When he was a senior in high school, The Tactile Group president and CEO Marc Coleman seemed to have it all figured out.
The Philadelphia native got an internship through Inroads that was carved out for aspiring minority engineers and wore a suit each day when he went to work for a company downtown. He started DJing in 1988, and he earned enough money from his internship to buy Technic 1200 turntables, considered by experts to be the best on the market.
A single moment marred that first corporate experience.
“I remember [it] distinctly in a true water cooler moment,” he told Technical.ly. “People talked about someone else in the [talent] pool and it was a very homophobic exchange.”
Coleman was floored. When he thought about it more, he didn’t see any people of color in leadership where he worked and the few women of color on staff were disrespected. He realized that he couldn’t bring his best self to such a negative environment and that working for himself would be the best option.
It’s an experience shared by many Black professionals in the corporate world. For Coleman, it was the catalyst to build something of his own. Soon, he would find opportunities as an entrepreneur — as well as learn how to navigate barriers along the way.
Building the road to success
Coleman enrolled in Princeton University as a member of its 1991 class and majored in electrical engineering, mainly because his father considered it a good job. But being one of about 300 Black people on campus and one of few Black people out as a gay man put him in limited company.
Coleman left Princeton without graduating and began studying architecture at Temple University in 1993, where his coding and design skills were an asset. Coleman continued to work as a DJ throughout that time and noticed a change in the print industry, which prompted him to polish his tech skills and start his company, a design agency.
“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said, which impacted his outlook.
Coleman started The Tactile Group in 2004 and did not hire his first employee until 2008. Like his father who was also a businessman, Coleman joined the 8A business development program, a federal program with up to nine years of eligibility that connects small businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals with government contracts.
8A programs also help minority business owners by providing resources like one-to-one counseling and training. While the program changed so that companies would be weaned off of it over time, Coleman wanted to begin pivoting before the program ended and started to focus on bigger opportunities.
Over the next 15 years, The Tactile Group evolved into a firm with a focus on designing and developing large-scale digital products such as websites and custom mobile apps. What started as an enterprise with Coleman as the sole employee grew to a 20-person team built with intentional diversity. Working from a private office in The Stetson Building in Center City, The Tactile Group has completed projects like the City of Boston’s intranet, the Philly Delivers campaign competing to bring Amazon HQ2 to the city, and the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers Data Collection app.
"If you win the work and don’t perform, you’re done."
For Coleman, two words define a key resource that allowed The Tactile Group to secure a contract with the Philadelphia International Airport building its new, responsive website: “dogged determinism.” For five years, The Tactile Group had tried to work with the airport, with Coleman attending countless meetings and business forums during that time in the hopes of making it happen.
“We just kept at it,” he said. “We built past performance [working] with the Department of Education, so by the time we came up for it this time, we were a familiar name.”
Understanding how to be respectfully persistent kept Coleman in conversations for future opportunities even after being rejected, he said. By the time The Tactile Group got the latest opportunity to work with the airport, the company were considered a better risk and brought innovation and new design thinking to their collaboration.
Indeed, when the site launched last summer, a PHL spokesperson told Technical.ly this about the roughly $300,000 project: “The Tactile Group was chosen because their team demonstrated a clear understanding of our operational needs and interest in our business and brand. We appreciated their collaborative approach to the design process, along with their previous experience working with government entities.”
Coleman also learned that continuing to perform well only becomes more urgent as contracts become bigger.
“If you win the work and don’t perform, you’re done,” he said.
Finding the tools
Coleman’s work ethic as a Philadelphia native was shaped by necessity. Unlike many founders, he was not able to rely on family wealth, easy access to capital and the privilege of not having to worry about the color of his skin being a deterrent to banks. Some specific programs boosted his business early on, though.
West Philadelphia’s The Enterprise Center was an early supporter of The Tactile Group and helped Coleman secure his first round of financing via networking.
“The Tactile Group entered the crowded software market with a unique vision to develop products that improve the lives of others,” EVP Victoria Hosendorf told Technical.ly via email. “That vision is something The Enterprise Center believes in and sought to help flourish. We’ve been able to help Marc and the team navigate traditional lending options through collateral strength as well as helping the company generate a positive cash flow and a strong net income. We plan to continue investing in Black and Brown entrepreneurs, like Marc, to scale and grow into top flight, investible businesses.”
"Whether based in race or not, you have to be twice as good to be considered equal. It’s a more complicated game as a person of color in business."
Coleman also participated in Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program and likened his experience to a free college master’s in business administration degree. Over his 13 weeks in the program, he learned how to put the skills already into a scalable business model and sharpened his negotiation skills.
With funding and business education in his corner, Coleman found even more support from PIDC, which provided him with one-on-one financial consultation and a CFO to better track his bookkeeping through its Your Outsourced CFO program. He also participated in PIDC and Clarifi’s financial coaching and credit counseling program for entrepreneurs that also includes racial wealth gap training for entrepreneurs.
He would learn a lesson after being rejected in two incidents of seeking loans from different banks: His books were similar to those of non-Black colleagues, yet they received loans and he didn’t.
“It got to the point where you expect the rejection and success is elusive. You’re going to keep grinding anyway,” he said. “That part is entrepreneurial, though. Whether based in race or not, you have to be twice as good to be considered equal. It’s a more complicated game as a person of color in business.”
Coleman believes resources for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs to succeed already exist — they just aren’t visible or accessible enough. PIDC, for instance, has been able to reach Black and brown entrepreneurs by going to meet them where they are at.
“If there were a single place Black and brown founders could go for this information, the nonprofits [offering resources would] want to own that story,” he said. “These things would have a much longer reach if they were coordinated and share some of the glory and burden.”
Stability in the moment
The onset of COVID-19 and the adverse effect it’s had on many businesses has made Coleman more thankful that he chose entrepreneurship as his career path — though running a thriving business while many of his colleagues and friends are struggling has been somewhat uncomfortable, he said.
The Tactile Group pivoted to remote work quickly at the beginning of the pandemic, which has also changed the way the company looks for talent: With every employee working at home, Coleman said The Tactile Group’s hiring process has become national instead of local with the goal of sourcing from a diverse talent pool.
Two months into the pandemic, the racial unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police weighed heavily on Coleman as a Black man. As the leader of a company, Coleman wanted to be transparent in conveying the need for grace in processing trauma to his employees.
“George Floyd and Breonna Taylor affected me as a business owner,” he said. “I tell my staff, ‘I’ll be messed up for the next week.’ George Floyd could’ve been me on a bad day.”
Coleman is an executive board member for the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia and believes corporations finally responding to social unrest is a starting point for progress in the business community and society overall.
“Corporate America having their eyes open” is extremely important, he said. “I serve as chair of the diversity and inclusion committee for the Chamber of Commerce. It’s painful on a lot of levels for their eyes to open, but there’s an opportunity here for the people in power to make a change.”
- The Enterprise Center
- PIDC, including Your Outsourced CFO
- Clarifi Boot Camp
- Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses
- U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development program
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.