Blackmark-it, a new website that offers daily deals for businesses in Chicago's black communities, was created in the classic entrepreneurial spirit.
Jamel Willians and his wife Natasha, who met while attending Northern Illinois University, along with Delandon Mason, another NIU grad, whom Jamel has known since high school, were Groupon and LivingSocial users. The Williamses, both 33 and who live in the suburb of Oak Lawn, previously lived on Chicago’s South Side, and Jamel thought, “How nice it would be to see businesses in our area featured.”
For example: “We used to get frustrated with our eating options,” Jamel told Millionaire Corner. “We liked to go to casual dining restaurants, sit down, have linen on the table, drink out of water goblets. But our area was oversaturated with fast-food restaurants; fried chicken, fried fish, Chinese food. And you placed your order at the counter behind a two-inch sheet of plexiglass. It was a little discouraging. If you want to bring your family somewhere nice, you don’t want to have to go downtown or go to the suburbs. You want to just go a couple of blocks.”
There were good businesses in black neighborhoods, Jamel said, but they didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, nor could they afford to do advertising that would “get their name out there.” Blackmark-it was created in part “to get these businesses more exposure, and not just in the African-American community. We want to expand their reach in the Chicago area.”
Jamel cites Census Bureau figures that there are close to 100,000 black-owned businesses in Cook County, which includes Chicago and is the second-most populous county in the United States (it comprises 40.5 percent of all Illinois residents). Ninety-four percent of them have only employee, and that is the owner, he said.
Blackmark-it launched on Jan. 16. It currently has 3,000 subscribers and has lined up 75 businesses, Jamel said. The first deal was for a company offering tax preparation. Taking its cue from Groupon, the site offers deals that appeal to 34-40 year-old women, such as discounts at nail salons and hair salons. “Black women 35-40 are spending the most on our site,” he said.
The site’s most popular deal thus far was for a theatrical production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Dreamgirls.” Restaurant deals, too, are a big draw for the site. “What we’re seeing is that people prefer deals that are more mainstream or are things they are familiar with. But if the discount is big enough, they are reaching out and trying things that are new to them.”
In these early stages, Blackmark-it is keeps its minimum on deals low. “Even if a company says they can handle 500 deals, we still don’t want to take that kind of risk,” Jamel said. Should a business go under, the site would be responsible for the unredeemed deals. Depending on the deal, sales and other factors, Blackmark-it takes between 20 percent to 40 percent of the revenue of each deal (other daily deal sites may take as much as half).
Each of the partners has other jobs. Jamel, who manages technical support and leads merchant relations, drives a truck and with his wife owns Covenant Café, a catering company based in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Natasha, who oversees PR for the site, is a marketing consultant for The Nielsen Co. Delandon, who recruits subscribers, is a music education major, and is married with three children. “Thanks to technology,” Jamel laughed, “we are able to (monitor and maintain the site) on the go.”
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.