Welcome to “On the Job,” an occasional Hello Alice interview series in which small business owners narrate their entrepreneurial journey.
CEO Jovante Ham started Melanoid Exchange in 2019 as an e-commerce marketplace for minority-owned businesses. Not long after, he married a nurse named Darsha Carter. The newlyweds quickly became a business duo that grew their company by participating in accelerators like DivInc and winning the prestigious AfroTech pitch competition. Today, Carter is with Melanoid Exchange full-time as COO in charge of the company's transition from a seller marketplace to primarily an e-commerce education platform.
Hello Alice recently spoke with Carter about pivoting the company's business model, making equity crowdfunding work, and staying optimistic during challenging times. What follows are her own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
COO, Melanoid Exchange | Houston, TX
At the beginning, Melanoid Exchange really answered one question: Why isn't there a place where people can support Black-owned businesses more efficiently? My husband ended up deciding to start a marketplace himself with the money from his tax return. What we quickly realized is that the Black-owned businesses are out here — it's just a scattered market, and we should try to get everyone together.
Initially I was still working in nursing, so I would only come in certain nights and work on the business. It was mostly helping out with social media and bringing awareness to it at networking events. Then in April 2020, I actually got COVID-19 from my job, and I didn't really feel supported in my hospital. That was a strong push to go full-time with Melanoid Exchange.
I'm not gonna lie: We did really well when the George Floyd tragedy happened. There was a big push in the nation to support Black-owned businesses, and we were becoming a hub as our platform grew 300 percent. But that's also when we saw that there was a bigger problem going on. Yeah, people were coming in, and yeah, we were getting new businesses. But it didn't seem like the traction was there.
We started to gain this really unique insight that business owners were coming, but they didn't have that foundational knowledge in e-commerce. We ended up getting a lot of people who didn't understand what they were doing online. Then we identified a place in a Shopify report that said that their platform had a high failure rate with new online businesses. If Shopify was going through this same thing, it suddenly made sense why we were going through it, too.
Coming into 2021, we decided to pivot our business model to become an education platform that is a tool for new e-commerce business owners to learn while doing. Part of that means phasing out the marketplace. Now we're providing the tools to build out a very simple e-commerce platform where they are actually testing out their learnings in real-time. Their basic store won't be open to the public, but it'll be there for that person to go in and offer it to maybe their friends, family, and early customers. Another step we're taking is to create partnerships so that once a person has made it through our training and they become proficient, they can move their business over to Shopify or Wix or BigCommerce.
Yes, there's already a ton of information already out there, but that information can be very general. E-commerce is becoming a way of life, so we have to educate the people who are going to be in the industry. We want to position Melanoid Exchange to be a place where people can come and get educated in the specifics of e-commerce. Most of all, our business is not going to be a secret society — it's just sign up, come and learn so that you can get proficient, and be successful in what you love to do.
So far, we have primarily been funded through an equity crowdfunding campaign. We relied on our story, our lives, what we were doing, how we were impacting people. We ended up raising $160,000, and that became what we used to really bootstrap and get to this point where we put out our MVP and where we're now working on phase two of our company. If you can let people into your life and share your story and how you're impacting people, you'd be surprised who wants to help out.
Even though 2020 was hard, I believe that it exposed so much about this country, and I believe that it led people to opportunities that otherwise would not have been there. If what happened in our country hadn't been on display, if people wouldn't have been at home sitting in front of a TV or on social media all the time, many people wouldn't be doing the things that they're doing today. That probably includes me.
I'm not optimistic for the future because the times have been easy — I'm optimistic because we're tough people. COVID happened, but who knows what's going to happen in the future? The saying is very cliche, but it's true: You just have to stay ready so you don't have to get ready.