Posted: Wed 8th Feb 2023
After calling quits on his job in the financial sector to start his very own lifestyle brand - in the midst of a global pandemic, no less - Ayo Adedeji's story blends uniqueness and simplicity.
Also an Enterprise Nation member, Ayo has got stuck into the platform at full-throttle, utilising the wealth of learning resources to help his business continue growing, while recently hosting his very own stall at January's sold-out StartUp Show.
Over to you, Ayo!
I’d love for you to talk me through your entrepreneurial journey thus far!
My name is Ayo, I'm a marketing psychology graduate, and previously I was working in investment banking.
I was headhunting for the investment banking industry, more for tech developers, but I'd worked for all the investment banks like HSBC, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley.
Historically, I always thought that was going to be my calling, not necessarily headhunting, but working within banking, but there was always a push and pull. Because, obviously, I wanted to work in that industry more so for capitalistic purposes, but I also really thought I had this creative edge that wasn't being expressed within that field.
I've always had an interest in working for myself, and not only working for myself, but building the culture in which I worked, and that's very difficult to do when you go into such a monolithic space as the investment banking space.
This is my own personal opinion, but I feel like in that corporate space, a massive part of the culture is to strip you of your individuality, which is why people tend to dress the same, they tend to eat the same food, and that's fine when I'm old.
But I still have this creative spark that hadn't been expressed, and that's what got me to move from that industry. And yeah, even when I quit I had no idea what I was going to do, I just kind of racked my brain and thought hard about what I was going to do.
Within previous my previous job – and I know, meritocracy is a myth - they did focus mostly on your individual inputs, and almost treated my sales funnel as a business within a business.
I did learn a lot of transferable skills from working in that in that space, and I've always been interested in streetwear - specifically plain clothing, and I felt like there was no real brand for people who like plain clothes.
That was when I started to play with the idea. When people say ‘plain white tee’, that was my idea for the first design, and we only used to sell plain white tees and plain black tees. Conceptually, people really liked it, and we started out printing on demand.
I would actually recommend this for anyone who wants to test out a concept without actually putting in all your money, because it's literally zero cost, it just takes time. You just design mock-ups, and then you advertise those mock-ups.
Obviously, you might want to buy a couple so you can test the quality and maybe get some of your friends to take pictures in them. But it's very, very low cost and a way of testing and initial clothing concept.
We started printing on demand, and people really liked the concept! We then expanded that into our apparel range, which is T-shirts, jumpers, hoodies, beanies. But because it's such a simple concept – again, I quit my job because I wanted to do something a bit more creative - even though it has a creative element to it, there's only so much I can do with this concept of actually without actually going against the concept itself.
I started to wrack my brain, and I thought about playing cards, because I wanted something that also connected with my community, and I feel like playing cards are a massive part of Western society; you use them at every single point of your life.
When you're a kid, you're playing snap. You grow a little bit older, we play blackjack. You go to uni, you're playing drinking games with cards. Even old ladies play solitaire. But I'd never seen black people on playing cards before.
And I thought, even aside from that, playing cards have generally gone unchanged in the past 100 years. If you actually think about the playing cards that you've used your entire life, I'm pretty sure every single pack is basically the same. They are extremely undifferentiated, and I thought you have 14 characters there that you can actually do something with. So why not?
I actually found my artist on Fiverr. Because I come from an investment banking background, I didn't really have a network of artists or even manufacturers. A lot of that I had to go out and look for myself.
So found my artist on Fiverr, who worked on the cards for about three months, on the characters specifically, and I did the graphic design for the cards, so that included placing all the illustrations on vectors.
Three months after the initial concept I actually released them, and they did really well. In the first 18 months, we sold over 2,000 packs of cards, and that’s essentially the construction of the business.
So simply, we do sustainable streetwear. Everything is made of organic cotton, recycled polyester or bamboo. We also do diverse gifts - so playing cards, we recently released a colouring book, and I'm also writing a comic book!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Well, a couple. First, I'll get the most boring one out of the way. All of this has been self-funded. When I was working at my previous job, I was actually saving up for a house. After two-and-a-half years of working there, I didn't spend one penny of my commission because I was saving towards that house.
During the pandemic, when I started the business, I was at a crossroads; I had enough money to put down a deposit for a house, but because of the mortgage, it just meant I'd have to continue working probably for the next decade, in order to pay that mortgage off, and I wouldn't have any freedom to do what I want. As I said before, I looked around and I had nothing to show for my creativity that I thought I had.
This has been quite difficult because all of the financial mechanisms of running a business have basically been on me, and I haven't had a business pay me regularly every single month as I had previously. Just getting to grips with that has been quite difficult.
I would also say, connecting the creative aspect to the business aspect has been quite difficult. As I always say, you can have the best idea in the world and you can have the best products in the world, but if you don't understand the mechanics of business, then your business will fail.
I was really product-focused, as most creatives are at the beginning, but at the same time, my business was haemorrhaging money. So I really had to focus on learning the mechanics of business, the basics of business. And that takes time, and it takes money, because you are going to lose money learning that.
So that was quite difficult. But I tend not to focus on those difficulties even though they are there, I understand that I have way more advantages at play. Firstly, I'm hitting two markets - people are begging to be differentiated or change the fast fashion market, or the fashion market in general.
Streetwear is worth £185 billion globally, but only 4% of that is sustainable. However, the sustainable market is growing at 11% a year, and as Millennials and Gen Z gain more purchasing power, I feel like that is only going to increase.
We’re then seeing with movements like BLM the cry for authentic and positive representation, and I see that as a massive advantage to my business, so these advantages kind of balance out the disadvantages.
What’s next for your business?
During these past 18 months, since I started the business, I actually started something called The Plain Tour, which is me literally taking my products to market, and very simply, I want to do a pop-up in every single London borough.
I have been averaging a new borough every single month, so I've got about 16 boroughs done – half of all the boroughs in London, and I'm looking to finish all of that by the end of the year. I've left the boroughs on the outskirts of London to last, so I want to get all of that done.
And actually, through that, I've sold 75% of all of my products, but more importantly, I've been able to get quite invaluable data, which has allowed me to progress my brand in a customer-led way, and get a good understanding of what people want to see from me next and what they don't necessarily want to see.
As for what’s next for the brand, I want to really focus on these characters, and fleshing out an ecosystem of products for them, because ultimately, where you see the characters, you see the clothes, because all of them are wearing the clothes. I feel like that is really the avenue that I want to go down.
And as I said before, I'm writing this comic book, which is really, really going to add value to everything I've been doing. Because my product development strategy is with each additional product, I want to add value to the previous product. You can see that we have the T-shirts, then I went to the hoodies and the jumpers, which basically adds value to the T-shirts because it's more of a realised concept.
Then we have the cards; the characters are wearing the clothes, so that adds value to the clothes, and then the colouring book is starring all the characters, so that adds value to the cards, which adds value to the clothes and the comic book. So that's the product development strategy I’m going across, and I feel like the comic book is really the combining of the two parts of the business.
The comic book is basically going to be the first streetwear comic book ever, and I can’t give away too much but in the comic book, the streetwear has special powers – and that adds value again to the clothes and adds value to the characters because they actually get a back story and you understand why they look the way they do, why their names are certain names.
So, I'd say the next big project is the comic book.
What three pieces of advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to follow in your footsteps?
One piece of advice is to follow the data. This is probably one of the most invaluable things you have as a start-up, because it should point you in the right direction. As I said before, I started with the clothes, but that creativity in my head and really looking for something new led to the cards.
Now the cards, especially during this kind of economic climate, are like a low-cost entry point to the business; they are helping support the business. Clothes are historically quite difficult to scale, and while the streetwear market is worth so much, it is a very saturated market, and it makes me a lot less mobile as well.
When you think about clothes, you need to represent all sizes, so it's just a harder business to scale. I could try to hold on to the clothes, because you know, that was the genesis of the business, or I could follow the data and see that people are really loving these cards, so maybe I should invest more of my money and my time into getting the cards out there.
I can then take advantage of economies of scale, and actually scale the business a lot faster. Have a method of tracking your data, whether that's looking at your dashboards on your website or looking at your analytics on social media, data is just very, very important.
Secondly: go to strangers. Go to strangers and ask them about your brand. It's so easy to create this echo chamber when you're first starting your brand and thinking you have the best brand with no flaws because you've only spoken to your mum and your grandma about it.
Let’s be honest, they’re not going to sh*t on your products. Nobody you know will do that. It could be very mediocre, but because they love you, they're going to tell you you’re the best thing in the world. But you don't know you have a business until you can get money from a stranger, in my opinion.
So really take your product to market. And don’t be discouraged by criticism. Criticism to me is way more useful than praise, because I want to scale my businesses as big as possible. Fair enough, praise helps me carry on and stuff like that, but criticism, especially constructive criticism, really allows me to develop what is wrong with my brand.
Praise allows me to push what's good with my brand, but criticism helps me develop what's wrong with my brand. So welcome the criticism - that's my second piece of advice.
Thirdly, you need to do an audit of yourself as the founder of your start-up and realise what you're really good at and leverage that. This also helps you realise what you're not good at.
As result, you should then start to realise what kind of team you need to build as an entrepreneur to make sure you can scale your business. When you realise what you are good at, you're able to leverage that and focus on that and push your business forward.
You are, of course, an Enterprise Nation member! How did you become aware of the platform and how has it helped you and your business grow?
Like most people, I signed up for their newsletter because I heard that it was a good hub for entrepreneurs. I actually heard about it at one of my pop-ups - as you can imagine, I speak to thousands of people at the pop-ups, and they were trying to give me advice on who to contact and whatnot.
So yeah, I met someone at a pop-up who told me about Enterprise Nation, and you guys always share good resources, whether that’s access to funding or grants, webinars, learning sessions, all these great things.
I then wanted to kind of collaborate with Enterprise Nation a little more, as I feel like I have a lot to offer your community as well - the story that I have in my brain is quite unique as well, but I feel it's also not unique enough for it not to be accessible.
The fact that I've quit my job, found a product that was undifferentiated, and then took that product to market, physically by going out to pop-ups - literally, anyone could do that!
I feel like that kind of story, and that accessibility could really add a lot of value to Enterprise Nation and what you guys are trying to do.