The Necessity Entrepreneur Grinding With No Salary


January 6, 2020

Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.


Tell me about the beginning of money for you.

It has to be when I was 12. I lost my mum, and I suddenly felt responsible for my younger siblings – I’m the firstborn of my mum. 

I’m very sorry about your loss. Did you have any other guardian? 

Thanks. Losing our mum affected everyone in the house. My dad blanked out during this period. My mum’s death really broke him. For context, he was a contractor, and the more he sought out and won contracts, the more he earned.

Some context, my mum was actually the second wife, so we had my step mum to be there for us. But even she had her own struggles. 

What? 

She was caring for too many people. We always had a lot of people living with us, my dad had a lot of extra people in the house – extended family members. She had to take care of all of us, and so even though everyone got food in the house, the portions were very small. Sometimes, you’d have to leave it for younger ones because they didn’t stop crying. 

And so, we were always hungry. So this was the period of, “if we had money now, things would have been better.”

Out of desperation, my brother and I planted yams and spinach. Someone said, “just put it in the ground, it will grow.” It did grow, but when we harvested it, it was tiny and bitter hahaha.

Ouch. Must have sucked. 

Bitter, horrible yams that pests had already punished, but we ate sha. I can’t remember how long it took the yam to grow, but I can never forget that taste. Also, it was around this time I went to boarding school – my mum died when I was in JSS 1, the second term. 

When we were going back to school, my dad gave us a sack of Garri and kuli-kuli only, and we were crying. My step-sister’s husband then decided to buy us provisions for school. Since then, before we leave for school, he’d ask “what did daddy give you?” and follow it with “what do you need that he didn’t give you?” So I knew I’d have to manage till the next time I came home. 

But from SS1, daddy was back. It wasn’t perfect, but he was at his best since mum died.

It took him about three years. Wow. 

Yep.

Anyway, my dad also had this weird principle of “if you don’t gain admission, no money for you.” It took me two years to gain admission. But I was writing pre-degree exams though. I wrote a direct entry exam and didn’t pass, but I couldn’t tell daddy I didn’t pass. So I had to use all the money I had to buy a pre-degree form, wrote the exam, and passed. I didn’t tell him until I’d gained admission. 

Mad oh. 

The other struggle was that the school I was at during my pre-degree programme, cooking wasn’t really a thing, and the only way was to buy food. And since I didn’t have enough money, I didn’t eat properly, and since I wasn’t eating properly, I had a stomach ulcer. This was around 2011. Again, because my dad felt I’d not yet ‘gained admission’, he wasn’t sending money regularly. It just came whenever it came. 

But when I gained admission in 2012, things got way better. I was getting ₦30k every other month. That went on for years. 

Something happened sha. Early 2016, I got a text from my dad: “Be prudent with your spending.”

Why? 

Buhari, hahaha. The good thing is, at this point, I’d already gotten used to saving money a lot because there was this mindset of knowing that I’d always need money when something goes wrong. 

In fact, from saving, that’s how I was able to buy a laptop when I was in 300-level, 2015. Also, I started selling pure water and eggs in school.

I started the pure water part with 100, that will buy you two bags of pure water. 

Within one month, I was already doing 10 bags of pure water and that’s where I pegged each batch at. My hostel was two floors up, and having to carry ten bags of pure water every day was just wahala. 

Also, I stopped going home when school activity closed. Most of the people selling stuff would have closed, and so, everyone still in school would know me as the only place to get pure water or egg. 

*School poultry at 700 per crate – sold at ₦30 naira*

In my final year though, I couldn’t sell anything again, because my cousin came to squat in my hostel. Everywhere just became rowdier somehow, and it would have been more inconvenient for my roommates. 

I still sold water sparingly though. 

Something else I picked up from my early Uni days was sewing. There was an ASUU strike, so I told my (step) mum that I wanted to learn how to sew. My mum bought the malts and drinks, while I paid for the training. When you start an apprenticeship, you need to buy drinks. 

I was learning until the strike got called off six months after it began. So I was working on most of the clothes I wore in school by myself. Then I scaled up right after uni, while I was heading for NYSC. I got a machine. 

Nice! Did you buy it? 

Nope. My step mum had this tabletop sewing machine that’s really old and no one had used for decades. The sewing machine is older than her oldest stepsister – she’s 45 years old.

Woah!

She said, “If you can fix it, fix it o”. I took it to one man to help me fix, and when I asked him how much, he said ₦1k, only one thousand naira! So I was going back to the state where I was serving, I just carried the machine along for NYSC. 

I was mostly feeding on my sewing money, and saving most of my NYSC allowance. Also, I was getting 5k from my office, and another ₦15k from the ministry – the ministry gave me that for only six months though. 

Also, I got a sewing contract for some program they were doing for widows. After executing, my profit was like ₦30k. One of the senior officials was so impressed, that he gave me ₦40k after service and was like “you’re so hardworking and different.”

That tabletop is also what I used to sew my brother’s bride’s wedding dress. I sew for my family too. 

How much did you have right after NYSC? 

₦187k. 

I went back home after NYSC, and started working out of my uncle’s garage. Fast forward till the end of the year –this was 2017 by the way – my uncle was like, “you can do better than this.” 

So I went to Abuja for a three months training program. I paid ₦100k from my own savings, and my uncle paid the remaining ₦150k.

I have an older sister who lives in Abuja, and when she found out for the first time how serious I was about making dresses, she was excited too!

“Ah ahn, all these designers in Abuja, this is what they make too na” and all that. Anyway, she helped us get a two-bedroom apartment. 

That is amazing. But what do you mean ‘us’?

Remember that ASUU strike? My brother was also caught in that strike. So while I was learning tailoring and fashion design, he was learning how to bake. We got this space now, and he suddenly had a space to bake, while I had a space to make dresses. 

So your customers’ clothes always smell like it’s fresh out of the oven. Proper snacks. 

Hahaha, not really. So yes, that’s how I packed all my things and moved to Abuja in August 2019. 

That is awesome. Now I’m wondering, what are your margins like? Profits? Losses? Costs? 

Now, that’s the one I don’t understand. First of all, there were some outstanding bills that I needed to sort out. To be honest, I’m not doing well with the finances. 

The struggle is that I don’t want to start paying myself from my business yet. But that means I’m starving.

These days I’ve been thinking, should I just look for a government job? 

For safety and stability? 

Yes. But more importantly, just so I can focus on growing the business without worrying about making a living off it yet. The financial aspect of this business is stressing me.

Would you pay someone to do it if you could? 

Gladly. Every time I go out to buy materials, I struggle to write down or even track those numbers. But if I had to pay someone, I would. 

How much? 

Something reasonable. 

What is reasonable? 

I’m stingy. 

Okay, give me a number, anything. 

Okay, maybe ₦5k for every ₦50k worth of revenue or something. I really am not sure. 

If you had to put together all the money you made last year, how much would it be? 

From August till December, I’d say ₦500k. This is basically everything that has entered. 

Do you know your cost of production? 

I feel so vulnerable. 

That’s normal, and it’s okay.

Thank you. I haven’t balanced the books, but what I know is that I don’t pay myself. I’m not running at a loss. When I want to buy stuff for the business, I just dip and buy. Also, my uncle gives me a monthly stipend because he doesn’t want me taking from my business. I’ve barely had any non-work related outing in that time period since I moved to Abuja, so the 15k he sends mostly covers my feeding. Also, from this money, I also pay my staff. I hired a tailor on a commission basis. His last few weeks, I paid ₦25k. 

Where do you find customers? 

My sister and her friends. Then their friends. So, word of mouth. Something interesting that happens when people see my work is that they don’t say “who sewed it for you?” They say “where did you buy it.”

That is good feedback. 2020 is going to be your first full year in business. What are your biggest concerns? 

I worry that I won’t be able to meet my goals. I currently have four sewing machines, including the tabletop machine. But I want to get an industrial sewing machine by the middle of the year. I also want a permanent staff – the current guy only comes when my workload is too much. 

I want to be able to do other things, like accessories. That should bring more business. 

Getting new customers is a struggle. I really need to work on my online presence. I barely use any social media. I have a non-existent presence on social media. 

What are your compulsory expenses every month? 

I go to the market once a week. So my transport expenses aren’t that much. 

Do you have an emergency fund? 

My emergency fund is in shaa Allah. If anything happens now, everything stops.

Hahaha. It’s time for that financial happiness question. 1-10? 

I’m a 4. I’m really not happy with where I am, because I know I could be doing better. I can do better. I feel like I’m not putting in enough work. I don’t feel like I’m taking more risks – like ready-to-wear clothes. Because the margins are better there by my estimates. 

Now, I’m considering taking a monthly job because of the safety of a monthly salary. But the other side is that it’s a chance to meet more people. That’s my dilemma, right now. Now, I’ve added feeling vulnerable to it. 

Entrepreneurship is hard. I thought making really nice clothes was going to be enough. But I’ve realised it’s more than that.


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