My biggest problem became my goldmine

Wendy Waweru at her shop 'My Curves' at Sarit centre in Westlands Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Wendy Waweru’s lingerie business was born out of her struggles to find the right bra size for her full bust.

Previously, she’d wait for friends travelling abroad or shop in Nairobi’s second-hand clothes’ markets to find a bra. The long wait and spotty success left her with self-confidence issues.

While working as a general manager at Deacons, Wendy brainstormed with colleagues on how best to assist women her size who walked around in ill-fitting bras that lowered their self-esteem.

“Who better to sell such items than one who feels the pain?” she wondered.

Around 2015, she and her husband sold a family plot in central Kenya and invested the money they got in opening her first lingerie shop at Two Rivers Mall, Nairobi, in 2017.

Two years later, she opened a second shop at Sarit Centre.

Today, My Curves has become a household name in the lingerie business, and Wendy is an accredited bra fit stylist for Panache Lingerie brand. 

But Wendy’s success followed a couple of failures – she invested in flowers and a shoe business – that almost killed her resolve to make it in the rough entrepreneurship waters.

But she got herself back up, badly bruised but with renewed resolve to learn from her mistakes.

She shares the lessons learnt from her false starts.

You first tried your hand in business at 19. What drove you into this?

I scored poor grades in my Form Four exams. My mother was especially disappointed in me since my score of a C+ grade meant I could not join a public university.

Her suggestion was that I join a secretarial college, get a job somewhere and hopefully, “your boss would find you attractive and marry you”.

But I decided to join the then School of Professional Studies (later Inoreero College) for a paralegal course during the evenings. That left a lot of time during the day.

I joined my aunt in Nairobi, a florist. I started assisting her but thought I could learn more about the flower business and earn my own money. I would meet up with a florist at City Market, and spend an hour or two learning about flowers.

In 1997, I registered Floral Ark and started doing wedding flowers.

And it did well at the beginning, right?

Yes. For my first wedding flowers, I was given Sh4,000 as a deposit. That to me was a lot of money.

The whole amount was Sh10,000, enough to buy the flowers and pay my assistants.

How did you plan to expand the business?

A florist at Muthaiga Mini Market was planning to move out of the business. I decided to take up the space and stop operating from my sitting room. I even paid Sh20,000 as ‘goodwill’ – which was for the value of the company’s brand name.

The flower business collapsed after eight months. What went wrong?

Everything that could go wrong did.

First, the location was wrong. The small shop was hidden in the basement where few could see it. Flowers need to be the first items people see when they walk into a shopping area. This, I came to learn, was the reason the owner was disposing of the business. That ‘goodwill’ was wasted.

Second, having rented formal premises meant that I had to procure proper licences, hire a full-time worker and pay utilities, yet there was no money coming. I was running on empty on a daily basis.

In retrospect, what do you wish you could have done differently?

I should have done my due diligence before committing my money in the new location. I should have continued small for some time, studied market trends and calculated the associated costs of expanding the business.

Yet, after the flowers, you burnt some cash in a shoe business. Tell us about it.

In 2015, a friend of mine who lives in the United States mentioned that she could bring in shoes for me to sell in the local market. It was a good idea.

I gave her Sh1 million for the imports. I knew her well and was convinced nothing could go wrong. The shoes came in December of that year but minus any paperwork to account for the money. I could not tell how much they cost or how much I would sell them for. I was stuck with ‘dead stock’. I sold the few I could but ended up giving others to my friends for free.

What lessons would you give someone getting into that kind of ‘friendly’ business arrangement?

First, always chose your business partners carefully. If my friend had not accounted for a shilling before, why did I trust her with a million shillings?

Second, do not be so naïve as to believe every proposition that comes your way. Do not feel your friend will be disappointed if you walk away from a deal that looks too good to be true.

What would you tell those who are afraid of similar failures?

Never fear failure. It is the business that fails, not you.

Look at football for example. The players may be down a goal or two during the first half. They regroup at halftime, discuss the weak points and lay out the strategy for the next half. They sometimes win. Even if they lose they do not say that it was a bad idea to play football.

If you fail once or twice, regroup, have a meeting with yourself, strategise and work smarter next time. Pick the pieces and get on with the game. In business, you’d rather get in the field and lose than be a spectator on the sidelines.

Is it not risky to just jump into business?

Business is about taking calculated risks, something I had not done adequately in my initial forays into business.

With my lingerie business, I had to fly to the United Kingdom to meet the business development manager at Panache who gave me just a few items to try and sell locally. There was a market that needed to be catered for.

However, I needed to plan for a more decent place with some privacy where customers could fit out the items.

What has your greatest business challenge been?

Getting funding from the banks. As a start-up, the banks have demands that are difficult to meet. They will expect, among other things proof of concept, strong cash flow and security.

Also, getting the right staff is challenging. Getting people with the right attitude who will embrace your vision isn’t an easy task.

Are you ever afraid that your current business could face the same turbulence as the previous two?

Yes, I do. However, I have learnt to be kinder to myself, learn from the mistakes and move on.

With what I have gone through in the past, I can now recognise a business mistake before it knocks hard on my door. Although I’m not dwelling on potential pitfalls, it helps to not be overconfident. 

I hope to be the leading lingerie store in East Africa and hopefully expand to more locations countrywide.  

[email protected]