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I got tired of buying in-fitting furniture- Owner of Midland Kids’ Furniture

Achieving Woman
 Caroline Mbiu, 34, runs Midlands Kids' Furniture

MY BACKGROUND: I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Science from Egerton University. My primary work experience has been in customer service, which taught me how to work with people. I am currently in school, studying furniture design.

THE IDEA: I have always loved working with children and colours. In my first business, I organised children’s events. When it folded up, I thought about making furniture for children’s rooms. As a mother, I realised that I constantly needed furniture and accessories for my growing children - from baby cots to toddler beds, double decker beds, wardrobes, study desks, book shelves and more.

I also realised that very few people made customised furniture. I would walk into a shop, check a ready-made design and buy it, not even sure if it could fit in the space in my house. I took the chance and picked a baby cot design from a photo on the Web, then asked a local fundi to replicate it. When it was complete, I thought I could sell it so I marketed it on OLX and WhatsApp.

I was surprised when I got offers for the baby cot and I ventured into the business. By the end of the year, the orders were too many and I quit my job to do it full time. This was necessary because customised furniture requires attention to detail.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: Now, fully immersed in my business, I rented a workshop and bought a circular saw, a painter, a drill and a router. At the same time, I learnt all I could about customised furniture design and realised that I had to give the best finishing in order to be a brand. Orders streamed in, mostly from referrals and repeat customers. For example, a customer would buy a baby cot, then call me 6 months later, when the child had grown, asking for a toddler bed or a toy rack. I never delegated but keenly paid attention to all the details in order not to disappoint my clients. Through visits to customer houses, I also advised them on how they could utilise the space they had and ensured these were translated to the measurements of their custom furniture. I realised the advantage I had as a mother, for I understood children well and could focus on designs that would give them the best experience.

Because of my keen attention on quality, timely delivery and ability to tailor products to a customer’s budget, my business took off and I was flooded with requests through WhatsApp. Over time, I learnt how to set the price by carefully assessing all my overheads and choosing an appropriate mark-up.

RUNNING A START-UP: Despite furniture being a male-dominated business, I have earned the respect of my male peers due to my work ethic. A major challenge, as always, is managing a family and a business. I have a trusted nanny though, who does her job well. Financing is also an issue. Most banks will not lend you for a start-up. Women and youth funds insist on giving to groups and not individuals. My SACCO has been my resource, for, with guarantors, I am allowed to borrow an amount that is related to my contribution. I am currently organising financing in order to buy a computer-aided design machine from China that would copy my designs directly on wood.

There are also spontaneous expenses that come in when you are running a start-up, such as a customer cancelling on an order that you have already invested your money in, or electricity outages. You take it in your stride though. Currently, a customer makes a 50 per cent deposit before I start work. They then pay the rest upon delivery. A fundi accompanies all my deliveries so that he can quickly fix any fault.

WHERE I AM NOW: I invested in my customers and they came back. I keep a contact database of my clientele, where I update them on new offers and current designs. I do at least 30 orders each month from which I make an average of Sh250,000 net profit. I now have a workshop and I have employed ten people. My workforce is my biggest asset and I invest in their skills, by regularly organising for training on woodwork, paintwork and furniture finishing.

TIP: Research the business you want to engage in. Once you have all the information, run and die with it. You will make it if you are determined. Also, add value to yourself and be the best so people automatically look for you. I am back in school to learn about furniture design. I want to be relevant.

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