For Founders of Small Businesses, the Personal Story Matters

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Hakki Akdeniz, the founder of Champion Pizza chain in New York City, openly discusses his past. He was homeless when he arrived in the United States from Canada in 2001, sleeping in subway cars and at Grand Central Terminal before going to a shelter for three months.

Champion Pizza’s site prominently features Mr. Akdeniz’s story, emphasizing the company’s commitment to supporting homelessness — a core part of its mission. Mr. Akdeniz, 43, belongs to a rising group of small business owners integrating elements of their personal life into their company branding, as observed by experts.

It is not a new concept for company founders to share their personal life stories. Traditionally, these stories are simple, optimistic tales of a person determined to solve a challenge. However, a new wave of founders are distinguishing themselves by sharing narratives that aren’t neat, easy-to-understand stories of business creation, experts note. These include experiences of homelessness, addiction, imprisonment, mental illness, and physical health.

Numerous small business owners are electing to be open about a challenging period in their lives, which can foster deeper relationships with their consumers. But what happens when companies reveal some of the darkest parts of their founder’s lives? Will consumers relate or be repelled by oversharing?

Tulin Erdem, a professor of marketing at New York University Stern School of Business and the chair of the university’s marketing department, says that more and more small business owners have been sharing sensitive details about their past in company communications in recent years. Dr. Erdem sees this as a “positive trend” that can foster customer connection, provided it’s genuine and relevant to the business’s product or service.

“Some people might not appreciate it,” she adds, but she believes those individuals are likely not the target customer.

Angela Lee, a professor at Columbia Business School who teaches venture capital, also notes a rise in founders willing to share their past struggles. However, she advises business owners to “proceed with caution” regarding oversharing complex topics. She suggests that it’s harder to convey nuance when someone is scanning a bio or social media post quickly.

Ms. Lee is also an investor and the founder of 37 Angels, a network of female investors. She remarks that the lines between personal and professional lives are becoming increasingly blurred, and that founders should be honest when pitching to investors, as their history might turn up in background checks. “The idea of having two separate identities — one for work and one for home — is a thing of the past,” says Ms. Lee.

According to David Gaz, the founder of the Bureau of Small Projects, the “About Us” section of a business website distinguishes the company by explaining how it outperforms its competitors. The agency, which builds brand identities and websites for small businesses, has found that the “about” page is the second-most visited page on a business’s site, following the home page. (The agency creates roughly 100 websites for small businesses annually.)

Mr. Akdeniz’s biography is included on the Champion Pizza website, but he emphasizes that the goal was not to make himself the central figure of the brand. “I aspire to be an example for many people but remain humble,” says Mr. Akdeniz, who is of Kurdish descent. He frequently gives slices to homeless individuals who frequent his pizzerias and volunteers weekly with two organizations that aid those experiencing homelessness, donating pies that he personally serves.

Originally from Turkey, he arrived in New York seeking asylum after deportation from Canada due to an expired tourist visa. He had learned to make Italian-style pizza in Canada, where he resided for several years, after initially mastering the art of making lahmajoun, a Middle Eastern flatbread topped with meat, in his home country.

After securing a dishwashing job at a restaurant in Hoboken, he began making pizza in restaurants and opened his first shop in 2009. He says he was granted the EB-1 green card, designed for individuals of exceptional talent, after achieving the highest overall score at a pizza-making competition hosted by Pizza Marketing Quarterly, a trade publication, at the Javits Center in New York City in 2010.

According to the Small Business Administration, there are 33.2 million small businesses in the U.S., and numerous owners have likely experienced difficult periods. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that “more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness.” Traditionally, most of these individuals have not publicly revealed these difficulties via their business platforms, according to Dr. Erdem, a marketing professor from the New York University. However, some who do are discovering that their personal narratives resonate with their audience.

George Haymaker, the founder of ReThink Ice Cream, is one such business owner. Mr. Haymaker, 62, discusses a time when drug addiction was causing his life to spiral out of control. Consuming large quantities of ice cream played a pivotal role in Mr. Haymaker’s early sobriety, helping him steer clear of drugs and alcohol.

His experience is central to his company’s character: “ReThink Ice Cream was born out of my addiction to alcohol and pain pills,” reads the first sentence of the “The Story” section on the company’s website. He put on more than 30 pounds when he initially became sober, leading him to develop a healthier ice cream recipe with less sugar.

“Whether there’s stigma attached to addiction or mental health, I don’t care,” states Mr. Haymaker, who resides in Northern California. He claims his message of recovery particularly resonates with colleges aiming to address student mental health. He now sells ice cream at 30 colleges in California and one in Oregon, in addition to stores, and gives talks on campuses about recovery and entrepreneurship.

Alli Ball, a San Francisco-based food consultant, advises start-ups selling packaged food and beverages. She believes there are no strict rules regarding what founders should or should not share. “If it feels gimmicky and hasn’t truly influenced your growth, and you’re merely using it to create a more engaging narrative, people can see through it,” she remarks.

She advises clients to be candid about their values because it can attract the kinds of customers a business wants.

One small business owner doing just that is Nadya Okamoto, a co-founder of August, a start-up that sells feminine hygiene products. Her company, which sells products online and in some Target locations, lets customers build personalized packages of menstrual products for home delivery.

“From the outset, my entire brand has been about unfiltered conversation concerning periods, blood, and mental health,” Okamoto explains.

Okamoto, 25, was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder six months after developing the concept for her company. She openly shares stories of her mental health struggles, including one where she reveals she was a victim of sexual abuse, on Instagram and on TikTok, where she has over four million followers. She acknowledges that her strategy is not suitable for everyone.

“I wouldn’t say it offers a significant marketing benefit,” Okamoto mentions, suggesting that any benefit to August derived from creating authentic connections with her followers.

She says her openness on social media platforms has fostered a sense of loyalty among many customers. Nevertheless, she concedes her honesty could invite judgment, make people warier of her, and even push some people away. She acknowledges, “I receive a lot of negative comments online.”

Meg Smith, founder of Love, Lexxi, a lingerie business specializing in bras for smaller cup sizes, agrees that customers appreciate transparency. “Consumers today are very perceptive and care about authenticity and the genuine motives that brands possess,” she observes.

Smith, 38, developed an autoimmune disease after receiving breast implants and ultimately had to have the implants removed. She explains that plastic surgery was a taboo topic in the community she grew up in, outside Portsmouth, N.H., and she initially hesitated to share details about her cosmetic procedure and health battles for fear of being judged.

In a video on the Love, Lexxi website, she discusses her desire to feel beautiful after struggling with body image and health issues. In retrospect, she has no regrets about sharing her personal journey because it reveals the genuine motives behind her company.

Smith contends her transparency communicates to her customers that, “Our founder has been through a lot.”

Entrepreneurs who have served jail time say that revealing their past can jeopardize their professional reputation, but some insist it has been worthwhile. Flikshop founder, Marcus Bullock, initially kept private his own experience of going to jail when he launched the website and app offering a service to send postcards to incarcerated loved ones in 2012.

“I did not want to be ostracized from the business community,” Bullock declares.

Bullock spent eight years in jail for carjacking, starting at age 15. For the last six years of his sentence, his mother sent him a letter daily. This inspired the idea for Flikshop, whose mission is to eliminate recidivism by helping people visualize life after prison through letters from loved ones.

After a customer opened up about how significant the app had been for her family, Bullock decided to share that he could empathize with her experience because he had spent time in jail.

“I felt empowered by fully owning a narrative that I had avoided for so long,” Bullock, based in Washington, D.C., explains. Ultimately, he hopes his transparency can help dispel stigma around previously incarcerated individuals.

“Our customers were amazed to learn that the tech they use daily was started by someone like their loved one in one of those cells,” Bullock says. According to the Flikshop website, the service is operational in over 3,700 correctional facilities. Since then, he has hired other previously incarcerated individuals and launched Flikshop Neighborhood, a service that links organizations with incarcerated individuals and educates employers on creating hiring policies that offer a second chance to individuals with criminal records.

For Bullock and others, like Okamoto, being open about their personal lives led to a sense of freedom.

“For a long time, I hid so much of myself,” Okamoto shares. “It would require more emotional energy for me to filter myself and consider who I am talking to and how I want to present myself.” She adds, “So it’s easier to just be myself.”

The Personal Story is Significant for Small Business Founders