Tyler Perry's 5 business lessons for Black entrepreneurs
Running a business

Tyler Perry's 5 business lessons for Black entrepreneurs

Tyler Perry has powerful words for entrepreneurs just starting out: “Never despise small beginnings.”

The actor, director, and playwright shared reflective advice from his own entrepreneurial journey at a recent live event at the Intuit Mailchimp office in Atlanta celebrating Black History Month. In a conversation with journalist and entrepreneur Soledad O’Brien, Perry acknowledged the unique challenges that Black-owned businesses face. He shared how he overcame those hurdles through perseverance and sheer grit to build Tyler Perry Studios — now one of the largest film production facilities in the U.S., and the first to be solely owned by a Black executive.

Perry shared that even his mother was acutely aware of the challenges he would face in pursuing his dream. “This woman loved me with all of her heart, but she knew how difficult it was for me,“ Perry said.

But, as many entrepreneurs find, his dream had too tight of a hold on him to give up on his business. Through adversity — including homelessness and poverty — Perry persisted.

“If it is your dream, and that thing wakes you up and keeps reminding you, do not stop. Don't stop. I'm sitting here as a living witness that if I had stopped, there were so many people's lives who would have been affected … I would say to anybody, just keep going. It gets hard,” Perry said passionately. “I wish this for everybody in here, every dreamer, every business owner, I wish this for you. I wish you proceed so much and go so hard that you get to the other side. You see how sweet it is. If you can realize how sweet it is on the other side, imagine your biggest dream, imagine that on the other side of what you're going through. If that don't [sic] make you push through, I don't know what will.”

Perry candidly reflected on some of the greatest challenges he's faced during the Intuit QuickBooks + Mailchimp Fireside Chat, and he shared five lessons he learned in overcoming them.

1. Don’t be afraid to invest in yourself

When he first started out in the '90s, Perry wasn’t under any illusion that he would get a loan from a bank to kickstart his business. He joked that a loan officer wouldn't even loan him the piece of paper they were writing on, given his credit at the time.

So Perry bet on himself. “I knew that it was important to invest in myself as an actor, as a director. I didn't think anybody would ever give me a shot. I didn't look like anybody in Hollywood. My goals were very, very different. So I had to do it my own way,” he explained.

Perry’s experience is not unique for Black entrepreneurs. Today, 85% of Black small business owners say they have used their personal funds to cover business expenses in the last 12 months, according to a new survey commissioned by QuickBooks.

Ultimately, Perry said he realized, “Reinvesting in myself was the way to do it.” 

2. Know your worth, but build slowly

More than half of Black-owned small businesses QuickBooks surveyed say they undercharge for their products and services, even as 30% identify inflation as their greatest hurdle. Notably, 29% of Black small business owners are not planning to increase their prices within the next year or aren’t yet sure if they will — despite the inflationary pressure.

Even though his movies have grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide, Perry noted that, even to this day, he purposely undervalues his work.

“What I realized that I had to do is give a discount, so that I could grow the business, so that I could make people know what it is. So [with] every deal, it will get better and better and better,” he told the audience in Atlanta. “If you go in with a discount to build your business and show people how professional you are, show them what the product is, make sure they know it and love it and can't do without it, then what you start to do is slowly grow it.”

Perry emphasized the slowly part. “It's really, really important that you not be afraid of a slow build to make sure that it's working,” he explained, while noting that it isn’t fair that Black-owned businesses need to clear different hurdles using tactics like undervaluing themselves.

“It is unfair. But that's the hand we were dealt. … Yes, it all should be fair; it should be equal to everyone,” Perry said emphatically. But he added, “Even though it's unfair, you still make the best of it, and you grow it the best you can. … And I promise you, I'm a living witness that you can play it so well that it will rival and equal everything that anybody else has done in the business.” 

3. Pay it forward

With his rags-to-riches life story, Perry is especially conscious of raising up other dreamers when they need help.

“If somebody comes to you with a hope and a dream, it is your responsibility if you can help them, and if it works within your business to do just that,” Perry said. “Having the opportunity to sit in this seat, I've seen these incredible opportunities that have changed people's lives.”

Of course, it wasn’t always that way for Perry as he fought to build his empire. He recalled countless promoters not opening the door to him and giving false promises. But he said he's found that when you hold out your own hand to help others, you'll be rewarded in return.

“When you help somebody, that shows up in your life. Every bit of good that you send out shows up in your life. I believe you reap what you sow. Sow good. If you have 10 cents to help somebody, even though you only have the 10 [cents], if you can give them 5, do it,” he said. “Those are the things that I did, and I saw that just kept coming in my life over and over and over again until I was able to get to a place where I didn't need credit. I became the lender.”

quote image
When you help somebody, that shows up in your life. Every bit of good that you send out shows up in your life.

4. Set a strong standard

Perry emphasized how important professionalism was to him as a Black entrepreneur. When he was on tour, he insisted his shows always start on time: 8 p.m. meant 8 p.m., full stop

“Every house would get mad because they'd be like, 'There are people outside trying to get in.' Listen, their ticket says 8 o'clock. They need to be sitting here at 8 o'clock. But what I was doing was setting the standard, because there's this [stereotype] that Black people don't start on time, that we are not as professional, that we don't show up, that we don't treat people right. We know that's a lie,” Perry said. “But you have to constantly dispel that myth in your business so that you can be competitive.”

Over time, Perry insisted, people will recognize your professionalism and keep coming back.

“Everybody you meet has a need. They show up with a need no matter who you are, no matter what your business is,” he said. “If you can meet that need and see them — people just want to be seen. If you can see them, you will build a customer base that will be with you forever.” 

5. Protect what is yours

Asked by an audience member how he safeguards his creative work, Perry was blunt in his advice.

“I made sure that I owned everything with my name on it,” he answered. “Every image, every copyright, every photoshoot, everything I do, I make sure that I own it so that if something shows up, and somebody's trying to take credit for what belongs to me, I have recourse.” 

According to the QuickBooks survey, 8 in 10 (82%) of Black small businesses own a trademark, copyright, or patent, and more than 8 in 10 (84%) plan to register for one over the next 12 months.

It's very important that as you're building a business, and you're coming up with these incredible ideas, and you're defining yourself in any space … you're taking the necessary laws and steps to protect what you created, which is very difficult these days, especially with social media. But they can be held to account if you've lined up all the legal ducks in a row.”

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