October Edition with Muna coincided with Nigeria’s Independence Celebration Month. While we raised a toast to Motherland, the session with Muna provided an opportunity to bring to the fore basic issues that we need to get right as we strive to carve a niche for ourselves.
Muna Okam is an entrepreneur extraordinaire. A lawyer by training, she obtained her first degree from the University of Lagos, Lagos Nigeria and a Masters in commercial and business law from the prestigious Duke University, North Carolina, USA. Whilst at Duke University, Muna also took courses from the well-known Fuqua school of Business at Duke University preparing herself for a future in entrepreneurship and business. Having always been fascinated with the act of baking especially the baking of miniature desserts, Muna started experimenting with baking from early childhood. In Dec 2010, Muna finally decided to turn her passion into something much more than just a hobby and what better name to call her business than that of her daughter, Chloe who was born in October of the same year. Muna is happily married with 3 children and when she’s not taking care of her family, baking or watching one of her favorite Tv shows, she’s dreaming about cupcakes!
Below is the excerpt from our Community Session with Muna. Enjoy.
Have you always loved baking, or how did you arrive at that as a business idea?
Baking is something I’ve always done right from childhood. We are a family of five, three of us, girls, and I remember I was always the only one who baked among the girls. My mum used to bake and she had all the appliances in the house. Funny enough she had a bakery where she made bread and she named it Muna Bread, so maybe it was providence or something but I always toyed around with the idea of baking. For where it became a business idea, I would say I see myself as a serial entrepreneur in the sense that I am in love with the idea of growing something from nothing. So I’ve always been very passionate about that and it has always been my driving force. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always done one thing or another. I used to design gold and sell gold; I’ve done fashion, sold clothes; I’ve done a bit of hair; I’ve actually started an interior…(general laughter)…so, it’s been long coming, it is not a strange thing; I’m passionate about business.
Give us one fact, starting out a business idea, is it really about having enough money to start or, what is superior to that argument?
I think money is secondary. Like you said, it is an idea. It all starts in the head, goes through a thought process which we then give flesh before it materialises into a business that everybody can see. Anybody can come up with an idea, it is what we do with it that matters. So I don’t think it is a question of money, I think it is more about giving force to an idea.
How many employees do you have and how do you structure your system in such a way that it delivers a level of efficiency equal to whatever success level you have achieved?
I have about 20-23 employees. With the structuring , first, the most important thing for me with the business is to maintain the standard of quality with which we started. Now that the business is out there, we are catering to the public, but I started from my kitchen. When I started, it was just me. When someone calls me and says they want 3 boxes of cupcakes, I would produce those 3 boxes myself so I know what is going in. Now, when you take it out there, you do not have the manpower to do it all by yourself. You definitely need to engage people. At that point, the most important thing for me has been ensuring that the people I employ maintain the same levels of quality and standard that I started with. So that drives everything that I do. From the way we bake, down to packaging, everything. So the processes are all aligned to achieve that end where the quality is not compromised.
At a time when most people are trying to stay away from sweet things, weight management issues and all, there is only so much cake that one can eat. What niche have you secured that guarantees you still have sustained patronage to keep you in business?
Well, you know we are conscious of weight management, less sugar and all, but once in a while, we need to indulge. We are not asking people to eat cupcakes every day, but then, if you do decide to, make it Chloe’s cupcakes. One of the things we make sure of is to be very mindful of our ingredients. At Chloe’s Cupcake Heaven, cupcakes aren’t the only things we do, we also do ice cream. When we started, I had a lot of people walking in and saying “oh, we do very sweet ice cream etc” and they bring us pre-packaged ice cream. We don’t do that. Everything we do is produced in our kitchen and it is produced from scratch. So that gives me some measure of control over what I’m giving out. From basic ingredients, to sugar quantities, down to the preservatives. That way, everything comes out fresh and healthy.
How do you get patronage, do you have to advertise?
We don’t do a lot of advertising. We rely a lot on word of mouth, few fairs here and there, but essentially, once we went public, that really helped because, for one, we are blessed with a very good location, location is everything. Secondly, somehow, our work speaks for itself, people go to a gathering, eat the cake and get referred, so we find that we don’t need to advertise as much.
So what would you say is the unique selling point at Chloe’s?
Err…That would be… our focus in giving customers what they want because we are never content. We put out eight flavours of cupcakes, then we had 15 flavours and we keep pushing the boundaries, I want to make this, or oh, can I use corn to make cupcakes, or how about that, and we keep producing to give customers. Right now we are producing about 17 flavours of cupcakes, about 4 varieties of cookies, and right now I’m thinking oh, we don’t have a white chocolate cookie, or someone might want a peanut butter cookie, so yes, I would say our desire to give customers what they want.
What are your current challenges, because it can’t be all rosy?
Well, it certainly isn’t. First of all, infrastructure.
How so, you have a beautiful place…
No, I mean in terms of light, water, you know when you’re dealing with pastry, you need 24hours of light. You can’t afford not to have light especially when you have ice cream. I need constant light, which is not something that obtains in Nigeria. When it goes off, then I depend on the generator. For me, you know when a beautiful shop opens in Nigeria, all is well, till you walk in and the windows are open and the generator is on, things begin to degenerate. We don’t want that. So trying to keep up the level with which we started is then a challenge. Some days I get a call that the water has stopped running. The ice cream machines are powered by water. For me, what does that mean? It means to be in business the next day, I have to get that water running by hook or crook…(general laughter)…that’s the irony.
How do you source your material for production?
We are not your typical Nigerian bakery where you go in and see meatpie, sausage roll, etc. people come into Chloe’s because they want to have something different. For instance, you come in and you want a white chocolate cookie, or macadamia…these are not things you would find in a regular store in Nigeria. And to have these, we have to do a lot of importation. I find that to be a challenge because I have to be on top of my position so that I don’t run out of things at any time, down to the sprinkles on the cupcakes. As much as possible, we try to use what we can find here, but when you are trying to grow an international brand, then your raw materials have to be what you would find internationally. So going back to challenges, the third thing for me is…staffing.
Staffing is a challenge?
It is. I think I have actually been blessed with good staff, but then again, there are the bad eggs and you have to deal with that. Sometimes, it is the general attitude that people have to the work. They feel they can make more money if they branch out on their own, they don’t come to work, no prior notice. You know, the system we run is not like the day by day pay system you find abroad so people tend to get away with a lot of things. There is just inefficiency generally with staff cutting corners. Sometimes you may not even want to cut corners, but the staff cut the corners for you; and you are like, no, do it this way, put enough fudge etc but they come and they just want to save. Whatever is going on in their head sometimes, you just never know.
So, going back to the power issue, you’re saying if there is regular light, it would bring down the cost of cupcakes?
(General laughter)…definitely. These things are all inter-twined. You can’t take one away from the other. If there is regular light, regular water, the cost of production goes down. We spend a lot of money running the generators.
Probably you are independently wealthy, that’s why you could…?
(laughs) no no, I’m not independently wealthy. I did somehow manage to float Chloe’s Cupcake Heaven without going to a bank for financing. But, my bank (name withheld) I’ve found them to be extremely supportive. They’re very small medium friendly and they do give out loans.
Did you have to get a bank loan then to set up your place?
No, I didn’t. I…
Did they give you like overdrafts?
For me, no, but they do give overdrafts. Once you start banking with them and maintain…they offer you credit so you choose to use it or not, and if you ever need to grow in the future, like us, we are ready to go to the bank because we are looking to expand the business anyway. One thing I can say though is that, once Chloe’s started, for the first month, almost every day of the week, a different bank came in, offering 3 months credit because they could see we were going to grow. So they do. Maybe if I had gone to them initially and said this is what I want to do, it may have been tricky at that point, I don’t know though, because I didn’t do it. Em…you were asking how we financed?
Ok. Initially, I would just say it was God..
Nigerian support system eh?
(general laughter)..the business was running prior to opening a shop. We received help a little bit, not that much, because I remember the first time I heard the rent, I was like oh! The landlord said to me “just go and pray to your father in heaven…” and I said to him “ha! I understand that I have a father in heaven o, but…it is not that in this type of matter” I just didn’t know how I was going to pay that rent because it was exorbitant. He said to me “listen, if you are telling me that you are making x amount right now, working from home”, he then multiplied it by 6 and said “you are going to be making this amount”. I looked at him and thought, this guy must be a huge joker. How is it possible I will make that kind of money just because I am moving into a shop? Setting up the shop from the get go, we had done like x10 of what he said and had not hit that amount…
So you would say the location has been key?
Location, Location, Location
Let me ask, first, your place is great, I commend you, but the thing is, I might want to buy just a cupcake, so I do and you use the foil to wrap it, and by the time I get home, the icing is smudged whereas for me, that is the deal…why can’t I get a holder that allows the icing stay perched till I get home? Secondly, are you thinking of other branches?
Certainly, before the end of the year, we will be opening in Gwarimpa and hopefully all other places. To answer the other question, you know what? I would absolutely love to have the one cupcake holder, the 2 or maybe there is a 3, the whole range. But…I just talked about the challenges in importation. The mental work I do, the calculations, just to make sure you don’t run out is …..we just don’t have a lot in Nigeria to be honest. We have a lot in our human capital because people are exposed. You are asking this because you know what you expect. If you enter a cupcake shop in America, you know you will come out with one cupcake in a box. While we are doing our best to give that, we also have our drawbacks, our limitations. It is a bit difficult….
…With such a huge population, how come we cannot find anyone to make a box in Nigeria? Yes there is a learning process, but surely, we can teach that man to make a box?
I have the answer to that. It is not that I can’t find someone to make a box but…
Thank you!!! It is so much cheaper to import because that man is dealing with the cost of production that I’m dealing with. He is dealing with the fact that he has had to run his generator and when he tells you the cost for one box…it makes it ridiculous! So how much more can you take on?
That’s a point there. If you were not into baking, what else would you be doing?
I don’t know. But I do know that if I was not into baking, I would be doing something else because like I said, I am passionate about growing something out of nothing. But I am passionate about baking, which is probably why it stuck out of the many things I was doing. Right now, I don’t feel the need to do anything else because I’ve found that thing that I started and I have grown.
Biggest Challenge till date and biggest mistake?
It is more like a situation I found myself. Biggest challenge? Staffing. For a bakery, you employ a staff and when you ask something as simple as “where do you live?” you hear something like “near CMS Bustop” (general laughter) and my mistake? Not finding out where “near CMS Bustop” is. So now I find that I have to send someone to go and verify, because when that “near CMS Bustop” person disappears, it is a problem.
So, you would say, doing your homework well?
Yes, doing your homework well and staffing. It is so key, you cannot underestimate them.
Thank you so much Muna. It’s been enlightening listening to you and we like the fact that you are succeeding at what you do.
Imoh Eboh, Kai Orga and Simi Fajemirokun. Happy Birthday Ladies!
October Edition witnessed a requested drop-by visit from Mr. Kingsley Bangwell – CEO, Youngstars Foundation. His mission? To share with the Community opportunities available for females at the 2013 Maiden edition of Thinking School Africa holding November 17-23 in Dubai. More details at www.youngstarsfoundation.org/thinkingschool
We are keeping to our vision of raising friends who can commit to raising more friends who will contribute towards the larger good of our society. Our end of year social activity is on course. Anyone and everyone can contribute.