The Founder and Managing Director of Sapphire Scents, Adewale Aladejana, shares his story of growing a N30, 000 start-up into a world-class brand…Enjoy!
You studied mass communication in school and now you make perfumes; how did it happen?
Well, perfumes have always been part of me. I just didn’t know that it could turn out to be anything serious. For as long as I can remember, I have always loved perfumes.
I have always had a good nose that if I smell a perfume once wherever anybody wears the same kind of perfume in the world I can tell exactly what kind of perfume the person is wearing. I didn’t know that it was something that could turn to money.
So, like you said, in school I read mass communication with focus on advertising and public relations at BOWEN University not knowing that perfume making was what God was going to use to bless me.
You started Sapphire with N30, 000 and see what it’s become today, what’s your secret?
Ideas rule the world. You have to be creative in whatever you are doing. You can’t be doing it just the way others are doing it. I remember from the first bottle we sold, we wouldn’t just give it to our customer in nylon bag like that.
We deliver our perfumes to them in gift bags. So, from day one, we made sure we were portraying ourselves as a serious brand. Even when we had less than 10 distributors that paid N20, 000 to register as distributors, we organised a dinner for them and had a photo-shoot.
We told everybody to come in black suit and bow tie. So from day one, we set out to be different. We also told our stories a lot because for a brand to do well there must be a story backing you up. And people need to know that story.
One of the things we learnt was that if you are creative, and you learn to share your story, taking advantage of the social media there is no telling where you can reach. More importantly, have a good product.
That’s priceless. Because if you are doing all these hype and people cannot relate with your product, you have not started.
How is Sapphire Scents doing in the market?
There is no doubt we are a market leader. The crème de la crème in Nigeria, all over Africa and the international community are taking note of our brand. I will be speaking at Fragrance Arabia, a summit scheduled to hold in Dubai, in December.
All the international perfumers are going to be there. I am the only black man and African and I have been invited to talk based on what we doing. The world is curious and they want to know how a black man got into perfume making business and he is doing well.
What are the challenges you have faced since you started Sapphire Scents and how did you overcome them?
Basically it’s been funding. Funding is a big one. Because a business that started like ours, nobody is giving you anything. I had to make a lot of noise then. Guaranty Trust Bank Plc recently gave me just N5mi after three years of being in business and we have been able to raise over a million dollar.
So funding has been a major challenge. Especially because these are short term monies that you have to work with and turn over and make sure that your investors get return as fast as possible. You always have to be on top of things, making sure that your clients, investors and staff are happy.
All of these have to happen within the business. It’s been a challenge but God had been faithful. Two, we had challenge with acceptance in the past. Then, we were selling perfumes from Middle East, so they had Arabic inscriptions on them and people say I don’t know what you are trying to sell to me.
But not know that we have our own perfume. Also people try to copy what you are doing. But for Sapphire Scents now, you will have lot of money to counterfeit our product. So the challenge was in the past when we were selling other peoples perfume.
People will just look at what you are selling and go to Dubai to import them. But now, Sapphire Scents is quite hard to imitate.
"One of the things we learnt was that if you are creative, and you learn to share your story, taking advantage of the social media there is no telling where you can reach."
We see brands and businesses that have lasted for over 100 years in other climes, why don't we have such in Nigeria?
Adaptability is important. For example, before now our prices were higher than this. Our cheapest perfume before was N30, 000 because we were trying to target a particular market. But we realized that that is not going to be sustainable.
So we have products that we call affordable luxury. In the sense that, it is something really nice and classy and you are getting value for your money. So we started doing affordable luxury products for everybody which constitutes the larger clients base in Nigeria.
The challenge we have right now is that we cannot even meet up with the demands. That’s the problem. But we are trying our best to make sure that our goods get in as fast as possible as we have people waiting for our products.
That’s a good problem, anyway. So, business must learn to adapt. If your business cannot adapt to the climate you find yourself, it will crash over time.
Money or mentoring; which is more important to be a successful startup?
Mentoring is more important because one of the challenges businesses face is the penchant to throw money at everything. Some businesses have loads of money from day one.
Maybe they got a grant or something and what they do is to throw money at everything. And what do they do? They still crash. So, many times it is not money you need but mentorship. Mentorship to me is experience without the pain.
You get to learn from somebody who has done everything you are about to do without making their mistakes. That’s priceless.
Where do you see Sapphire Scents in the next 10 years?
No one global brand in the world. There is no doubt about it. What we have to offer the world nobody has it. We are very unique and we stand out anywhere. I know what we have. I walk into perfume stores to see what they have. I just feel I can do it better.
"I will be speaking at Fragrance Arabia, a summit scheduled to hold in Dubai, in December. All the international perfumers are going to be there. I am the only black man and African and I have been invited to talk based on what we doing. The world is curious and they want to know how a black man got into perfume making business and he is doing well."
Unemployment is on the rise and young people are advised to take to entrepreneurship. As an entrepreneur, what would be your advice to young persons in business?
Two things; not everybody can be an entrepreneur. Two, believe in what God has given you. Many of the challenges in Nigeria is because people look down on themselves because you let what people say get to you at times and sometimes you get to yourself.
For instance, when I started perfume business, nobody bought in my house, nobody bought in my office. So it was people that did not know me at all that were patronizing me.
Friends and family would patronize later when business was good and when they now began to hear that Sapphire scents is this, Sapphire Scents is that. They now say ‘eh… that you perfume, give me.’
The point is, if other people are looking down on you, don’t look down on yourself. Be certain and be confident in what God as given you and work at it. We used to be that brand that people laugh at. They say ‘ha ha you are selling this Hausa perfume, this and that.’
But they are no longer laughing at us today. Everybody wants to be associated with the brand. Don’t look down on what you have. Pay attention to it. If you need to do extra course, do so.
Focus on whatever you need to fine tune your gift. That’s what you should do. You know we Nigerians are really talented. But we need to know that this my talent can put money in my hand. If you begin to see your talent that way, it would change how you see everything.
"Businesses must learn to adapt. If your business cannot adapt to the climate you find yourself, it will crash over time."
What would you tell policy makers and those in government to do for start-ups in Nigeria?
They need to listen to Start-ups and help them as much as possible. If the Nigerian economy is going to change, it would rely on healthy small and medium enterprise businesses. It’s not going to be oil. Agriculture? Yes, to a degree.
We have over 200million Nigerians who are consumers. Nigeria is a consuming economy. So if you empower one per cent of that population, the kind of money Nigeria will be making will be huge.
So there should be something proper. Bank of Industry and others are trying but it has to be much more than that. Here we have never had anything from the government. I don’t have an entitlement mentality. I don’t believe anybody owes me.
You go and do your own work and make your money. But if we are in another country with how far we have gone and what we are doing, government would do everything to assist us. China is doing so well because the government is actively supporting its citizens.
The Chinese supports any Chinese establishing a business. They support them with huge sums of money. That’s why a Chinese guy will come and set up a company and he is employing Nigerians, taking out money back to their country. We need to look into support for start-ups.