I Started A $180K/Year Africa-Inspired Handbags Brand
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Tomide Awe and I’m the founder of Olori. We make gorgeous, Africa-inspired handbags that showcase and celebrate the beauty of African culture whilst empowering women. Incorporating traditional fabrics into modern design, our products invite women all over the world to experience the beauty and culture of Africa with an emphasis on craftsmanship, heritage, and legacy. We bring unique, hard-to-access, high-quality African fabrics to the world’s stage.
Our unique styles are derived from authentic, hand-woven African textiles made by local artisans in the heart of Nigeria using techniques that have been passed on for generations, thereby inviting conversation and connection to Africa and its diaspora.
Every purchase from Olori not only benefits artisans in Africa, helping to preserve their craft; our production process also economically empowers the local, women-owned businesses in Africa from which the hand-woven fabrics are exclusively sourced.
Through our collaboration with our giving partner, Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED), we power generational impact by supporting the education and empowerment of young girls in under-served African communities.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was inspired to start Olori by the beautiful cultures of my people. Growing up in Nigeria, I was always surrounded by traditional prints and textiles. These textiles are symbolic of deep roots and stories so dear to my people, and I have always admired the art and craftsmanship behind them. By incorporating African fabrics into modern design, my mission with Olori is to invite people to experience the beauty and culture of Africa.
Olori was also inspired by the trailblazing women in my family. Women like my grandmother, who was denied an education because of her gender, but who, through sheer determination, ensured that all her children got an education.
I'm proud to carry on her legacy by providing an avenue for women and girls in under-resourced communities to reach their full potential.
One of the mistakes I made was relying on digital advertising agencies to drive traffic. So far, it has been a total waste of time. It is important to learn how to work digital marketing channels yourself before outsourcing to an agency.
After moving to England to study, the seed for Olori was planted when I began to look for ways to share my rich culture with non-African friends. A few years later, the seed bloomed, and I was inspired to merge her love for fashion and my African heritage with my mission of empowerment. After many months of planning, traveling, and prototyping, Olori was born. Since launch, we’ve sold more than 2,000 units of our products.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started prototyping while I was attending the Wharton Business School. It started as a small idea, then I flew to Nigeria to prototype with artisans. I also found artisans for fabrics in Nigeria at that time. Finding the right partners was a year-long process.
Working with artisans is very different from working with established companies in production. Artisans are individuals first and have very different capabilities and requirements from established manufacturing companies. It was hard to find artisans who could deliver the level of quality we wanted without compromising craftsmanship or any production steps. Eventually, we found people who understood our vision and were ready to work with us.
We didn’t have many costs at first; our startup costs were registering the company and set up our Shopify account.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In September 2018, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to collect feedback on design and products. We got funded up to 112% and fulfilled our campaign by April 2019. From this process, we learned more about our target audience, who they are, what’s important to them, and how best to connect. We also learned the importance of fostering community, people who identify with the vision and are willing to come along on the journey. There’s nothing like your community’s support.
Since then we've been scaling with Facebook ads as well as organic Instagram marketing. Our first photo shoot was in Texas and we designed our website ourselves.
The business has been financed by personal savings; we mostly spent on marketing and inventory, as well as any tools that can help us gain more customers.
The process of launching Olori taught me so many valuable lessons. The most important lesson of all is believing in yourself. Secondly, you have to tell everyone that cares to listen to your new product. As the business grows, I continue to learn, and I share my lessons on The Starting Up Podcast.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We use Facebook ads to attract customers. We also work with boutiques and participate in in-person events and popups. While Facebook ads used to work well for us, we've recently paused due to dwindling performance as a result of the iOS 14 launch. We're focusing on other channels for now as we don't have enough resources to continue testing.
We use email channels to bring existing customers back. We also engage them through social media, SMS, and Facebook groups. We have an exclusive Instagram group for customers who have bought products above a certain threshold; we focus on engaging them through these channels.
Press has been a valuable tool for us in attracting new customers. We’ve been featured in notable publications like Bustle, Glamour, and CheddarTV. Recently, we’ve begun working with influencers on content creation.
It is important to have a well-thought-out, documented plan. While you may not be able to predict outcomes, you can predict your actions.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we are profitable. We are currently 99% e-commerce, but our focus for the rest of 2021 is getting into wholesale, particularly boutiques. Our goal is to be in at least one boutique in every state in the US.
In terms of operations, there are two staff and two interns on our team. We cover design, product development, marketing, and operations. We don't currently have plans to expand into other regions, but we plan to explore new fabric patterns and bag silhouettes in the coming year.
Our short-term goal is to get into at least one boutique in every state by December.
The longer-term goal is to be a household name for Africa-inspired design-oriented products globally.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the mistakes I made was relying on digital advertising agencies to drive traffic. So far, it has been a total waste of time. It is important to learn how to work digital marketing channels yourself before outsourcing to an agency. Start small, be knowledgeable about it before outsourcing.
I’ve also learned the importance of written contracts. Ensuring that things are spelled out helps during disputes or conflict resolution.
Make payments with your company credit card, so that if another party fails to meet up their contractual obligation, you can file a dispute through your credit card company.
Another good decision I made is hiring someone early to help with operations as I have a day job. I work at Twitter as a Senior Revenue Strategy and Operations Manager.
I find that it is important to have a well-thought-out, documented plan. While you may not be able to predict outcomes, you can predict your actions. Ensure you’re doing the right thing for yourself at all times.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We host our eCommerce store on Shopify. The plethora of tools and functions on the platform have been of immense help in the day-to-day running of Olori. For email, we use Klaviyo; they offer many customization options and functionalities, which help create dynamic communications.
Stamped is our preferred review tool; it does an excellent job of capturing customer feedback and providing social proof. We use Canva to design or customize social media posts and Later to schedule the posts.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’ve enjoyed reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin. It’s a very insightful and different read. Another book I enjoy is Traction by Gino Wickman.
For podcasts, I enjoy listening to E-commerce Badassery. I also enjoy chatting with other founders on my podcast, Starting Up. It helps me learn more about business, other people’s entrepreneurial journeys, and it’s a good space to connect with other business owners.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My number one advice for other entrepreneurs who want to start their own business is, believe in themselves. Entrepreneurship can be a demanding and lonely journey, and sometimes, the fuel to go on must come from within. You must first believe in yourself, in your dreams, and your vision for your enterprise, then it would be easier for others to buy-in.
Another thing I’ve learned on my journey is how to celebrate small successes. It’s easy to constantly look forward to the next sale or milestone, but there is so much power and pleasure we can derive from celebrating present wins, no matter how small. Don’t be so caught up in the race to the future that you forget to enjoy or appreciate the present.
My third piece of advice would be, seek guidance from relevant people. As they say, no one is an island. If there’s someone who has done something you’re trying to do, seek them out and learn from them. It’s always helpful to have a blueprint.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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