With businesses I admire I always wonder, how did they start? How did they figure out the right products and how the heck did they get a storefront so early? Catching up with Ifeyinwa Ojekwe, founder of AJALI answered these questions.
AJALI is an all-natural, completely handmade cosmetics brand established in 2013 to promote local industry and create awareness for living a healthy life. I tried their products at She Hive London and fell in love, I’ve not looked back since.
How did AJALI start?
AJALI was founded in 2013. I got really sick when I moved back to Nigeria and made the decision to live a cleaner life. I went natural and started doing research into natural cosmetics. At the time, there was body shop in Nigeria, and when I did more research it wasn’t as natural as I expected, so I kept looking for an alternative but didn’t find something I liked, so I did some DIY.
The first thing I tried to make was my body souffles, and my family started to ask about it. So I began making it for friends and family, and then my church had an exhibition and the rest was history. It started off really organic (no pun intended!), it started as a hobby and four years later here we are.
How did you make the transition from employee to entrepreneur?
I worked at Chevron and Ernst & Young when I moved back to Nigeria, and then I landed my dream job at Today’s Woman. I only quit my job in 2015 – 2 years after AJALI started. Throughout all those job changes, I found that AJALI was the only constant, the only passion throughout that time. If felt like if I didn’t give it my all I’d never know how big it could be.
It got to a point where I couldn’t manage both, I couldn’t handle the business coming in. I was a one-person operation at that time, I was doing absolutely everything myself and I needed to give it 100%. Several times along the journey, I was frustrated and wanted to quit but I was surrounded by so many good people to encourage me and give me pep talks when I needed one.
A major turning point for me was when I was on holiday in London and EbonyLife reached out and said they wanted to give me an award. I thought it was a scam – so I sent them to my mom’s office and a whole camera crew turned up! That was in 2014, I won the Best Nigeria Made Product of the Year and something told me to keep pushing on, to give it my best and keep on keeping on.
At first, my family was sceptical, they questioned whether I really thought it through, especially with the recession in Nigeria. But I resolved that this was what I truly wanted to do, and I’d give it my best shot.
What were your biggest investments in AJALI?
When I decided to be full time, I decided that I needed a physical store to take me where I wanted to go. I had success with my online store and going to trade shows, but people really wanted to come and pick up our products.
So I started looking for a space to make things look more professional. Luckily from my job at Today’s Woman, I had some media and press contacts so was able to get buzz around my the launch of my store on 1 November 2015. At the time, it was a 2 bedroom BQ (boy’s quarters) where I did everything – the office, production, and the selling. I hired a beautician to do treatments as I had some extra space and we were off. On the launch day, we had nearly 200 people and I sold more that night that I had sold in the two years prior.
That was the first time I believe it could actually work. I hired my first sales assistant around December 2016. I’ve taken my time, it’s all privately funded by myself, family and friends along the way, so I have to be very careful with resources. Everything goes back to be being invested in the business.
I also focused on improving the quality of the business, the logistics, the operations for shipping, and delivery. I’ve also expanded my product range as time went on and invested in serious marketing to legitimise the brand. Before I started, I took a year to educate myself on various ingredients and test products with real users, friends, and family. I’m always looking for new things we could do, and because my passion is living a naturally healthy life, it is second nature.Do something that you are passionate about but make sure it makes business sense Click To Tweet
What advice would you give to help someone build a successful business?
1. Do something that you are passionate about but make sure it makes business sense. You need to test whether you’re actually going to make money – is this something you’re going to live off of? If you’re going to have a sustainable business you need to have that research.
2. You don’t have to do everything yourself, though. I use freelance websites to make logos, improve my website and do other graphic design. Make sure you have mentors around you, people who can support you – someone you look up to who you can pick their brain and get their advice from. So try to build up your network, if you don’t know where to start, start in places like SLA and educate yourself
3. Be ready for the journey. Not everyone is meant to be an entrepreneur, be a risk taker, willing to work later, and pay less until you reach that sweet-spot in your enterprise.
4. Have a plan. I always feel like a hypocrite but it’s worth taking the time to plan for your business. Having learned from my experience with AJALI, all my future ventures will be clearly planned from day one. Going forward, all my future ventures I see the value in having a business plan and actually doing the planning from day one.
5. You need to invest in the right team of people. The biggest thing young entrepreneurs struggle with is talent because we can’t always afford the talent we need. If you are going to invest in anything invest in the right people. Empower your team with responsibility so that they can focus on the strategic work. Do not expect to do everything yourself, learn to delegate.
6. Don’t go into any business just because of money. For most entrepreneurs, it takes a while before you are really making anything. I didn’t pay myself a salary until January 2016 – nearly 3 years after we launched. This is why you need to have passion, it’s the only thing that will keep you going. Luckily, I had a few other side hustles to supplement my income, but all my savings went into having the physical store and updating the website. Ultimately, I have a lot of faith in God that everything I need will be provided for, so I try not to worry about it too much.
What’s next for AJALI?
Right now we’re expanding into home fragrances and products for men, two key areas that people have been asking for and looking for. So by the end of this quarter, we should have a few new products.
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