‘There’s a high risk of infection, diseases if you use fairly-used intimates’
Seun Tayo-Balogun is the CEO of Brief Essentials, the country’s foremost lingerie, shape-wear and underwear destination. Launched in April 2011 to revolutionise lingerie and underwear shopping in Nigeria’s budding digital landscape, Brief Essentials currently caters for the needs of thousands of Nigerians by providing lingerie education using digital channels, delivering premium quality undergarments, providing fashion solutions and offering loads of options to everyone. She talks about the challenges that business star-ups face in the country and the advantage of e-commerce in this interview.
What made you leave paid employment for entrepreneurship?
In 2011, e-commerce was beginning to gain ground in Nigeria. Prior to that time, however, we had conceived the Brief Essentials idea, selling high-quality lingerie at very affordable prices. As the e-commerce revolution grew stronger, we felt like it was a good time to throw our hat in the ring. Paid employment was really demanding and being a young mother of two very young children, I needed more flexibility to enable me take good care of my family and still get work done. Leaving paid employment for entrepreneurship helped me achieve the desired level of flexibility.
Tell us about your journey, how was the transition into entrepreneurship like for you?
Deliberately transitioning into entrepreneurship is a big step for anyone in paid employment as there is a lot of learning, unlearning and relearning involved; it was the same process I had to go through. To a large extent, having established the business to some degree before leaving paid employment was an added advantage, it made the switch easier. One of the many myths of being a business owner is that people have more time for themselves when they have their own business. The fact is, I had less free time for myself but I was able to control the use of my time more effectively. Many times, I would be up late into the night working, as opposed to when I was in paid employment and only worked 8:00am to 5:00pm, Mondays to Fridays. Even though the entire entrepreneurial process is tasking, I enjoy the fact that I am able to conceptualise ideas and do work that directly translates to the kind of productivity that I expect to see. No one had to push me to be productive; I am driven to make a success out of every task. Sometimes you have to be the magician to make magic happen.
You said your company has revolutionised lingerie and underwear shopping in Nigeria, could you tell us more about this?
E-Commerce made inroad into the Nigerian business space in 2009. Back then, a lot of the players focused on electronics, fashion merchandising such as shoes/bags, clothes, etc. while lingerie was mostly sold in brick and mortar stores and the second-hand (bend-down-select) market. As if that wasn’t bad enough, lingerie options at this time were limited and mostly overpriced, and/or of questionable quality. About this time, my husband and I were looking to purchase high quality underwear and shapewear that would help me get back in shape after childbirth. In no time, we realised that it was almost impossible to find stores in Nigeria that provided good quality underwear and fashion solutions that were affordable, conveniently available or accessible. Equipped with this knowledge, we commenced ideation of an e-commerce model for lingerie and other products and Brief Essentials was born. We commenced operations in April 2011 as an exclusive online destination for bras, shapewear, lingerie and all things underwear for everyone. Additionally, we were the first in Nigeria to go mainstream on educating people about the importance of fit, style, and function of undergarments using digital platforms. To a large extent, our business success showed others that, retailing lingerie and underwear online is possible and of course, several other lingerie businesses have sprung up subsequently.
Despite a lot of initial setbacks, especially as we live in an environment where people do not see the need to discuss this important fashion category, we did try to change how women and men see lingerie and consequently revolutionised lingerie and underwear shopping in Nigeria’s thriving online marketplace. We have also helped others aspiring to get into the lingerie business started, by providing merchandise, training and consultation. In addition to retailing other brands, we launched our shapewear line in 2017 with a goal to continuously combine function, fit and affordability.
How did you raise the capital to start?
My husband and I raised the capital exclusively from our personal savings and continuous capital reinvestment.
Being a business owner can be tough, what are some challenges you have faced?
Having to wear several hats at the same time can be unnerving, and in most cases, while you are thinking of the big picture, you also have to worry about the little details. Because let’s face it, the little things done well will lead to that big picture. It is important to put both in perspective as you grow. Other major challenges include expansion, performance management and recruiting the right set of people to come on board.
In your opinion, what are some of the key issues startups face, especially in Nigeria?
When we started, some of the challenges we faced were those common to nearly every business. Problems with staffing, funding for expansion, theft, order fulfilment and logistics, power supply, lack of confidence from buyers, inventory management, sourcing for goods, and economic conditions, depreciation of the Naira, trust issues with suppliers, all of these lead to high cost of doing business in Nigeria. As an e-commerce, we have also had to constantly monitor the security of our platform to prevent malicious people from exploiting security vulnerabilities in our ecommerce application, continually keeping up with the dynamics of the online market place and maintaining constant online presence. We had to come up with a strategy to scale while also holding on to our standards and meeting customer needs for quick and efficient purchase and delivery. As a growing business, challenges will keep coming up, however, having the right mindset will help deal with challenges.
Lots of people are embarrassed discussing lingerie and intimate wears, how are you changing this mindset?
One of the biggest issues we have is the fact that most people feel underwear purchasing should be done discreetly, and indeed it should be. But in a lot of cases, it is necessary to be able to discuss the purchase to prevent customers from buying the wrong product size or fit. We have made the situation less awkward by ensuring that most of the customer support positions are filled by female staff, we also make it very easy for people to make purchases as well as get assistance online as anonymously as possible. By also organizing seminars, we have been able to educate people that wearing the a well-fitting lingerie is not only empowering, but also the foundation of fashion and should be talked about more often than not to prevent fashion faux pas.
We have also shown, using various means, that there is lingerie for every body type, size and occasion, what is of utmost importance is that you actually find what truly fits. Thankfully, we have received over time, improved, positive responses from Nigerians and I believe there is higher appreciation of undergarments at this point than when we started. Our goal is to continually do our part in influencing the market such that lingerie and undergarments are discussed in the same way people discuss the latest fashion trends and beauty products.
What makes your brand stand out in today’s competitive world?
We provide the customer with a lot of options, our price point and the fact that we have lots of leading brands all in one place make us an attractive option for customers. Knowing that our customers are the reason we’re in business is also one of the reasons we put a lot into customer service. We try to make the customer experience as enjoyable as possible whether in automation or when buyers interface with our customer service personnel. Our shapewear are available up to size 15XL, bras from 28 to 50 Bands and up to K cups and so on. When we founded Brief Essentials, our goal was to ensure that lingerie was both affordable and accessible and we will strive to continually deliver on this premise. We offer lingerie education and have conducted inspiring campaigns such as PowerWithin and BEYou, which focused on the need for women to pay attention to who they are with respect to body-type as well as temperament and nature.
Tell us something that has influenced your life and career positively today?
I think everything just fell in place for me. My parents are your typical “no shortcut to success” kind of parents. They always told me that if you wanted success you needed to go for it. I have had to wear many hats in my years of regular employment and the ensuing experience has proved helpful. I had always been fascinated by technology. At 16, I was a tutor at a computer training institute teaching IT skills to executives. I’m blessed to be married to a man who is a genius in Information Technology and business makes it easy to switch between marital and business relationship without missing a beat.
How is e-commerce helping you run your business?
The bedrock of our business is e-commerce. Our business plan was more e-commerce than lingerie, the lingerie idea kicked off because there was an immediate need that had to be met and we’re grateful to still be in a position to keep meeting this need. It all started on a laptop, a mobile phone, a website, social media pages and now the rest is history. The advantages of doing business online are enormous especially with increasing popularity of social media platforms. With digital proliferation, small businesses can get the reach and increase their customer base faster than was previously possible. We have been able to make good quality and affordable lingerie accessible to people in different locations. Furthermore, doing business online makes it possible for a business owner to manage a day job together with a new business. For me, the e-commerce landscape is growing fast and has lots of potential as more people are beginning to trust its efficiency.
A lot of Nigerians still buy fairly-used intimate wears, claiming they are of better quality, what is your opinion on this?
Many people still buy fairly-used intimate wear partly because this is an opinion they have held for a long time, and partly because they do not know where to get affordable, high quality new ones. With fairly-used lingerie, there’s a risk of infection/disease. Many of the items we sell rival the fairly used products in price and obviously beat them hands down in quality.
What is the future of intimate wears in Nigeria?
The lingerie market is growing daily and will continue to grow. There is more awareness and appreciation for lingerie now than when we started. However, there are still a lot of people that have not been reached yet. For example, in a recent vox-pop we conducted for one of our lingerie talk episodes, we discovered that a lot of people still do not know their bra sizes. We want to reduce this number as much as possible.
What are your future plans? What can we look forward to seeing from you?
Our vision is to be the household name for lingerie, shapewear and underwear in Nigeria – whether we are manufacturing, distributing other brands or using technology to improve access, we want our products to be readily available to everyone and we want more people to have a better appreciation of lingerie and undergarments in general. In the near future we also plan to have a production plant in Nigeria so we can provide employment and increase export while reducing importation.