Find out how Neil Alvin built a niche international community for Black fashionistas.
Meet NEIL ALVIN, the Bajan fashion-lover behind one of Black fashion’s top female fashion blogs and sites BLACK GIRLS KILLING IT (BGKI). Since its launch in 2010, Black Girls Killing It has become an international presence in the Black fashion world. With a large readership in the United States, London and different countries throughout Africa, BGKI serves as a fashion community and hub for fashionistas looking to be inspired by the personal styles of women of color across the globe. I’ve been a fan of BGKI for quite a while and was pleasantly shocked to find out the founder was male. How did he tap into the needs of the Black female demographic?
I chatted with Neil about the vision behind BGKI, the brand’s evolution, business challenges, and future plans. Learn how Neil responded to reader’s demands – all without ever thinking the blog would ever grow to the size it is today! Check out the interview below.
Rana Campbell (RC): How did you start Black Girls Killing It (BGKI)?
Neil Alvin (NA): I always had a thing for fashion. I used to live with my mom and we had alot of magazines in the house. I read alot of them. When Tumblr launched, I started one under my name Neil Alvin. One day in 2010, I was reading an article called “Top 50 Fashion Bloggers” and realized none were Black. I didn’t know anything about blogging then, but I knew it can’t be true that no top fashion bloggers were black. The same websites I would go to look for fashion tips, I didn’t like to go on them anymore. No one knew that color was significant. I just saw alot of White girls. I said I was going to start my own Tumblr and put up Black girls. I used to just put up just models because I didn’t know any bloggers.
After a year, I had about 400 followers on Tumblr. It was very interactive. Almost every day we got questions. One day someone said, “I prefer your blog to the ‘Black Fashion’ blog. I said, “Black Fashion Blog?” What’s that?
Then I started thinking… no one is going to google Neil Alvin. I am never going to be found. I need to brand this. I did a poll on my website. I thought of five names and “Black and Killing It” was the one the readers wanted. I wasn’t happy so I called it Black Girls Killing It. I went and got a logo made, registered the website and domain, spending about $1,000 without even thinking about making it back. In the space of a month, after I relaunched as BGKI, I went from 400 to 4,000 followers. I wasn’t doing anything different. I changed the name and it worked. As it grew, I tried to anticipate the needs of the girls. Girls would ask questions and I realized it would be good to have tips on the site. I wasn’t going to pretend like I knew what I was talking about so I interviewed people to work on the tips sections. That’s when the site evolved.
RC: Did you grow BGKI organically?
NA: It was like a movement. It started to grow faster. First, it evolved into tips. I started doing voting on pictures. I try to put various types of outfits on the website. There are now BGKI in different countries.
The second thing that happened was stores wanted to advertise. At first, I was doing it. But then I realized if I said yes to every request, my website wouldn’t look like a fashion site anymore. I made a second website called Shop BGKI. I charge a monthly rent in the marketplace. I killed two birds in one stone. I stopped the site from looking like an ad fest and still generated revenue.
RC: What are other ways that your brand evolved as it grew?
NA: Everything comes out by accident or because someone is pressuring me. My fans started asking for a Facebook page. I was hesitating about joining because it would be more work for me. I do all the graphic work. The girls send me individual photos and I do the layout and color correction. I actually had to sign up for Facebook to start the BGKI Facebook page. That blew up. Then, my fans started pressuring me to start a BGKI Instagram.
When I first joined Facebook, I used to post actively. Then, I realized if you were into BGKI, all you did was stay on Facebook until I updated Facebook. You didn’t get interviews or tutorials. Social media is not good because if you met BGKI there, you will stop coming to the site. I stopped posting. That was purposely done to force people to come to the website for new content. I update now periodically but I focus on the website. It’s a whole experience. It’s not just about looking at a picture and clicking it.
RC: So your social media is an extension to your site. Have you found that people are still going to your site?
NA: Because my Facebook following got so big, I’d put a link on the bottom of the photos to the website. It was actually driving traffic to the website. For Instagram, not so much. What also happened, which I didn’t realize would, is that bloggers and stores were willing to pay for me to post on Facebook.
RC: In America, the fashion blogging movement is big. How do you stay connected although you are in Barbados?
NA: When I first created BGKI, my intention was not to be in the blogger world. I didn’t even know there was a blogger world. I get invited to conferences, but I’ve never been. I have a day job. I work a normal 9-5 that’s not in fashion. My co-workers don’t even know I have this site.
RC: How do you get it all done?
NA: It never stops.
RC: What are some challenges you’ve faced running BGKI?
NA: Last year, I got promoted at work. I used to come home at a set time and work a set amount of hours. I didn’t work on weekends. After the promotion, I didn’t have that free time. I am always on call 24/7. I had plans to sell paraphernalia. I had some issues with that because I don’t live in the States. It was a very frustrating process. Then, my account got frozen because of some [accounting investigations].
RC: What are your future plans for BGKI?
I want to take the idea of the BGKI marketplace and make it a physical store. I don’t want to make it about who has the most money wins. I want it to be a platform for opportunity. I have opportunity for a niche. A lot of girls on BGKI make a lot of amazing things.
RC: What’s your biggest challenge moving forward?
NA: My day job. I thought about quitting. Being in Barbados hinders me. Sometimes I get invited to private events and private showings. I’m like, “Sorry, I can’t make that.” After a while they stop inviting me. For BGKI to grow, I need to be in a major city. That requires me to quit and leave Barbados. It’s a very life-changing risk that I would have to take and I’m not sure that I want to take that right now.
RC: Name the biggest takeaways you’ve learned from running Black Girls Killing It?
NA: To be fair, everything in life prepared me for BGKI. I worked in marketing. That’s where I got the idea of knowing I have to build the brand. Someone who was just taking pictures would not have thought of doing that. I like things looking a certain way so I was willing to spend money to get what I wanted.
RC: How do you separate the Neil Alvin brand from the BGKI brand?
NA: I like being behind the scenes. I don’t want it to be about Neil. I want Black Girls Killing It to be about black beauty.
RC: If you could go back in time, what would you advise yourself to do better?
NA: I don’t know. Black Girls Killing It happened by chance. I didn’t have a goal. I started putting up photos of something that I like. Follow your passion. Stay true to yourself. Everything will evolve and everything will come.
When I look at my emails, I still can’t believe that people email me every single day. I still get people who want to do partnerships and do advertising. I’ve never been to the States and those are my biggest fans. It freaks me out that so many people know about Black Girls Killing It.
I like that Black girls are inspired. I like that people recognize that Black is beautiful, too.
BRANDMAKERS is a series highlighting individuals who are SHINING (aka killing it and raising the bar) in their respective industries. These individuals have great stories and advice to share about the important steps involved in growing one’s brand.
Got a question or know someone who should be interviewed for BRANDMAKERS? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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