Addie Olutola is the CEO and founder of African fashion brand D’iyanu, and her mission is to see as many people as possible “rock” her African fashions. Her dream got a big boost last year in the form of some movie magic. (Credit: D'iyanu)

Addie Olutola is the CEO and founder of African fashion brand D’iyanu, and her mission is to see as many people as possible “rock” her African fashions. Her dream got a big boost last year in the form of some movie magic. (Credit: D’iyanu)

Addie Olutola’s mission — to see as many people as possible “rock” her African fashions — got a big boost in the form of some movie magic.

She’s the CEO and founder of D’iyanu, an online clothing store for women, men and children selling everything from dresses to shirts, to pants and infant onesies — all of them featuring bold, colorful African prints.

Since launching in 2014, Olutola has grown her Norristown, Pennsylvania, venture from a one-woman show run out of a small studio space to a bustling online empire with its own offices. And despite a few bumps in the road, D’iyanu’s growth trajectory has been a steady incline.

But some of her more recent success came out of a splash of serendipity, in the form of Marvel mega-hit “Black Panther.” Olutola explains that “a lot of people were buying clothes to go watch the movie” about a superhero and king from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. It made people “more excited to represent their African roots through their clothing.” She may not have had anything to do with the movie, but Olutola was smart enough to seize the opportunity, embarking on a digital advertising blitz around its release.

Her idea worked — last year, D’iyanu reported $2.5 million in revenue. Better still, Olutola projects her company will double that in 2019.

The Path to Starting Up

Olutola was born in Nigeria, and moved to the United States in December 1992, when she was 6 years old. Moving away from the family, food and weather she had known all her life was tough, and she found herself trying to dress, talk and act like her new schoolmates to cope. “I felt like I was trying to fit in, and was kind of ashamed of my Nigerian background.”

Until high school, that is. As a teenager, she began embracing her love of different fashions and cuisines. “It’s interesting, how you make that shift as you grow up,” she says. As she came into her own, she earned advanced degrees in international business and marketing, then began her career as a financial manager and product distributor.

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The entrepreneurial itch hit her at the beginning of 2013. At the time, she was a buyer at laboratory research tools distributor VWR, but she wasn’t content. When she and her friends began discussing the lack of African fashion available online, she saw an opportunity to fill that void in the marketplace.

She began working in earnest on a business plan in March 2013, researching manufacturers in nearby Philadelphia who would accommodate her initially small orders and sourcing designers online. Olutola bootstrapped her efforts, using a combination of personal savings, her cashed-out 401(k) and several credit cards to launch the business at the beginning of 2014.

She was still working full-time, and quickly grew exhausted with working at her day job for eight hours before rushing home to fulfill orders placed on her website, Etsy and Ebay stores. Ultimately, she knew she had to focus on it full-time in order to make growth happen.

So though D’iyanu was in its earliest stages, she put in her 2 weeks notice, and was a full-time entrepreneur by May of that year — “even though [the business] was not profitable at the time, and I still had to figure out how to get things moving consistently.”

Upticks and Plateaus

To get the word out, Olutola first tried attending fashion expos in Philadelphia and New York. But these were time-consuming, and the return on investment wasn’t what she wanted or needed to grow the business. So she refocused her efforts on driving more sales online, pushing her website and Etsy page and taking an online course on strategically using Facebook ads.

Optimizing her Facebook posts and ads was a game-changer, she says. By finding and engaging with customers on the social networking site who love African fashion as much as she does, “we created an audience, and were able to grow really quickly.”

She says the business went “from 0 to 100” by the end of 2014. In March 2015, she used her profits to move out of the small studio space she had rented and into a full office. That same month, she also hired her first employee. The following year, she added two more staffers. And in 2016, she was able to expand her team more, in addition to reaching over $1 million in sales for the first time.

The growth was exciting — until it plateaued in 2017.

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Olutola refused to let inertia win out. “I invested in the business as far as updating the logo and branding, and in trying to create a more efficient back-end” for order processing and production. These were expensive endeavors, so while the business made over $1 million in sales that year, it suffered a net loss due to those investments.

 

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In 2018, however, revenue rebounded — thanks in large part to the sudden ubiquity of “Black Panther’s” Academy-award-winning costume design. Olutola knew this was a golden opportunity to spark growth, so ahead of the movie’s February 2018 debut, Olutola ramped up online ads, crafted a timely social media campaign and scored interviews in online publications and fashion blogs to boost awareness.

Like its titular superhero, the film and its African fashions arrived when Olutola needed it most. By taking advantage of the opportunity the movie presented, she saved the day for her business.

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People and Processes

Last year, Olutola brought on one person to optimize her email blasts, and another to oversee advertisements and referral programs. Both have worked out well, she says — but not every employee she’s brought on has been a shining star.

In fact, when asked about her biggest challenges to date, she ranked “hiring the right people” high on the list. Her business has seen several marketing coordinators come and go, she says, and there has been quite a bit of turnover among her order processing and customer service staff.

Those growing pains were educational, in that they showed her what to look for in prospective employees. Now, she says she has a rock-solid team of “people who understand and are trying to achieve our mission” of selling African fashions, and “who have the right skill set to do what is required” of them.

She has also learned how to lean on these people more. “I manage a lot of stuff — from design, to production, to marketing, to financials. I’m still involved in all of those areas of the business, but now I found the right people to actually delegate [tasks] to.”

A Global Mission

Olutola had always envisioned paying her success forward. Since 2015, she has been able to donate to Charity Water, which provides clean water for people in developing parts of the world, and a second African charity that provides children with school supplies. So far, she has given more than $15,000 to these causes. “Charity is a big reason that keeps me going and working on the business,” she says.

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She also has goals for D’iyanu that inspire her. In the short-term, promoting efficiency throughout the company continues to be a priority. “Now, it’s about making things automated, so that when we’re ready to scale and grow,” that bedrock is already in place.

Looking further ahead, her mission is bold: “to be the biggest African-inspired fashion line, and to be a household name.”

She admits that’s a bit far off, but has made strides to get there — though most of her customers are American, she has also shipped her African fashions to Canada, Australia, France and the U.K.

“We have a lot of work still to do in that regard,” Olutola says, but she’s eager to roll up her chic sleeves and get busy.

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