Okafor: ‘Be prepared to work hard’
Name of company: Michelle Okafor African Designs
Years in existence: 18 months
Can you tell us a little bit about your background – personal, educational and professional?
I am 35 years old. I studied tourism management and worked in the Cape Town Tourism Industry for about 10 years. We then relocated to Johannesburg due to my husband’s work and I started working for a tour operator in Johannesburg.
Can you tell us a little bit about your company and what you do?
After a trip to Nigeria in 2009, which is where my husband is from, I discovered African print fabrics. The women of West Africa wear prints on a daily basis. I decided to buy some fabrics and make dresses for myself. The dresses were well received by family and friends and everyone encouraged me to start a business selling African print dresses. That’s what I did.
How did your journey begin and how did you manage to bring success this far to your business?
Starting up a business into an essentially ‘niche’ market was not easy, because not all women feel comfortable wearing such bright fabrics. They also see it as occasion wear, or a once-off buy. The challenge is to convert the once-off buyers into repeat customers. The great thing is that most of the new customers are happy to tell others about the product, so we get great word-of-mouth marketing.
Has it been difficult? What were some of the obstacles you face and how did you overcome them?Starting your own business is not easy. You need a lot of perseverance and don’t give up. It is difficult carving out a market for yourself. People like to stick to businesses and buy clothing that they have bought before and know that it’s not going to fall apart the next day. You have to be consistent with producing quality garments. Don’t try to make your product the cheapest and buy inferior materials (i.e fabrics, lining, zips). Make a quality product and you will attract the right customer who is willing to pay your price.
What is your overall vision for your business?
I would like to be known as the number 1 designer for African print garments in South Africa.
What do you think it takes to establish and run a successful business in South Africa?
You need perseverance, you would need to put in the hours. It is great to have a product on paper and know the whole process, but executing it successfully is key. Always remember why you started your business in the first place and let that drive you. Lastly, don’t give up unless you have exhausted all avenues (and these are endless).
How did you finance your business, how difficult or easy was the process?
I was lucky in that I had some savings when I started my business. I also have a very supportive partner for which I am grateful for. My advice is, if you need to borrow money, let it not be for fancy offices or expensive marketing campaigns. Start small, save and cut back where you can and make use of all your resources (i.e. a back room as an office to start, if your spouse is good with finances ask his/her help, maybe a friend is good with websites etc).
What are the three things you attribute your business success to?
Perseverance, hard work and diligence.
When did you know that you were an entrepreneur?
They day I realised that there are opportunities and financial gain in ordinary things, you just have to realise their potential.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe I am rather democratic, I like to get input from my staff on the best way forward. You have to let people know that you value their input instead of coming up with all the answers.
What are some of your favourite motivational books and motivational gurus that have inspired you in growing your business?
I like reading and books by Deepak Chopra, The Dalai Lama and Anthony Robbins. I also like to follow people who are successful like Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
What three pieces of advice would you offer young entrepreneurs starting out today?
- Do thorough research into the industry you want to go into.
- Plan for the day when you won’t have your job/income anymore.
- Be prepared to work hard.
What’s the worst and best business advice you have ever received?
Worst: “Maybe it’s time to look for a job again”
Best: “You are doing a great job, continue like this and your business can grow beyond your wildest expectations.”
And finally, do you believe in luck, hard work or both?
Someone said, the harder you work, the luckier you get. It means hard work must precede luck and not the other way around.