Selling cosmetics online: How two Nigerian entrepreneurs want to make it big

Teniola Adejuwonm co-founder of Podozi.

Teniola Adejuwon, co-founder of Podozi.

Nigerians Teniola Adejuwon and Wale Babatunde are co-founders of Podozi, an e-commerce platform that sells beauty and personal care products targeted at African women. The online platform stocks different categories of beauty products such as make-up, skincare, hair and nail products and fragrances.

The duo tells How we made it in Africa about the gaps they are filling in the beauty products retail market in Nigeria, and what sets them apart from other e-commerce platforms. Below are edited excerpts.

Tell us more about your company.

Teniola: Podozi is an e-commerce beauty platform that simplifies the buying of beauty and personal care products for African women. We sell about 45 international and emerging local brands including MAC, Oriflame, Black Opal, Estée Lauder and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. We started Podozi to address several gaps in the market.

I previously worked in the beauty industry for over 10 years and got exposed to the challenges faced by both consumers and brands. Fake products were always one of the key concerns for both parties. Additionally, many times women don’t know what products to use, where to purchase the product, and even how to apply certain products. So we work directly with brands to ensure our products are authentic.

But we are also not just another platform where you come to buy stuff. We are beauty experts and understand that African women have difficulty finding the right product for their skin types, complexions or hair texture. Not everyone has time to go to a physical store to test five different shades of foundation. At Podozi we have digitised the process so from the comfort of your home you can have live chats with our beauty experts, send us your picture, and be advised on what products to use.

Although e-commerce platforms are growing fast in Nigeria, many sell all kinds of products, unlike Podozi which is specifically focused on beauty. We offer our customers an unparalleled experience when it comes to personal and beauty care because we are passionate about beauty, we are experts in the field and we understand our customers’ needs.

Wale: Our customers are typically aged between 18 and 45, they are well-educated, well-traveled, have some disposable income and are brand conscious. They are busy, so to them convenience is important, which is why buying online and having products delivered to them is appealing.

How did you finance your start-up?

Wale: We boot-strapped until we got investment from Savannah Fund, an Africa-focused early stage investor. We are currently raising more funds.

If you were given $1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?

Wale: We would hire more people and invest in technology development. We would also invest in smart inventory – where we wouldn’t own stock but we would have a large inventory. We would also invest in marketing to boost customer acquisition and create original content in beauty for Africans, because right now most of the content available online is foreign and not specific to the realities of African women. We don’t see ourselves as a Nigerian company, but pan-African and we think global. So we would also look at expanding into other African regions.

What risks does your business face?

Teniola: Our biggest risk is the possibility of a large company like Amazon entering the market. But we are focused on the African woman and getting her personal and beauty care problems solved in a delightful way. Ultimately, how we do that, is what will help us mitigate the risk of competition from large, financially strong companies, by doing the things they wouldn’t do.

Wale: Another risk would be poor infrastructure. Presently logistics is a big hassle. We have to figure out how to mitigate that risk because when people order beauty products they don’t want to wait a week for it to be delivered. They want the product in six hours, if possible three hours. We want to make sure we deliver at the optimum time. We currently deliver within 24 to 48 hours, but we want to bring that down to between six to 12 hours. This is one of the reasons why we are fundraising, to deal with the logistics issue.

What has been your biggest mistake, and what have you learnt from it?

Wale: When we started we tried to get some people on board, but because we did not have resources to hire them full-time we gave them part-time jobs where they worked from home. It did not work. We were paying them, but let’s just say some people need to be supervised. Some people also need the essence of a team. We will never do a part-time or freelance work arrangement again. It is important to build teams where people have a sense of ownership – if something is wrong you just fix it, you don’t wait for someone else to do it. When I am in Nigeria I do deliveries sometimes, I handle the phone calls… and having that culture in our team will be key in the long-term.

Teniola: I worked in the industry for a decade with both consumers and brands so I am a beauty expert, but I am also a Podozi customer. I have come to learn that in order to be able to fulfil the needs of my customers very well I need to move away from being the user. I shouldn’t assume that what I want as a customer is what others want. I should let them tell me their needs. I shouldn’t make assumptions, rather allow customers to fully express themselves then step into the role of expert and help them. But this has been a learning process.

Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

Wale: Getting partnerships with brands was exciting. In Africa people want to see a success story before they come into it. Success has a lot of fathers as they say. But when you go to big brands as a start-up seeking partnerships they just don’t see your vision. So we spoke to a lot of brands, and using Teniola’s network we were able to convince some brands to get on board – and that was a milestone. Additionally getting our first customer was also a great celebratory moment because there is a difference between just having a website and running a real e-commerce business. I would also say leaving the business [in Nigeria] and coming to Nairobi, Kenya for three months for the Savannah Fund accelerator programme has been both exciting and challenging.

Teniola: Learning from the more seasoned entrepreneurs is always exciting because it gives me courage and determination to keep going and to truly recognise that Rome was not built in a day. It helps me stay true to my journey.