‘Geeking Out’ On Web Tech, A Systems Engineer And A Webmaster Create A Startup That Promotes Black Culture

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Written by Williesha Morris

Black and brown folks are not well represented in traditional home decor and apparel.

Systems engineer Calvin Barnes and webmaster Harold Thompson saw an opportunity to build a home decor business around Black icons and Black culture designers.

Their web store — SofYDecor.com — features artwork by black culture artists depicting icons such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, MLK and Malcolm X. The artwork is printed on products such as pillows, tapestries, throw blankets, totes, canvases, apparel and more.

Because larger websites aren’t geared towards black people, Barnes said, he was able to attract designers that normally get “lost in the sauce.”

SofY stands for Art For The Soul Of You. “Melanin Poppin” is the new collection of the home decor web store.

Barnes and Thompson were geeking out on web technology in 2017 when they developed the site’s infrastructure. They decided to put on their salesmen hats and do some networking and product marketing.

Based in Owings Mills, Maryland, this tech startup has all the elements of a nontraditional business launch. First, Barnes and Thompson found the manufacturers, then the products to work with that they felt served their audience well.

“A lot of companies start with a concept first and then they find things,” Barnes said in a Moguldom interview. “We actually found an opportunity with products and then we began to identify our market and kind of niche it down a little bit better.”

Audience selection was an important part of the process.

“I’m into building systems and designing systems and things that work,” Barnes said. “Essentially we were looking for something that we could get into that worked, and we weren’t really specifically looking for an opportunity in this industry. But we found an opportunity that  looked like a really good idea – something that we could build a system around.”

Then they focused on marketing and competitive analysis to determine if this kind of site would work. This research validated their decision to go with SoFy.

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Real Deep Thought duvet cover, part of the new Melanin Poppin collection at SofY Decor web store. Photo: sofydecor.com

“Our statement is to uplift, promote and influence positive black culture,” Barnes said.

On SofyDecor.com, designers can have their artwork printed on products such as
pillows, tapestries, throw blankets, totes, canvases, apparel and more. The artist’s products are
displayed in their own Sofy Decor online shop, and they are paid every time products featuring
their designs are sold. The platform allows black culture artists to create and grow their personal
brand while having their work highlighted on a platform tailored for their customer’s decor
desires, SofY said in a press release.

SofyDecor has approximately 30 designers and wants to generate more web traffic from social influencers, social media and other marketing efforts. They’ve been successful at generating buzz through Instagram especially. They’ve amassed more than 1,300 followers. And both have full-time jobs.

They generated buzz from a few ads but mostly from following and commenting people. Whenever they had the chance to engage people on Instagram, they took it.

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Calvin Barnes. Photo provided

Barnes and Thompson knew they lacked experience and resources to gain influence. However, Barnes said he doesn’t consider these “setbacks.”

When starting a business Barnes assumed they’d need “to spend much more money and time, than you can anticipate,” he said. “But I don’t really consider them setbacks. (They’re) more learning experiences.”

He said they needed to get “down into the weeds” and learn how to allocate resources in a two-man company.

“We’re doing networking. We’re doing site maintenance. We’re maintaining social media accounts,” Barnes said.  They look for a return on investment when spending money on marketing.

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Harold Thompson. Photo provided

Though they have full-time jobs, Barnes and Thompson say they use the skills and knowledge they learned and transfer them into SoFy.