By Ayo Alonge, [email protected]
Customer satisfaction and staff welfare have been outlined as key to the growth of startups; as opined by Ignatius Njoku, the Chief Executive of N2I Collections, a Lagos-based fashion startup with outlets in parts of the world.
The entrepreneur, in this interview, also spoke on profitability, challenges and business growth.
Telling the story of how the whole thing started, you will imaging how funny it was back then. I never knew I would get into this. When we were much younger in 1996, we formed a club called Pens Club and I was the one in charge of what we wore as young boys growing up in the village. I chose the colours and did it the way it should be done. When I first came to Lagos, there was much enthusiasm. Along the line, I found myself doing something else. I was doing a different business and I was also praying to God to show me something new to do. My elder brother in London asked me to come over to stay with him but I had some issues that made me stay back; coupled with the fact that I was already doing buying and selling of clothes and also trying my hands then gradually in this same business in Ghana before I later decided to come back to Nigeria. I had already started making clothes and people always admired my colour combination and the quality of the clothes I was making.
Initial capital and bank loan
I would say I started business with about N20,000 which was not even mine. I never really had money of my own. Just a little amount of money which I took to Yaba market to buy some fairly used trousers which I adjusted and sold. Then i later returned to the market. That was how we started getting some money to the point that we were able to purchase some key materials and equipment. I also got a loan from the bank but later, decided not to do it again because of the high interest rate. But we moved on. Gradually, I started employing good hands who pioneered our takeoff.
Later we were able to put some money together and we were able to acquire two more sewing machines to add to our first two. That was how we started adding to our equipment.
If you are talking about a business, what about the needed fund?
Just as I said, there were not enough resources with which to start. I developed that myself and I had to also engage people to work with me. When we first started, we had about 50 customers but today, our customers are in thousands. We have customers in the US, UK, Canada and Ghana. In Ghana alone, we have over 2,000 customers. When you take people’s money, you must do the job. That has also built trust for us.
The biggest of my contracts is the one I got from some people in the US. I made one for one of my customers there and when he wore it to a gathering and the president of the club saw it, he was interested and ordered five units. When he got it, he was so satisfied that he assured me the big one was going to come. He said he would give me a contract to make clothes for about 700 people in the US who are members of his club. We have made and sent them all and I can tell you it was a very profitable venture.
On my return to Nigeria I started working with a friend at Maryland and we were getting it right, even though we made mistakes which helped us to shape the business. Before traveling to Ghana, I was a sub-dealer to a telecommunications outfit in Lagos and the clients I had then automatically became contacts in my new business. I had a partner then but he didn’t share in my dreams; but I remained focused because I wanted a situation where I would see a good fabric in the market, produce it and have people come to buy. Within some time, customers truly came because if the quality is good, the finishing perfect, those who have the eye would come. At a time, I was paying more than the usual to the persons working for me because of the standard of his works. I stayed with him because I wanted good quality and finishing.
Later, I decided to be on my own, because I wanted to be in total control of my designs and finishing. Those I worked with earlier couldn’t have been able to interpret my designs fully, while also trying to protect my brand. The day I told the guys at Lagos Island I was going back to myself to setup a fashion factory, one of them looked at me and asked if I truly knew what I wanted to delve into because he had been in the business for 17 years and didn’t think it was going to be an easy road. For me, I knew what I wanted to do but I just didn’t know how to go about it.
First, you must have passion and be self-driven. If the drive is not there, it cannot work. For me, it is not just about money. My joy is in customer satisfaction and the number of people I see wearing my clothes in a gathering. The dream is to develop a clothing brand that is sought after by all fashion conscious persons and that I think we have achieved. I belong to a club in Lagos where I instituted making same clothes for everyone during occasions. We went to a function in Ondo State and the governor of the state, senators and everyone else asked, “who are these people?” That is what gives me joy and not just about the money. Money will come when it will come. First is to work and satisfy the client. When you get there, the money will look for you. I also take pride in taking good care of my staff so that they would continue to give their best.
Profitability and niche
I cannot say for real because the cost of running is high. The major challenge has always been power. If we can have stable power, I bet that within the next six months, we would move to a bigger place. I can comfortably take away 24-30 more people who are ready to work off the streets. Yes, all time, we are faced with certain losses and risks but that is never a problem to deter us. If we make clothes and they do not fit the customer, it would do for someone else. Before Italians make clothes, they invite you for what is called fitting but here, people won’t even come if you ask them to come for fitting.
What makes us stand out as a company is that we originated our own cuts, unique designs and ensuring customer satisfaction with regulated and agreed delivery times. The finishing of the clothes made in Nigeria was not too good earlier and that was what prompted us to come into the business. My clothes fit well and our cuts are spectacular. I really don’t like making loud styles but I do that if customers want it so. Whenever I make clothes for clients, I make calls to follow up on how they fit. I do that always until I am sure I have got it right.