In Refinery29’s new Talking Shop series, we’re chatting with owners of up-and-coming small businesses about their experiences launching, the big challenges and wins they’ve faced, and of course, their products and services. Discover new spots to patronize, while getting an intimate look at what it takes to run a small business in today’s economy. Do you run a small business or do you want to recommend a small business you’d like to see featured on Talking Shop? Tell us more about it here.
When the coronavirus pandemic started ravaging small businesses and endangering workers across the country, many consumers began looking more critically at where they were shopping. Is this company treating its employees humanely? Are the products being sourced ethically? How will my money be used? Even more recently, with Black Lives Matter protests happening across the country, those same consumers doubled down on their scrutiny of the places they were patronizing and moved to prioritize buying from Black-owned businesses when possible. This was the perfect environment for the genesis of Chez Nous Guide, an inclusive and intersectional home for businesses, artists, and organizations that are owned and operated by historically marginalized people.
Chez Nous was officially launched on June 2, 2020, by founder and CEO Kristyn Potter. The online directory of curated businesses, organizations, and more has the primary mission to amplify POC, women, and LGBTQIA+ voices and bolster their projects. This is done by providing users with resources that help them support diversity, shop inclusively, and travel ethically. On Chez Nous Guide’s website, you’ll find city guides as well as listings in a wide variety of categories. Sounds like a great idea, right? Well, it takes more than just a great idea to build a small business, so we chatted with Potter about her journey to bring Chez Nous Guide to life, her biggest business challenges so far, and what being a small business means to her.
Refinery29: Walk me through the process of launching Chez Nous Guide.
Kristyn Potter: I got the idea a few months ago when I was having a conversation with my partner. We were discussing something super simple: where to get speakers. I was like, “Oh, I’ll just go on Amazon,” and he was like, “No, Amazon is the worst. You should support a small business.” So I did some research on local, Black-owned record shops. Then, it came up again when I was going to order food for us from a local restaurant. I was like, “Oh, I’ll just use Seamless,” and he was like, “No, you should look at the menu on Seamless and then call the restaurant directly so Seamless doesn’t take a cut of the revenue.” That’s when I was just like “Why is this so difficult?”
You want to support small businesses, and it shouldn’t be so complicated. So it was primarily that dilemma. Why doesn’t all this info exist somewhere other than Google, which is “supporting the man” — sidebar: I work at Google, so I think I can say that. You can either go on Google or Yelp or Amazon and that’s not really helping the small businesses. So it came out of necessity. I wanted to support local businesses and there were no resources for me to easily do that, so I created it.
I bought the WordPress site and I designed it. I didn’t plan on launching so soon though. When everyone on Instagram started sharing all those links to and Excel spreadsheets of Black-owned businesses when the Black Lives Matter was starting to get this recent resurgence, I was like, “You know what, we need to launch.” I was planning on launching at the end of June, but I was like, “There’s a need for this right now so we’re launching tomorrow.”
You mentioned you work at Google. Can you tell me more about your career and work experience outside of Chez Nous?
Basically, I’ve always worked in corporate America for some pretty big companies. When I first moved to New York, I worked at Sony Music. That led me to start a music magazine called Left Bank because I was in the music scene and a lot of my friends are musicians. So through the years, I’ve been doing this side hustle magazine and web development. Chez Nous started as the same type of thing — a side hustle — except now, because of the interest I’m seeing in Chez Nous and the potential it has, I’m applying for grants for women founders and Black founders as well as looking for investors. I’m also a contractor at Google as an email content manager. And before that, I was at Getty Images as a copywriter and New York Magazine as a copywriter, so I’ve been in the content world for a while now.
Do you have a background in business?
I think this question is so funny because I’ll tell you, for undergrad, I was a double major in business marketing and journalism. I remember crying to my mom one day during my junior year saying, “I hate my business classes. I don’t want to be a business owner. I don’t want to work in marketing. I don’t want to do any of it. That makes me miserable. I just wouldn’t be a writer.” Now, 10 years later, I’m at Google on the marketing team. I was at Getty on the marketing team. I’ve launched my own businesses.
That’s so funny! What do you think changed? Is it just that the practical application of marketing and actually running a business are more stimulating than the classes were?
I think so. I’ve always been very reluctant to call myself a business owner because I think of business owners as people who are always in investor meetings and making pitch decks and just being super annoying. I really hate that, but I think what I like is that the businesses I’ve created are based on content and community. They’re all about bringing the community together around music or bringing communities together around businesses in certain areas and travel. I think that’s kind of like my get out of jail free card for being a business owner. It’s like be a business owner but make it fun.
With that philosophy in mind, what is a small business to you?
I don’t think it’s based on the number of employees or the revenue that you’re bringing in. I think it’s based on how close you are to your core mission, how nimble you are, and how innovative you are. That’s not to say that a Google or a Facebook isn’t innovative, but I do think that some companies start to lose a little focus on why they started it and the people and their users and the audience. Last night, I went to this amazing restaurant. The owner was there, and he was showing us the tacos as they were coming out. He was talking about the micheladas, and he was just so passionate. That doesn’t mean that the Mark Zuckerbergs aren’t passionate, but I do think that the bigger you get, the more focused you are on the big picture and you’re less focused on the people.
That perspective makes a lot of sense since you said you only felt comfortable starting a business if it had that community piece.
Yeah, and I think that you can hold onto that even as you scale up. Like Glossier, for example, I would say they’re pretty big, but the founder Emily Weiss is still bringing up community. I think as long as you tailor your stuff to that and remember where you came from then I think you’re still a small business.
You mentioned that you are now in the process of applying for grants. Have you received any funding for Chez Nous yet?
The only funding that I’m getting right now is from the business submissions. So people just pay a donation fee to get new businesses up on the site. There’s a suggested amount, but most people are paying more than that. We’re also launching a Patreon, just as a way to get continued support without it being too much of a lift. Then we’ll be going to investors because investors want to see your growth potential and how much you’re already making. Again, as of today, Chez Nous is like a month old so it’s super, super young. I think companies that grow really quickly can lose that heart and soul like I mentioned before, so I’m really cautious to make sure that we do it correctly.
How many employees do you have at this point? Do you have any idea how many people you eventually want to employ?
At this point, it’s volunteer-run, except for my best friend, Taylor. She’s my first employee, and she is in charge of grants and investors.
I see Chez Nous having a WeWork in two to three markets — definitely West Coast, definitely New York, then most likely like a Berlin or a Paris. I also envision Chez Nous doing both virtual and live events. We already have a Chez Nous movie club where we watch films from marginalized creators. That kind of stuff is free and also doesn’t really take a lot of resources. My big goal is having a brick and mortar space or a few little spaces where there are curated products and services. So I would say the number would probably be around like 40 to 50 employees globally. I see it growing, but I don’t see it being like a huge 100-, 200-, 1,000-person company.
I’m curious, because you mentioned Berlin or Paris as a possible location, what has you interested in the international side of things? Have you spent time in Europe?
Yeah, I used to live in London, and I go to Paris like once or twice a year. I’m going to Berlin whenever COVID clears up, I go to London all the time, and when I do, I want to go to places where people like me are the owners. Not to say that I don’t want to go to a pub owned by a cis white male, but it’s cool to visit London or Paris or Reykjavik go to woman-owned bookstore or a Black-owned shoe store or a Black-own souvenir shop. That means so much to me. So a big part of my vision for Chez Nous is for it not just to be a directory for your city but also a travel guide. I’m going to roll out a newsletter and a section on the site that have more travel-related content and links to the different sites and locations on the Chez Nous directory.
I’m sure the entire last month has been a whirlwind, but can you pinpoint your biggest business challenge so far?
This is honestly my favorite question. My biggest challenge is that there’s so much interest and help and there’s one of me. There are the volunteers, but it takes time to onboard people. I’m literally getting text messages, Instagram DMs, and emails constantly “here’s this new business,” “here are 10 places in Berlin,” “here are a hundred Black-owned restaurants in L.A.” and there are only just a few of us. It’s a great problem to have. I’m telling you, if I had the womanpower, I would have thousands of businesses. We have the content, we just don’t have the resources yet.
What about the biggest business win so far?
Oh my gosh, three days after launching, Fast Company wrote about us. They did a selection of the top ten places to get information about Black-owned businesses. Out of ten websites and apps from all over the world, Chez Nous was one of them, and we had literally just launched.
Since Talking Shop is a series about small businesses, my final question for you is what other small businesses are you excited about or inspired by right now?
Cafe Con Libros in Brooklyn is the number one place. It’s a Black-owned feminist cafe slash safe space. Right now, they’re doing curbside pickup. They have a podcast. They’re so cool. Another really sick place is called Busboys and Poets in D.C. and the D.C. area. It’s a revolutionary activist cafe named after Langston Hughes so that one’s super cool. There’s also this really cool jerk chicken slash car wash in Nashville called Caribbean Splash Reggae Cafe and Car Wash.
These are all listed on Chez Nous. I do want to add this because I think it’s important: the places that are on Chez Nous, they’re not just every Black-owned and every woman-owned company. That would be kind of crazy. There’s an important curation element to it. They’re all places that are unique and fun or have some cool perspectives.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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