Dotun Olusoga, a Nigerian native living in the middle Tennessee area, has had an eventful 2016. In the single year, He built, launched and closed TealChest, an e-commerce platform focused on serving a niche wedding market in the United States. As he moves forward to build and launch his next business in 2017, he reflects on the lessons he has learned from this year’s experience.
On a summer night a little over a year ago, as my wife and her friends discussed the difficulties with making traditional African attires for wedding ceremonies, a light switch turned on in my head. In that moment, I realized there was an underserved market and as such, an opportunity.
There is a tradition at Nigerian weddings, where the families of the bride and groom decide on a fabric in a specific color and pattern which is purchased in bulk quantities and then re-sold (in retail quantities) to interested members of the extended family, as well as friends who will be guests at the event. Wedding outfits are then made from these fabrics: beautiful, intricate and very stylish.
This tradition is called Aso-Ebi, which literally means “family cloth”. It is a uniquely Nigerian–not to mention beautiful and fashionable–way to designate the members of the family, as well as their well-wishers.
The problem was that all of the bulk purchasing, reselling and distribution was being done manually by the families. So, I came up with a solution that I thought would disrupt the industry. I launched an e-commerce business, with a plan involving building a platform that would automate the entire process, from handling of the fabric, notifying guests, payments and logistics.
I failed, and here are a few lessons I learned along the way:
1. I fell in love with my solution, not the problem.
I clearly defined the problem, worked out a process to solve it for the customers and then proceeded to fall in love with my solution. A solution is only as useful as it creates value for your customer, and what your customer considers valuable will change with time.
Takeaway: The problem will change, and your solution will need to change with it.
2. I failed to understand the market.
To me, it was clearly a logistic problem. The customer needed to buy a product in bulk and handle the payments, and logistics, involved in reselling to guests. I imagined that all I needed to do was create a service to handle the logistics and payments, and my customers would all love me. Wrong.
I discovered that the market was an informal network of older female relatives who operated mostly via long-standing relationships and through word-of-mouth. These long-standing relationships trumped my Instagram marketing model.
Takeaway: Understand your market. Learn where your customers congregate, and how they communicate, then evolve your solution to cater to them.
3. I overestimated the problem, the niche and hence, the market.
Nigerians get married, a lot. I used the Nigerian wedding ceremonies data to extrapolate the size of my market. I was wrong.
In Nigeria, almost every wedding ceremony would include the Aso-Ebi tradition. In the USA, not so much. And there was no way to determine which ceremonies would include the tradition and which wouldn’t. I overestimated how much of a problem the customers were having with Aso-Ebi, when they could have just as easily decided not to include the tradition in their wedding ceremony and it would have very little effect on the occasion itself.
Takeaway: There is a difference between the “current size” of your target market and the “potential size”. Create a business model based on the current size of your market, not the potential size.
4. I didn’t “love” the problem because it wasn’t my problem.
I’m not a traditional Nigerian. I’ve worn a traditional Nigerian attire, maybe five times in the last three years. This problem needed someone who understood the nuance and complexities as the customer felt it. I was not that person.
I assumed that being a Nigerian with a general cultural understanding of the problem was enough to solve it, it wasn’t. This inadequacy showed up in different weird ways, creating marketing content was incredibly hard, there were moments I just had nothing to say and no context in which to create or connect with my customers.
A mentor (thank you, Seyi) advised me to find, and collaborate with, a Nigerian woman who had a better understanding of the problem space. I didn’t do enough to take him up on this advice.
A good grasp of the technical solution is no substitute for understanding the cultural nuance and complexity of a problem.
Takeaway: Solve for yourself. This might sound cliche, but you can’t build a business solving a problem you don’t really understand.
I imagine you’re asking how all of this was not obvious from the beginning. All I can say is that it wasn’t.
The past few months have been a learning experience for me, and I will take all I have learned with me as I tackle my next venture.