Podozi.com is a beauty ecommerce platform that gives African women access to both local and international beauty brands. Co-founders, Teniola Adejuwon and Wale Babatunde, recently completed a 4-month accelerator programme with 500 StartUps, a leading venture capital fund in Silicon Valley. To date, 500 StartUps has invested in over 1,500 businesses across 50 countries worldwide. Every year, thousands of businesses apply either through a formal application or referral, and after passing 5 or 6 rounds of interviews are accepted onto the programme. Podozi was one of 50 startups accepted for the most recent cohort ‘Batch 16’. With the programme, Podozi worked in Silicon Valley, learned how to take their business to the next level and received a net investment of $100k.
In this interview, Teniola shares her experiences with 500 Startups and gives some advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
How did you get involved with 500 Startups?
It came as a total surprise. Last year, we were introduced to 500 Startups through an investor who was a personal contact. As my mentor Tara Fela-Durotoye always reminds me, your network is your networth. Previously, the investor had mentioned that although they typically focus on Series A funded businesses or higher, they really liked the Podozi business. So we agreed to keep in touch for when the business grew bigger. Applying to 500 Startups was an aspiration of ours, which we planned to pursue in the future. About a year later, we got an email introducing us to 500 Startups, and that was it.
How has being part of the 500 Startups programme helped develop Podozi?
We recently completed the programme, so it’s still very early to articulate the full benefits, but being part of the 500 network is like being part of a global family. It’s a lifetime thing, where you grow and evolve. We were exposed to people and ideas from across the world. While we have formally finished the programme, we continue to keep in touch with our batch and the other businesses in the community via a group email. We have a well of resources to draw from and access to mentors who we can reach out to for advice.
Throughout the programme, we had opportunities to pitch to hundreds of investors and peers in the startup ecosystem. One of our pinnacle moments was presenting Podozi during the closing ‘Demo Day’. Being able to articulate our brand raised our profile with international peers and investors, which also helped our profile in Nigeria. Also, to be eligible for the programme, we had to (re)incorporate as a U.S. company which gave us access to U.S. specific venture networks and investors.
Tell us more about your experience in Silicon Valley as part of 500 Startups Batch 16?
Living in California was an interesting experience. Given the 8-hour time difference, we were working from 9am to 7pm U.S. time, then worked after hours to service Nigeria alongside our colleagues back home. It was a demanding but authentic experience of what it means to run a truly international business. All businesses in our batch worked from the same office in San Francisco. This helped develop a spirit of camaraderie, collaboration and shared learning, which is not always a given in most accelerators.
We travelled to Los Angeles, New York and other cities across the U.S. which gave us exposure to international best practices and processes. Once you get established processes in place, you’re able to serve your customers better. I’ve always been an advocate of this and Podozi advocates this too. While it’s not always possible to please everyone, I remind my team to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Empowering the customer is crucial, and something businesses on the continent tend to miss.
What advice would you give to aspiring startups and entrepreneurs?
Cultivate an attitude of excellence. Being entrepreneurial isn’t about calling yourself the CEO, you need to have a long-term mindset. My first company, Beauty by Nature, ran the Beauty Business Masterclass series. We would teach attendees that no matter whether you’re a nail technician or a self-taught makeup artist, you need to develop your craft and put the right structures or systems in place to support it. That is the difference between a sustainable business and one that burns out quickly.
Also, it is not only about funding. Successful entrepreneurs are convinced beyond reasonable doubt about what they are doing. In the past I’ve seen African startups get deterred early on by investor questions about about basic things like their business model or business numbers. If you are not convinced about your product, it will be difficult to enter in, let alone survive in Silicon Valley. It can become quite distracting when your brand gets bigger and your profile increases, so you need to keep focused. As one of my mentors says, ‘the media, awards and accolades will come; just do your work’.
What tips would you recommend for making a successful application to an accelerator?
Firstly, do your homework. There are funds and accelerator programmes that may be targeted to your industry or geography. Be aware that while some of them are global, their funds might be localised to specific regions.
Then, develop a proof of concept. Ideas are a dime a dozen, so don’t just go about touting ideas. Don’t simply try to replicate an idea that works in another country, ensure that it’s relevant to your market. My mentor, Mrs Ibukun Awosika says, “Be the expert of your business – know your numbers and keep your books tidy”. Businesses sometimes rush to launch an app without considering the consumer behaviour in their locality or whether they have the capacity in-house to maintain such. In e-commerce the big question is traction! It’s all about your metrics.
Third, be humble enough to admit what you don’t know and be ready to learn quickly. Utilise your resources, prepare in advance and ask as many questions as possible, there’s a wealth of resources out there like Quora to keep you up to speed. Fourth, be realistically audacious. Investors are not looking for timid entrepreneurs, they are putting their own money in and they must get a return. In the back of their minds they are asking; “Can this idea generate $100m in revenue”?
Finally, get ready to put in the grind and work very hard. As Scandal’s Eli Pope said to Olivia, “You have to work twice as hard”. It might sound harsh, but it’s the truth of the world we live in. Listen to advice but ultimately stick to your own values. I know who I am and what I’m about, and that is what sustains me.
What’s next for Podozi?
There’s a lot to look out for from Podozi, it’s a dream that is evolving everyday. We are a company that will be here for another 50 years; a company that started in Africa with a global mandate. We want to be the bridge between customers and the beauty brands that adequately meet their needs, educating and creating a wholesome experience of beauty for women of color everywhere.
Finally, what’s the one piece of makeup you can’t live without?
My lipstick! I always go for a red or pink shade, or sometimes mix it up. I wear it practically everyday.