The effects of the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 have not gone unfelt by anyone. Small and large businesses alike have watched their daily operations change according to either the increase or decrease in demand and have witnessed their output affected by the strain the virus has placed on their supply chains. The performance of many companies around the world is being determined by current lockdown regulations. But it’s not all gloom and doom, as can be seen in today’s interview with Olutoyin Odulate of Olori Cosmetics.
While many business owners and large corporations have had to furlough their staff and are reporting losses, Toyin’s experience thus far during the pandemic has been contrary. It is my hope that as you read this interview, you are not only encouraged but inspired to hold on and keep pursuing your dream, while believing that the best is yet to come.
Olori Cosmetics is a proudly African haircare brand based in Lagos, Nigeria, whose products are designed to bring out the Olori (Queen) in every woman.
Olori Cosmetics is founded by Toyin Odulate, a former L’Oreal exec and consumer brands expert whose love for healthy hair & skin drove her to conceptualize the idea for the company over 15 years ago. Toyin developed the all-African hair care line while working with her mother in what is now known as the Olori Kitchen Lab, in Lagos.
Olori, which means queen or woman of royal descent in the Yoruba language, is formulated from ingredients that are ethically sourced from women-led cooperatives across West & Northern Africa.
How long have you felt the impact of COVID-19 and in what ways?
Honestly, we began to feel the effects of COVID the first week or so of the lockdown.
But let me backtrack a bit. This was the year we wanted to be as international as possible and had been working with international partners to extend our reach and introduce Olori to the US market and on Amazon.com. As a result, we’d decided to upgrade our packaging. We placed the order for our packaging in December, and of course, it was coming from China. It was supposed to arrive in February but it’s been stuck.
Locally, week one of the lockdown was quiet and that was because we had anticipated the lockdown and had thus fulfilled most orders the week before.
How has your business been affected by COVID?
Toyin Odulate: Well, there has been a surge in orders because salons are closed. It’s been interesting and gratifying for me.
It has had the opposite effect. Hair-care has become the new self-care and Olori helps meet that need.
Some people have more time on their hands now while others are still just as busy but are able to multi-task throughout their days. What I’m seeing is people deep conditioning their hair while on a Zoom call and people learning how to do their hair again themselves. Or people doing their children’s hair now because, for the first time in a long time, they can.
Also, Olori is getting a lot of questions from customers, so our customer engagement has gone up. As a business owner, I now have more time to spend speaking with my customers, getting their feedback and advising them on how best to use the products they’ve ordered.
Of course, like with most businesses during this period, my staff is at home. So I’m the one processing orders by hand and handling all the packaging and invoicing. Luckily I have a small at-home warehouse that has helped me meet up with orders.
I am relearning my own business. I haven’t had to process orders in over 2.5 years. Normally I’m focused on more high-level tasks and strategy. This has allowed me to see where I need to make operational changes and give my business a more personal touch which I sometimes do through handwritten notes and fancy wrapping.
What areas of your business have been affected the most?
Toyin Odulate: For starters, I would say external partnerships outside of Nigeria followed by our medium to long term strategic plans. Those plans have been smashed to pieces because of global uncertainty and to tell you the truth, I don’t know when I will be able to get them back on track. However, those strategies have been adapted to the local market.
The pandemic has forced me to refocus here, at home and now I am working to upgrade our expansion and digital footprint within Nigeria.
Now, because of all the movement restrictions and being forced to work remotely, I have the time and capacity to do this. My efforts are currently being channelled towards Olori’s website migration, which was supposed to happen a month ago.
I’ve also welcomed a new member to the Olori Cosmetics team. That person is responsible for our digital marketing and will help make our social media content more engaging, cohesive and strategic.
Olori also exports to other countries in Africa. Our retail partners in Ghana and Kenya have not been able to restock their supplies.
What has your customer engagement been like during this period?
Toyin Odulate: I don’t want to force people to buy anything. Instead, I want to add value. In the last several weeks, I have worked to make sure that there is more of a human approach to the business so that customers feel that there is a service behind the product. There are days where I spend up to 30 minutes with a customer making sure they understand the product, what it’s used for and how to use it.
My engagement per customer has gone up and I am so happy about that.
I have a database of customers that allows me to follow up to find out if there has been a change and progress has been made.
For you, as an entrepreneur and your creativity, what opportunities has the lockdown presented you?
Toyin Odulate: One thing that has been fantastic is just being able to hear myself think and get back to some of the things that originally inspired me to start Olori.
I have conceptualized about 5 new product extensions of the brand which is the equivalent of 25-26 new products, during this downtime.
Once we are able to produce them, we will roll them out over several months.
Being able to give my customers options is one of the most gratifying parts of having this business. The more products you have to give customers, the better.
…And why is that?
You have to keep customers interested and the brand dynamic– just like how you see other global brands. You need a new arsenal you are always working on.
Last year, I didn’t have that capacity. I spent so much time travelling and trying to form partnerships and the business actually suffered for that.
My eternal goal with this brand is to provide African hair care for African hair.
It should have an impact on every woman around the globe. I want to create a product which is Africa in a jar, where we take Africa to any person of African descent around the globe. As long as your hair has some sort of wave or kink, we want to create a product exclusively for you. Olori is a company whose products are created with you in mind.
What steps are you taking to mitigate/combat the impact of COVID?
Toyin Odulate: I don’t think there’s an exact science to combat this. Even the most sophisticated and established brands are having to figure this out day by day.
So what I am doing is striving to be as resilient as possible. We are small enough to be agile and adapt quickly.
And that’s the key: whether you are a big or small business, you have to have a spirit of agility to get through any unforeseen issues and see how you can pivot your business to help you adapt or survive or help you improve.
COVID is the most devastating economic crisis I have seen in my time. However, I remember the currency devaluation of 2016 and that spurred growth for Olori.
How did the economic downturn of 2016 impact Olori?
Toyin Odulate: Well, for starters, I struggled to get into salons who only used foreign brands. But once the currency devaluation happened, those same companies were begging for our products.
We were able to compete with international competitors because we were affordable and cheaper by almost 50%. Olori was able to compete from a price and quality perspective.
The 2016 currency devaluation helped me realise that I could do something incredible with this brand.
We went from 20 outlets in 2016 before the devaluation to 140/150 almost overnight. That was what showed me the potential of what we could do if we positioned the brand as we ought to. That was when I was convinced.
So based on your experience of fully diving into entrepreneurship during an economic downturn and staying afloat during COVID, what’s some quick advice that you can give?
Always focus on the bright side and ask yourself if you want to be the business that comes out bigger and better?
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, you have to remain agile for when the need arises.
What do you hope the next 3-6 months of the year will look like?
Toyin Odulate: It’s hard to say because we don’t know what to expect next week.
Speaking generally, I hope that the bad news subsides especially because we are being bombarded with so much negative content.
I hope we transition to hearing more good news. I hope in Nigeria that we are able to contain the numbers and not become a statistic like some other countries.
And then for me, I hope that my brand emerges stronger where all the little things that needed to be fixed are actually fixed.
I hope there is a renewed and stronger sense of awareness for our brand and products and for us to be able to carry that movement to other markets.
With that said, Olori will be rolling new stuff out over the next coming weeks and is looking forward to the feedback we will get.
I am working on keeping Olori as a brand that is approachable and engaging.
I hope we have the ability to safely return to some form of normalcy in a stronger and improved way so that we can get back to being productive and that to emerge with strong alliances that we have been able to use the downtime to cultivate.
In what ways do you need support and from who?
Toyin Odulate: Do we need support? Absolutely. We haven’t gotten a single call or message from our account officer to ask how I or my business is doing. It would further build my trust in my financial institution if I knew that they’d humanised my business.
It would be nice to see the Financial Services community to be more supportive in a personalized way.
They have all our names and can see all our transactions. But why hasn’t a call for a session been scheduled where they try to understand the new challenges my business is experiencing? There’s been a lack of empathy.
It would also be nice to get an opportunity to re-negotiate repayment plans on loans.
As a member of the small business community, I can say that it would have been beneficial
to have a small business association that could help provide virtual skills acquisition
for junior staff during this period as well as other services.
There also hasn’t been enough local content that focuses on how to manage your investments during this period, how to understand what’s happening with the stock market, etc.
How do you think your industry will change locally/internationally?
Toyin Odulate: I think for the beauty industry in Nigeria, more companies and mine included will ensure there is an efficient avenue to our products. It is essential that the industry pivot towards being digitally agile so that people have access to the products they want.
The direct to consumer aspect of our business within the industry will change. It has to. We need to be able to meet the rise in demand as it happens–which it already is.
I also think that people will be more conscious.
Also, the hair care industry is undergoing what is called the “lipstick effect”, which has changed from makeup to hair care and skin care. If you look at global beauty companies, margins are shrinking in certain parts of their business while expanding in the hair and skincare parts of their business. And that is happening to a certain extent, locally.
This is how I see the industry here changing.
Are there any resources that you can recommend that other business owners similar to you, should use?
Toyin Odulate: In working remotely with my digital team,
I just discovered a platform called Trello. It’s fantastic for remote workers.
We can see and respond to everyone’s updates in real-time and the project doesn’t stop. It’s great for project management and helps organize everything you’re doing under one umbrella.
Another tool I recently discovered is Microsoft Teams. It’s helped me manage my team online.
Last Pass. It helps protect your confidentiality, passwords and keeps your information sharing secure.
I also discovered an amazing podcast called ‘How I Built This’. It’s interviews about different entrepreneurs around the world and how they started their businesses. Currently, the podcast is focusing on those same entrepreneurs and how they are coping with his pandemic.
Also, you have to read. It is a must. I am reading two books right now: “The Shoe Dog” by Phil Knight who is the founder of Nike. I’ve had the book for two years but haven’t had the time to read it.
It’s about how he humanised his business to get it to what it is now and what he went through.
He started the company shortly after the Vietnam War when relations with Asia were strained. The mood of the economy is oddly similar to what we are going through now.
In addition, there is a mixture of personal losses and love while he tries to keep his business afloat. Everything was happening to him at once.
The second book I am reading is the “Collective Genius” which talks about how to harness your slice of genius to pivot or improve your business
as well as how to lead innovation.
And lastly, Nike Premium. It’s free now. We’re all stuck at home, but need physical activity nonetheless.
These are some of the resources I’d recommend for the time being.
No doubt, COVID-19 has forced a sudden halt to life as we know it. To push beyond these setbacks, each of us will have to renew our thinking and adopt the spirit of resilience. There is no room for complacency or carrying on with business as usual. Now is the time to face the things we’ve neglected or postponed, and to once again take the lead in our lives. 2020 has been a year of challenges, but is also a year of opportunities.With the right mindset and the necessary dedication.
By: Oladotun Adio