At Work with Carmin Black of Half United

At Work with Carmin Black At Work is a bi-weekly feature on Ember & March that does just what it sounds like –showcases entrepreneurs, small business owners and the like At Work. Follow along on social media using the hashtag #EMAtWork! Have someone you’d like to see featured? Shoot me an email using the subject ‘At Work With *Name*’!

What time do you wake up in the morning and tasks do you take on first?

Lately its earlier and earlier. My goal these days is no later than 5:30. I have so much to do in a day and if I want to pack in time to exercise or strategic business planning it has to be before my real work day begins. The earlier I get started the more relaxed I am throughout the day about fitting in everything I need to complete.

When did you know you wanted to become an entrepreneur? What was the first thing you did to make your goal a reality?

I think it wasn’t until I traveled the country on behalf of TOMS. I saw the ways young people responded to the idea of conscious consumerism. Its like something just hit me. I was like “I have got to do this, I dont want to work for TOMS (even though they are a killer company), I want to start the next TOMS” something within me told me this was my next step. I followed that feeling and have never looked back. The first thing I did was interview other entrepreneurs, and leaders in the fight against childhood hunger. Some of the advice I took, some of it I didn’t. When I first started HALF UNITED with my brother I was obsessed with learning about our giving model. I wanted to get our giving right from day one. Looking back that was very altruistic and while it is important to make sure you are giving effectively, I do wish I had spent more time on business planning, product development, goal-setting. However, I did not realize the importance these things play in making a company successful. In a way the ignorance my brother and I had about running a company served to our advantage. Had we know the challenges ahead we may have quit early on.

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How did you decide to pair clothing and accessories with the fight against hunger?

To my brother and I this just seemed like a natural fit for our interests. We cared about feeding people in need and after learning how affordable it is to do that, we decided to sell a product (clothing) which could be made and sold affordably while still earning enough to cover our expenses and keep our business growing. We then transitioned into jewelry which also has high profit margins, but constantly needs to be re-designed and updated to keep customers coming back to what’s new and different. Any product can be turned into a give-back product if you want it to. Recreating yourself and giving your customers what they want is the challenging part.

What obstacles did you face when first launching your business?

From improper planning, to a lack of sales experience, to a lack of good financial record keeping, to a lack of vision we had a ton of issues. Starting a business without experience in the field is tough.

How would you describe your brand?

Chic, Classic, Affordable. We aim to keep our prices $50 and under, while selling our customers styles that look much more expensive. It is important to me that our customers feel (and look) like they got more quality than they paid for.

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What has been your biggest lesson learned since becoming a business owner?

Know where you want to go and who you want to be. When we started HALF UNITED I didn’t understand what it meant to have a brand identity, I didn’t know why quality mattered, I didn’t understand how to price our products correctly, I also did not know when to cut a product from a collection, or how to run a business based on metrics. All I wanted to do was feed kids in need. What I didn’t realize is that if the things I just listed are not taken care of first, our mission cannot thrive. If we want to feed children, we have to give customers a reason to believe in our brand and return to us time and time again. Once that happens we truly can change the world and fight hunger in a big way.

Have you made any major or minor mistakes along the way?

Of course. I have made serious leadership mistakes. I am constantly helping to refine our processes and our internal office communications. I admittedly wear my heart and my emotions on my sleeve and I have had to learn that in a business setting this is often unacceptable. Your team cannot respect you, no matter how strong you are, if you constantly let your (mostly negative) emotions show. Reeling these in have been great for me as a person and a boss. Besides this there have been issues with quality, inventory control, hiring mistakes, not firing soon enough. You name it we’ve lived through it, and learned from it. The key is to learn your lesson and never repeat it. The more I do this, the better I get as a leader, and the stronger my team becomes.

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How do you tackle social media and email?

My brother is in charge of our social media, he is great at what he does and is also in charge of managing our metrics around what works and what doesn’t. Twice a month he reports his findings and so I stay in the loop that way. I will send him suggestions about posts I’d like to see, or topics I’d like to address, but other than that he’s in charge of this area. Email- do you mean managing my in-box? Or email marketing? For incoming and outgoing emails its my assistant and I who tackle this, and for email marketing while my assistant and I drive the content, but my brother curates the images and look and feel that our customers see.

What are your best practices for keeping organized and managing your time?

Lists and managing expectations. I know we all hate to make people wait, however, I have to admit that an email from a major buyer of a department store most likely takes precedence over an intern emailing me about how to submit their internship application. I do view everyone as equally important, but I also have to remember what is going to grow this business and focus in on that first and foremost. Most important things must come first, the ancillary items and fun extras have to take a backseat.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to current or aspiring entrepreneurs and creatives?

Have grit. Dont oversleep, show up to meetings late, feel sorry for yourself when you have to stay at work late or miss fun life events due to work getting in the way. If you want to run a business you must know that it is not easy, and if it ever feels easy you are most likely not doing something right (or you are one of those rare people who never gets stressed, overwhelmed, or is so organized life never throws your curve balls), but for the rest of us who often start this with little past experience, you will face a new challenge every single day and it can be tough. Celebrate your achievements, do schedule personal time for yourself outside of work, and when you do get to go to the weddings and birthday parties celebrate them big- you’ve most likely sacrificed a great deal to attend. Hire VERY well. This is the main key to success in business. One amazing hard working person can replace the need for three other mediocre hires. Hire people you like, but can also respect because of their dedication to your brand and mission.

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What do you see coming next? Anything exciting on the horizon?

We have some exciting giving/ hunger fighting initiatives in the works with a well-known former president of a large grocery store chain. We can’t say too much yet but we are working on some new and unique ways to address hunger in the USA. As for design we are rolling out a new display campaign which we are hoping will increase sales, and internally getting all of our numbers and metrics really pinned down so we know who our customer really is, and exactly what they want from a give-back brand like HALF UNITED.

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