‘Playing small does not serve the world, go big’
Toyin Odulate is the founder of Olori Cosmetics, an African hair, bath and body care company formulating products for women and children. Her love, passion and obsession for beauty started as early as age seven, but her dream to establish Olori took 15 years to actualise.
A former L’Oreal executive and consumer goods expert with over 18 years of experience across the USA, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, she has managed global beauty, food and beverage brands across Africa and the Middle East, where she honed her skills in the business of beauty, brand marketing, product and business development, as well as distribution and logistics with a focus on the African consumer. After years of nursing the ambition of owning her own beauty company, a hair coloring accident propelled her to produce what would become her first product.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she spoke on the world of cosmetic formulation, challenges involved in running a startup in Nigeria and how a plethora of choices for consumers is a good step in the right direction.
Could you take us through your journey in starting your business, how has it been for you?
I’ve had the idea for Olori since my third year in the university. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find makeup shades that suited my skin tone and that I had to mix several shades of lipstick or foundation to get the shade that I liked, so, I planned to start a makeup line. As a child, I enjoyed mixing potions and ruffling through my mother’s extensive beauty counter. I found a little notebook I kept at age 12 where I wrote that I was going to own a cosmetics company. I guess it’s been in my sub-conscious for that long and beauty products development and beauty stores and shelves are my happy place.
I had always ‘planned’ to start the business, waiting on the ‘right’ time, but was very busy building my corporate career. But when I finally started, it happened totally by accident. A few years ago, I had a hair coloring accident that left my hair feeling like hay. I asked my mum to mix me a potion that she used to make for us as kids to care for our hair back then; I used it and it literally reversed the damage and texture of my hair within days. It was then I knew that I had to jar this product and share it with the world.
I sent samples to about 20 friends to try out; they all loved it and kept asking for more. When I could no longer afford to give it out for free, I started to sell it in recycled Body Shop jars. We peeled off the Body Shop labels and created our own Olori labels and stuck in on the jars and that’s how we started. I transitioned from corporate life to running Olori full time almost two years ago. It’s been a very different journey where you don’t have the security and luxuries of a big company environment, but building one from scratch is a very fulfilling process with some frustrating moments but I’ve learnt to focus firmly on the big picture.
You’re no stranger to the world of hair and beauty as you have worked with international brands in the past. How has these experiences shaped your business?
Having firsthand experience at the corporate level working for the biggest beauty conglomerate in the world (L’Oreal) in multiple countries definitely exposed me to the business side of beauty, especially the non-glamourous side, which included long hours of business development, supply chain coordination and management, distribution, marketing, brand development, budgeting and finance to name a few. It definitely gave me the much-needed tools and credibility that I needed going into building my own beauty brand and company from the ground up.
From the formulation stage to branding to marketing and developing retail management relationships, negotiating with salons and distributors… all very grounding experience to build on to get my brand to the heights I want to take it to. Though we’ve accomplished a lot, we’re still very much a work in progress.
Funding is usually a major challenge for startups, how did you get funds to start out?
I funded the business from my savings and personal investments and then started to bootstrap once the business became financially viable. I have recently opened up the business to seed funding to help with our growth ambitions to scale into other markets.
The global beauty industry is a multibillion-dollar sector, which experts have said Nigeria is yet to fully tap into. How do you think we can achieve that?
Don’t underestimate how big the beauty industry is in Nigeria; what we have lacked is reliable data to back this up. The other issue is the relentless currency devaluation, which further shrinks the value of the size of the industry in Nigeria. But regardless of this, Nigeria is a huge contender and player in the African beauty sector.
How best do you think the government, banks and private bodies can support SMEs such as yours to thrive better?
The answer to this question requires three separate paragraphs, but generally, we can already see a shift in private bodies such as venture capital and angel/pre-seed investor groups towards the fintech community; funds are flowing in this sector. But in the consumer goods and manufacturing sector, we are not seeing the same levels of funding generosity, excitement and activity and that needs to change. Government can also assist by making regulatory requirements simpler and more straightforward; the current processes in place take too long.
As an entrepreneur, what are some issues you’ve had to deal with over the years?
Funding has been and is still my greatest challenge.
What keeps you passionate about doing what you do?
I’m passionate about taking an African beauty brand such as Olori to the global stage, where you walk into the big chain stores in the States or in Europe or Latin America and see a proudly African brand on those shelves. I’m passionate about how commerce has the ability to make an impact on the social sector by helping to change lives via education, gainful employment, and innovation.
With so many fake products in this sector, how best do you think this can be stemmed?
I think with an environment as fragmented and as rudimentary as ours (Nigeria and West Africa), our regulatory bodies are overwhelmed and under-resourced. So, the onus is placed on businesses like ours to put in the work to make sure your product is set apart from imitations and fakes and educating the public to know the difference. This problem isn’t going away anytime soon, but there are ways to tackle it even though tackling it is expensive.
How can we create better opportunities for upcoming industry players in the global beauty and wellness market so they can compete with big names?
Through funding and more funding! For brands and companies with a strong proof of concept and in-market stress testing, access to funding and the right partnerships are the only way they have a fighting chance to compete on the global stage alongside the more established names.
What five things would you tell a new entrant into this business to avoid and do respectively for maximum impact?
First, register your business legally; trademark your brand name. Test your products on a sample pool of friends and family over a period of time before going to market. Stay flexible and keep your overheads as low as possible as need-based for as long as possible. Be open to partnerships and collaborations. Finally, know your competition, but don’t obsess over them – focus on your path.
Sourcing materials can be a huge challenge, how and where do you source your materials from?
We source about 80 per cent of our ingredients locally, the rest we source from across the continent or from the most reliable source. We’ve built our supply chain network slowly and methodically over the years and set up relationships with suppliers. It’s a challenging task because for just one ingredient for example, we have about six sources, just to manage disappointments and long lead times.
Tell us something you did/do recently that has turned your business around positively for you?
We invested very intentionally in our e-commerce and digital strategy in January of 2020. We had no idea that a pandemic was looming and that this would be our saving grace just two months later. During the lockdown, we were pretty busy as we had a sudden uptick in direct-to-consumer sales and inquiries, primarily due to the fact that salons were not open, so most people were doing their own hair at home.
This also gave us an opportunity to get direct feedback from our customers and improve our products or services where needed. The overhaul of our digital strategy also got us a lot of international attention from a number of international publications and international demographics. With this, we activated international shipping and this has been great for us.
There are so many products in the market now which can be overwhelming for users, what specific things should users look out for when selecting products?
I think the fact that consumers are now spoilt for choice on the shelves across different categories is a good thing; this was not the case five or seven years ago. Caucasian consumers have thousands of options in every single personal care category, so why should it be different for us?
But to simplify purchase decisions, buyers should seek for ingredients that work best for them. Understand your allergies and avoid products with ingredients that cause such. But the easiest way is to stick to the brand that has worked best for you but be open to experimenting on occasion with a brand or product that you’ve never tried before. You just might find a gem in it.
What is your dream and goal for your brand in the next couple of years?
Dream goal in the next two years is to get Olori on the shelves of major retailers in markets internationally and also to have built a scaled and robust direct to consumer business. Also, to grow our international customer base of black girls and women of African descent from across the globe to become a brand of excellence that they can identify with directly and that represents them and their unique multi-textured hair and skin and personal care needs. We want to be a brand that serves the global African diaspora.
What final words do you want to leave for women?
Playing small does not serve the world, go big and then go home. To a very nice home I must add.