Twenty-nine-year old Tolu Awodiya is the Chief Executive Officer of Madeleine Leigh Brands Limited. She talks about the challenges of venturing into something unique in this interview with YETUNDE BROWN
What inspired you to go into business?
I have always been interested in business right from childhood. So, I wouldn’t say I got an inspiration.
I have always loved being an entrepreneur. When I was young, I went into a kerosene business. I used to go to the filling station to buy kerosene, put it into bottles and carried it around to sell. I did this for a while until my grandmother stopped me from selling it.
I am particularly interested in businesses that people have not explored. I have a combined degree in Business and Information System from Bowie State University, Maryland, USA.
Madeleine Leigh is a bath and body company that I started in 2009. There is a manufacturing company in the United Kingdom that specialises in such products, which makes my own specifications.
I think this business is the first of its kind in Nigeria. We don’t have our products everywhere in Nigeria. It used to be a business some big names were into in the past but somehow, the economy ran them down.
How did you raise your initial capital for the project?
While I was in the United States, I saved some money not for this business but I just set some money aside and when the business came up, I had to put in all my savings. My mother is a shareholder in the company because she also put in a large amount of money even though it wasn’t enough to meet the demand then. Trying to get loans from Microfinance banks required collateral which I didn’t have and the conventional banks were not ready to listen to me. Their double digit interest rate would have wrecked the business because you cannot forecast sales due to the factors affecting our economy. I know there are also people called angel agents who are willing to invest their money in your business but getting them is not easy; and when you get them, it is difficult to get them to accept what you have. They felt I didn’t know what I was doing because I was young and being a female. They can give you money in exchange for shares but I have not been able to get them.
What were the challenges you faced in setting up the company?
The first challenge I faced was getting people to accept my business idea. It happened four years ago; I was just about 25 years old. I had to find manufacturers that would create products that would not have side effects on any skin type or colour using it. This was quite difficult because. It took about eight months to get at least one person to listen to what I had to say. But I saw it as a learning stage.
Finance was another major challenge. It is one thing to have the idea, talk to the manufacturers to accept it; it is another kettle of fish when it comes to finance. This is when you have to pay because you realise you cannot make just 10 pieces but thousands of pieces and that is when you have to get the real money out. This cuts across the entire lifetime of the business. The initial capital is a bit of a problem. It is difficult to get a bank to loan you money because this is your first attempt at business. You have to get your savings and convince your family that you are sure of what you are doing before they can even think of loaning you money.
Most designers in Nigeria ask for a lot of money to design and because I didn’t have much money, I had to do it myself and somehow, it came out good.
The first phase also had a bit of problem so we had to stop and started all over again. Then, we shipped out and the product got lost on the sea, and we couldn’t find it for about a year and this was about the biggest problem because after it was finally found, it took about three months before it got to Nigeria. After getting the products here, one would have thought everyone would start buying the product but we had to start finding funds for advertisement which we didn’t have.
What other difficulties do you have to deal with every time?
The Nigerian factor is a major challenge. No electricity and the store has no windows, just a door and when customers came in they felt uncomfortable; it is a bath and body product store and customers are meant to feel good when smelling your products but when they are not, they readily leave. Then you have bad roads, people can’t get to the location because the roads are under construction; so, for several months, we made little or no sales. At a point, I considered throwing in the towel. I went back to the drawing board to re-strategise and closed down the store. I decided to follow the new e-commerce movement in Nigeria and got the product on Jumia and ever since, there has been great improvement because I have less things to worry about and my products can get almost everywhere in Nigeria and even outside Nigeria.
How has it been doing business in Nigeria?
It has not been easy because the Nigerian market is a bit unstructured. They like the whole idea of a big market situation which gives room to inferior products. People who have money to get shops at such big markets don’t have the finance to get quality products: so they get average quality products in large quantity and sell in such unstructured markets. My product is targeted at the lower and upper middle class; so you have to beg people to use your product. We also have the mentality that anything that is imported and made by a multinational company is the best even if it destroys your skin; so you have to convince these people to drop those products for yours. And for you to do that, you have to either under-price yourself or compromise the quality of your product which is something I am not willing to do.
If you are a small enterprise owner, it is not going to be easy for you because the economy is not made for you to survive, you have to pay extra taxes and all that, unlike in America where it is an environment that helps.
How have you been able to handle competition with other popular brands?
My products are priced moderately; we are not priced lower. I wouldn’t say we are competing yet; we are just trying to get to the market and stay in the game and by doing that, you don’t over-price and over-sell yourself which is a mistake some entrepreneurs make.
What is your advice to young people who want to go into business?
If you want to start a business, think it through and if you still feel you should go ahead, then do. You should strive to do something exceptional. As a starter, you are the manufacturer, sales man, designer, errand boy, cleaner all in one and there would be moments you would want to throw in the towel. Get good finance and advertising strategy. You have to listen to people, especially young people like you who have done such businesses successfully before. Ask them questions so they can enlighten you better
You also need good support system, people who would encourage you when things go wrong. When going into business, don’t expect it to be a glamour show; it is not a runway business. Also, don’t expect to get your returns immediately. It is a long term investment.There’s no glamour in business — Awodiya by ngcareers