Princess Adebowale Odutola, a lover of excellence is the brain behind The Potter’s Signature (TPS) that creates bespoke delights. A trained lawyer and political scientist, Paul Harris Fellow and a royal daughter, Odutola has created premium hand- crafted works by paying attention to details. What started in her bedroom only five years ago has today become an enterprise prominent for luxury bespoke items. Dumping law for real estate before venturing into the world of entrepreneurship, she speaks about dumping law to pursue her real passion, how her business took off from being a hobby, how Nigerian made goods can compete favourably in international markets and the relationship and values she shared with her father, the late Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuade.

You dumped law for real estate, what informed this decision?
I studied Political Science and later Law, but never practiced. For me, law was boring and I studied it to have an idea before venturing into real estate and I was a realtor for a long time. I practiced real estate and with my knowledge of law, I practiced well and excelled in it. However, when the industry nosedived a couple of years ago, I thought of what to do to make money. I thought of opening a restaurant because I love to cook, I thought of opening an amala joint because I love making amala, and with food, you tend to make a lot of friends. I eventually did. I used to have an amala joint at the Bar Beach; it was called “Wuraola Omo Oba,” my name and title. We used to deliver to offices on the island, and it was really booming, but I eventually left that behind. However, I am still going to make amala, and it will not distract me from my present business.

So how and when did you decide entrepreneurship was the way forward?
In 2013 when I was looking to branch out of real estate, I told myself I wanted a business that would give me fame and fortune. As fate would have it, on my birthday that year, someone gifted me an Ankara bag, which was beautiful, but was not well made. I looked at the bag and told myself it could look far better than it did. I got up the next day and brought out all my scarves and leftover fabrics from clothes sewn in the past, and started using them to make handbags. My mother gave me 36 wrappers to start with. I never tied them, I just started cutting to make bags and that was how it all began. I also did some market analysis. This was in 2013, my teething period. I discovered real leather in Mushin in Lagos and crocodile skin in Kano. That was how TPS Luxury started, as a hobby. Eventually, I went to train in London and imported a sewing machine. I always tell people, you must have a passion for what you are doing. I think what has driven me this far, is the passion I have for fashion. No matter how simple I dress, I get noticed, somebody will notice something that is so unusual. I have been able to put that into practice and put it to good use for my products.

How tough was it getting people to embrace a locally-made luxury product?  
When I started, some people said, “Is it not made here, why is it expensive?” It was difficult initially but those who started buying are those who usually bought original designers and appreciated quality. That’s why I’m always very thankful to God when I look at my brand. I started from a humble beginning but those who encouraged me did and that has kept me going.

What would you say is the response now, has it improved?
For me, Nigerians are beginning to appreciate what we have if they know the quality. Right now, when anybody faces a direction and is successful, everybody will start facing that direction. There are so many designers now in the country but please, there must be good finishing to goods. Let us have international standards; products that can sit well on the shelves of international brands. Also, because it is made-in-Nigeria, doesn’t make it cheap; people need to realise that. I think with the recession, a lot of people are beginning to appreciate what we have. I see a lot of people wearing Ankara now, I am proud of my African print, I am proud of my heritage.

Talking about export, would you say the government is doing enough to help local entrepreneurs export their products?
I think the government has put in place machinery for us to be able to export. It is left for manufacturers to go and get the certificate. For instance, with Walmart, there are a few things to be done; you need some licenses and a broker. I believe we will get there someday, because with the 2015 Executive Order, which amongst other things supports local content, it is definitely moving us towards export in this country. Soon, we will see made in Nigeria products on every shelf, which is the ultimate aim. We can’t keep them here where we made them; it is for the international market. I know and strongly believe that Nigerian brands will take over the world someday.

How much local content goes into your work?
Everything is locally sourced, including the leathers and fabrics, except for the hardware. We get crocodile skin from Kano and to process, skive, colour and cut takes about 12 days. Even the cutting of the bones is tough; it breaks knives. It’s a lot of work but there must be attention to detail. For me, we have to set a standard. If we say made-in-Nigeria is going out there, then it must compete well in the international market.  We desire international standards and that was why we approached manufacturers abroad who also manufacture hardware for big brands. We, however, have an edge in terms of attractiveness and our use of African fabrics. Every material here has been locally sourced from Mushin and Balogun markets. Initially, I was bringing them in from Australia; but later, I found out that they were far cheaper in Lagos. My Ankaras are from Balogun but I make sure I take the veritable wax, for sustainability, durability and for the theme.

What challenges do you encounter as an entrepreneur and the biggest lesson running a business has taught you?
Humility. I’ve always had that virtue but now, it’s more. Business has also taught me to be very calm. It takes patience to deal with some customers but I have learned to stay calm; especially with those that doubt our work. The initial challenge I had was with staffing until I got it right. When I had Nigerians working with me, they were meant to learn from the people from the Francophone countries and become experts, but the moment they learnt one or two things, they left to start up their own business to make quick money. Now, the major problem I have is to meet up with demands. Made in Nigeria is becoming something that Nigerians are proud of. About 70 percent of the designer bags women in this country carry around are fake.

Let’s talk about your late father; did he make you feel different from other girls?
He made us mix with everybody. I remember he would ask that I should be taken to Mile12 Market, so I learned how to shop. There’s a lot of mud in that market and people wear rain boots but my dad would make sure I was taken there. That was in the 80s and that was how I learned how to price tomato and pepper. I wasn’t different from any other person but I remember he used to say to me: “Yes, you were born with a silver spoon but you should do things better than any other person because of your upbringing.” We had everything we wanted but we had discipline, too. My father did not beat nor abuse but he had a way of disciplining us, and it registered. We were 17 children and I am the last of the girls. My father is from the South West while my mother is from the Middle Belt. I grew up in Lagos and my background is English and Yoruba. When I look back from where I am coming from and where I am today, I just see myself as the female version of my late father. He was business oriented, a strict disciplinarian, a devout Christian and above all, he was very neat- values I would say he passed unto us his children. My childhood has influenced a lot of things I do today. I have a niche for excellence and perfection and very elegant, and a taste for the good things of life, and as a result, I work very hard to enjoy those things.

Which of your parents would you say you were closer to?
I was closer to my dad; I was the last girl. He taught me how to cook. Even when I saw my period for the first time, I turned to him and he was the one who taught me about monthly period using my biology textbook. In fact, we went to UTC to buy my first sanitary pad together and he told me I must change them every hour. He taught me everything I know about cleanliness and keeping myself as a woman. My dad was an avid lover of the colour white; he loved white a lot and people used to call him Baba oni white. He taught me how to be a neat person because he was very neat. In fact, he complemented my mom because she was also very neat. I’m a product of two well-groomed and accomplished adults; and that has reflected in everything I do. I must confess that I miss the envelopes of money he always gave me even as an adult. My mother is still alive, she is in her 90s.

What should we expect from you in say, the next five years?
In the next five years by the grace of God, now that we have gotten our export license, we are ready to move. We might not go to the big stores because it is a bit challenging and the taxes are quite high. What I am looking at is for people to distribute my goods in major countries where we will have stores, it will be a Nigerian store for Nigerian products. We will have a lot of road shows at different countries where we can show what we have in this country beyond oil. We have tested the Canadian market and it is doing well. I look forward to dominating every country. Already, a company in Kuwait has asked us to produce for them to sell there and I’m happy our pursuit of excellence is paying off.  For me, I believe we should always seek perfection in whatever we are gifted at. I love to do things with my hands and I know that zeal is what has taken me this far. My talent I would say comes from God but I was told my grandmother too used to crochet and do a lot with her hands. I love crafts. In fact, I remember that while in the university, I had tailors who were making my clothes with a Singer sewing machine that I bought for myself. I’ve always loved fashion and liked to do things differently.

So what lessons have you learned about life so far?
I have learnt to be focused and very, very patient. If I am not patient, I might not be able to continue as an entrepreneur because this is not the kind of business that is going to bring you huge amounts of money at a time. It comes in trickles, somebody might buy a bag today, you might not get anyone to buy in the next two weeks, but that does not deter me. If you are not patient, you cannot persist, you cannot be in business.

What last words do you want to leave with women?
Women please do not stay in the house and say you’re a housewife. Whatever you know how to do, even if it is chin-chin, do it well and sell it. Someday, it is going to grow. I started this business not just as a passion alone, but because I needed to do it. When I started this business, I said I was going to create bags that were remarkable, that people will love to buy. So whatever you know how to do as a woman, just do it well, do it diligently and put your whole heart to it. Let us encourage one another and let the government encourage entrepreneurs by providing a working environment that is conducive, where entrepreneurship thrives.

Source: Tobi Awodipe for Guardian Nigeria

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