This article appears in a series on Black and Latinx entrepreneurship in Philadelphia and is underwritten by PIDC and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. It was independently reported and not reviewed by these partners before publication.
As the son of two people who met while serving in the Navy, Fishbox founder and CEO Napoleon Suarez was determined to find a way to earn his own money in high school. He couldn’t see his parents shelling out $100 for the new sneakers he wanted and had to get creative.
He noticed that many of the kids he knew in his Brown Mills, New Jersey neighborhood had paper routes and knew that working as a paperboy would be his way to extra money. The only problem was there were 50 people ahead of him on the list of available paper routes.
“The [main] way to get a paper route was to get on a list and you had to apply,” Suarez told Technical.ly. “The next best way was to get referred by somebody that already had a route. That was how most people got a paper route.”
Suarez talked to every paperboy in his neighborhood for a referral and learned that two people were moving. In a twist of creativity, he went to the district sales manager and asked if he could pick up both of their routes and combine them together. He also realized that he would be saving the district sales manager the time it took to do two different interviews. Impressed by Suarez’s ingenuity, the manager agreed.
From that point on, Suarez knew he wanted to have his own business.
After high school, Suarez attended the University of Notre Dame on a track scholarship and majored in math until switching to a major in sociology in his senior year. He hadn’t participated in any internships, having changed majors so close to graduation, and had a rough time finding work after college, so he ended up working odd jobs like selling carpet.
Five years after graduating from Notre Dame, Suarez had started building websites on his own and learning search engine optimization. He became inspired when he joined Seer Interactive, a digital marketing agency founded by Willingboro, New Jersey native Wil Reynolds. Suarez had never worked at a company where the CEO looked like him, and created opportunities for others.
Reynolds fondly remembers Suarez as one of his first 20 or so employees at a company that now employees 200, telling Technical.ly that Suarez always displayed a high level of integrity. One example of Suarez’s dedication especially stood out to Reynolds.
“I remember once he and I were working on a client and that client was going through [chemotherapy],” Reynolds said. “I said to Napoleon, ‘I don’t care about SEO, keywords or rankings. Our job is to make sure of all the vendors she has to follow up with and stay on top of that we are the last one she has to think of when she’s tired and had a long day.’ He said to me that he never thought of his job that way and from that moment forward, he did just that. Today (10 years later), that client is still a client in part due to the foundation he laid way back in the day.”
In the two and a half years Suarez worked at SEER, he said, he was consistently inspired and his entrepreneurial goals were reenergized. He sought the right problem to solve, and it appeared two years later when his job at the time was based in a barn. He had no idea why kept missing packages at home and the idea behind Fishbox was born. Suarez formally launched the company with his personal savings in early 2015.
Fishbox was named in part because of Fishtown, the Philadelphia neighborhood where Suarez used to live. Fishbox’s original name was Fishtown Mailbox Store, but after his mother asked what he would do if he ever moved, he combined “Fishtown” and “mailbox” into what is now the business’ name. The mail delivery company is now based at 737 Bainbridge St. and currently delivers to the 19103, 19106, 19146 and 19147 ZIP codes.
The pandemic has significantly changed the way Fishbox operates. With more people working from home and staying in due to COVID-19 restrictions, the company has seen a decline in business. Suarez said that people use Fishbox because they do a great deal of online shopping, and don’t like going to stores to shop. With more people home to receive all of their packages now, and Suarez has had to reevaluate his work.
“Many people said, ‘I don’t need Fishbox anymore because I’m at home,'” he said. “There are fewer customers visiting the store and fewer packages coming to the store.”
In addition to a significant loss in revenue, Suarez said the loss of customer interaction due to the pandemic has been a concern. Before the pandemic, customers entered his store to pick up their packages and that experience helped Suarez build rapport with the people his business served. Now, customers knock on his store’s door and he steps outside to quickly hand them their packages. The shift to a more transactional relationship with customers has caused him to question Fishbox’s future as it competes with larger global shipping companies like UPS.
“This is a local business but they could go to UPS, and they come here because they know the guy that works there,” he said. “All levels of uncertainty — and I honestly don’t know if Fishbox is the best solution anymore. Pre-pandemic, the trajectory was ‘take over the world.’ It’s an uncomfortable conversation I have to have with myself. Entrepreneurship is what I’m passion about and running a business is what I want to do.”
As an African-American and Ecuadorian business owner in South Philadelphia’s predominately white Bella Vista neighborhood, Suarez is frequently the only Black or Latinx person some of his customers may encounter. The pressure that comes with that can be overwhelming. During a year in which Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by police, Suarez has often felt like he has to represent the entire Black and Latinx communities each time a customer asks his thoughts about those tragedies.
In terms of resources he’s accessed while growing his businesses, Suarez participated in Philly Startup Leaders’ 2017 accelerator cohort. He also sees Reynolds’ early leadership as critical to his own development as an entrepreneur.
While mentorship can be especially important for underrepresented founders, it can be useful to founders of all backgrounds, Reynolds said.
“I tend to think that we all need to find people that we connect with as role models and mentors throughout our careers,” he said. “I will say that especially within the black community, people may find that the need to see people like them helps them to know what is possible.”
“For me, I never had that as I was growing my company and I never really needed it, but you better believe I understand that different people running different businesses have different needs,” Reynolds said, “and if I can be a part of helping anybody to feel like they can identify with me and that helps them in some way then I’m doing my job to support great founders here in the Philadelphia area.”
Suarez said small biz-supporting organizations could help him and other Black and Latinx founders with understanding customer acquisition. He considers customers the “lifeblood of small business,” and having a better understanding of how to gain customers could help better equip Fishbox for the future. Financial management education, too, could be useful to him.
Suarez is optimistic that the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine within the next year will allow for his business’ survival. The founder is father to an 18-month-old and before the pandemic had planned to hire a part-time employee so he could spend more time at home, but as Fishbox’s only current staffer, he has decided against employing contractors to work in his store or deliver packages because he does not want to put them at risk of possible infection.
Being a Black and Latinx sole proprietor has presented its own difficulties, like a sometimes-ambiguous work-life balance. But with a pandemic shaking Fishbox and so many other small businesses at their core, Suarez has no choice but to keep going.
“It seems like we have to work twice as hard to get that same level of respect sometimes,” he said. “It can be draining to have to do every day. I have to make sure everything is clean, smells good [because] I don’t want them to look at my cultures any differently. We’re pushing through.”
- Business classes through Entrepreneur Works
- Financial bootcamps through Clarifi
- Mentorship through Philly Startup Leaders
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 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.
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