By Josephine Agbonkhese
How Uche Onyekwelu grew a N10,000 seed capital business into a multimillion naira company remains a wonder to many.
Shrewd and elegant, the 29-year-old carved a niche for herself in an industry nobody thought could become a goldmine in Nigeria as of five years ago. Today, the graduate of estate management has in her employ 32 workers, with foreign partners around the world.
Popularly known as Bedding Boss, Onyekwelu is CEO, Stuch Interior and Apparel, the only full-fledged company dedicated to producing bed sheets in Nigeria and, lately, pyjamas. She’s also the Founder of Stuch Business School.
What was the inspiration behind setting-up a company that simply sells bed sheets?
I have always been a very huge fan of niche. I always like to focus my energy and be the best in whatever I do. For example, I graduated top of my class.
In Nigeria, as we speak, there is no other person who runs a company where there are tailors producing bed sheets and moving out stocks on daily businesses. So, I’m trying to run this business the way nobody has ever done in Nigeria.
Maybe my mum inspired me because I grew up watching her make money from selling locust beans (ogiri in Igbo); Iru in Yoruba. She packaged and branded it so well that if a cup is sold in the market for N30, she would sell hers for N500. So, I’ve seen people make money from businesses that looked like no business.
Take us through the genesis…?
While in school, I was working with a friend who had a clothing store. She had another friend supplying her bed sheets from Kano whenever she came to Ilorin on holidays. Then I was into wireworks and was the one stocking the jewelry section of the shop with my products.
But I noticed that customers would prefer to buy bed sheets instead of jewelry once marketed to them. I also discovered bed sheet is one thing people don’t write on their shopping list but would want to buy when you bring to them or keep posting pictures and reminding them to change their bed sheets. I also took note of the fact that successful entrepreneurs like Aliko Dangote focus on products that have neither gender nor tribal or age leaning.
At what point did you float your own bedding company?
As God would have it, NYSC came and I was posted to Akwa-Ibom State where I was eventually approached by a clothing merchant who had just imported some clothes from China, asking if I could sell bed sheets. I had gone to the market to buy some personal stuff. He said the bed sheet fabrics came in a bail along with clothes he wanted to sell.
I was new in the state and knew nobody but I was so sure I could sell bed sheets. I gave him the N10,000 I was to use for my clothes and took some of the fabrics. With that, I made five bed sheets with the help of tailors. I was living in a 24-unit self-contained as a corps member, so, I marketed to all my neighbours and, before I knew it, the five bed sheets were gone. That was how I continued stocking up on bed sheets and selling even to those at the local government where I was working. One strategy I also used was collecting deposits from interested buyers.
What gave you your first break?
My first break came from Linda Ikeji’s blog. I learned from a friend that she was rewarding the most frequent commenter and, because I wanted to key into that, I had to open a Google profile. I had no business name but eventually came up with the name Stuch Beddings when I needed to key into Ikeji’s promo. It was derived from Saint (being a Catholic) and Uche (my name). I set up the profile and used bed sheets as my display picture. I started commenting frequently on the blog’s every post. I was almost done with my NYSC at that time.
One day, I mistakenly clicked on my blog and found out it already had over 50,000 views and that some people had tried to contact me via it. I went to my gmail which I hardly checked in those days and saw mails from interested buyers.
From then on, I started adding my BlackBerry Pin to every comment I posted. Within the first two days, my BBM almost crashed. Soon, some started asking to see the bed sheets on a bed and I began displaying and taking photograph of each on my bed, one after the other. People were contacting me from different states and placing orders; and also paying upfront. In one day, I could receive up to N200,000.
This was only five years ago; what accelerated your growth?
That should be the fact that I did not start living a flamboyant lifestyle in spite of my earnings. I was strictly reinvesting every profit back into the business. I felt the need to take the business to international standard and I soon made a bed frame instead of displaying on a mattress that was on bare floor. I also painted my room for better effects. For want of better lightening which I could get during the day, my nights were strictly for displaying bed sheets, taking pictures of them, and then repacking one after the other.
This took a toll on my back and waist but I didn’t mind. Gradually, the interest in my bed sheets grew to another level that I could not manage the business alongside paid employment when I eventually rounded-off my service and got a job. I had to resign to focus on the business and soon, I relocated to Lagos since it was my biggest market; most orders came from there.
I know Nigerians love fashionable things and would spend a fortune to look good. But do they actually buy bed sheets the same way?
They do. When we have one customer, be sure that more than five customers will come through referral. How frequent a customer returns is very low but through referrals, more buyers always come.
Biggest moment so far…
Setting-up our current head office in Lagos… I was so scared of managing a large number of workers but, so far, everything has been a success. I had to employ the service of a human resource firm. I never thought of managing 32 staff members when I started the bedding business five years ago at the age of 25. Today, professionals head the various departments in the company and I have in place structures that would sustain the business in my absence.
Let us talk about your business school…
Oh, Stuch Business School. I noticed business coaches, especially foreign ones, were teaching ideas that could not be easily implemented in this part of the world where entrepreneurs have to deal with epileptic power supply, motor park boys when trying to waybill goods, etc. That inspired me to set up Stuch Business School. What’s very unique about my story was the fact that I was able to do this without any loan. It’s not that I never asked for; I simply never got. Loan offers from banks only came after I had become well established and was no longer in need of the amount they could offer.