24 yr. old Jennifer Uloko is the Chief Executive Officer of Yangabeauty.com. In this exclusive interview, She delves into the origins of her entrepreneurship journey, the challenges thus far and practical business strategies for every aspiring entrepreneur.
When did you develop an interest in beauty merchandising?
I have always had a flair for beauty products; everything from makeup to makeup instruments and skin care products. It has always been my passion. There is so much one can do with the right makeup to boost self-confidence. Gone are the days when women left the house with just white face powder. People now want to look good. That is what gives me joy; helping people to look good. Besides, I am also a certified makeup artist.
At what point in your life did you decide to be an entrepreneur?
I had always known that I would end up an entrepreneur. While in the university, I sold jewellery and accessories to my friends and classmates. I would shop at Balogun Market, Lagos, during the holidays and take the materials back to school to sell. I was usually happy when I made profit. It got to a point that I was no longer asking my parents for pocket money because I had a source of income. I could buy my textbooks. It was fun and exciting selling jewellery, making profit, investing a portion of it and saving some.
After I graduated from Igbinedion University, I was posted to ExxonMobil for my service year in 2011. I was a customer service representative in the catering department. At the end of my service year, I was retained in the company but I did not get any joy working at my job. I just wasn’t enthusiastic about my job. Instead, I found myself giving makeup tips to my colleagues and making recommendations on the kind of beauty products they could use. After a while, I decided to resign my appointment and I launched an online retail store where women could purchase different brands of beauty products and get consultation. At the time I resigned, I had worked for only a year.
Did your parents support your decision?
My father had always encouraged me to be self-employed; he runs his own businesses too. He would advise me to work at a job that makes me happy. He wanted something that would make me wake up with a smile instead of feeling grumpy. It wasn’t at all difficult for him to accept my decision.
It was hard though for my mother. She felt I had a lot of things going for me. I had a Second Class Upper in Business Administration and worked for a good company. She herself worked in the banking industry and saw nothing wrong with me sending out my resume or keeping my job.
I kept insisting though that I did not want to work for anyone. She saw reasons with me after a while and even supported me with N50,000 when I eventually started out. Now, she has seen the creativity that I put into my business and how I work hard to keep the company going. She is my mentor and inspiration.
My friends tried to discourage me. They told me to work for a decade, save money before resigning. I could then use my savings to do whatever I wanted. The truth is that I am facing several challenges now. However, they are a good experience; nobody can take that away. I have no regrets.
Was it difficult to raise funds as a retailer?
Not really; I had a lot saved from selling jewellery and accessories in school. I started saving at 18. I poured my savings into my business. Then, my mum gave me some money; she had opened a savings account for me while I was younger and she handed the money over to me when she saw I needed it. I could only buy six products with what she gave me; beauty products are expensive. And unfortunately, those materials that I bought were all fake.
How did you know?
It was a foreign brand that I use myself and I had bought some for my personal use while on trip abroad. By the time I took the products and compared with what I had, there were glaring differences in the way the brand name was written. Some other things were also not properly spelt. It was really a disappointing experience because it meant I could not sell what I had bought and my money was wasted.
My experience forced me to think though. I had to research what it entailed to retail beauty brands and eventually sent mails to some sales representatives of some major beauty brands. I had to take a day to sit down and compose the mails because I couldn’t hire a marketing person to do that for me.
I introduced myself and assured them that I would sell their products in Nigeria and make some money for them. It was not easy though because most major brands are not much interested in small retailers because we don’t make big sales. Some rejected my proposal; others accepted. I didn’t bother to sit and wail whenever I was rejected. I simply moved on and wrote more to other brands. I do very strict sourcing from the manufacturers.
What has been your challenges in this business?
The online store has been running for seven months now and it has been quite challenging. I retail beauty products for over 20 brands; most of which are foreign. What happens is that customers order online via our website and then the orders are taken to their offices or homes.
It has been an exciting and surreal journey. There have been ups and downs. The first challenge I had was that I was not a technical person so I had to employ people who were familiar with web design, marketing and all. I have a web designer to handle the technical side while I focus on the business aspect; pushing it forward. Customer service is important for us because from everyone, we can get 10 more. Our value is that we are committed and we are honest in everything we do.
With it came the challenge of recruitment which was quite difficult. I advertised via social media and by sending out the word through my friends. I needed people with good customer service orientation and who were punctual. Any person who did not come early for the interview was not ready for the job. Time is important to me. At the moment, I have four employees; a delivery dispatch rider, a customer service representative, a web designer and a graphic designer.
Another thing is that website designers are expensive but I cannot afford to cut back on that. If you have good brands, the pictures of the products you are retailing have to be really clear online. Your clients must know what they are buying.
Shipping to Nigeria is expensive. You pay so much duty tax and it eats away on your profit. One cannot because of that become careless with pricing because the clients would not want to buy products that are overly priced. It is a balancing act and we are in that teething phase. We are yet to break even. However, I am looking at other options such as diversifying into retailing makeup tools. I am also looking at having my own makeup brand; it is still in the works.
Another major problem is that Nigerians don’t trust that they will get their orders after making payment first. To solve this problem, I had to give my clients options; you either go to the bank to pay into our account or you pay on delivery. But the latter option only works for those in Lagos State. For deliveries outside Lagos, I need payments to be made first. Sometimes, products get damaged while they are being shipped to Nigeria and once they are damaged, I cannot sell them. It becomes my loss. Although the shipping companies make refunds on such occasions; they try to get out of it at times.
Do you use any particular marketing strategy to advertise your business?
Yes; information technology has been very helpful. I make use of social media to do my marketing and advertising. I advertise on Facebook; it is easy to choose your target market there. I also give incentives via Instagram and Twitter using creative marketing strategies. I encourage clients to create certain looks with makeup and give away prizes. This has really helped. I also have a blog where I explain how clients can use the products I sell in various ways.
What advice do you have for youths aspiring to be entrepreneurs?
Knowledge is important; if you want to go into retail and you don’t know the product you are buying, you will definitely buy fake. One of the ways to go about it is to familiarize yourself with the brand you want to buy in the open market. Check out the product online and see how it is. Don’t just buy from anywhere. It is important to buy from those who source from the manufacturers.
You have to put everything about your prospective company or business in place before resigning from paid employment. It is really important. Before I resigned, I had already registered my company with the Corporate Affairs Commission and got everything ready to take off.
Then persevere in managing your employees; you will be tried and tested. They will come late to work with different excuses but in the end you have to speak to them in a respectful way; no shouting or insults. One of our values is that we respect each other. It helps to keep the sanity. There is a polite way to correct people. I let them know that it is not just about the profit; we have to retain clients, get new ones and always put them first.
Put God first; because He is at the center of everything. You also need to research well on what you want to focus on and employ people that either think like you or think better than you. Don’t cut corners; be true to yourself. If you are buying a product, buy from the manufacturers. Don’t buy a fake product and try to sell it off as the original thing.
Work hard, believe in yourself. Nobody can push you like you can; not even your mentors. Let no one’s opinion define you. You have to know that whatever you do, that in striving harder, going forward, everything would work out for good. Research more into what you are going to do and how you will do it. The sky will be your limit.