Posted: Fri 3rd Jul 2020
Cultureville founder Ronke Jane Adelakun was getting frustrated with her corporate job and felt like she wasn't getting the opportunities she deserved. At the same time, her sister Adeola kept coming back from Nigeria with amazing African print dresses.
"She saw the most beautiful fabric. It's the tradition that people don't just buy off the rack – they get things custom-made. I would fall in love with the dresses. I'd steal them and hide them until she went back."
The sisters started to wonder whether there was an opportunity to create affordable African print dresses. The idea and motivation were there. But they needed to find a way to test the products cheaply, start developing a business and work out how to quit their jobs.
Fashion marketplace Depop provided a platform for test sales. There's no upfront investment, since you only pay fees when someone buys something.
Cultureville had Depop orders from the UK, Italy, France and even America. It provided validation and helped them understand how to photograph their products.
As they started to get traction, they wanted to try out physical sales. Manchester Youth Market gave them the opportunity to sell out stalls in the city centre.
"Having a market stall meant we got immediate feedback. We spoke to customers to find out what prints they liked better, about sizing and how they found them compared to other brands."
That information helped them develop their products and advertising.
When Cultureville launched, they pumped money into Facebook and Instagram marketing, but it didn't work. Instead, they tried to increase their organic reach by sending messages to every customer. That helped them create a stronger community on Depop and Instagram. Ronke says:
"We used things like Facebook to reach out to people in a group where they were already interested in something similar. That worked so much better than spending on ads."
The ads they tried in the beginning performed poorly because they didn't have any experience with them. The sisters have since had a lot of online training, including courses on marketing from Shopify Partner Academy, Google and Facebook.
Ronke was working as a software tester, and co-founder and sister Adeola was a corporate lawyer when they started the business. She says:
"It was overwhelming at times and we had a couple of breakdowns along the way. We helped balance each other out. When one person got super stressed, the other could help with the burden."
After 12 months, the business was doing well and they were facing a summer packed with events. They had to decide whether to make the leap and go full time or miss out on opportunities.
"We saved a lot of money. We reduced our spending to the bare minimum. We did a six-month projection of how much we would need and thought we could get it profitable within six months."
They also used a Universal Credit scheme that supports people starting businesses and were able to live at home to cut costs. Even with the planning, saving and financial support, quitting their jobs was scary.
"People were saying 'what are you doing?'. My sister is a corporate lawyer. She's qualified in three jurisdiction. She's just taken the New York bar."
Wins like being featured on BBC One and winning Young Market Trader of the Year helped buoy their confidence.
Creating a diverse and inclusive company was part of Ronke's motivation to start Cultureville.
"In terms of working in corporate, one of the things a lot of Black people and people of colour face is that they don't get the same recognition or opportunities as their white counterparts."
However, they have faced similar issues running a company.
"One thing we faced as small business owners is that people judge us differently to white-owned brands. We might not get the same opportunities despite being at the same level. That's been disheartening. Especially as one of our motivations for leaving our jobs was to get away from that racism."
She's glad these issues have been brought to the fore and asked people to look at bias in their organisations.
"Where could you have given a Black-run business an opportunity and didn't and what was the reason behind that? It's about evaluating within these organisations where there's space for improvements."
The experience of starting a business has been a mix of ups and downs. The lowest low came six months into going full time.
"We were running out of money and we were literally at the end of our line. We were at a Christmas market, so we were in the cold every day. We were freezing. We were upset. We were hungry."
They make a point of documenting the good and bad things that happen and making sure they don't take wins for granted. They celebrate every milestone; the lows are low but the highs are really high. Ronke says:
"You have to have faith and trust yourself. You're more capable than you think. If it's a business you truly believe in then you can do it. It's not insurmountable. You will face challenges. You will face really hard times but you're not the only one. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Go for it and don't let the fear hold you back."