Sanmi and Tommy, you’ve been recently named on the “Forbes 30 under 30” list. Why don’t you tell our readers a little bit about yourselves?
Sanmi – Tommy and I met each other in Nigeria working for an ecommerce company called Jumia which is like Amazon in Africa. After university at Providence College I moved to Nigeria where I started working with Jumia, an ecommerce company backed by Rocket Intern. I worked in the Management Rotation department which allowed me to work in various departments across the company. I moved to the Jumia Group Head Quarters in Paris, when Tommy moved back to London and then I moved back here shortly after that.
Tommy - I was born in Sierra Leone and moved to East London quite young. I attended Oxford University and read Economics & Management and after that I followed the normal path into investment banking. Ultimately, I didn’t enjoy it and the culture wasn’t for me. Seeking something more exciting I moved to Nigeria, which is where I met Sanmi – we were both in business development at Jumia. It was obvious there is a huge gap for an ecommerce player in Nigeria, and after digging a bit deeper we realised the gap was even more prominent in hair and beauty products.
I ended up moving back to London and did a short stint in investment banking. We reconnected when he moved back to London and it was then that we conceived the All Shades Covered concept. After a short while, we both went full time in April 2016 and started putting some work into the idea.
How did you fund All Shades Covered?
Tommy - We were quite fortunate in the sense that early on our journey we managed to get funding from an angel investor, who looks at Africa so had an appreciation for the size of the market. Shortly after this we were accepted onto Truestart, which is an accelerator program focused on retail and that really helped to accelerate our growth
Could you tell our readers a little bit about your relationship with True Start?
Tommy - Our mission is to ultimately build a large business that changes the industry and to do that we need help. Truestart provides this in the way of network, funds and a cohort of other startups in a similar boat who you can discuss things with. To our surprise, although our business is quite niche, the reception from investors and other people who knew nothing about this industry has been great.
Did you face any difficulties during the launch process?
Tommy - The informal nature of the market is even more extreme than we anticipated. This creates difficulties when trying to gather data or build projections, but it also provides a type of opportunity you rarely see today. Additionally, the informal nature of the market also means the way we market our products has to be different. We have been attending many events for our demographic, have signed up “ASC Reps” who are effectively style experts or hair stylists in addition to doing all the traditional ecommerce marketing such as social, PPC etc.
How would you describe the transition from working for someone else to becoming your own bosses?
Sanmi – It’s a huge change. You go from working in a huge team or company, and now it’s a case where we work independently, and have to build a team around us to take care of different areas of the company. It takes a lot of discipline, but because we’re passionate about it we’re coming in everyday with the goal of innovating an industry. When you have employees working for you, it makes you keep pushing for that. It’s exciting.
Tommy - I think the common misconception is that it’s less work. It’s more work! There is the flexibility of being able to control your time. However, it requires discipline to make sure you’re getting things done and you’re efficient with your time. I wouldn’t say we have found a perfect balance yet, as it is hard to switch off, but when you’re passionate about it’s easy to stay motivated.
Although you’ve only recently just launched, you’ve already made the “Forbes 30 under 30 list”. What was it like finding out you’d made the Forbes list?
Tommy - I don’t know what their criteria is but people are starting to realise that this isn’t an area of the market that you can just ignore. If I had to try to figure out why – I guess it’s partially to do with our backgrounds and then also what we have managed to achieve in a relatively short space of time. However, there is still a substantial amount to get done!
The Hair and Beauty industry is quite saturated, what do you think makes All Shades Covered stand out in an overcrowded marketplace?
Tommy - Our objective isn’t to destroy all competition, but to create a beauty destination for Afro-Caribbean women. We have been very keen to work with other hair care companies who want to sell their products on our platform, and potentially work with other hair extension companies who offer products we don’t necessarily sell. Our primary concern right now is reaching as many consumers as possible and giving them a premium level of service. This should make us stand out within our space. Additionally, there are operation changes behind the scenes in areas such as sourcing and logistics that we are working on, that will ensure this is scalable and far better than what the competition can provide
Sanmi – Another thing to add as well is that it’s also about understanding the customer. You go to most stores and the people who own the stores are not from the demographic. They will not have all the answers when it comes to looking for or maintaining your hair. When you come to ASC we want to show you the latest trends, new hair style tips, or products to take care of certain needs. This is done through our stylist’s blog, our social media channels and our newsletters.
Influencer marketing has seen tremendous growth in the last couple of years, especially in the Hair and Beauty industry. Is this a marketing strategy you plan to adopt?
Tommy – Social media is big. Bloggers are big – it’s a way to communicate with the consumer that isn’t you spending £100K on doing a huge PR campaign and feels a lot more genuine. When you think about what our mission statement is, to give you quality products that you can trust, it is extremely important that we’re able to get this external validation from bloggers of all sizes.
Having said that, I do believe there is a space for traditional offline marketing, particularly because it is rarely done focusing on our demographic. Maybe in 6-12 months you’ll see our adverts at the train station. That, alongside the blogger and digital stuff, gives us some very strong touchpoints and ways of speaking specifically with our demographic that hasn’t been done before.
Sanmi –We partner with bloggers to work on videos for certain marketing campaigns and also for tutorial videos. For example, a popular blogger did a “get ready with me” for New Years and featured the hair we sell. It’s a great way to tap into their audience, because people really aspire to the lifestyle of some of these individuals.
Social media has been very important for putting the name and the brand out there. You’re so used to regular PR where for instance you’d see an ad by Amazon, but you don’t know the people behind the brand. Social media has given us the platform to put people behind the scenes and let them know what exactly we’re trying to do for them.
Where do you see All Shades Covered in the next 5 years?
Sanmi – during the research phase, I spoke with my mum, my sister, my aunts and they could not give us one specific place where they got their hair from. It was always either an offline hair shop, Ali Express or some random ecommerce site. We want to be a household name for all hair and beauty needs. Customers can shop for their hair, book a stylist and get their products the next day and all from the same place!
Tommy – Our vision is that you can come to us for all your hair needs and get everything the next day for the best price, and not be concerned about the quality of the products! I’m not sure if we will go offline and open a store, but selling into Africa is something we will be looking to achieve within this timeframe
How have you been enjoying the brand’s success?
Tommy – It’s been good so far. Things are going well, but there is a lot more to do. When we spoke about the vision earlier and compared it to where we are today, there is a huge way to go. Having said that it’s great to see the endorsements we’ve received from customers, family and friends
Ultimately it boils down to removing this idea that we are operating in a niche, and want to become the best within that category to us benchmarking ourselves against the best beauty ecommerce companies. One way to think of it is we want to be Sephora for Afro-Caribbean women
Sanmi - Sometimes we have to remind ourselves where we are. It is easy to get caught up in the small day to day operations, but when you step back and realise how far we have come motivates us. Looking at the grand scheme and what our end goal is, keeps us humble and hungry.