How I Started Keexs, The First Innovative And Social Footwear Brand in Africa – Babajide Ipaye

Hi Babajide, what’s your background, and what are you currently working on?

I’m Babajide Ipaye. I’m the Founder and CEO of Keexs; the first innovative and social footwear brand in Africa.

What motivated you to get started with Keexs?

I think one of the things that the stories don’t tell enough is the fact that I have been an entrepreneur for almost 10 years before I even started Keexs.

My last job was in Guinness where I worked in the Strategy and Change department, which is like the “thinking” arm of the business and that gave me a lot of exposure to world-class best practices because Guinness is a company that has been in existence for a long time and that means that they have been able to establish some standards across different parts of their business, and having worked in a department like Strategy and Change, it gave me a very wide view of how a business operates.

Let’s backtrack a little bit; I studied microbiology at the University of Lagos. I worked briefly in Port Harcourt in the oil and gas service industry for a while, and when I finished my NYSC because that’s where I did my service, I came back to Lagos and I did MCSE exams, these are Microsoft-type exams and that really threw me into the IT space.

By studying that, I got my first major job, working for a company called Tranter and they were the first Microsoft group partner in West Africa, so they outsourced me to Guinness, and other organizations.

While managing all their IT support in Guinness, an opportunity came up to work for them directly, so I took up the job, and that gave me a lot of exposure to world-class best practices as I mentioned earlier.

In 2005, I resigned, and then I started a tech company with a friend of mine, and I played in the tech space for the next 10 years as an entrepreneur and we were involved in a lot of services.

I kind of got bored, and I also wanted to explore another side of me, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what I wanted to do, but one thing which I knew for certain was that I’d always had a shoe size problem.

I’m a size 48 for shoe size, there are a lot of shoes that are my size, but there aren’t always the shoes that I want that are my size. I see a lot of nice-looking shoes I wish to buy or wear, but I can’t because they aren’t my size and I see the ones that are ugly and not what I really want, but I have no choice but to wear, so I wanted to solve that personal problem.

So, I went to a school in the Netherlands to study how to make sneakers. After I finished the course, I realized that it was going to be very difficult to make my own shoes to the standard I wanted at a cheap cost.

I then decided that if I couldn’t make for myself alone because of the cost involved, I could make for other people as well. Then I did some research and I realized that there was no sneaker brand in Africa, and I think that’s where the keen interest to create the first innovative and social footwear brand in Africa was born.

So, I basically decided to start that project, and having been in business for 10 years, one of the things that I learned was the fact that there are a lot of great ideas in Nigeria but getting funding for those ideas is a problem, especially when they are innovative ideas.

People don’t want to take risks on ideas that are innovative because it means the risks are high. Money is not easy to come by in this country, so the idea to start through crowdfunding was one of the ways that we started Keexs.

So, the first designs were done. I did a Fela Kuti collection which is a combination of about 6 different products but all Fela Kuti-inspired and that’s how Keexs was started on Kickstarter, and in a period of 40 days, we raised $20,000 from preorders from different parts of the world and we went ahead to produce and to fulfill meeting all those orders, we shipped to different parts of the world and that’s how Keexs started.

You made mention of going to the Netherlands to study, did you have the intention of starting Keexs?

Not entirely. Like I said earlier, I was bored. I had done quite a bit in the IT industry, and I felt that I had explored all the areas that were explorable beyond scaling the business.

I could pass on that business to somebody else to run which is what is happening now, so somebody else is running the technology company and he’s been running it successfully for almost 4-5 years now, almost the same time that Keexs started.

I think for me, I needed a change; I wasn’t exactly sure what it was but then as I went to study to fix that problem, the ideas came to create a sneaker brand and I didn’t just want to create a sneaker brand, I wanted an African-inspired one, and then I also decided that we needed to have a social outlook to the brand which is basically – How do we empower people? How do we give back to the community in a creative way and even make people happy and excited to buy into a product that can tell you stories about Africa?

What were your marketing strategies to grow Keexs?

There is no marketing strategy.

I think that we’ve tried to tell our stories. I think storytelling is the new marketing strategy out there.

If you are building a brand, you need to focus on telling a story and you have to tell the story consistently and organically because a lot of startup businesses don’t have money for marketing so if you don’t have the money to spend heavily on marketing, then you have to be able to tell stories about your brand and through your products and I think that’s what we’ve really done.

There’s a lot of traveling too involved, not just for the fun of it, but it’s also a means to build a global brand.

If you want to build a global brand, you can’t just stay in a country and expect to build a brand globally, you have to go to different places and see what motivates people, make connections with different people, different cultures.

I think that’s really our own approach.

Would you rather young entrepreneurs seek for investment or bootstrap as you did?

I would strongly recommend bootstrapping initially.

There is something that investors call the 3 FsFriends, Family, and Fools. The first people that are going to invest in your idea of business are your friends or your family and then the fools, not like they are fools but it’s more like the people who are the early believers of what you are doing.

You need to also understand that there is a cost of somebody investing in you. It means that they are parting with money and they are putting it in your business and that there is an obligation, you are not taking money for free, you are taking money to do something that will bring back returns to them.

It’s very important to know that once you are taking money from people, there is a commitment involved and therefore you have to put in 110%, and that’s why I said it’s very important in the early stages to focus on bootstrapping.

You’ll always have a learning curve in any business you are doing no matter what. There’s always something you don’t know and that you have to learn.

That’s why it’s important, start with the little that you have, focus on getting your sales first, and proving that there is a market that exists, and be open to adapting your ideas based on your early findings and that’s the whole concept of a lean startup.

Start with yourself as the chief marketer, the salesperson, create the product or the idea, try and sell that idea and see if people are going to want to buy it, or are willing to put money down for it.

When you now have some level of traction, it’s easier to go to someone and tell them to come and invest in your business because you’ve done it, carrying a business idea or plan is not just enough.

The difference between a great idea and a regular idea is purely execution. How much of your time and initial commitment have you put into that idea to take it from the idea stage?

Gaining market traction is very important.

What do you read and how do you get motivated?

In the early days of my entrepreneurship, I tried to find mentors, but I found out that mentoring in Nigeria is very difficult; you know the people don’t have time to mentor, so one of the things that I’ve found is that a lot of books are out there that have been written by people that have gone through the process of what you are going through, mostly Americans, because a lot of Africans don’t document enough what their experiences are and they don’t put those into books or whatever for people to read from and learn.

Information is always hoarded in Africa, people tend to compartmentalize, they don’t share a lot. Americans are very liberal with information, so I think a lot of learning has come from books that I’ve read, but I’ve also found out very quickly that a lot of these books that I’ve read are thinking from an American perspective and therefore it’s very important that even when you read those books, you must be able to look for a way to apply the contents to the local environment and adapt your learning.

So I do a lot of reading, I do a lot of watching of YouTube these days, there’s so much knowledge, the internet is full of knowledge. I also subscribe to a platform called Scribd, they have books there, they have audiobooks, so you need to do a lot of reading, education, go for training, go for courses.

Also, I’ve learned from the “doing”.

In entrepreneurship, you realize very quickly that there are a lot of things that you don’t know, and the only way to know is to start it, and then when you start it, you’ll learn from that process.

Also, you can try and find people who have been there that can mentor you but I’ve found mentorship very difficult because some of the people that you are asking to mentor you are so successful that they are too busy to even have the time to mentor.

So, you must find a way to read more, look for similar businesses and ideas, go and work with those people, go for training, educate yourself, travel; traveling is a fantastic education that people tend to overlook, it’s not just a luxury, it opens your eyes to opportunities.

Every time you have a challenge, in business or in life, you have 2 options; either you stay in that problem and you mull over it and you don’t overcome it or you fight to breakthrough.

If you are able to break through, the size of the opportunity becomes bigger but the challenges also become bigger and in the process of going through that, you are also learning, so those are the things that I’ve used to learn.

I’m also going through my challenges as an entrepreneur, I’m learning every day.

It’s difficult for a Nigerian entrepreneur to crowdfund on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, is there any way around this for an entrepreneur who seeks to exploit the benefits of crowdfunding?

 The term crowdfunding can also be used loosely as “esusu” or “ajo” which according to the Yorubas is when they have cooperatives or when they come together to donate money.

In the same vein, you can still use the same strategy of taking small sums of money from people to fund your idea but there are risks and there are problems that arise from that you need to be mindful of.

There is a cost to any method, whether you are bootstrapping or crowdfunding, it’s a gainful process, but it has its challenges.  

That’s why I love crowdfunding because it helps you to validate whether your idea makes sense or not before you even begin to fund it.

I think the first thing for a lot of people is to validate your business idea, validation means can you get people to pay for the product or service, are people willing to pay for it, is there a market out there.

Start small, start lean, and then adapt to your findings as you move along.

READ: Pros and Cons of Bootstrapping Your Startup

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Well, there are a few opportunities that come up every now and then.

I think one of the major opportunities that exist right now is; we have a Keexs strike partner program that we are trying to roll out and what that does basically is a little bit of affiliate marketing but majorly around getting people to promote the brand and the product, and in exchange, they earn a commission. So this is something that we offer currently.

We are also going through a fundraising process now to set up a world-class factory that can create close to a thousand jobs. At that point in time, we are also going to be training people, hiring, cutting across different things from product design to manufacturing to tech-based solutions.

We are taking our business in phases, so at this time, we are looking for people who can work with the brand, promote it. And as the opportunity arises, these are some of the same people that can easily get converted into the team.

We are constantly growing, and there will always be job opportunities, but everything has to be in phases.

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Would you be available to mentor few entrepreneurs?

The truth of the matter now is that, and it’s not that one is not willing to support as much as possible but we are still on this journey and that means that there is a lot of work going on and we are heavily under a lot of work pressure and therefore I am trying to write a book which I’m hoping can be used as a means of mentoring a lot of people rather than having to mentor several people.

I believe that by writing a book, it will be a great tool for mentoring thousands of people. It’s easier, it’s a one-time project, I’m actually on that project now, and I’m hoping that by November this year, I’ll launch the book.

It’s called A to Keexs, and it takes you through my journey from birth even before birth. I have gone through a lot, I have lost my parents, I have had to grow up with different people, I have gone through several lines of businesses, I have lost money, I have made mistakes.

I can’t discuss all of that in an interview so I’ll rather put everything in a book and make it available for people to get a copy and read it and find a way to apply what makes sense to them from that book and I think that’s really what I want to do, and if possible, make a movie about it too.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

I set up an initial personal site, but I slowed down on that because of the workload at Keexs.

Probably by November which is my birthday, I’ll try and launch that, the website, and the book, so I’ll just launch that as my own project..

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