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I built a beauty empire from scratch and sold it for millions

Suzie Wokabi, beauty entrepreneur.

The first time I met Suzie Wokabi was when I was filming an episode with her for my show. This had been three years since she had sold her company, Suzie Beauty to Flame Tree Group.

I had arrived a bit earlier than her at her office at the Flame Tree Group.

While my team and I were getting our camera equipment from the vehicle I saw Suzie drive in and I was somewhat in disbelief.

I had expected a grandeur Suzie Beauty as she had just sold her company for tens of millions just recently. However, this was not the case, she was driving a red, beat-up Toyota Fancargo.

In my mind, I was confused but thought maybe her car had broken down that morning and she decided to use her house manager’s car.

The thought disappeared as it might have been well answered. However, it did not take long for it to reappear again after her phone rang.

I expected an iPhone or a high-end Samsung as is the norm amongst most of the “I made it entrepreneurs” but again she surprised me. She had an old Samsung phone that she confessed to me later could only be charged only when placed at a certain angle.

I got so carried away with our interview that I forgot to ask her about it until we had a call when I informed her of my book project.

Why were you driving a beat-up Toyota Fun Cargo and had that old phone while you had just sold your company for millions and had more than an abundance with you?

“I bet when we met my Toyota Fancargo was so beat then but I just took it for a paint job a few weeks ago so right now it’s a bit spruced up and decent. About my phone, my husband has always complained as I had to always charge it at a certain angle. It, however, did its job which was to communicate but I have to get a new one after the insistence of my husband.”

“I think it’s personality that makes me like the simple things in life. If I were dead broke and I managed to have lots of products, and a heart filled with dreams to conquer. She relocated back home with a suitcase full of products, and a heart filled with dreams to conquer,” she said. 

Business idea

Coming back home, the makeup industry was far from what she was accustomed to in the US but this did not deter her from starting to get her way in the industry.

She started working with various media houses and magazines as a makeup artist. It was while at it that she realised that the makeup brands she preferred to use were either not available locally or if they were, they would be so expensive to make business sense.

In addition to this, the makeup brands that she used were not made for the African woman given the different climatic conditions and environment she is under. Noting this gap, she sought to fill it by manufacturing make-up for the African woman.

This was in 2009 when she commenced the long journey of bringing to life the Suzie Beauty brand.

The first year of the Suzie Beauty brand journey was mainly for her and the chemist being fully immersed in research and development to create the initial products for the Suzie Beauty line.

Knowing that there were no local factories she also embarked on business trips to various destinations to identify a partner manufacturer in both Asia and America. She visited China, the US, Taiwan, and Bangkok in a quest to find the right partner.

After much research and deliberation, she eventually settled for China. This was because of their advancement and track record in manufacturing. On her visit to China, she was surprised to find out that even well-known world beauty brands had their manufacturing there.

In the second year after the birth of Suzie Beauty, she conceived her firstborn but this did not deter her pursuit. She now was juggling between testing her products after her research and development, registering her intellectual property through the help of her husband, and her pregnancy.

Funding nightmare

At this juncture, she told me they had sunk in close to Sh2 million with nothing yet tangible. They were however optimistic that it would turn out well.

The year ended with them settling on their product line and their manufacturer but their funds had run dry. Year three was spent fundraising and knocking at the bank’s doors.

The banks saw her as absurd as she was yet to have a business at hand hence all turned her away.

While in her frustration, two investors out of the many she had gotten in touch with nodded to her deal.

She needed around $200,000 which was equivalent to Sh16 million then but with the investors, she only managed to raise Sh6 million.

She used the two investors as leverage to raise the balance which she did. Chase Bank, now SBM Bank, agreed to give her a loan of Sh10 million. It all now aligned and the dream was now set to come to life though at a cost of 19 per cent equity stake issued to the investors and a huge loan from the bank.

Going to market

She did not doubt her Suzie Beauty product and was fully convinced from her research, it was tailored and positioned for the market with its values being great quality and affordability for the African woman.

With money at hand, she made an order for the first consignment. While the manufacturers attended to her order, she started knocking on doors of outlets she wanted the Suzie beauty brand to be stocked.

Most outlets were open to the idea and agreed verbally to her proposal so it was a matter of time to completely hit the ground running.

When the products hit the market in May 2012 she had conceived her second born but that never deterred her ambitions as while heavily pregnant she was running up to distribute amongst the outlets that had given her a nod.

However, some of the outlets that had verbally agreed to her proposal changed their minds when the goods landed on the market.

Some of the ones who accepted did not oblige with her brand requirements and positioning of the Suzie Beauty brand hence she took them off their shelf.

Brand positioning

She was quite clear about what she was working towards hence categorical on her brand positioning from the onset.

The first year was a success as the products quickly moved off the shelf. Demand was a none issue. She confessed to me that she had no marketing budget but fully relied on PR.

“Between getting an article of yourself on the paper or the different platforms and paying hundreds of thousands for an advertisement for a placement, which has more value? PR of course! I used my mouth to get my way through and it fully worked for me as a brand as well as for Suzie Beauty,” she recalls. 

Business plateau

Four years into the business, she started to see the business plateau as they had limited resources to grow further. She was also at the time doubling up as the CEO of the company, a position that she did not like and limited her creative input in the course of the business.

At this point, she was out looking for a partner to come on board, and coincidentally also Flame Tree Group was in the market open for an acquisition of a beauty line to add to their existing asset brands.

Through a friend, she was introduced to the leadership of Flame Tree group in 2015 and they initiated a conversation on the potential acquisition.

Flame Tree Group was clear from the onset that they wanted a full one hundred per cent acquisition “Suzie’s baby”, as she describes the business, it would be in someone’s hands a thought that was not sitting quite well with her. They however struck out a deal with Flame Tree Group with a clause inserted that Suzie would be the Chief Creative Officer of the Suzie beauty brand for five years upon acquisition.

The term would be reviewed on its expiry.

The considerations she made while deciding with her husband, who was an equal partner in the business, were that she would still have a role in the business after the acquisition, the business debt would be completely paid and the initial investors would be bought off.

The exact value of the deal has never been disclosed but on pestering Suzie on the value she did not quite give out the exact value after selling her stake, but it ranged between Sh50 million and Sh100 million.

What a way to exit a business less than five years from when it commenced its operations.

 The writer is the author of Business Conquest where this story was extracted from.   

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