’s definitely a conversation starter if it’s not anything else.
[00:43:39] Right. When people go, where, where are you headquartered? I say, Des Moines, Iowa there response immediately is there are black people in Iowa. I’m like, yeah. At at least two of them. Yeah. there, there are at least two of us here. It’s been a good.
[00:43:53] Dan: On crunch base, they have these lists, right? Like, you know, women founders in the bay area, you know, they have like, uh, black [00:44:00] founders in Des Moines.
[00:44:01] It’d be like you and Pernell and that’s it.
[00:44:04] Rod Johnson: That’s, that’s gonna be a short list. My friend, I guarantee you that you’ll be number one. Yeah.
[00:44:10] Dan: That’s great. So let’s talk a little bit about sort of being a black founder. You know, that’s one of the things we tried to explore a little bit on the show is kind of, what does that mean? Is it something that’s relevant? Is it sometimes relevant? Sometimes not. Is the world remind you of it when it isn’t necessarily relevant? Is there positives? Is there [00:44:30] additional challenges? How do you view yourself as a black founder? Do you think about yourself that way?
[00:44:36] Rod Johnson: No, I don’t think of myself that way. Cause I’ve been black forever, right? Like this is not something that’s new to me. I look at it. Like I just don’t happen to be black. I mean, I don’t run away from, I fully embrace my blackness, but I don’t lead with that. I don’t want anybody to do anything for me because I’m black. I want you to do it for me because I have a viable business.
[00:44:55] I want you to do it for me because I can provide value. I don’t want the sympathy or the, the [00:45:00] charity card. And there have been instances where. The world or potential partners have come across that they only want to do business with us because of those reasons that if it doesn’t feel authentic, that’s not something that, that we embark upon.
[00:45:13] So while it is hugely relevant, I don’t want that to be the only reason why people rock with us in any capacity. We started this because we saw a lack of representation in the coffee industry, whether it be owners of the, the experience or [00:45:30] even just baristas. And so we knew that by starting this company, it would be, we would represent something that.
[00:45:37] Where there is a void and it’s a, a position that, that we sit in with pride. We definitely want to be the examples of, uh, of what it’s like to work with a black-owned business in this industry that doesn’t have a, a ton of representation. So ultimately it does come up in many different instances.
[00:45:55] Dan: I think it’s great. You know, I recently read a book about the coffee industry called uncommon grounds [00:46:00] and black folks have been involved with coffee. I mean, it was basically discovered. Right. And yeah, and Ethiopia. Right. And when you talk about things like where it’s grown in that sort of band around the equator slavery, and, and so we’ve been a part of the coffee journey in the global coffee history for a long time. Absolutely. But not in the way that you’re doing. With ownership and determination and representation.
[00:46:26] Rod Johnson: I would say that does exist, but just not. So on this part [00:46:30] of the supply chain, when we think about the producers of the coffee, you know, the farmers, the growers, the cultivators, the importers, the exporters, uh, there’s a lot of black people that, that make up that ecosystem.
[00:46:41] But, but to your point, that hasn’t necessarily translated to the end part. So we think about it from form to cup. From farm. Yeah, it definitely has a lot of representation, but not necessarily to cup. And, and that’s where we come in. We, we wanna make sure that we close the loop on the representation within that supply chain.
[00:46:59] Dan: Like I [00:47:00] said, I’ve been a fan for, for as soon as I find out about you all, you, you mentioned a little bit about 2020, so one of my last questions is just around, I mean, between the pandemic and George Floyd and just how the supply chain. Give us one example or one element of like how the journey for BLK&Bold changed in 2020.
[00:47:21] Rod Johnson: I would say 2020 represents an accelerant or, or we at least look at 2020 as an accelerant of our business. [00:47:30] So as I reference, we are a digitally native brand. We, we started fulfilling orders via our online store and when the world shut down in March and people weren’t going to their normal coffee shops because their clothes and retailers.
[00:47:43] Stocking the shelves as quickly as they, they were at, at one point, people had to find alternative means to do the normal stuff that they were doing, including, and especially drinking coffee. So while the pandemic has been a bad word for many businesses and rightfully so, uh, and [00:48:00] especially black businesses, I read it like a staggering stat.
[00:48:02] That was something to the tune of like almost half of small black-owned businesses, close their doors permanently over these last couple of years. And, and I’m very, very sensitive. To that in, in discussing our Ascension at that time, it’s a, it’s a weird dichotomy because I, I wanna be empathetic to the hardships and the barriers that 20, 20 presented.
[00:48:25] But then I also wanna celebrate how we were able to overcome. Those things just [00:48:30] given the shift of the world. So it was that change in consumer behavior that really introduced us to a larger national audience. We had that change in consumer behavior layer on the top. The fact that of our products were also available at target on a national level. That just allowed people to adopt us and adopt us more, more quickly.
[00:48:52] Dan: It was kind of a binary, I think, for a lot of businesses, like either as a trend that emerged or a, whether that was, you know, temporary because [00:49:00] of the shutdown or, or it became more permanent or it was the way the world worked that supported my business disappeared. So, uh, we’d like to end with the quintessential retrospective. If you could go back in time and talk to maybe Rod and Pernell in 2018 with this version of the rod, what advice would you give them? What would you tell them to look out for? What would you tell them to do or not do.
[00:49:25] Rod Johnson: The advice that I would give myself in 2018, I probably would’ve told myself to [00:49:30] quit my job.
[00:49:30] Then I think that it was while I needed to put food on the table and pay the bills and all that good stuff. It was more of a distraction. And it definitely got up to a point in time where I was collecting a check. If I’m being totally honest with you, I was not doing my day to day work. I was fully consumed with BLK&Bold, and I often wonder.
[00:49:51] Had I done that sooner. Would we have been able to grow what would’ve happened? Right. It’s always the, I, I wonder what if, and that’s the advice [00:50:00] I would’ve given myself. I had enough in reserves where I think I could have withstood the storm that was to come, but. You know, maybe I didn’t need to quit my job at that time.
[00:50:09] Cuz it, it all works out in the end. Everything comes out in the washer, so to speak, but maybe not quit it right away, but at least quit it sooner than I did. And that’s more so for me, not for anybody else who was straddling the fence between being an entrepreneur and an entrepreneur within your job. But it does lend itself to taking some self inventory and go, all right, [00:50:30] what is it that I really want?
[00:50:31] And how can I position myself to fully realize that? And, and at that time, the job was just in the way. So I probably should have just cut ties and dive a thousand percent into BLK&Bold.
[00:50:43] Dan: It’s kind of a theme that we have these pauses we’re built with flight or fight. And so we have this mechanism of like, is it gonna be safe? Am I gonna be okay? And usually for entrepreneurs, it gets to that point where the dam just over spills, it it’s like, I cannot not do this.
[00:50:58] Rod Johnson: That was exactly it, it [00:51:00] was, it got to that point where it’s like, there’s no way I’m not getting a lot of, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep anyway, but it’s like, I’m gonna get fired.
[00:51:06] So I might as well just quit. right. And he’s like, my, my performance is terrible and they know it. The good thing about that though is I was very upfront with my employer at the time that I did have this. Going on, like, Hey, I got this side hustle, I’m starting. This thing got with my friends. So it made it easier to cut ties.
[00:51:23] The, the writing was on the wall. Everyone knew it. It was just a matter of time. I should have just saved everybody, some [00:51:30] misery and done it sooner.
[00:51:31] Dan: I love that. I think some people are gonna take that to heart too, which is great. So we also like to end with a call to action for unfound nation. So what ways can we be helpful support of, of BLK&Bold and you and Pernell?
[00:51:45] Rod Johnson: Absolutely. Well, we just released some new innovation, a ready to drink, cold brew that is available online as well as nationally in target. It is definitely a tasty, more healthy [00:52:00] replacement to some of those sugary energy drinks out there. My has up to 160 milligrams of caffeine and it, it fits your lifestyle, right?
[00:52:08] It’s it is just that, that nice cold brew that you can take on the go. It is, it is convenience, personified. Supporting and trying their product is, is definitely a request of mine and, and just follow us across all, uh, social platforms by way of our handle, which is BLK&Bold. That’s spelled B L K a N D [00:52:30] B O L D.
[00:52:31] Yeah. You know, leave us the reviews after you try the product and tell your friends about us, because word of mouth still and will always be the best form of advertise.
[00:52:40] Dan: I love it. And col brew just in time for this, these, this hot summer. So I’m gonna go get myself some of that for sure. Well, rod, this has been an awesome conversation. I could probably talk to you for another two hours, but I just wanna thank you for taking the time we appreciate you and all you’ve been able to achieve you and Pernell. So thanks a lot again for having the [00:53:00] conversation today.
[00:53:00] Rod Johnson: I appreciate you. Thank you so much.
[00:53:03] Dan: We’d like to thank our guests, Rod Johnson and our sponsor AfriBlocks.
[00:53:06] This podcast was produced by me, Dan Kihanya with audio editing and production by We Edit Podcasts.
[00:53:12] Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts or simply go to foundersunfound.com/listento. That’s listen T-O. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn @foundersunfound.
[00:53:24] Thanks so much for tuning in.
[00:53:26] I am Dan Kihanya and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.[00:53:30]