Robert Courtney: The Man Behind The Brands


A few weeks back, I traveled to Top of The Line Barbershop Powered By Uneek and had the privilege of speaking with one of its owners; Robert Courtney Collins. Robert is also the founder of "Robert Courtney & Associates", a marketing and branding agency out of the Detroit area.

Robert Courtney & Associates are the driving force behind brands like Taylor Law Firm, Our/Detroit Vodka, Waterfront Restaurant & Lounge, Detroit School of Digital Technology (DSDT) and many others.

Upon arriving at Top of The Line Barbershop Powered By Uneek, I immediately felt welcomed. It is a very spacious and inviting environment at 7157 Michigan Avenue, not your typical barbershop. It boasts beautiful (what looked to be) original hardwood floors and a mural dedicated to Detroit that is immediately visible as you walk through the doors. Within that mural is an excerpt from one of my favorite quotes by Nelson Mandela "Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure". My kind of place!

Once I spotted the man of the hour in the corner of the barbershop, I walked over to shake his hand and introduce myself. We covered a barrage of topics as I set up my equipment, and I quickly noticed two things during our exchange: 1) This man has a wealth of knowledge in business and branding. 2) He's one of the most down to earth people that I've ever met in my life. Considering his current position, and me just trying to get my business off of the ground....meeting up for an interview was clearly more beneficial for me than it was for him.

After we discussed camera angles and what would be the best way to shoot the interview, we set up two barber chairs side by side. Here is a selection of what we covered as Robert Courtney Collins offered me his most valuable asset, his time...

Robert Courtney: We're here at Top of The Line Barbershop, formerly U.N.E.E.K. Barbershop and I actually came to work here in 2004. I went to Michigan Barber School and worked there while I started cutting hair here. From there, I spent about 2 years as a barber and decided to go into ownership from that point. I had a conversation with the (then) owner about a partnership, she agreed....and the rest is history.

That was my launch into entrepreneurship and since then I went from owning a barbershop, to launching a clothing brand under the same umbrella. We took "Uneek" and turned it into an acronym because we wanted it to be more than a name, we wanted it to have a much deeper meaning. So we came up with: Unifying Nationalities by Encouraging Education and Knowledge.

Since then, Uneek has evolved into a major influence in the city of Detroit, we've done several things outside of the city as well. The brand has expanded to Australia, France....we've sold in over 50 retail outlets and the brand is still going strong. After the clothing line, we decided that we wanted to help other brands that were going through the same type of issues, struggles and road blocks that we encountered....so we launched a marketing & branding company called "Robert Courtney & Associates".

RC & Associates is really about helping start ups and small/medium sized businesses articulate their story over digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest etc. We started about 2 years ago, and that's where we are right now, in hard-core building mode! We pride ourselves on making information available and assisting in whatever capacity we can. The (bulk) of our business is handling whatever a company needs as it pertains to marketing & branding.

Black Business Finder: I really like that about what you're doing, and I really appreciate you giving me a chance. From becoming a sole proprietor to owning a marketing & branding agency, is there anything particular that ignited that flame in you to choose that avenue?

RC: In hindsight, absolutely. Looking back at the day-to-day processes involved with being a barber, the encounters with clients...so many of those things apply to everything that I've done since that point. So, unknowingly for the last 9-10 years, I've been creating the blueprint for everything that I do now. From customer service and personal branding, to understanding ways to set up my business to eliminate overhead and working on a "shoestring budget" in the most efficient way possible.

There are so many things that I did as a barbershop owner that I now do as the owner of an agency, there are a lot of similarities. I tell people all of the time that I didn't graduate from college with a marketing degree, but I did graduate from the school of real-life business! {laughs}

BBF: How important are good partners to the success of your business?

RC: Extremely important. I've had several opportunities to partner with other owners leading up to the two gentlemen that I'm in business with now (Top of The Line Barbershop), but I had always been reluctant. It's very difficult to merge personalities, find people that have common goals and that simply understand the nature of business.

With Uneek Collection (UC), the lifestyle aspect of our business, my partner from the beginning has been a guy by the name of Kirk Mcclung. I launched UC and then brought him aboard. He went from being a valued asset, to becoming a partner...a partner the emerges with his will and tenacity. We have like-minded principals in running a business and a mutual respect for each other. When you talk about partnerships in terms of needing a team, I don't think it's possible to achieve success without a good partner.

BBF: If you could give aspiring entrepreneurs three tips/pieces of advice, what would those be?

RC: 1) Build Your Personal Brand- Your personal brand is probably the most important asset that you have. Even if you just have an idea, and you know that you plan to turn that idea into a business, between those times you could be developing your personal brand.

For example, if you were thinking about becoming a barber or owning a barbershop...(between the idea and ownership) you could be putting out information about haircuts. You could be putting out info on products that barbers can use, tools that are available. You're creating respectability and feel, you're branding your image so that when you become a barber/owner people feel connected with you...they trust you and like the information that you're delivering. At that point, you don't have to sell anyone on coming to use your service. That's why I push branding so hard....branding is a day-to-day activity that when done correctly, you never have to sell anything...people just come to you.

2) Be Consistent- With the right amount of consistency, you don't need much talent. Hard work beats talent, every single day...all day! Now we live in the digital world, so being consistent means that you need to put out content about your craft on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter....wherever your audience lives. Wherever that is, you have to consistently put something in front of their faces to make yourself a relevant authority in that space.

3) Self Awareness- I think that a lot of entrepreneurs feel like they are (entrepreneurs), but they're not. {laughs} They may have entrepreneur tendencies. A lot of small business owners are not entrepreneurs. When being self aware, you're really just doing a self evaluation...you have to establish what your goals and desired accomplishments are. If you work a 9-5 and it's really hard for you to leave that guaranteed paycheck, and it's scary to the point of anxiety...you are not an entrepreneur.

There are so many challenges that come up as a result of being an entrepreneur. Adversity comes in all shapes, forms and fashions on a daily bases, if not...on an hourly bases. I think the real talent that you develop as an entrepreneur that goes unmentioned, is (the ability to) navigate through challenges when those road blocks present themselves. I think that's more of a necessary skill than the actual talent itself. Being an entrepreneur, your money is constantly like this {does up and down hand gesture in a wave-like motion}. One month you're super hot...and the next month you're not!

If what you're doing is not a passion, then I would strongly suggest that you not go into that area. When the challenges and adversity strike, you're probably going to cash in.

BBF: Those are 3 great pieces of advice! Finishing with self awareness is a good segue into the next question which is: What are some of your failures and how have you handled them so far?

RC: We don't have enough film time. {laughs} One of my first entrepreneurial failures was when I started with the barbershop and realized that once I became an owner, money doesn't just fall out of the sky....my bank account doesn't just suddenly have extra zeros.

My first fail was a fail because of my perception on what I thought ownership meant, and how I thought that related to financial success...they were very off the mark.

BBF: (In your defense) For most people, I think it is.

RC: Yeah, for sure...As a 25-26 year-old, there's no experience...The only things you can gauge are what you see on TV or what you read in books. As a child growing up, it was always put in front of you as the "American Dream" to work hard, own a business, employ people and so on...You think that becoming an owner means that you're wealthy, or a "CEO"...whatever that means. So, that was one of my first failures, realizing that success wasn't what I thought it was.

From that point it's like....how do I navigate through this? You've got bills coming in, months when the barbershop is slow, you've got those days where you have to choose....Do I pay the water bill, or the gas bill? Those first 5 years were just a lot of that, a lot of juggling...Just trying to figure out within myself, what the next steps were to building my own success.

BBF: What is your biggest fear, if any, as a business owner/entrepreneur?

RC: That's an interesting question...{mild pause} I guess my fear is really everything. Nothing we do in entrepreneurship is guaranteed you know...all of my clients could go away, then what?

But while there's a fear of the unknown, it's also probably the number 1 motivator...You gotta do what you gotta do.

BBF: It's part of "the game" so-to-speak...

RC: It IS the game....If you're not addicted to that feeling, that fear...if it doesn't drive you, if you don't get a little excited about that...again, entrepreneurship isn't for you!

I compare it to being in a basketball game with the clock winding down, that's the pressure moment. Some people run from it, some people embrace it. It's a very similar thing (to entrepreneurship), it's a healthy fear...and as long as you've taken the necessary steps leading up to that moment....it's no big deal, you embrace it. In this game, if you're not prepared...you'll get exposed, real quick. It'll send you back to where you came from.

It reminds me of a Facebook post that I put out the other day..."Either fear everything and run, or fear everything and rise". That kind of sums it up, there's a healthy balance between the two.

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