What most times separates the outliers from the rest of us is the adeptness to see things differently. When we are faced with difficulties in life, outliers see an opportunity to create magic, others just complain, adapt and move on. Temilola’s journey into the world of entrepreneurship was a response to a difficult situation; a circumstance every other parent finds themselves at the beginning of a new school term. The schools give parents a list of items to get for their wards for the next school session. Getting the items usually takes parents from one shop to another, one market to another. It takes hours, if not days to get the items together. It took Temilola four Saturdays to get all the items on her son’s school list. Then she thought to herself, “why can’t we have a one-stop-shop where parents can get all the items they need for the wards when going to school?” That very question became the beginning of the creation of greatness. A tedious task of getting her son’s school list became a lifelong journey of providing excellent services to parents and schools all over the country. It became a multi-million Naira business, with over 100 employees, five retail stores in Nigeria and sole distributorship of two major international brands, serving over 500 schools and thousands of parents.
We met Temilola Adepetun, founder and CEO of Schoolkits Limited, in her office. We were curious to find out how she was able to build one of Nigeria’s foremost professional school outfitting firms in 20 years. Prior to starting Schoolkits, She worked in the oil and gas industry for 14 years. A series of events led to her leaving a life of certainty to start her own business. The Oil industry had its peculiarities, especially fluctuations in oil prices and its attendant consequences including downsizing. The period between 1995 and 2000 was a challenging period for the industry and it got her thinking about what she would do if she lost her job. Also, the company she worked for was also being sold to another company. What if the new company asks her to leave? And again, she thought even if she was not sacked, what would she do by the time she retired? Could she start a business at the age of 55?
While all these were going on, Her son got admitted into a secondary school. She was given a list of items to purchase. This exercise took her four weeks to accomplish.She then remembered her days as a 17-year-old A-level student in the UK; there was a shop that stocked uniforms for various schools and once you mentioned your school’s name, they would pack your entire uniform requirements for both the winter and summer seasons. In less than two hours, you are done buying everything you need for school. She wondered, why couldn’t we have such business in Nigeria? Thus, the idea made her put pen to paper, and over a few months she came up with an outline of a very basic business plan which eventually birthed the School Kits Shop in September 2000.
Unlike most startups who rush to kick start their businesses, She decided to first test the business idea by holding a two-day exhibition, showcasing all items required for school. She took some days off work, went to Dubai; armed with her son’s school list and some other lists from a few friends of hers who also had children in private boarding schools schools, she bought these items. She printed flyers, wrote letters to parents by accessing their addresses through the PTA directories of different schools and posted the exhibition information through EMS Speedpost (NIPOST). On the exhibition days, parents turned out in large numbers. It was indeed a successful outing, signalling that there was a large market share up for grabs in this line of business. It presented itself as a business opportunity that was well worth investing in, as parents were actually looking for a one-stop-shop to buy school items for their wards.
To her, the timing was right and the target market was within easy reach of her network. If she waited till she retired at 55, it might be too late, so she took the plunge and resigned. Her end of service benefits became the seed fund for Schoolkits. When asked if she considered the sociopolitical indices of the country at that time, given that, the country was just transitioning from military dictatorship to democracy, she responded that that was not a major consideration. Instead, she looked at the socio-economic situation of the country. Are children in private schools? The likes of Loyola College, Adesoye College, Jesuit, Greensprings and others were already in existence. It was also a period where private boarding schools were being established in different parts of the country and children were being enrolled in them. She also thought that if done right, it was going to be a sustainable business as children will be born year in year out, would be enrolled in schools, and are bound to require school supplies.
Temilola understood her market and knew how to reach them. Her target market were mostly mothers. Back then, she couldn’t afford to advertise in national newspapers. But she also understood that a lot of mothers read City People Magazine, so she chose to advertise in it. She collected PTA directories, got names and addresses of parents. She employed temporary staff, mainly her cousins who just finished secondary school, to do some leg work and post letters through the post office. At that time, GSM technology had not been introduced to Nigeria and only few people had email addresses. She knew advertising was critical to the success of her business, especially the exhibition. She had to sit down and be innovative. She had to fashion out the most cost-effective way. She took down names and addresses of people who came for the exhibition and later on at her shop, and whenever there were new arrivals, she would reach out to them; they in turn would tell their friends.
Did everything go according to plan for her? Just like every new venture, she experienced some rude shocks while trying to launch the business. First, the vendor for furniture fittings did not deliver on the agreed date, leading to the postponement of the opening day. As a result, two good weeks were lost. Most schools had resumed, and this was a period very critical to any business involved in selling school items. Secondly, it became clear that the business was seasonal and peak periods would be during school holidays, up until some weeks prior to resumption. These experiences turned out to be learning curves for her; knowing the right time to stock up, the right quantity to buy and studying the cycle and how well to position the business for optimal performance.
Seven years after Schoolkits was established, the company ventured into wholesaling by selling directly to schools. 2007 was also a year that saw Schoolkits have their first annual retreat, which officially created its mission and vision statement. By 2010, she started laying the foundation for structuring the business by establishing its first Corporate office on Borno Way in Yaba; the business structure was defined to include the following departments: Sales and Marketing, Accounts, Procurement, Human resources and Admin units. Strategy Consultants were hired in early 2013 to assist restructure the company for operational efficiency, corporate governance and to position it for expansion in order to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. This led to the employment of a COO (Chief Operations Officer) to run the company; she realised that she needed a younger and dynamic person to run the daily operations and bridge the gap in the organisation.
Similarly, when the company started out, a number of its processes were manual, which made it difficult for her to thoroughly analyse the business data in terms of sizing, sales and profitability. One of the major investments the company made was to purchase an accounting software to help them automate the business processes; from invoicing to record-keeping to automated report generation. She highlighted the importance of putting effective accounting procedures in place because she always wants to ensure that the company’s resources are efficiently utilised. The company constantly leverages on technology to improve their processes, develop new products, scale-up marketing techniques and sales efforts, review its strategies and seek innovative ways to respond to market demands.
On managing customers’ expectations and serving customers well, Temilola stressed the need to hire good employees and pay them well. The first thing is to set a minimum standard for the kind of employees you want and for her kind of business, she had to set HND/First Degree as the minimum employment criteria for entry level. Secondly, new employees have to undergo training in customer service. In the beginning, she handled all customer complaints herself. All employees understood that whenever there was a dissatisfied customer, they must escalate it to her. As the company grew, she employed someone to deal with customers complaints and issues; taking customers complaints and feedback seriously is pivotal to any successful business. Feedback from customers can help the business to understand what it is doing right and where necessary adjustments are required. Providing excellent service, in terms of quality of products, reasonable pricing, and upholding integrity are the hallmarks of customer service.
Speaking on some of the challenges the company currently faces, multiple statutory payments, lack of basic infrastructure especially power, fluctuating foreign exchange rates, and high operating costs are some of the major culprits. Interest rates (from banks) on loans are quite high. Conditions to access a bank facility are strenuous. Government intervention funds are also difficult to access; it usually takes months with a plethora of documents to present. The business environment can be quite unfriendly. What School Kits has is the passion for providing their service by filling the gap in the niche area and the tenacity to forge ahead, in spite of challenges.
We further asked her if she has had any regrets since she started running Schoolkits. Her first response was that she could have started her journey into entrepreneurship much earlier, probably at the age of 35. Secondly, She had an opportunity to set up a garment factory far back in 2006, after the government placed a ban on textile importation. One of her friends who owns a furniture business had advised her to set up at the time but she felt the company did not have adequate capacity and experience to venture into setting up a garment factory. If she had taken the advice at the time, it would have fast tracked the establishment of the company’s uniform brand which she eventually started in 2009 by importing from Turkey. The company eventually established its garment production factory in Nigeria 10 years later.
Advising people who want to start a business, she said the first thing is to avoid the “copycat” business syndrome but work on your own idea instead. It’s important to do a lot of research, write a business plan, find people who are doing similar business with yours, study how they operate and determine how you will distinguish your business from theirs. And before committing resources into developing a product or service, identify your target market, know where they are and find out if they can afford it. She further suggested that it is important to have well-experienced individuals who you can run your decisions by. They must be people who understand the principles of running successful enterprises. Do this until you can afford to put a management team in place and have your own structure. She is an ardent believer in starting small and growing organically; even if you have the resources to start big, don’t. Its best to start small, learn from your experiences and continue to expand. Listen to your customers, Keep evaluating, Be bold enough to make hard decisions. Constantly test the market. Always get feedback from your team.
We also asked her if it is advisable for people who just finished from school to dive straight into entrepreneurship. She advised people to work in a well-structured business first; a place where you can see how a business is run and see how it works. You can work as an intern or full-time employment. She mentioned that the experience she got working in four departments in the oil and gas industry gave her the impetus to run her business effectively.
In the next few years, Temilola hopes that Schoolkits Limited will increase its capacity for garment production, open new branches in the six geo-political zones of the country and ensure its eCommerce platform blossoms. Temilola Adepetun, over the last 20 years, has built the best school outfitting brands in Nigeria. She stands tall amongst business owners who have created greatness out of nothing. Her idea today has employed hundreds while keeping thousands of parents and children happy and well satisfied. She intends to do more mentoring and coach young entrepreneurs.