BIPOC Business Spotlight: BlackBoston.com
Elias Torres: Hola. I'm Elias Torres, co-founder and CTO of Drift. You're listening to a special episode of the American Dream podcast. I'm able to host this podcast because of the people who took a chance on me and listened to what I had to say. Now it's my turn to return the favor. In this episode, we highlight a small business in the BIPOC community. Make sure to support the underrepresented voices in your own community and explore the list of BIPOC- led businesses I have included in the show notes. I'm here with Mr. William Morrell, who is a business owner here in Boston, has been working very closely with many people at Drift, and everybody keeps sharing with me the joys of working with him and helping him in his mission that he has been building up for the majority of his life, right? In business and helping others, a life of service. Everybody talks about you all the time, and so this is a pleasure to be able to have you now on the show here and be able to learn more about it myself and for everybody in the audience a little bit about your unique journey and where you came from to what you're doing today. So definitely we want to highlight business owners, entrepreneurs, especially people that want to help the community that needs a lot of support and help. So please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about where you were born, where you come from, and how you got into tech.
William Murrell: Thank you, Elias. It's my pleasure being here. My pleasure meeting you as well, my first time. I'm in Boston, but I've been here. I'm not a native of Boston. I was raised in New York City and Gastonia, North Carolina, and I came to Boston in search of a job after Charlotte was really nice but not as exciting, and they didn't have a Berkeley College of Music. So my background kind like a hobby guitar player, and I wanted to be around Berkeley and musicians. So I came up here with the idea to just stay for three years. I had a job. A company moved me up here. I was doing computing axial tomography CAT scanner engineering selling CAT scanners to the hospitals, and I just stayed and essentially started working different places. I worked for the Boston Public Schools as an electronic teacher. I worked for Wayne Labs way back when. Then during that school year of vacation time, I took off and started a company, a computer repair business, in the North End. I hear about people saying there are no black businesses in the North End. Well, that was the 80s. I was at 83 Commercial Street in the Mercantile Wharf building for three years. We grew there and then grew out of there and went to Cambridge. But basically, Boston just had everything I needed. It had the night life, it had day life, it had jobs, it had people. I was young. I was not married at the time, and it just kept me stimulated when I got here. But it also had technology, too. At that time it was what, the 128 loop, and now it's like innovation, so it keeps keeping it together.
Elias Torres: Absolutely. Those were the magical days. A little bit before my time, but for example was the Wang computer systems, were those in Lowell, Massachusetts? At the Wang tower?
William Murrell: Wang was headquartered in Lowell, and we were in the VS100 group inaudible. What it did was it was the bigger... It was their mainframe. So John Hancock would run four floors of staff with it or a company like Lowe's it would be their point- of- sale system, and it was leading at the time. But it's so interesting how things can change so fast. Wang ultimately went out of business, and that's how it got to public schools. They were shutting down. They were like, " Man, you should go contribute your talent to the public schools. We'll help you. We'll even pay your first year." I'm like, " Oh, okay. I've never taught before." They said, " Well, go to school and learn how to teach." So I did that and got my certificate and did a year teaching ninth to 12 graders. It was fun. Well, I was going to stick with it, but it was just not possible after I had that first year off of three long months with nothing to do and started doing other stuff.
Elias Torres: Yeah. No. I mean, it's like the 128 loop. Our investors, CRV, when David and I started into business they were based in Welcome, right? By the pod of 128. I think they used to call it Mount Money where all the inaudible and the investors were.
William Murrell: It was a cluster. Yeah.
Elias Torres: It was the clusters there and all the computers. So there's so much history with the early computers that a lot of people don't realize from Boston. Everybody thinks Silicon Valley and there's a lot of heritage, and we're excited to build upon those giants like yourself that worked in the early days in the computer systems here. It's like...
William Murrell: Great.
Elias Torres: I worked at IBM. Did you work at IBM, too, I think I saw?
William Murrell: I worked at IBM out of Charlotte. Out of Charlotte I did. I was in field engineering. We would call it CEs, customer engineers, and I told them, " Transfer me to Boston. Transfer me to Boston", and they wouldn't, so I had to find my own way up here. But IBM was fun. I liked IBM. It was fun.
Elias Torres: Tell me more. What was a customer engineer?
William Murrell: Allstate Insurance, for example. I'll use them as an example. They'd have this big spread office space in suburbs where they just process whatever they process. So IBM equipment, whether it's like mini computers, telecommunications, that's what ran their stuff. A field engineer would just get a service call. " Hello. Our system's down. Printer won't print" or" The computer won't boot" or whatever, or a hard drive won't load or whatever, and we would just go over there and make it work. That was pretty much it. The customer part was the psychology part. They took a lot of hand holding because they figured they'd spent a lot of money on this stuff and they couldn't figure out why it kept on breaking, but they'd call it customer engineer. But yeah, it's more or less like a field service technician.
Elias Torres: Got it. My first job in tech was at IBM, and my job was to support the customer, connect to the internet, in 1996 or'97.
William Murrell: Interesting. Right.
Elias Torres: So like I'm dating myself here, and basically customers would call and we would use the IBM mainframes to look up the guides and send them faxes with the tutorials of how to configure Windows 95 at the time.
William Murrell: Wow. Yeah.
Elias Torres: Dial into Prodigy, into the inaudible. So that was my first job. I was a support person taking the phone calls with a headset.
William Murrell: Yep. Oh, yeah. That's amazing.
Elias Torres: Day and night.
William Murrell: I mean, this stuff doesn't work without people like us. Got to have somebody to fix it.
Elias Torres: And I would say I think it's like, yeah. Let's connect that about fixing. I think that having the ability to fix things is such a... Not everybody has it, William, I will say. I think that I remember one of my mentors at IBM; he was an amazing debugger we called him, right? He was a debugger because he would troubleshoot the problem, right, to figure out where in the chain, in the sequence of events, where did the breakage happen, right? It's like to be able to find that root of the problem is such an amazing thing.
William Murrell: That reminds me of how they trained us. We'd have these training labs where it wasn't how much we knew in our head, it was how much we followed the decision tree. Is the red light on? Yes or no? We got graded more on did we get the decision tree right in terms of troubleshooting like you just described than we did knowing what to do. Because intuitively you can know what to do, but they didn't care. They wanted to know how did you get to the problem through our IBM manuals, and you'd get graded on that stuff. But they had excellent training, and I enjoyed that part.
Elias Torres: And so all that work, right? You're doing that inaudible, doing IBM. What did that evolve into you starting your own business in the 80s you said in the inaudible?
William Murrell: Oh, yeah. I mean my first job, my first company, was computer repair. Toys" R" Us was a big toy store. It had this hot selling unit called the Commodore 64. It had about a 60% failure rate. We went to one of these stores, Toys" R" Us, one time. They were just stacked up against the wall and we asked the manager, " What's going on? You going to send them back?" He said, " Nope." I said, " Well, we can fix those", and he's like, " Please take them off our hands, and if you can fix them I'll pay you a flat rate per unit." I mean at the time they cost$ 600. We'd get maybe$ 40 to fix one. That was our first customer. As it turned out, Commodore the brand had business equipment in law firms in downtown and we were at Mercantile Wharf building, which is right downtown, and all those guys started converting over to IBM PC. IBM PC and Word Perfect and Word Star and all that became the it. So they started giving us all their business equipment to fix, and that was really for the first two years we didn't see IBM PCs. We were just fixing Commodore stuff. Then one thing led to another and we started fixing IBM PCs and then ultimately started selling them, but IBM was very picky about who could sell them. They didn't let any dealer sell them. You had to be like a multimillion dollar player to even have the right to resell it at the time before they got-
Elias Torres: You said you were fixing and reselling them or just fixing them?
William Murrell: We were fixing them in the beginning, at least for three years. Repair only. Repair only. We started selling when customers started wanting to buy. They were like, " Don't you guys sell these things? You're the repair people." We're like, " No, we're just fixing them." They said, " Well, I want to buy one from somewhere." We kind of got brought into selling through the customer's desire to just have a one- stop shop.
Elias Torres: One- stop shop. Yeah. Customers don't want to go to too many places, right?
William Murrell: That's right.
Elias Torres: We want to save time. We want to save money. We want the best service. We want someone that solves our problems, and it seems like you're one of those, right? It's like people come to you and you solve, you get shit done, and you solve the problem.
William Murrell: And I think that's where the nerve of being a one- stop multi- service center online is; it's like I don't care what the next question is because when you're out there doing field service, you really don't know what the next problem's going to be. You don't know what customer you're walking into. You don't know what their personality is. You don't know anything about it until you get there and figure it out, you know? And sometimes because they'll catch on fire, and other times it feels like a country club.
Elias Torres: Yeah. Yeah. And it's like... So tell me a little bit more about you ran your business. You worked at large corporations, mega computer companies, then you started your own business. You found your way through navigating the maze, seeking for opportunities, seeing opportunity where most people did not know what was happening and rode that wave, and now always been self employed from those days on, and now you're running this great organization, right, that is here to support the community while still raising funds. Tell me about it. Tell me about the mission that you have for blackboston. com.
William Murrell: Being an African American, I was looking... Wow; 10 years ago, I was looking on the internet for something to do in Boston. Labor Day weekend, have a family, two kids. What are we going to do? And I wanted it to be African- American oriented. Couldn't find a thing at inaudible. I was familiar with that area because of Mercantile Wharf. Couldn't find a thing in the brochures about what to do that was black oriented and really couldn't find it anywhere else. So I said, " Well, there must be something going on, so let me create a website that has a list of these things." So if you want to know where to go and you are black, African American, and you just want to know what to do African- American culture wise, refer to this website called aboutblackboston. com. So that was the name of the first website: aboutblackboston. com. So to make a long story short, that one site generated so much interest from people. I remember the first significant call was from the Harvard Law School alumni organization asking me what nightclub to rent for their party with the Yale people. They were playing a football game. It was the black law students against the black law students in Yale, and they were going to have a big party and they wanted to know where should we go? I would get questions like that through this one- page website, and every time I got an answer I would put that answer back on the site. So that was the loop: People ask the question, I find the answer offline, put it back on the site. It kind of grew, and that's really the ultimate. So I then retitled it, " The Online Guide to Black Boston for Visitors and Tourists". Long name, but essentially that's what it did. Then from that point on, I started adding resources like okay, here's all these places to go and things to do. But if you are a business like I am building and you want to get business training or business funding, consult these sources. Or if you are a teacher and you want to consider a certification class like a shortcut, don't have to go to four years of college and you want to learn coding, here's another list of stuff. So this kept growing, and then I would add context to it by paragraphs and thoughts and words and things of that nature. Then people started sending me stuff as well. So that was the hobby years, and that was going on while I was doing IT contracting on the side. That site was growing over the years, and then at one point it just got to a point where people started wanting to advertise. I didn't have prices up there. They wanted to know how much things cost and that became pretty consistent, and I said, " Well, I may as well make a business out of it", so I put some ad rates up there and one thing led to another. Then I started thinking about how do I really grow this? So I invented an app that helps people find affordable housing just by making a phone call and it sends the affordable housing lease application to their cell phone just by making a phone call, and that was one app we added. We also learned that people will buy data. So if you put together demographic charts of like Rexburg, Dorchester, inaudible, or whatever, and if you just put together information as PDFs, people will buy that for a dollar, for$ 4. They'll buy different things. Then came the business list, because I was at the time a certified minority- owned business in the state of Massachusetts during my first business days, and I'm like, " Wow. I should put that list out here because people have no idea who these companies are." And sure enough, that became a hit as well in terms of reasons people come to the site. So I always tell people, people come to the site with intent. They start at Google and they type in something like" daycare center in Mattapan", and Google is friendly to us and with luck Google will bring that query to us. This is where Drift will say, " Hello", and then we just get deeper and deeper about what that person wants from that initial request. So many people, I'd say the majority, vast majority, white, black, BIPOC, you name it, they're coming to find out where to buy things from other black businesses. That's what they want to do. That's probably the number one reason they visit. That's the number one reason they visit Google that Google sends them here. Now I want Google to send me some other stuff, and I'm working on that. That's just SEO. But Google brings us 90% of our traffic just by us sitting here and it's pretty nice to have it that way.
Elias Torres: That's amazing. I think that you're such a natural entrepreneur, right? And I understand that the foundation of loops, right, to be able to engage and grow the audience that most people kind of leave that and do not notice, right, the importance of that in order to create growth, to increase traffic, to increase monetization potential, right, or that's not-
William Murrell: Exactly.
Elias Torres: But I think you're a storyteller, and I think you understand. You see the pain and the needs and you're addressing those, right, by thinking things that people have interest in. Affordable housing. Those are all things affecting our communities, right? And ultimately how do we support one another by buying from our businesses to be able to help those businesses grow.
William Murrell: That's right.
Elias Torres: Right, and reach major scale. Because one of the biggest issues I see is probably the same, right, for African American, but Latin- American businesses in Massachusetts at best break$ 100, 000 a year, right? So the revenue, the income ceiling, that they end up hitting, right, is very low.
William Murrell: Even though it's kind of considered that Latin Americans tend to support each other's communities and businesses, right?
Elias Torres: Absolutely.
William Murrell: I mean, that's like a cultural thing, yeah?
Elias Torres: It's a cultural thing. Right. And because of the service that we get, the familiarity, the products, the inventory that they will manage, it's in the relationships and just support ourselves, right? It's something that communities are naturally drawn to do. But the limits that we have on the types of businesses we grow, we can break in by helping and supporting each other.
William Murrell: That's right. Right because-
Elias Torres: Because a white- owned business, the average business in Massachusetts is about$ 800 to$ 900,000 in revenue a year.
William Murrell: Ah, okay.
Elias Torres: I don't know if you-
William Murrell: That's a lot.
Elias Torres: Right. crosstalk It's a big gap. Yeah. It's a big gap. And so that's why it's like what you're doing is very important. That's a big gap because we have to help the businesses survive, but then most important we have to help them grow.
William Murrell: Exactly. That's right, because crosstalk we're not getting the opportunities that they're getting. I mean, there's reasons for it, but we don't get the calls sometime, you know?
Elias Torres: Yeah. But what you've done, right, is you inaudible to build this community for such a long time, right, to be here is an inspiration in itself, right? Let's talk about sharing tips of how did you learn how to become such a listener, right? How to be such a person that you enjoy helping the community. I think that you finding your passion is something that many of us, especially many younger people than us, right? It's like are looking to figure out, right? It's like how could you be so...? I feel like you're so happy. You have your purpose. You have the people that you serve. I think that's what people strive, right, nowadays, too. That's what we all want, right?
William Murrell: My mom said-
Elias Torres: Tell me about that. Teach me about life.
William Murrell: That's a great question because you don't get it from school for sure. Mom told me one time, she said, " You have the gift of helps." I'm like, " Okay." She said, " Yeah, you like to help people." I forget at what age I heard that, but it's almost like it's kind of true. A person asks me a question, a complete stranger, I'll give them an answer and then give them too much of an answer sometimes and I don't even think about why. But to me it makes humanity better and safer to help people as much as you can, and I notice how medical professionals do the same thing. If you're ever in the hospital for any extended stay and you have to get taken care of by nurses, it's amazing how far out of the way they go beyond their job to make you feel comfortable. I think, too, the nurturing aspect of like... See, it's satisfying to see a problem resolved and you learn that from IT. You go in, the thing is hard. You're sweating. You want to get home. You fix it. You're happy, but so is everybody else around you, too, because now they can go back to work and get their paycheck on time and all that stuff. So I think it's part of the satisfaction of being useful and being helpful to someone and the fact that there seems to always be a need for someone to get... People would rather, even though the information is laid out there in tables and they can see it on the webpage, they would rather be told what to do than look for it themselves. I think that's just human nature. I think that's part of what keeps us in the running. crosstalk That we're willing to tell them.
Elias Torres: Yeah. No, I love that, and I think that your mother must have been amazing, right? And that word, right? Those words that she gave you were that you had it in you or whether it was implanted by her. It's a combination, but it's so much wisdom, right? She knew you, right? She knew you deeply and said you have the gift of helps. And-
William Murrell: She volunteered everywhere. I mean, it was just amazing. I didn't see it when I was in the home, so to speak, how much volunteering she did, and outside the home and would go visit again and then listen to what her friends would say about her, especially when she passed, and listen to the testimony at the funeral. I was like, wow, she did all this? All that out of the goodness of her heart, all wanting to volunteer.
Elias Torres: Yeah, and that's what we were saying about you, right, that you have that gift of helps and you've been helping the community because it's like you are a connector. You are sharing information with one another. You put in the effort and your time to write those articles, to write those answers, to write the resources, maintain them, because most people come, they'll take the answer. They take the answer to the question that they have and they'll go, right?
William Murrell: That's right.
Elias Torres: But someone has to curate it, right? Someone has to keep it up to date so that the crosstalk
William Murrell: It's the groundwork. That's so true. It's something in the middle of the night you're digging and you're writing stuff. You're wondering why am I doing this? I mean, who's going to read it? Who's going to care? Sometimes you doubt whether or not it's worth the effort, but then you realize that you do it and release it and put it out there. It's really worth the effort. But sometimes it feels like, oh my gosh, this is like tedious.
Elias Torres: I think that you're addicted to the same thing that society's addicted. I feel like everybody's addicted now to like on Instagram, on social network. Oh, somebody like. How many likes did you get to this video? And that needs to be a little bit connected back to kind of what you're doing. You'll get a like, right, when somebody gets help from an article and crosstalk satisfaction. I like what you said like when you fix a problem and then everybody else around you is happier because the problem is fixed. That satisfaction that you get is what has made your life worthwhile that you get a lot of satisfaction and pride from that.
William Murrell: Yep. That's right.
Elias Torres: That's excellent. Look, I appreciate that. This has been good to finally meet you, not in person, but online. Good to talk with you. Learn the story of Mr. William Murrell, owner of blackboston. com.
William Murrell: You got it.
Elias Torres: This is not meant to be a Drift advertisement, but we support you to use Drift to engage and connect with your visitors and help them in any way you can, and what an inspiration to me and to others that sometimes when we're looking for a sense of purpose or direction, you just lay it out right there. It's very simple. crosstalk Just help others around you, right, and you will feel great. I think that we appreciate it. We appreciate what you're doing for the community. I want to find other maybe Latin- owned businesses that are doing the same, right, so people of all races, of all ethnicity, of all backgrounds that are looking to find communities, right, and find different types of businesses, services, and products, right? They can find them because people want to help, right? And I think that you're enabling people to help as well as you're helping others. So thank you very much for coming on the show. It's been a pleasure to hear the story and my team loves you and they want to help you, and so in any ways that Drift can help the community and you, we're glad to be of service as well.
William Murrell: Thank you so much, Elias. So appreciate it. Thank you.
Elias Torres: Thanks for listening to the American Dream podcast. Make sure to hit subscribe so you never miss when a new episode drops. If you like this episode, please leave a six- star review wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you're interested in learning more about my American Dream mission, subscribe to my newsletter link in the show notes.
William Murrell, publisher of BlackBoston.com, found a void in Black cultural resources when visiting Boston with his family. To solve the problem, he built a website where residents and tourists could find all the information they need in one place.
12 years later, BlackBoston.com has expanded to provide affordable housing resources and advertising opportunities for underrepresented communities.
In this episode, William explains how his upbringing impacts his work today, and why community is essential to helping BIPOC businesses grow:
- Where William's interest in tech began (1:32)
- What is a customer engineer? (5:02)
- The origins of BlackBoston.com (16:58)
- The gift of help (19:18)