One good deed: How three Amazon sellers found their purpose

Rod Johnson and Pernell Cezar stand side by side holding bags of their BLK & Bold coffee in front of them.

BLK & Bold co-founders Rod Johnson and Pernell Cezar at their coffee production facility, holding bags of their coffee

A desire to bring joy to their communities launched three small business owners on paths that completely altered their lives.

In today’s spotlight, we feature three Amazon sellers with at least one thing in common: their business idea grew out of a desire to do something good for somebody else. In some ways, you could say they each gave a gift that has kept on giving, not only to the rest of world, but also to themselves.

Unique Pl8z

Nicole O'Brien sits at a table with three of her Unique Pl8z art pieces in front of her

Nicole O’Brien sits at a table with three of her Unique Pl8z art pieces in front of her

In 2012, Nicole O’Brien was living in Okinawa, Japan and wanted to create a gift for a dear friend that would reflect all the wonderful times they’d spent laughing, dreaming and traveling together. She had no idea that what she designed would set in motion a brand-new adventure, a business creating art from license plates called Unique Pl8z.

“Everybody wanted one,” Nicole, a former military spouse, said. “I started off doing craft fairs in our local community, which was fantastic and [it was] great to be a part of the local community.”

Now based in Rhode Island, Unique Pl8z designs handmade art pieces that commemorate memories from customers’ favorite travels and adventures, fostering a sense of fun, adventure, and wanderlust. The company is also committed to empowering military families through employment.

Many pieces of license plate art sit on shelves at a craft show

Unqiue Pl8z art is showcased and available for purchase at a craft show.

“A lot of our signs and our creations are created based around embracing detours, road tripping, traveling, blessing the broken road,” the self-described nomad said. “I’ve left the United States, moved abroad, came back, moved several times throughout the country. And now we help people tell their traveling journey through license plate art.”

Unique Pl8z has come a long way from those early craft fairs, joining the Amazon Handmade program when it launched. The company has since sold about 4,000 products, resulting in almost $350,000 in sales.

“Due to the increased sales through Amazon, we have been able to hire one fulltime employee and various contractors over the last few years,” Nicole said. “Ecommerce has added so much to our company…and now we have a worldwide audience.”

Learn more about our artisan-only community of sellers on Amazon Handmade.

Playtime Edventures

When Kevin Gatlin and his wife visited a friend’s son in the hospital in North Carolina in 2012, Kevin couldn’t shake how isolating the child’s hospital room felt. What could make a hospital room feel more comforting, and perhaps less cold to a young patient? Soon he had an idea. Kevin started creating interactive bedding products for hospitalized kids and organizations that provide safe beds to displaced kids, and his company Playtime Edventures was born.

Kevin Gatlin wears a grey shirt and holds two Playtime Edventures products in his hands

Kevin Gatlin holds two Playtime Edventures products.

Lindsay Kappius

“I realized that the bed did not have to be a punishment for kids who were hospitalized, not only in hospitals but also in shelters, foster homes, or juvenile detention centers,” he said.

Working with teachers and other “individuals who had just as much passion for kids,” Kevin created Playtime Edventures bedsheets, which come in three colors and have over 60 fun interactive games for kids to explore, play, learn, and sleep on. Playtime slumber bags come in two colors and have over 25 interactive games to play, providing the perfect sleep sack, play mat, and bed cover for kids to cozy up in.

Initially, Playtime Edventures operated by selling its products directly to hospitals and other organizations, but then the pandemic struck.

“When COVID hit, that brought everything to a halt,” Kevin said. “We had to pivot to where everyone was at, and everyone was on ecommerce.”

Pivoting to an online model in the middle of a global health crisis was not easy. Kevin registered as an Amazon seller but struggled to find his feet. Timely outreach from Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator program gave Playtime Edventures a chance at a second wind—the company was included in Amazon’s 2021 Christmas Catalog and sold out of its slumber bags—and helped them find a new kind of customer.

“Our bedsheets were primarily being made for children who were hospitalized for long periods of time [because] what we realized is that a child in the hospital can’t leave that room,” Kevin said. “COVID was the same situation for kids at home as well. They couldn’t leave the house, right? We had to reach them. And what Amazon provided for us was distribution not only in our city, but in almost every state in the United States.”

Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator provides Black-owned businesses with growth opportunities by offering access to financial support, strategic business guidance and mentorship, and marketing and promotional support.

Sheets with interactive games are shown on a hospital bed for kids

Playtime Edventures sheets are displayed on a hospital bed.

Kevin has learned a lot since launching in the Amazon store. “[Amazon] was a foreign language to us. And luckily, the Black Business Accelerator program with Amazon, they reached out to us, and they really held our hand and helped us to scale very fast on Amazon. So we were able to get all our images and listings and really tell our story on Amazon. That’s really what saved our company.

BLK & Bold

When Rod Johnson and his business partner Pernell Cezar founded BLK & Bold, a black-owned, nationally distributed coffee and tea brand based in Des Moines, Iowa, they knew that they wanted to do something beyond just having a business. The duo decided to adopt a social impact model, donating a portion of the brand’s proceeds to organizations that support youth in need.

“This company represents potential, it represents the reinvestment back into our communities, and it represents community and all of those things are part of my personal DNA,” Rod said. “I think that is the primary reason why we’ve been able to amass the success that we’ve found to this point. This idea of community is something that anyone can understand and digest and find a way to participate in. And I’m glad that other people have bought into what we’re trying to accomplish here at BLK & Bold.”

As part of their commitment to community, BLK & Bold also partners with local nonprofits focused on youth empowerment like LA Conservation Corps and Washington DC’s No Kid Hungry. Last year, the brand announced a partnership with the NBA, where the NBA matches BLK & Bold’s 5% contribution towards the company’s pledge partners supporting youth in need.

Pernell Cezar poses in a white shirt and Rod Johnson poses in a grey and white striped shirt at the BLK & Bold coffee production facility.

BLK & Bold co-founders Pernell Cezar and Rod Johnson at their coffee production facility.

A CNBC article on the duo estimates that BLK & Bold made almost $1 million in profit in 2021, and over 6,000 retailer locations now carry its products nationwide. So how did a former nonprofit fundraiser and a former beauty retailer sales director with zero experience in the coffee industry break through all the stiff competition? They started with a few bonus checks from their day jobs and a whole lot of tenacity.

“We started this business as overenthusiastic consumers, and we’re not too far removed from what it means to be on that side of the counter,” Rod said. “We knew that we had a good idea, and we stopped at nothing to realize the potential of the idea. And the fact that we now have the ability to provide that same type of joy that we got before we started in the business to thousands of customers across America, is something that brings us great joy and solace nowadays.”

From the start, BLK & Bold’s go-to-market strategy was completely based on an ecommerce model, with the company opening up its online store in June 2018. Rod and Pernell avoided going the traditional brick and mortar route because of the type of impact they wanted to have on the communities of their customers. The co-founders believed that remaining behind the scenes as suppliers selling to traditional retail stores would allow them to leverage those companies’ reputation and relationships with their communities. They also understood that not having standalone locations could reduce barriers of entry for new entrepreneurs, a move that turned out to be prescient during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This company represents potential, it represents the reinvestment back into our communities, and it represents community.
Rod Johnson
Co-founder, BLK & Bold

“Ecommerce absolutely helped us take that leap into entrepreneurship,” Rob said, “and it’s still the foundation of who we are, especially given the ebbs and flows over these past couple of years. So, when traditional retail and brick and mortar spaces were closed, people still were trying to find ways to tap into their daily habits, and they went online to buy coffee and to, you know, continue to shop, so having that ecommerce presence really helped us weather the storm.”

It wasn’t long before BLK & Bold brought their brand to Amazon, becoming Amazon sellers in 2019. They also got a boost from participating in Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator program and report that “BLK & Bold’s sales on Amazon now make up almost half of the brand’s total ecommerce sales.”

“We knew that if we were going to give people the opportunity to participate in our social impact model, Amazon had to be a part of the equation,” Rod said. “The reach that the company has is immeasurable, and we felt we would be foolish to not tap into that resource. So, I’m very grateful for Amazon as they still play a significant role in our business strategy. And again, I don’t think that we would have found as much success as we’ve had without [Amazon].”

More than half the units sold in our store are from independent sellers. Learn more about becoming an Amazon seller today.

Lola Okusami
Lola Okusami
Creative Writer