The journey so far: Nelly Tuikong, founder, Pauline Cosmetics

Nelly Tuikong

Pauline Cosmetics is a Kenya-based beauty line that supplies products such as lipstick, eye shadow and make-up brushes. She was this month nominated by Business Daily as one of Kenya’s Top 40 Under 40 women.

Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

One of the more interesting situations was trying to clear my goods from Kenyan customs. My imports came in, and I received documentation saying I must pay double the amount of import tax than what I normally pay. I went to dispute the amount at the Kenya Revenue Authority headquarters, and they said I needed to go to the port of Mombasa to get the taxes reduced.

So I travelled to Mombasa. When I eventually gained access to the port area, which isn’t easy, I was surrounded by all these big sweaty men in wifebeaters clearing cargo for East Africa. There were hardly any women around. I walked in with my dress and was shown to the commissioner’s office. There were about 20 people waiting to talk to this very powerful man, and I had no idea whether he would grant me an audience. I arrived at 09:00 and only got to see him at 17:00. When I eventually got to speak to him, he was like, “Yeah, what’s going on?”, adding he was in a hurry to leave. After explaining my situation, he agreed to have my entire consignment re-evaluated. That meant I had to stay at the port another five days. However, they did do the re-evaluation, and I paid what I was supposed to pay. It was a crazy week, but makes for a good story in hindsight.

What business achievement are you most proud of?

I’m proud of having built a local cosmetics brand that is competing neck and neck with international companies in the market. Right now I can walk into a beauty shop and my stand is right next to the giants – it is so incredible.

I’ve also been able to build a distribution network that reaches all corners of the country, whereas many brands just get tied up in Nairobi. It’s not like you can’t find other brands outside Nairobi, it is just that these towns don’t seem to be a big priority for them. For example, I remember going to a shop in a smaller town and seeing a dirty and empty Maybelline display, and the shop assistant said they haven’t had anyone from Maybelline come in for over a year. Distribution in Kenya is very fragmented, so you cannot rely on just getting into a few chain stores.

Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

I’m a control freak and very bad with delegation. However, over the past year I’ve become much better at understanding that I need to let go. For instance, in the past I used to spend a week in a town scouting for business. Now I’ve built processes around how it is done, which allows me to send someone else to do it. So I’ve built processes around how you scout for new retailers, how you follow up, how you close a deal, and if you can’t close a deal, what you need to do next.

This, aha-moment struck me this year. I know people who have been in business for a long time would say, “Duh, of course that is what you need to do”, but this is my first venture and in the beginning it wasn’t that obvious. But this year it hit me very clearly, that, for instance, I don’t have to personally go to the bank every day, I can send someone else. So that freed my time to be able to think about the bigger picture.

What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

Some people say that in order to succeed in entrepreneurship, you should stick to your field of expertise. I don’t agree with this. I’m qualified as a critical-care nurse, and had zero background in beauty or business before I started this company. I just have a vision, and my job is to stick to that vision. That type of thinking can paralyse people who want to start something, but don’t necessarily have the industry experience.

Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?

Everything. I’ve had to learn from scratch how to do to everything – Google and other people’s stories have been particularly helpful. Entrepreneurship is like having a child for the first time. You have all these people and books telling you what to do, but when that baby shows up you have no clue what to do.

That said, in a way I’m glad I didn’t start out with a set of assumptions, and that I figured it out as I went along. Many people have been burnt by having a bunch of assumptions on how business in Africa works, only to see their ventures collapse. Whatever you read in international case studies or business books doesn’t necessarily apply to rural Kenya.

Name one business opportunity you would still like to pursue.

I would like to delve into other aspects of cosmetics, like skin care, possibly in three years or so. Away from cosmetics, one of the things I’ve come to enjoy, is thinking about business strategies. Therefore, I wouldn’t mind consulting companies that want to do market entry into Kenya and East Africa in general. I feel like I have gained quite a bit of insight.