Credit: Courtesy Black Sands Entertainment

We celebrate entrepreneurs for the things they do right. But often the stage for success is set by all that happens when things go wrong, when mistakes seem impossible to bounce back from and hurdles insurmountable.

This is the truth that propels Manuel and Geiszel Godoy, Army veterans who founded Black Sands Entertainment, a multiplatform publishing company focused on strong Black characters and history. Black Sands, which began as a video game and then became a comic-book series before moving to graphic novels, builds its products around one central question: Who gets to be a hero?

In answering it, the company looks back in time to craft historical stories in which Africans and members of the African diaspora thrive. “No more slave stories. It’s time for kings,” says Manuel Godoy. “The media has their own idea of what’s appropriate Black history to talk about. Your kids need to know they had a great past. … A white kid grows up and he has stories about Julius Caesar who came from nothing and became the emperor. What do Black people have, according to the American school system? It’s not a high standard for your life.”

He would know. A self-described “bad kid” who regularly skipped school growing up in New York City—“it was a system guaranteed for some people to slip through the cracks,” he says—Manuel later got sent to boarding school before entering the military to turn his life around. He also met Geiszel there, and the two of them launched Black Sands in 2016, eventually raising over a million dollars through crowdfunding and successfully pitching star investors on Shark Tank.

Over the past six years, Black Sands has become a success story in a business environment that’s stacked against them: Just 4% of Black-owned companies make it past the startup phase, according to a 2020 McKinsey report, and Black entrepreneurs, on average, have less than half the capital of their white counterparts when starting new businesses.

I spoke with Manuel and Geiszel about the forces they credit with allowing them to persevere through structural obstacles to build their brand:

The power of fans

Inspired by manga and anime in Korea and Japan, Manuel Godoy—himself a huge anime fan—has built his business’s relationship to its customers in a similar manner. “You’re not supposed to reach everyone. Don’t try to make something for 17 different audiences,” he advises aspiring startups. “In the West, everyone wants to be so big. In the East, a million hyperfans are more valuable than 20 million” casual users.

Fans also partly own the company, which has had multiple, successful rounds of crowdfunding and crowd-investing. Fifteen percent of the company is now owned by fans, the Godoys say.

The power of the media

Geiszel Godoy describes a multipronged journey to find and cultivate these superfans. “When we first started, we went to 20 different book fairs. That’s a lot of hard work state by state,” she says. “It really helped us out with marketing and a fan base.”

The business now relies on a mix of organic and paid social media, with an online presence that speaks to the political and social moment. “He doesn’t sugarcoat things,” Geiszel Godoy says of her husband. “That plays a big part of his marketing.” Consider a Facebook post from June 2020 to promote a character the pair has been developing named Ineola, a Nigerian native trying to make her way in Brooklyn, New York, and fighting the opposition with humanity. “You ready for Ineola?” the post reads. “Black women deserve heroes that are not remade disney princesses or plug ins to comic universes … She from Brooklyn, and she ain't gonna take your shit.”

In their January appearance on Shark Tank, the founders enthusiastically laid out their origin story and the struggle to find Black-focused comics, and asked for $500,000 to fund a special collector’s edition of their graphic novels. Comedian Kevin Hart and investor Mark Cuban appeared impressed, and the Godoys say a deal is being negotiated.

Shark Tank brought about big changes,” says Manuel Godoy. “It’s still us doing our normal day-to-day operations, and sales are roughly the same, but now we’re getting different media placements. We have a great story to tell and never got an opportunity to be in front of the national press [before].”

The power of the military

Manuel rattles off all the ways military life, regimented and orderly as it is, enabled his entrepreneurship and penchant to take risks: “The long-term benefits of a successful military career are enormous,” he says. “All of us get old anyway, but this is the only organization that says, ‘It’s our fault,’” and offers education, job placement, special loan programs, health insurance. “All business costs money. You need free-flowing cash. The military played a huge role in our life as a chance to take risks.”

The power of ownership

In the eternal battle of DC vs. Marvel, both comics companies have lately found common ground on one thing: the need to diversify their creators, characters, and audiences. In a television premiere last week, the Disney-owned Marvel reimagined the blonde Ms. Marvel into a Pakistani-American teen named Kamala Khan. And there are multiple projects in development devoted to “Black Superman,” a new take on the most popular superhero from DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Discovery.

The Godoys are different: Diversity isn’t an afterthought or business strategy for their company. It is the company. They also remain laser-focused on retaining intellectual property for their work. Asked about whether he admires DC or Marvel more, Manuel Godoy steers the conversation to his own hero: George Lucas, whose Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises were bought by Disney a decade ago. “I always look at him for holding onto the rights for things,” he says. “Because he did that, 40 years later, he gets bought out for billions.”

This philosophy—with the tenets of retaining ownership, centering the history and experience of Black people, and staying original—guides Black Sands. “We don’t want to compete with Marvel and DC,” says Manuel Godoy. “We want to tell stories people haven’t seen before.”