Posted: Thu 19th Sep 2019
Have you ever been in a situation where you need something and can't find it? You search shops and look online and can't figure out why the product you want doesn't exist?
Ade Hassan had this feeling since childhood. No matter where she looked, she couldn't find nude underwear that matched her skin tone.
"It's been that way my whole life," Ade says. "It's been something that I always noticed isn't there. I remember trying to find tights and that was always an annoying situation. I remember being 20 and finding a brown bra and thinking 'oh my goodness!'."
Putting your life savings on the line
Ade was in a consulting position when she started thinking about launching a business. She had lots of different ideas, most of which revolved around fashion.
"I remember there was a scarf idea and others, but nothing was quite sticking. This idea for Nubian Skin came to me and I thought 'that's the one!'."
The business set out to solve a problem that's common for people of colour. Ade had heard stories from people who talked of putting foundation on bra straps and tea-staining underwear to help make it match their skin tone.
Why didn't the industry offer the products people needed? Ade says she doesn't know for sure, but suspects it's because big lingerie companies are often owned by white men and the existing nude colours sold really well. Unless they experienced the demand themselves, they're simply not going to think about it.
Trying to solve the problem and meet the demand meant putting her life savings on the line and getting investment from her siblings.
"The company's bootstrapped. I put in my life savings and my siblings put in money. You're basically asking your family: 'would you like to buy a house or invest in this business?!'
"You've put everything on the line, so you want to make it work. My parents and siblings respected me as a business person. Having that in the back of your mind as a driver is huge."
Getting the right colours and manufacturing
Ade launched the company in 2013 and it took a year to create the products and set up manufacturing.
Fashion businesses normally use stock fabrics, but people didn't make brown nudes, so Ade had to create the colours from scratch. She went through a process of working with make-up artists and testing and improving different approaches until she found something she was really happy with. The unique colour palette and her lack of experience led to a steep learning curve.
"I didn't know anything about the lingerie industry. I remember sending emails to find manufacturers and no one would get back to me. I'd never been to China before and I had to get the train before being driven hours to a location in the middle of nowhere to finally meet a manufacturer."
Talking to a consultant and going to trade shows to start meeting suppliers helped the learning process. Ade created a road map and started ticking things off.
Nubian Skin now does all its manufacturing in Europe. Chinese companies required large minimum orders and had long lead times, making it difficult to scale. The switch gave the team more control over the supply chain and sourcing.
Improving her financial planning played a big role too. Hassan had to switch accountants before finding someone that was reliable. A friend recommended Xero, which has helped to make sure she can see all the financial data in one place. They use apps to improve processes like recording receipts too.
New staff, potential investment and an MBE
For a long time, Nubian Skin team only had two full-time people and an intern working on it. According to Ade, people often assumed they were a bigger company. Now the team's grown to five people and she said picking the right staff has been crucial to their success.
"Most small businesses understand the challenges of running a team with limited resources. It's about finding a team that works – that takes ownership of it and really believes in the company.
"A lot of people that work in large companies just show up, so you need people that are really passionate."
The business has been featured in publications from the Los Angeles Times to Glamour, and even provided clothing for Beyoncé's Formation tour. In 2017, Ade was awarded an MBE for services to fashion. Now, she's looking for investment to help the business scale.
When asked what advice she would give to other entrepreneurs just starting out, Ade emphasised two points:
The impact of a good team
The importance of constantly monitoring your own wellbeing to make sure you don't burn out
"You'll have finite resources and you won't realise how much things will cost. Something I wish I'd known earlier is to spend time finding a good team. Having a good team that will give you all the support you need is so instrumental. Try to do that as early as possible."