Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, the Bible says. And that time has come for Wandia Gichuru, the co-founder and CEO of Vivo Activewear.
She is leaving the entertainment and investment show KCB Lions’ Den after two seasons. Wandia spoke to the Hustle about her journey in the fashion industry, her interactions with the entrepreneurs on the show and what she’ll miss about it.
What inspired you to start Vivo Activewear?
We started Vivo Activewear in 2011, and started by trying to fill the gap we thought existed in fitness wear. However, we soon realised we needed to sell regular clothing as well. So we kind of evolved as we understood the market better.
It was only two years into the business that we decided to start designing our own products. Otherwise before then, we were just importing everything.
Once that happened, we were able to innovate, create and design products that fit the client in the market better.
The business has grown from what was one store in 2011 to about our 10th store now. We have expanded outside Nairobi to Mombasa, Nakuru and Eldoret.
What got you into the fashion industry?
I wasn’t really one of those women or girls interested in fashion; I initially wanted to supply dancing equipment. My kids were doing ballet and they couldn’t find the right pieces for the dance, so that was the real motivation at the time. Then, I also didn’t want to be employed anymore.
I mean, I liked good clothes, but I loved and still love creativity. I could have been in books, furniture, anything creative, but here we are.
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What was the transition from employment to business like?
I think the shock to the system is when you don’t have a regular salary anymore.
I had cushy job with a lot of perks and benefits. I worked for the British government, so when I stopped, that was really difficult. But later on, the benefits outweighed everything.
There was the freedom, being in control of my time and the authority to make decisions.
Financially? I’ve never been able to pay myself what I used to earn, but I’m way happier because I love growing something from scratch.
How did you learn about KCB Lions’ Den?
When I was called, I knew they wanted two women in the Den and the idea really excited me.
Initially, I had that inner feeling that I didn’t have the credibility to be an investor because I had never done it before, except for my own business. However, I was excited that I would be part of a panel that would listen to diverse and incredible people who’ve started businesses from scratch and have familiar challenges.
I really loved that I’d have such conversations.
What was most exciting about being part of the show?
You want me to pick one? Oh, no; there are so many. I think one of the most interesting things about being in the Den is that you have no idea who’s coming into the room. Someone walks in and you’re just wondering what it will be all about.
There would be a moment in the pitch where I was just fascinated by the extent the entrepreneurs had gone to in terms of creativity. They believed in what they were doing; they had the confidence and courage.
I think it takes guts for someone to come on national television, not only to showcase their business ideas to the people seated in the panel, but to people in living rooms across the country.
Of course there were the funny and dramatic ones, but I deeply admire any entrepreneur who applied and showed up.
Are there some pitches you’ll never forget?
I think one of the first pitches we listened to was by Navalayo Osembo from Enda Athletic, which does sports sneakers that are designed by Kenyan athletes. She didn’t get a deal, but it was an amazing concept. The business is now very successful.
Then there was the ‘medicine man’ in season two. The juju guy. I genuinely believe he makes a significant amount of money. It was interesting to listen to the range of business ideas.
Having been a judge and investor, what would your advice be to an entrepreneur making a pitch?
You need to have a healthy dose of realism in terms of what you believe your business can do and what it’s worth right now. Most investors will value it on a formula of its performance at the moment. But this shouldn’t kill your ambition because if you sell it early, you might sell it cheap.
So, why are you leaving the Den?
First of all, I completely love Lions’ Den. I think it’s much bigger than just a show. Apart from offering entertainment, it’s an opportunity for people to learn. I mean, I love it.
The challenge for me was the time needed, and my own business is still in the growth phase. I recognised that having done it for two years, it was time consuming – not just the filming part, but following up on entrepreneurs’ deals and conversations.
But I hope I’ll come back. I’ll be watching keenly because I know it will get better and better.
What are some of the lessons you learnt from those who came to pitch in the Den?
I was fascinated by how young start-ups are using technology to bring solutions to so many things.
Final advice to entrepreneurs?
You should get your product out into the market sooner than later. Most people spend a lot of time in the concept stage.
Until your product gets to the target clients, you’ll never get to know if it’s what people really want. They say if you’re not embarrassed by your first product, you’ve waited too long.
When I look back at some of the designs for Vivo that we put out there back then, I’m like, that was so bad. But we needed to do that so we could understand early enough what people wanted.
The best market intelligence is from the market itself. Ideas are not worth much until they’re implemented. But above all, you need to have fun with whatever you’re doing.
What are you expecting from the show’s third season?
I hope there will be more women pitching.