Starling Portrait Series – Changing the face of men’s grooming

More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

Our first entrepreneur is Starling customer Marc Belle, the founder of Mr. Blackman’s

While the male grooming and personal care industries continue to grow in the UK and in key markets around the world, one area has been largely forgotten about – brands and products designed for men of colour. 

Marc Belle,39, from Sussex and son to a British mother and Barbadian father, set out to change exactly that.

It all started when he grew his first beard, around five years ago. He quickly realised a significant lack of options that spoke to him, or tailored to his needs, as a black man. When searching online he did find one US brand but it didn’t operate in the UK, and he couldn’t relate their marketing images of men in sharp suits, smoking cigars.

“Maybe I’ll try to do something,” he thought at the time, “let’s see what happens”. 

Inspired by roots

Marc began experimenting by making different products inspired by the ingredients and way of life in his father’s native Barbados. 

“People use loads of natural things [in Barbados]. They will cut a piece of aloe vera and use it directly on their skin,” Marc explains. “Or, you might grab a leaf off a plant and use that to heal a rash. We even use banana skins to cook with rather than foil. But people rarely have skin or hair issues.”

He insists that he didn’t set out to create a business or to be an entrepreneur. He only set out to solve a problem. 

The brand Mr. Blackman’s was born with the ethos that “All Beards Aren’t Equal, so we did something about it”. The range now includes beard and shave oils, aftershave balms, waxes and a cleansing brick, infused with Barbadian-inspired fragrances like ‘Grapefruit & Caramel Tobacco’ and ‘Lime & Mint’.

‘We did something about it’

Marc didn’t want Mr. Blackman’s to simply offer a product to men of colour. He wanted to empower them.

“I wanted to talk about mental health because it’s never talked about in black communities. Men in the black community are meant to be ‘men’, and don’t talk about feelings,” he explains.

“I wanted to showcase different faces in men’s beauty. Not just guys with chiselled faces and great haircuts – ordinary guys, skinny guys, guys with dreadlocks, or guys who are more ‘streetwise’.”

Idea to award-winner

It took Marc a little while to get his idea off the ground. He had no savings, no investors, and he was in debt. He had to use a portion of his salary to fund product development month-to-month.

“I couldn’t afford photographers or people to write content,” Marc says. 

His background in design and experience working with some big brands meant he was well positioned to develop the creative aspect of the business himself, all while building its foundations. But a lack of funds was restrictive and forced him to think differently.

“That’s why all the images black and white – we needed to find a way to make all the images we used somehow feel unified. Stripping the colour was the easiest way to do that. But it also worked well for what the brand wants to say, that there is ‘no colour, just men’.”

Since creating the business in September 2016, Mr. Blackman’s has developed award-winning products that are earning more and more recognition and interest. One of its products was even described as “one of the 7 best grooming products in the world” by GQ. And only greater success appears to be on the horizon.

So, we asked Marc about the most pressing things on his mind:

How have you and the business fared since the start of the pandemic?

To be honest, things grew quite a bit since the start of the pandemic and then again following the Black Lives Matter movement. I think a lot of people went online because the high street was shut and started looking at different options; smaller businesses, black-owned businesses, including many black brands like Mr Blackman’s. So, for us, there has been some positive outcome in all this with some real growth.

What has been the biggest factor in your success?

I think possibly knowing what we are good at and not trying to be everything to everyone. We are authentic and our message hasn’t changed. We also only take on as much as we feel we can do. Focusing on what we are good at rather than trying to do everything straight away has meant that we limit costly mistakes if something doesn’t work out.

What are your immediate and long-term plans for the business?

We have some new products on the horizon as we plan to expand our offering. We spent a bit of time speaking to customers about what they wanted us to do next, so we feel confident it’s the right time. With the climate constantly changing at the moment, it’s quite risky to invest so we’ve been careful to avoid mistakes. Most of our growth has been fairly organic to this point, which has helped us adapt and as I mentioned limit costly mistakes. There are things we need to do and things we would like to do, but the things we’d like to do change as the world changes or we see the reaction to different things. Some of them end up as things we need to do and some end up a little further down the list of ‘likes’. 

During his time as an entrepreneur, Marc has demonstrated himself as a pioneer of change. He is someone whose goal it is, not just to make money, but to drive a real change in how we see the world. And if his success so far is anything to go by, both he and the Mr. Blackman’s brand have a very bright future ahead. 

To find out more about Starling Bank, please click here: