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They say happiness is free but I know from personal experience that happiness is a box of colourful and comfy socks from Smileys Africa, sent with love in a yellow pack that releases childlike delight in your lower belly and sparks simple joy in your deepest core.
In the cheery hearts of Nigerians, Smileys, the booming sock brand, has fostered a love borne out of cool designs and great customer experience in over 3,600 customers. At the centre of this notable growth stands the brilliant orchestrator, Habib Olawale, driving not just sales but delivering not-so-free happiness.
Habib’s story has many captivating chapters, where each new moment seems to be better than the ones before, promising a never-ending story of shared smiles delivered in yellow packs of colourful socks across the country. In this interview, he shares his employee-to-founder journey with Aella.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
My name is Habib and what I do at Smiley's is to drive growth by understanding what our customer needs and coming up with products that satisfy those needs. I am also really involved in the marketing aspect of the business but basically, I work with everybody on the team to make sure they all have what they need to help the company grow and also make sure our customers get the best customer experience. And I also work on partnerships with our brand to see how we can grow.
So, why socks?
More like “Why not socks?” So I was working a 9-5 job when I started this business and it was intended to be a side business. I started by researching e-commerce sites like Amazon and Jumia. I saw a couple of products there but the socks images I saw stuck out to me. It was interesting because, at that time, I had never seen someone conscious about the socks that they wanted to wear every day. I know people wear socks to school, work and other places but I didn't particularly think of it as a fashion piece that could make a statement. Anyway, I continued my research and found cool sock brands here in Nigeria and abroad. I did competitor research and I saw opportunities in their weakness in areas like the designs, the customer experience, and so on. Later, I took it upon myself to start sourcing for socks. Then I started thinking of the perfect platform that is going to be exciting to display our socks designs in a way that would grab people's attention. I also wanted to figure out the perfect packaging experience that would make people say "Oh this is cool and different from what we are used to”. So that is basically how the business started. We've gotten most of our customers from social media, word-of-mouth marketing, and digital ads. And we have been growing ever since. We are currently looking for products that will complement socks. We now sell shirts, underwear and more casual clothing to appeal to a wider audience.
Sounds like a smart move. How long has it been since you started the business?
That would be 2019. I was working at Ingressive then as a Comms lead. It didn’t start out as that much of a major deal because it was basically supposed to be my side gig.
But was there any point when you doubted the possibility of Smileys thriving in Nigeria?
No, I never doubted it. So I initially lowkey started the brand in 2018-ish before getting into it fully in 2019. There is a long list of things that made us believe that we had an opportunity to thrive in the market. We found our competitors' weak points and we were able to come up with new solutions. Fairer prices, a user-friendly website, intentional packaging, and all that good stuff. So I never doubted that we were going to thrive in the market.
So the name Smiley's suggests an emotion. Was this name chosen to communicate the emotion you intend to spread with your brand or was it just purely coincidental?
Oh, it was very intentional. But I'm not going to lie and say that there is one inspiring story behind the name. I just did my research and saw the names other brands were using and the emotion they wanted their product to pass across. When we started, our website was very colorful and exciting but we've added more products and our brand experience is also being revamped, so it's not as colorful as it used to be. But we've always wanted to be seen as a happy and colorful brand. We want our products to invoke happiness and make people smile. I think the name of the brand communicates all these clearly.
Interesting. Can you recall your proudest moment since you started this business?
I can't pick because I've had quite a lot of proud moments. There are times when people just call me and say “Yo, your brand was used as a case study in a marketing course”. Sometimes, I’d just be casually scrolling on X and stumble on threads discussing our brand as an example of how people can run a customer-friendly business. But my fafavoritene has to be when customers say “Oh, I love this product” and other sweet reviews like that. It's rewarding to hear those reviews because we go out of our way to get things done for our customers.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you face as a small business owner in Nigeria?
The fluctuating economy for sure. It affects every part of our business - our prices, the purchasing power of consumers, and most especially the cost of production. That's like the number one thing. Logistics can also be challenging. Although right now we have everything running smoothly. Our delivery is great but I feel like we can be better. Our interstate logistics aren't bad at all but also logistics outside the country is another major issue. It's expensive to ship out of the country. We’d like to get to a point where we can ship at a very good price for our international customers. We also want to be able to ship across Africa for affordable prices which is a very big deal to us. Aside from making sales and hitting our KPIs, the goal is the happiness of our customers
So here’s a little fun question. If you could choose one superpower, as a business owner in Lagos, what would it be?
Honestly, it would be to be able to know what our customer wants and how they want it. Maybe to be able to read their minds and predict their future because even people don't know what they need until they experience it. Electricity, for example. Before electricity, most people didn't realize that they needed it until somebody made it up. So yeah, I want the ability to predict the future and execute brilliant ideas.
(Laughs) Good call. Do you still have a 9-5? And if you do, would you say you prefer being an entrepreneur to being a 9-5 worker?
When I started this business, I still kept my 9-5 for a couple of months. Then I resigned to focus on my business. It was when I spent more time on my business that I started to see a lot of growth, to be honest—very massive growth, like 1000% growth. Interestingly, running my own business didn't feel like work. It felt fun and felt nice. I am currently based in Birmingham, working a nine-to-five with a large organization and I still have enough time to set aside for the business. To answer the question: what do I prefer? I don't think any is better, to be honest. Each has its pros and cons and in the end, boils down to personal preference. As a business owner, there's the excitement that comes with seeing your customers happy because of your products, a business owner also rarely ever dreads workdays like a 9-5er. I enjoy my 9-5, as well as my business. So, like I said, it all boils down to personal preference.
All right. So Where do you see this particular business in the next five years?
I actually set a mood board for my five-year goal three years ago. It's not a place or specific thing to me, but I have 5 of them on my checklist: I want the customer service to be as good as what customers experience on Amazon; I want our content to be as good as, let's say, Zikoko's. I want people to look at the brand the same way they see brands like Zara, H&M, and ASOS. We want to become a top-of-mind brand for the things we sell. That is the goal.
So we're down to our last question. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you say this business has impacted your financial life?
Honestly, most of the money we make goes back to the business. Either towards operation costs, or business expansion and staff salaries. I still keep my 9 to 5 mostly in an attempt to reduce the costs of the business. There are plans we have to increase profitability, until then, I can't say my financial life has been hugely impacted by my business.
Okay, I think I'll just throw in one extra question. If you could give an estimate of how many customers you've been able to reach since you started, what number can you think of?
I'm not so sure I kept track during the first year, but if I could count from 2020 when we started doing 100 to 200 customers in a month, that's 100 customers times 36 months. At least 3600 customers so far.
That’s commendable! Thank you for sharing your story with us.
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As a young child, you looked forward to adulting. It always looked fun to you. You couldn’t wait to become independent, receive instructions from no one and take ‘charge’ of your life. But it’s not what you expected. You eventually find that the transition to adulthood can be challenging due to financial concerns, family obligations, and the realities of the day-to-day life of a working adult. It’s overwhelming! It hurts even more when you think about the economic status of the country and its influence in making things difficult around us. The rate of inflation makes things very expensive and the little you get to save does not seem to be acquiring enough interest. By the time savings targets are met, the prices of your wants or needs experience a rapid increase.