From Goldman Sachs to Launching a Boutique Fashion Startup in Nigeria, with Kunmi Otitoju, Founder of Minku
This is Kunmi Otitoju’s story of working at Goldman Sachs (along with other big corporations around the globe) to following her dream of launching Minku – a boutique fashion startup in Nigeria.
Kunmi, please introduce yourself…
My name is Kunmi Otitoju and I’m a Nigerian leather goods designer.
Describe your path to what you’re doing now with Minku
I did my undergrad and graduate degrees in computer science, in the States (Bachelors at Howard University in Washington DC; Masters at Virginia Tech). After school, I worked in the technology division of ICF, a Virginia company that’s specialized in government consulting.
I had also done internships at Goldman Sachs (Technology division, the summers of 2003 and 2004) and a company called FAST Search (Now Microsoft Development Center Norway), in Oslo. I had studied abroad in Paris. I loved Europe and longed to move there. I applied and got into art school in Barcelona, and made the move, in 2009.
At school, I focused on metal and wood work. After school, I did some freelance web consultancy work, but missed creating with my hands. So I started exploring materials that could excite me to work with, and leather came into the picture for its coolness and because it’s such a Zen material to work with (less noise, dust, etc than metal or woodwork!).
How’s traction working out so far?
Traction so far is good. We are totally bootstrapped, which is not easy. But it means we are not trying to grow faster than what we need.
I am a creative person, and the lean startup methodology, which we subscribe to at Minku, works for creative people. It means a lot of work – for example, I still hand-make each bag in our collections myself, and design our web site and bi-monthly insider magazine.
In the past few months we have been tapped to design and produce the spring/summer 2014 bag collection for a store in San Sebastian, Spain, we’ll be taking part in Barcelona Fashion Week, and we sold our first set of bags in what we consider to be the high range ($1000 and up).
These are all very encouraging bits, and I hope the only way from here is up!
Are you focusing on the international market, domestic or both?
We’re focusing on the international market. I think it happened organically: the first people I marketed Minku to were my network of friends, and soon I found out that we had clients from almost 20 countries.
But there was also some deliberation in this: I read a lot about ‘luxury’. Luxury in my definition is a distillation of the finest aspects of one’s culture, packaged, presented to, and accepted by the rest of the world.
We are not necessarily a luxury brand, but I like many elements of the luxury approach, like its focus on quality and decadence, not cost-cutting. For the ‘rest of the world’ part of my definition to hold, Minku had to have an international approach.
What challenges did you face when launching, and how did you overcome them?
The main thing for me at the time was going from this bright, shining (or whatever :-)) computer scientist who had Goldman Sachs on her resume, was active in computer science research, and did six years of U.S. university studies on scholarship, to being a bag maker.
I needed to convince myself and people around me that I knew what I was doing. My parents and siblings very much believed in me from the start. I wanted to go beyond being an artisan to showing people that bag-making is an art, one that uplifts one’s culture (and the bag-wearers’ confidence!).
The trade may be simple, but my approach has been a bit different. For example, I started to use aso-oke, a dense and locally hand-woven fabric, to line our bags. No one else has done that, as aso-oke is traditionally used for making items of ceremonial dress in the Yoruba region of Nigeria, where I am from.
After a while, people started to look less surprised when they heard my focus was leather work. Now, for me, the conviction is there (that’s how my mum puts it). I have embraced my new line of work, and so have people around me.
The other challenge was and is marketing. I’ve had to learn to do that with time, but not all by myself: there are great folks both in my personal networks and out there in the web sphere that keep sending us good energy and giving a shoutout to Minku via their social media, publicizing their purchases (complete with the link to our web site), and so on.
Taking part in shows like the Fashion Week in Barcelona and fairs in San Sebastian (Spain) and Lagos (Nigeria) also help. All this put together is what marketing is at the end of the day, especially for a small company like ours.
You recently started to accept Bitcoin as a payment form, what was your reasoning behind this?
I lived in the States for several years and I like this idea there that we are creating the future through our actions today. Many of the major companies today didn’t exist 12 years ago, yet they have totally changed the way we communicate, make purchases, relate with our banks.
I think Bitcoin is somewhere up there with those revolutionary ideas. And it is a payment system that is carrying emerging economies like Nigeria (where I am from) along.
More practically speaking, my boyfriend kept talking about Bitcoin, and I liked what I heard. It could well be the future. It’s had a bit of a shaky start, with Silk Road, the volatile trading of the past few months, and the Chinese government banning the official trading of Bitcoin there.
Minku is somewhere at the intersection of fashion design and technology, and accepting Bitcoin is something that fits with our goals of running a fully international online shop.
What is the fashion ecosystem like in Nigeria?
Many people already know about Nigeria’s movie industry (Nollywood), but in the past seven years, fashion has experienced tremendous growth in Nigeria. Things really took off with the now-defunct Arise Africa Fashion Week, which saw some of Africa’s most talented designers, stylists, fashion journalists and so on united in Lagos for a week each fashion season.
Now Arise doesn’t exist anymore but the fashion ecosystem has continued to grow. Fashion is typically not a very tech-savvy industry (even a company like Prada has zero tweets and had a rather sad web site up until about 2011), but strong online presence is something I think is necessary for the Nigerian fashion industry as a whole to be understood internationally.
How do you see the e-commerce and startup ecosystem developing in Nigeria?
E-commerce is taking off in Nigeria, especially with mobile phone spread (which happened quite fast), Amazon-like web stores like Konga, and improved delivery logistics.
When I say improved delivery logistics, really what I mean is that some e-commerce startups got creative and started offering unconventional services like payment-on-delivery, or providing their own full-fledged same-day delivery service for purchases, since the Nigerian postal system is still not too reliable.
Word of mouth carries the news, and in a country of 150 million people, the potential for e-commerce done well is enormous.
Besides e-commerce, the startup scene in Nigeria follows the same model as most European and African countries – dominated by clones of proven (usually American) startup models, adapted for the city or country in question. Hotels.ng, tranzit.ng, orin.io, etc.
It is encouraging to see an ecosystem of developers, investors, tech journalists and so on build up in such a short while and execute to international standards. But I wish our educational system would teach us the magic of inventing a solution, not cloning one that already exists.
I also wish investors would think outside the box some more, and back fresh ideas, not only those that have been proven to work in the U.S. or Russia. This is a problem in Europe too though, so…
What advice can you share with entrepreneurs wanting to start or expand their business into Nigeria?
Believe in yourself, and remember that execution is everything. Nigeria is a market of 150 million people, so competition is fiercer in every major industry here than you might imagine. But focus on doing things well, and the rest will follow.
What’s next for Minku Design?
I’ve said it twice in this interview before, but Barcelona Fashion Week! It’s from the 27th to 31st of January, in a historical building in El Born, Barcelona.
We also took part last year, but this year the venue is everything and I look forward to seeing how they set it up. I also look forward to showing bags and accessories for men and women from our new collection. And catching up with other designers there, seeing what they’ve been working on.