While Black buying power is expected to reach $1.3 trillion in the next few years, only a small percentage of that money is spent at Black-owned businesses, according to a recent article from the New York Times. To close that gap, enter Tuloko, a new St. Louis-based technology company modeled after the early 1900s’ economically vibrant Black community Greenwood—a suburb in Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street, the home of 600 successful Black-owned businesses, where one dollar circulated a whole year before it left the community.
Sean Armstrong and his co-founders Duane Johnson and Joe Dixon went to St. Louis last year to participate in the Arch Grants incubator there, building Tuloko right against the backdrop of the racial upheaval happening in Ferguson, and they knew the timing was right.
“It seems like in the past five or six years,” said Armstrong, “people were talking about a post-racial society after the election of Obama, but the events that have been happening seem to be to the contrary. You have movements like #BLACKLIVESMATTER and #BLACKATMIZZOU, and people are becoming more racially aware. More people are now more focused on Black businesses and recirculating our dollars within the community.”
Launched during the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, Tuloko was founded on the belief that technology and social media can play a vital role in solving some of the African-American community’s social issues (like unemployment, high barriers to successful entrepreneurship and the income wage gap). According to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, between half a million and one million jobs could be created if higher-income Black households spent only $1 of every $10 at Black-owned stores and other enterprises.
Tapping into the upward trend of mobile and social media usage of younger African-Americans, Tuloko as a social mobile local app enables users to access local information on Black-owned businesses (and Tuloko-friendly businesses), places and events, curated news and a chat messenger service that connects users with shared interests. The chat service is integrated into the events tool, allowing people to reach out to others attending the same events that they’re interested in. But as a standalone messaging service, it’s intended to operate a little more like Tinder, where users can meet new people based upon shared interests.
While there are other apps out there with a focus on buying Black, Armstrong says his company is more than a Black business directory. Tuloko is one of the only apps to represent the current design and user experience trends of the technology industry. These include a more simplified design, a subtle and softer color palette, layered layouts, swiping gestures and animations, high-resolution images and videos, and blurred, transparent elements.
Also, it’s very important to Tuloko’s founders to keep their information relevant and up-to-date. Though they don’t have city editors now, crowdsourcing is a major part of their business play.
“We take data feeds from multiple sources like Yelp, but we want to take the power of the crowd to get the most comprehensive and reliable data,” says Armstrong. “Users have the power to share information outside the app to their social networks, and they can also recommend businesses, suggests edits and rate them.”
Much like the future of what all social networks could look like, in the long-term Tuloko plans to be a B2B2C portal—solving multiple problems with one tool like how WeChat works in Asia as both a platform and mobile portal serving as a mobile operating system, payment portal and ecommerce storefront. For instance, for small businesses, Tuloko presents the opportunity for owners to get closer to their consumers through customized tools that will enable them to offer coupons and loyalty rewards. Most important, it will help mom-and-pop shops to gather relevant customer data that could positively impact their bottom lines. For organizations and events, Tuloko could ultimately be the official app of conferences and events featuring schedule and agenda info. And for other businesses, Tuloko could provide appointment and booking services.
With only one month out, Tuloko is still in an early seed stage, with most funding coming from startup competitions, incubators and accelerators. Besides their incubation at Arch, Tuloko’s founders were also Startup Chile participants, Minnesota Cup Divisional Winners, CURA Tech Grant Recipients and Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Competition Runner Ups, among other achievements.
The road to success, though daunting, must be well planned. “The startup game has changed a lot since accelerators came around,” Armstrong shares. “The cost to start has decreased significantly. So instead of getting funded for an idea, now most people build out the [most viable product] for a seed round of money like $150,000 vs. $1,000,000, with the goal of getting traction to look attractive to series A investors.”
Tuloko definitely has a growth plan in place, but Armstrong and his partners are willing to pivot depending on the feedback and data they receive. Right now, growth will be fueled by strategic partnerships to help increase reach, social media and influencer relations, as well as event partnerships.
“Imagine if we were the official mobile app of the National Black MBA Association or Congressional Black Caucus or Black Film Festivals and those users downloaded our app and then we had access to them,” Armstrong considers.
To stay afloat, there’s also a revenue model in place. Of course advertising is at the top of the list, followed by the services that Tuloko can provide to businesses and organizations. But there’s also the opportunity for affiliate sales, giving organizations the ability to earn money while driving business to Tuloko, much the way Uber does.
“We are creating a mobile community that caters to the Black population, but is open to all,” explains co-founder Duane Johnson. “This platform allows tastemakers and curators to create content and disseminate information important to the African-American experience. Much of this information is often overlooked, hard to find, or simply dismissed on mainstream platforms.”
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.