Jasper Kuria is on a mission to help Black-owned businesses be more successful, and he hopes white CEOs and the companies they run can help make that happen. His idea is simple: Ask business leaders what resources and capabilities they have to support the cause. Examples could include providing executives for coaching, training, or mentoring Black-owned businesses; offering Black businesses free advertising, or discounted or waived service or transaction fees for a period of time; or considering Black-owned businesses when hiring vendors, suppliers, or partners, then hiring those who are qualified.
Kuria is the founder and managing partner of The Conversion Wizards, which provides software and consulting to help businesses convert more web visits to sales, known as conversion rate optimization (CRO). He hopes white CEOs will pledge to support Black-owned businesses, then act on the pledge within 30 days. Kuria recognizes not all major companies are led by white CEOs, and he hopes those nonwhite- led companies also support his cause, but he said the majority of major firms are white-led, and their action can significantly influence change.
CEOs or companies making the pledge and following through on support would receive a logo, “Black Owned Business — Proud Supporter,” to display on their websites and elsewhere. They also would receive exposure on a website Kuria has established, theblackownedbusiness.org, to list the pledging businesses and serve as a directory for Black businesses to seek opportunities. That’s also the name of a nonprofit he established to manage the effort to support Black-owned businesses.
“We hope it’s going to be a long-lived organization … whose mission is to support Black-owned businesses, help Blacks create wealth, and reduce inequality — that’s the mission,” Kuria said.
To help generate buzz and momentum for his cause, Kuria is asking business executives who pledge to support Black-owned businesses to “Do The BOB (Black-Owned Business)” by creating a LinkedIn post expressing their support, attaching the Black-owned Business – Proud Supporter logo, tagging their post with #BlackOwnedBusiness and #DoTheBOB, and also challenging three LinkedIn contacts to “Do The Bob.” The idea is to create a viral wave of support for Black-owned businesses.
Kuria believes the time is right for his idea, following the national conversation about inequality in America after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 by a white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck.
“The idea arose because of the climate we’re in now,” Kuria said. “I am a Black business owner; there’s this national conversation going on; maybe I should start something now to help Black-owned businesses, because a year from now people won’t be as receptive, probably.”
One of the most effective ways to reduce inequality, Kuria believes, is to increase the number of successful Black-owned businesses, calling business ownership a key to creating multigenerational wealth.
The odds of creating a successful business are long for anyone, but even longer for Black people, said Kuria, who lives in Redmond and has a company office at WeWork in Bellevue.
“It’s just plain harder all around,” said Kuria, 42, who speaks from experience.
Despite a résumé that includes an Ivy League degree in computer science and economics, five years at Microsoft with stints including software design engineer and program manager for Bing Commerce (and playing some Ping-Pong with Bill Gates — more on that later), and running businesses, he still has faced hurdles as a Black businessman in the United States.
“It’s hard to raise capital, it’s hard to get partnerships, it’s hard to hire people to work for you — it’s just harder. I see several of my white peers having an easier time. I don’t begrudge them; they’re highly competent, qualified people, but I know that it’s harder for me. I have to work harder. I have to overprepare for meetings. I have to prove myself over and over again.” he said.
Kuria added, “I’ve had people tell me the only reason I responded to your email is because you went to Yale, but most Black business owners didn’t go to Yale, and so it’s hard.”
Initially, he wants the nonprofit to focus on helping two kinds of Black-owned businesses: those primarily selling online, getting a decent share of their business there, or looking to transition from traditional retail to e-commerce, plus professional service organizations. Kuria in September and October was negotiating with several major companies interested in supporting The Black Owned Business.org and whose support would greatly benefit the Black businesses he’s initially targeting for help. As the organization grows, it would expand its focus to helping Black-owned businesses in more sectors.
The Black Owned Business.org is in talks with SurveyMonkey to get the roughly two dozen tech companies who have joined SurveyMonkey’s initiative to track diversity within their vendors to consider Black-owned professional services companies when hiring vendors, Kuria said. The Black Owned Business.org has built and owns a high-quality database of Black-owned professional services companies, he said, adding that his organization is talking with SurveyMonkey to have companies that joined its initiative pay for access to the database to support the nonprofit.
Kuria likes to tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen to help demonstrate how white leaders can make a difference for Black businesses.
Highly skilled pilots, those primarily Black airmen initially were not allowed to serve their country in combat during World War II, he noted, adding that it took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt flying with them to get military leaders to relent and allow them to fly combat missions, where they proved to be one of the best squadrons.
“They didn’t have equal access and opportunity, and I feel that that’s how it is for Black business owners today,” Kuria said. “So I think it will take progressive male white CEOs, because they are overwhelmingly the ones with the power, the ones leading most large companies, to play a similar role as Eleanor Roosevelt, saying, ‘You know, we realize there’s a problem; we want to help solve it by leveling the playing field, hiring Black-owned agencies, hiring Black suppliers and partners … that kind of thing. So that’s the idea.”
We caught up with Kuria, who possesses an infectious laugh, this fall to learn about The Conversion Wizards, an initiative he founded in 2014; his podcast and digital magazine; and his arrival in the United States from Kenya 23 years ago, at age 19. Excerpts of our conversation with Kuria follow.
Describe what The Conversion Wizards does.
We help companies that sell online increase the number of visitors who turn into sales, who turn into customers. Sites get visitor traffic, (but) only a small percentage of those visitors become buyers. So our job is to increase the number of people who become buyers. A typical conversion rate is 1 percent across all categories — every hundred visitors who come to a site, one buys — that’s actually about a typical conversion rate for the web. So if a company’s doing $10 million in revenue with a 1 percent conversion rate and we increase that to 1.3 (percent), that’s an extra $3 million in revenue going to them, and they did not have to spend more on advertising to generate that extra revenue. It’s all because we design the elements of the site to appeal to more visitors, and that’s how we produce more revenue.
You’re transitioning the company from offering consulting to offering software. Why the switch?
We’ve been a consulting company much of the last five years and attracted some very high-profile clients, but the reality of that business is it’s hard to build a supervaluable consulting company because you’re always trading hours for dollars. Through our consulting work, we’ve had insights around products we could build that could be used by smaller merchants that can’t afford our services. There are many more smaller merchants that we can serve than the truly big e-commerce companies, and so we have a basic (software) product that helps merchants do two things: It helps reduce cart abandonment … and the other thing it does is it helps increase average order value by doing … one-click upsells. Once (a customer has) completed that initial purchase, our software allows you as a merchant to prompt the customer to make additional purchases without having to reenter their credit card. So that’s very powerful, because we found that when someone buys a product, there’s that moment of buyer heat, where they feel good about their purchase, and they’re most receptive to additional offers, especially if you’re giving them some kind of discount or something like that.
What prompted you to start The Conversion Wizards?
During the Great Recession, when online advertising was really cheap, I had some success as an affiliate marketer. Basically, affiliate marketing entails spending your own money to promote other people’s products, typically other companies’ products, for a commission on sites known as affiliate networks. One of the key skills required to succeed in that business is being able to produce a high conversion rate. It can be very profitable, but it’s also very competitive and very volatile. When the economy recovered, advertising was no longer as cheap; it was harder to make money in that business. But I realized that the skills I had developed around converting visitors to buyers would be a lot more valuable to big companies that already had scale and a lot of traffic. If a company is doing $5 million in revenue and I help them increase their conversion rate by 30 percent, that’s $1.5 million extra a year in revenue, and they should have no problem paying me a commission from that incremental revenue that I helped them generate. So that’s how I started the business.
When did you work in affiliate marketing?
It coincided with me founding a fitness company.
Talk about that company, Fitness Foreva. You weren’t in that long, from 2010 to 2014.
I am a fitness enthusiast. It was a passion project. I blindly pursued my passion, and that company failed, but the idea was we were going to make a market — a premium line of protein supplements. At the time, I felt that many of the mainstream protein supplements were low-quality; they had a lot of cheap fillers, and I wanted to create a product that was super-high-quality with a lot of high-quality grams of protein per serving without all the sugars and the cheap fillers. So I partnered with a famous bodybuilder to use his image and likeness to market this line of products. We generated some meaningful sales and revenue, but the company was not profitable.
What did you learn from that experience?
Don’t blindly follow passion. I don’t think I spent enough time making sure that the unit economics worked, because I was just fixated on high-quality product … but our competitors (could) … source their own raw material a lot more cheaply than we could, and we did not scale quickly enough for the unit economics to yield profit. The other lesson I learned was selecting your partners wisely and coming up with well-defined agreements on what exactly the partnership entails. I fell out with my partner and I could no longer use his image and likeness to market the products, and we’d invested a lot in packaging around his image and likeness.
You have two other endeavors: Capital & Growth, which is an e-commerce education site, and How We Made It In eCommerce, which is a free digital magazine and podcast. When did you start the podcast?
We started in July of 2019, did two episodes, and then didn’t do anymore. We recently relaunched it in June. Since June, we’ve done an episode every single week. We interview a successful e-commerce CEO, and they share their story, basically. We’ve had people like Dan Shapiro of Glowforge; the CEO of Dressbarn; the CEO of Crowd Cow … and many others.
Are you the point man for the podcast and magazine?
I am the host. I have a small team. I have a designer and a writer and an audio engineer that help me.
This is kind of an offshoot of The Conversion Wizards, correct?
Yeah, they are all related. So Conversion Wizards is a consultancy. Capital & Growth is an e-commerce Q&A site. You can think of it as the Quora for e-commerce. It helps the consulting business because it generates leads. We have very high-quality answers around e-commerce, and so when you’re seen as an authority in e-commerce, that has produced some leads for the consulting business, and then the digital magazine and podcast is an extension of Capital & Growth (and found at capitalandgrowth.org). We’re trying to educate our audience from lessons based on these interviews. These people have succeeded at e-commerce, and now they’re sharing their lessons. So in addition to the Q&As, our audience learns from that — so that’s how all three parts of the business are tied together.
You came to the United States from Kenya to attend college?
Did Microsoft recruit you from Yale; is that how you ended up here?
Yeah, exactly. How was your experience there? It was a very good experience … lots of personal growth, so I really cherish that experience. And I also got my Green Card through Microsoft.
Your LinkedIn profile recounts a story in which your Microsoft development operations Ping-Pong team, the Diabolical Devs, got to hit a few balls with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates after winning the development operations tournament about 2008. What was that like?
It was a doubles format, and it wasn’t a real competitive game; it was more like for photo ops. We were cautioned beforehand not to embarrass him (laughs). …
So no smashes or super spin shots against him?
No. He kept saying, “You guys are being so kind.” (Laughs.) He said we were not playing our best.
You also note how the tournament organizer, Harry Shum, asked his boss, Satya Nadella, then senior vice president-search portal and advertising, and now CEO, to present the awards and say a few words at the event in front of Gates, but Nadella deferred, letting Shum speak.
I thought (that) was quite humble and impressive … and I think that’s part of the culture (Nadella has) created at Microsoft.
The LinkedIn post also notes a time when you had a 10-minute meeting with Nadella during his 10-minute Fridays, when he’d meet with anyone in his division for 10 minutes. You said you recall him saying: “Leadership is a privilege that can easily be taken away. The talented people who work for me have plenty of options and can leave at any moment. I therefore treat them like unpaid volunteers.” What struck you about his comment?
I just thought it was a very different philosophy on managing. You tend to think of a leader and a manager as directing others on what to do, and they’re almost always wanting to please their boss, but in the tech industry, where there is so much need for technical talent, but not enough technical talent … the most talented people have a choice of working anywhere. Google, Apple, Amazon will gladly pay as much, if not more, and they can leave in an instant. And so I think that philosophy of treating them like unpaid volunteers and having it expressed that way, I just thought it was interesting, different, and insightful, and made me realize Satya is very humble and exemplifies, quote-unquote, servant leadership.
Do you try to emulate that to a certain degree?
To a certain degree. I try and attract really talented people to work with me (he has eight contractors for The Conversion Wizards). I can’t necessarily pay them what they’re truly worth, but I’m selling them on a vision. This is what it can become if we work together. So yeah, in that sense, I cannot be ordering people around, because they’ll leave … so I try to emulate some of those aspects of his leadership.
Why did you leave Microsoft?
Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to run my own business. I sold hangers (in elementary school). I made hangers from wires, and I sold them to university students; my dad was an academic, and I made quite a bit of money, and I was always coming up with ideas. … When I got my LCA labor certification — it’s a stage in the Green Card application process — I left Microsoft because I could work for any other employer or for myself. (It) was that deep-seated desire to run my own venture.