Paul Orajiaka is the founder of Auldon Limited, an African-themed toy company worth over $10million. In this interview, he shares the inspiration behind his dolls, the challenges he faced and how he struck gold.
How was growing up for you?
Being the son of a carver, whose dad was keen on raising successful entrepreneurially oriented men, he literally deprived us of the usual youthful exuberance that would have seen us play weekdays after school or weekends with our friends. Rather, he seriously engaged us in his workshops to learn craft along with his other numerous apprentices, stay productive and learn the entrepreneur's mindset right at that early age. We detested this level of engagement at his workshop as little boys, preferring rather to be running around the streets of Warri with our friends. For us, we saw this as a big challenge but with time, we started making money at a very early age. As early as 12 or 13, my dad opened an account for me and my siblings whereby when he sells crafts produced by us, he would split the proceeds between himself, mum and us. Whatever you get as your share would be deposited into your account. We could not withdraw from that account; we could only deposit because we were underage. So for me to withdraw, my dad would have to countersign.
What childhood experience shaped who you are today?
The level of hard work, financial independence and discipline instilled by my dad at an early age made me confident that I can take charge of my life right after secondary school. With my dad's disciplinary disposition, he marshalled me to acquire raw entrepreneurship skills and more importantly, financial discipline and prudent resource management. His guidance made me master the principles of delayed gratification grafted in the concept of the dignity of labour because I sweated it out at the workshop while my friends were enjoying themselves playing on the street.
What was that inspiring influence on you as a child?
Yes. Growing and earning money from sales of my craft literally made me king of the park amongst my peers back then in Warri. As little boys then, the trend was to come first in class and get your parents buy you a BMX or Chopper bicycle. For me, coming amongst the top five in class was literally a tall order and if I hoped to ever get a first position to be rewarded with a bicycle from my parents, then I may have to wait for eternity. I desired to own a bicycle, so I bought it myself. I didn't need to be first in class to own one and hence, I withdrew N1,200 from my account and told my mum that I had enough money to buy my first bicycle and that I was going to get one. We went to Onitsha and I bought my bicycle and it was the best amongst what my friends had. It felt like I was driving a Rolls Royce while my friends drove Volkswagen Beetle.
How did you get into toy business?
I started my toys business more by accident than by a well-crafted plan. Trading within Idumota was never the original plan straight out of secondary school. I felt so independent that after secondary school, I opted to showcase my independence and entrepreneurial skills abroad. I dreamt of feeding on greener pastures in the lush fields of the United States of America and hence, pursued a university admission at Fort Valley State University.
This dream and journey to the US was cut short at the US Embassy in Lagos where my visa application was denied after three consecutive attempts. It was to obtain a visa to travel that brought me for the first time in contact with the city of my destiny, Nigeria's Centre of Excellence - Lagos. I joined my in-law in his importation business in Idumota and I found the opportunity a welcome distraction from my visa rejection woes. Idumota, just like several other communities in Lagos, was rowdy and outrightly chaotic. But hidden in the chaos and commotion is a sea of money-making opportunities. My eyes got opened in amazement to how young men were trading and making money and I wanted to be just like them. I saw big trade, big businesses, I saw my Igbo brothers making money, so I knew that if I stayed there long enough and worked hard enough, I was sure going to make money like these guys.
Toys as a business started with my encounter with Park 'n' Shop supermarkets in Adeola Odeku Victoria Island, now SPAR, where I established a business relationship with the store managers, Arun and Deepak, supplying frying pans, rechargeable lamps and other products imported by my in-law boss and earning a commission.
Because I grew up not having to play with toys, not because of affordability but more of the strict worldview of my parents, especially my father who believed more in work than in play, I relished a few minutes each time I visited Park 'n' Shop on business, looking at the beautiful toys stacked on their shelves. With time, due to the strong affinity and fascination I had for the toys section, I realised when the shelves started going dry and almost empty with stock.
This opened up an opportunity of a lifetime and as a business guy and an entrepreneur who understood what opportunity conceptualisation means - when you see an opportunity, just grab it, I went to Deepak, the Indian store manager, and peached to supply him toys not even knowing where they sold toys in Idumota. That was how the story to becoming one of Africa's toys stores began.
What is so unique about your toys?
At Unity Dolls Venture, we depict our beautiful respective cultures in our black dolls. Over the last couple of years, I have grown increasingly more passionate about social entrepreneurship after my organisation launched the Culture vision through which we seek to find and implement solutions to social, cultural and environmental issues facing the Nigerian child as these are the class of people our toys business cater for. We have achieved through our African theme dolls, more cultural awareness, national pride, unity amongst ethnic divides and school's upliftment.
Importantly, we have created a product, not just for girls to have dolls that look like them, but they also have a positive message. The way kids play is the way they shape their world. We have through Culture Vision passed talent, inspiring and excellent positive social attributes to the Nigerian girl- child because a happy, inspired childhood creates happy, inspired and powerful women.
We built our business model based on the idea of harnessing the power of buyers who want to make an impact with their purchases.
We have portrayed the Unity Girl, as far more than a doll, with a brand identity, which represents the social concern around the challenges of the girl-child, particularly her education and welfare in Nigeria and the world at large. Currently, it has become a household name among Nigerian parents and now, we are working hard to push this further across the entire African continent.
What were some of the challenges you faced as an entrepreneur?
The challenges you face doing toy business in Nigeria differ depending on what part of the chain you are playing in. You could either be just a supplier buying locally or importing for wholesale or retail; or setting up brick and mortar shops within the major toys markets or outside these markets. In my case, we metamorphosed virtually from all these ranks, buying locally from Idumota, and then importing as our capital grew. The whole of these steps availed us firsthand knowledge of the challenges associated with each of these ranks.
As an importer, you are bound to see challenges of incessant import policy changes and exchange rate fluctuation. As a local supplier, you are tied with challenges of debt from customers who do not pay up on time, therefore, altering your cash flow. If you are retailing and distributing locally, the poor state of infrastructure around you no doubt impedes your operating capacity as you virtually have to deplore more resources to fuel your operation. The issue of high killing interest rate for fund from commercial banks applies to all as access to low-cost fund is still a mirage for SMEs in Nigeria. By virtue of our on-field experience, we were able to master these challenges with dogged determination to surpass them and arrive at where we are today.
What would you say was the most important key to your success?
Choose quality life over wealth. This came as an advice from my very successful uncle Euriel Chukwudum who seeing me unconcerned about enrolling in the university to further my education but rather neck deep in the pursuit of wealth after the US visa rejection, had a heart-to-heart conversation with me and encouraged me to pursue higher education vigorously using the following words: "Paul, I think you are missing the mark, you need to define yourself in one way or the other. Do you want to be a wealthy man or you want to be a quality man? Anybody can make money and be wealthy but not everybody can lead a quality life. So you need to go back to school because education will sharpen you, give you quality that will even open greater windows of opportunities for you." Those strong words sank in and I enrolled in the University of Lagos to study accounting and today, I am a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School with a Masters in Public Administration and now currently pursuing a doctoral degree from Henley Business School with the aim of providing theoretical and practical solutions to the challenges SMEs face thriving in such a dynamic and volatile economy as ours.
Where do you see your business in the coming years?
With our company mission which is to provide the highest quality toy product lines for children that instils values and enhance their learning skills while being happy, we hope to be the market leader and niche player in cultural theme toys within the global toy industry. We hope with this, we can spread our unique distinct Nigeria and African culture round the globa where you can access our African theme toys in all leading global chain stores.
Who is your role model and why?
Lee Kuan Yew stands out as my role model. When I see how he turned his country from a third world to a first world leaves you with no choice other than to admire him, his make up and personality. When you look at Singapore's diversity, ethnicity and religious colouration, it has semblance with Nigeria, yet, Lee Kuan Yew harnessed their diversity to build a first-class nation but sadly, in our case, our diversity stretches us apart making us a nation of tribes rather than a people with a nationalistic sense of unity and purpose.
What do you think Nigerian entrepreneurs' are not doing well and how can they improve?
I believe that Nigerian entrepreneurs should jettison that opaque mindset that lack of access to fund is the bane of their growth. I will advise that they should understand that empty pocket does not make anyone poor but rather empty minds makes one poor. Ideas are ruling the world today and once you have good ideas, laced with value creation, money will certainly follow you.
What would be your advice to upcoming entrepreneurs hoping to be successful like you?
Do not go into business looking at the plushy entry style at the very begin. Big office, aesthetic interior and implementing ideas straight from business plans perhaps conjured by one consultant who never had a hands-on experience on what he or she is advising. Many opportunities are disguise in places and manner you never imagine. For me, I started in the rowdy Idumota and I make proud to say that I had my very first degree from UI, not University of Ibadan but rather "University of Idumota". This one is a university where there are no lecture rooms or lecturers, no chalks or boards. Learning is acquired there by the sheer grace of crude experience.
What would you do differently if you were in government?
I just graduated from Harvard with a Masters in Public Administration. This quest to Harvard was purely to enable me build requisite professional experience to push myself far beyond my mental limits and strengthen some of my notable weakness among which is limited exposure to a broader spectrum of public administration matters having been in the private field all my life. Once we achieve our political aim, we will focus on improving the plight of SMEs because developing strong, vibrant and viable micro, small and medium enterprises is necessary in order to solve the numerous socio-economic problems facing Nigeria with an estimated population of about 200 million people out of who about 70% are classified as poor based on the international poverty threshold of less than 1.25 dollars per day. This keen interest on SMEs is why my focus in my doctorate studies at Henley Business School UK is geared towards providing theoretical and practical solutions to their plight and with a position in government, we can push the right policies through.
As an importer you are bound to see challenges of incessant import policy changes and exchange rate fluctuation, as a local supplier you are tied with challenges of debt from customers who do not pay up on time, therefore, altering your cash flow. If you are retailing and distributing locally, the poor state of infrastructure around you no doubt impedes your operating capacity as you virtually have to deplore more resources to fuel your operation.
The issue of high killing interest rate for fund from commercial banks applies to all as access to low-cost fund is still a mirage for SMEs in Nigeria. By virtue of our on-field experience, we were able to master these challenges with dogged determination to surpass them and arrive at where we are today.
What would you say was the most important key to your success?
Choose Quality Life over Wealth. This came as an advice from my very successful uncle Euriel Chukwudum who seeing me unconcerned about enrolling in the university to further my education but rather neck deep in the pursuit of wealth after the US visa rejection, had a heart-to-heart conversation with me encouraged me to pursue higher education vigorously using the following words: "Paul, I think you are missing the mark, you need to define yourself in one way or the other. Do you want to be a wealthy man or you want to be a quality man? Anybody can make money and be wealthy but not everybody can lead a quality life. So you need to go back to school because education will sharpen you, give you quality that will even open greater windows of opportunities for you." Those strong words sank in and I enrolled in the University of Lagos to study accounting and today I am a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School with a Masters in Public Administration and now currently pursuing a doctoral degree from Henley Business School with the aim of providing theoretical and practical solutions to the challenges SMEs face thriving in such a dynamic and volatile economy as ours.