“Merging passion and opportunity came into focus through Amazon.” - Richard Brown, Founder & CEO of PROOF Culture
Richard Brown has been “eating and breathing sneakers since 1990.” He is a husband, a father of four, a full-time worker in the tech industry, and a small business owner who proudly calls Cleveland home. He began customizing and repairing sneakers in his garage in 2016. Today, he runs PROOF Culture, a growing team of sneakerheads who specialize in creating products that help keep kicks fresh. “Shoes aren’t like wine,” Richard jokes. “They don’t age well.”
Richard built PROOF Culture’s reputation by artfully customizing name-brand shoes for sneakerheads around the country. He also specializes in restoring well-loved sneakers and attributes a spike in demand for that service to the release of a 2020 documentary about Air Jordans. “People started pulling old pairs out of their closets during lockdown and wanting to clean them up.”
There were a few particularly popular models that went through his shop, and Richard noticed the laces always needed to be replaced after the shoe was squeaky clean. He had to source just the right laces to keep the sneaker true to the original, and soon the product arm of PROOF Culture was born.
Thanks to Amazon, PROOF Culture looks completely different every six months.
5x growth with the Black Business Accelerator
Richard began experimenting with ecommerce on PROOF Culture’s direct-to-consumer, or DTC, site and another major ecommerce retailer. “When I first started thinking about taking our products to Amazon, I thought it too big of a platform,” Richard confesses. “If we got bad feedback, we probably wouldn’t overcome it. I felt like we didn’t have room for that kind of failure.”
Richard used what he learned to fine-tune his products, product packaging, and logistical systems. The experiment paid off. Demand for his products grew steadily and soon he couldn’t run his operation out of his garage anymore; he had inventory to store and manage and had to hire people to help him do it. He needed more space. Renting office and storage space and hiring help meant higher overhead. Higher overhead necessitated more sales. Richard began to feel the pressure.
Richard heard about the Black Business Accelerator, or BBA, at just the right time. He was invited to apply, was accepted into the program, and began a journey of learning and networking on a scale that changed his business and his life.
Richard came to BBA with a solid understanding of ecommerce fundamentals like search engine optimization, or SEO, and well-placed lifestyle imagery. At BBA, he gained access to a vibrant community of like-minded Black entrepreneurs and dedicated support from Amazon’s subject matter experts and it has had an undeniable impact on his success. “BBA helped me build competency and confidence around enhancing our listings, creating good product photography, creating videos, and experimenting with ads,” he explains.
Although Richard went into selling in Amazon’s store with some trepidation, his experience with BBA helped alleviate that anxiety significantly. “I saw my revenue double between the first year and today,” he explains. “Right now, we’re on track to earn five times as much in our second full year.”
Sales of his product line have been so robust they’ve impacted the success of the service side of PROOF Culture; they have more options on hand for faster customizations that wow their customers. Sales in Amazon’s store have been so plentiful that he has a healthy marketing budget to build PROOF Culture’s brand and look toward an abundant future.
When I learned about BBA, what I saw was an opportunity to make my path a little easier.
Forging community with BBA
When Richard speaks about his experience with BBA, personal connection and community fortitude come up again and again. “BBA gave me an instant network and an instant community,” Richard shares. “Getting connected to other sellers who were also Black, at different stages of their journeys, felt like finding my people.” He was able to forge numerous meaningful connections with other Black business owners during his time in the program and continues to maintain relationships that mutually benefit everyone involved both professionally and personally.
At least once a week, Richard attends a 30-minute virtual round table with up to ten other Black entrepreneurs he met during his time in BBA. Members of the group share business best practices, resources, and advice, offer each other encouragement and collaborate to solve problems. “Having another business-minded person give an outside perspective on your issues is invaluable,” Richard explains.
Whether it’s somebody in the program or someone who works for Amazon, there’s somebody in BBA who not only has the answer but wants to give it to you.
Growth leads to jobs
BBA did more than connect Richard with an entrepreneurial community. It bolstered his understanding of how to sell in Amazon’s store, which directly resulted in more sales. “We’re at the point where we’re selling $5,000 to $10,000 worth of product every month,” Richard says. “To this day, every sale boosts my confidence.”
When Richard began his Amazon journey, he knew exactly how many SKUs were in his store. He says that today, he has no idea how many they have, not only because there are so many more, but because he pays someone else to make those decisions and manage their product line. With the help of BBA, Richard has been able to scale PROOF Culture’s product arm to the extent that he can now support a team of over ten passionate professionals and rent shared office space in downtown Cleveland. “This is what makes my job so exciting,” Richard says. “Providing for other people makes me proud.”
This opportunity is exactly what you think it is and it’s going to change your business. You’re going to have to put in work, but the work will be worth it.
A legacy of positivity
When asked what BBA gave him, Richard lists six things: Validation, community, growth, fortitude, peace of mind, and finally, the satisfaction of starting something and seeing it through to success. “If you’re on the fence about applying for the Black Business Accelerator, just take the chance,” Richard encourages. “If you’re intimidated by selling on Amazon, know that participating in BBA gives you access to resources that can help you and people who care about your success.”
Along with positivity and community, Richard’s priority is leaving a legacy his children are proud of. “To me, legacy means being able to create options for my kids,” Richard says. “I’ve been able to show them how to see opportunities, not obstacles, and dream big.” Richard’s 18-year-old, Tyanna, has already been inspired by her father’s success. “He’s doing things that started as something he imagined, something he saw in his mind, and it makes me want to go out and do the things I envision for myself,” Tyanna says.
Not only will Richard’s entrepreneurial successes leave his children with a business that will generate abundance, but with inspiration, fortitude, and a mindset that will ensure their happiness and livelihood. “I’m here to stay the course,” Richard says. “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
Being an entrepreneur can be lonely, and the community I found with BBA helped change that.