Nelly Tuikong, 31, was in her final year of studying nursing in the US when she started thinking of developing her own cosmetics line. Tuikong had grown up in Kenya, raised by a single mother, before being sponsored by an American couple to attend nursing school.
“I saw someone launch a cosmetics line in the US and I thought, ‘who needs another product in this market?’ There are hundreds of make-up brands in the US but I knew the new company was still bound to be a success. Then it struck me, ‘what about Africa?’ There was a gap in the colour cosmetics division. I started entertaining the idea and soon could not shake it off,” recalls Tuikong, founder and director of Pauline Cosmetics.
The company manufactures a range of cosmetics products, including lipstick, lip gloss, mascara, make-up brushes, powder and eye shadow. They retail at more than 40 outlets in Kenya.
It took Tuikong over four years – 2009 to 2013 – from experimenting making lip gloss in her kitchen to actually launching her brand. She admits facing “internal struggles”, ditching a career in nursing to be an entrepreneur. Even when she moved back to Kenya in 2011, she took a job in clinical research – working on her venture in her free time. In fact she kept the business a secret from most people around her.
“I was feeling like a fraud. People had invested in me to go to school and I felt like I was betraying them. I did not tell [the couple who sponsored my education] about this until last year. When I was around people in the medical community I would feel such a high level of guilt. I felt I was supposed to help people and save lives, yet I had this desire to start my own business and make profits,” says Tuikong.
In 2013, Tuikong brought in her first shipment of products from Asia. She stored them in an extra bedroom in her house. At that point Pauline Cosmetics was unknown in the Kenyan market.
“That was a huge mistake. It is really important to figure out your market before you import things. I was running out of money so I couldn’t afford to do a fancy launch,” says Tuikong. “Eventually I had to give away almost half the products because of the shelf life. I was selling products at throwaway prices just to recoup the initial investment.”
Market not ready
Tuikong believed the beauty and cosmetics industry was about to experience a major shift. But at the time she brought in her first shipment the market was not yet ready for her products.
“All along I was speculating that this could be a big market. I knew of another Kenyan cosmetics brand that was under development and this gave me validation that I was right to see opportunity in this industry. I was also seeing international brands expanding into Africa. But when my products landed, that shift had not yet happened.
“People were still very conservative and there were limited avenues of selling new products. Things weren’t like today when people are more adventurous with make-up. It is a short period of time but a lot has changed – and it shows you how the beauty and cosmetics industry has transformed really fast.”
A steep learning curve
Tuikong says she faced many roadblocks in the product-development phase.
“I was getting hit with things from all angles,” she recalls. “At some point I had to wire money to a factory in Asia and the money was in my account in the US yet I was living in Kenya. So I had a friend wire the money from her own account with the agreement that I’d refund her. My friend’s account was frozen by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) because they thought she was offshoring money. I had to prove that the money was going to a legitimate party in Asia. It was so frustrating because I was in Eldoret (about 300km from Nairobi).”
Importing products from Asia was also challenging. When the first shipment was already on its way to Kenya, Tuikong found out she was required to pay extra charges she had not been initially aware of.
“It was a small amount, about US$600, but by that point I was close to selling my kidney! I paid that money and to date I don’t know what that charge was – it was some maritime lingo,” she explains. “In those days I kept wondering what I got myself into. I still have my business plan – and I laugh when I read it. Reality is much harder than what I expected it to be.”
Sweet and sour
Tuikong says she has no regrets about starting her own business, but notes if one just wants to make money, they may be better off climbing the corporate ladder than venturing out on their own.
“I hear people say that being an entrepreneur allows them to control their hours and be flexible. It is absurd. There is no such thing. You don’t have your own time anymore. Your business becomes everything. The first years you are everything – the accountant, the social media manager, the messenger.
“Business is sweet and sour. It is the most frustrating thing that you will ever do in your life. I really control my emotions a lot because that is how I was raised. So when my husband sees me crying he knows things are really bad. And sometimes I need to do that – I need to cry, binge on some TV shows, eat a whole tub of ice cream for a day, and pull myself up the next. It is very frustrating, but it is also one of the most incredible journeys you will ever take.”
Tuikong plans to double her retail footprint in Kenya by the end of the year and is exploring selling in Uganda and Rwanda where Pauline Cosmetics has received some orders.