The Owlet is a digital market that provides a safer, easier, and more convenient way to shop on the continent
Most great ideas are born out of the need to solve niggling problems. Many big businesses started by providing solutions to problems. A 27-year-old Sara Blakely was preparing for a party in 1998 when she realized that her underwear and clothes didn’t fit. Her combination of white trousers and regular undies looked off, and she wanted to change it. The problem had been persistent. She sold fax machines, and when she had to carry the equipment to sell door-to-door, her clothes looked unflattering. Sara decided to design underwear that did not exist to make her more comfortable. She took a pair of scissors to control-top pantyhose, and Spanx was born. The clothing apparel is worth over $1 billion today.
For companies, downtime represents inefficiency, and it costs money. Businesses lose thousands of dollars by the hour when machines break down. Founded in 2014, Uptake set out to eliminate the problem of downtime before it even occurred. Uptake is an industrial artificial intelligence software company that uses data science and machine learning to make real-time predictions about machine failure. Their information helps companies address problems before they even occur and prevent downtime.
Born in the center of Africa’s largest city, Lagos, congestion & overpopulation were problems that The Owlet CEO Elijah Olusehinde Kolawole faced when growing up. According to the state government, the center of excellence is brimming with over 17 million people. With its relatively small landmass, overpopulation is a problem that the city constantly faces. “Everywhere was always jammed,” Elijah recalls. “My mum was always complaining whenever she had to go to the market. I hated when she made me follow her there. Shopping should be fun, but it never was. It was rowdy and dirty. I lived with my aunt for a bit when I was young. I remember one pregnant woman that was always in the market all the time. She always looked worn out and exhausted. That can’t even be healthy for a baby. Even after she gave birth, she still had to go to the market because she was cursed with a partner that lacked any use.”
“They are grinding all sorts of things and throwing stuff around. The lack of convenience is also a major problem. Roads are inaccessible, making the experience stressful. Nevermind how long it can take to find all the things you came to shop for,” he says. He tries to stem the negativity, but his unhappiness for the state of things gives way. “The shopping experience is a mess. I grew up with news of robberies and kidnappings all around. These problems have persisted to date. Every time you come online now, there is one missing person or the other. Most of the stories start with how they went to the market or went out to buy something. The insecurity problem in Nigeria is as fierce as it comes.”
The hurt feels real, and upon more prying, you can see why. Early on, Elijah had to live with his aunt in Abeokuta. He attended Comprehensive Academy, Lafewa, Abeokuta. Every day, after school, he had to run back to his aunt’s shop to help her sell in the market. He helped to hawk and sell her goods. It was there that he began to conceive the idea for a better market. He had to help old women carry goods to and from their vehicles. In his own words, he found the experience educating and to some extent, enjoyable, but he knew something had to be done to change the conditions of the marketplace. Something that improves it.
While studying mathematics at Osun State University, he realized that physical markets were not optimal for business owners. He had been firmly focused on the shopper’s experience and did not realize that for entrepreneurs, the physical markets aren’t working too. His friends who tried to set up businesses in school struggled to combine their studies with a small business. “Take the laundry business a student tried to run. Running it well meant he had to skip classes to keep up. He couldn’t collect clothes or even keep orders to come and collect the clothes later,” he explained. “We had lecturers trying to combine teaching and a small business to make ends meet. Even though they tried to run the business on campus, they struggled with the responsibilities.”
“Managing a business is hard. Trying to combine it with a professional career or studies brings immense pressure. I found out that even business owners who spend most of their days in their physical stores would appreciate being able to manage the shop when they are physically not there.”
The problem was in front of him. Something had to be done to improve the shopping experience in Nigeria and across the continent at large. Something to bridge the gap between business owners and their customers in a way that is fast, efficient, safe, and convenient. He knew he had to build this digital marketplace that he dreamed of. To make matters more complicated, he set out to do it with his funds. There would be no selling of equity. He would self-fund this project because he never wanted to lose sight of what he set out to build. A little saving from work was enough to get the project off the ground.
Elijah laughs when asked about how he started building The Owlet. “First of all, I was already laying the foundation for The Owlet when I was working with companies to bring them online. I just had to create a more functional system. I already had a reputation. I worked with some good companies before I started building mine. That helped,” he replies.
“You may not believe this, but building The Owlet was easy. Getting people to choose this marketplace over the ones they have known their whole life is not. All we had to do to get started was to build a website and an app. That part is straightforward. No matter how much humans preach change, we are still naturally averse to it. We are skeptical about it. Getting people to try us was a challenge.”
“After building The Owlet, we spent a lot of time trying to bring business owners online. We figured we had to use very traditional marketing methods while preaching a very modern way of shopping. We considered the irony at first, but there was no other way. We set out into the streets, schools, and markets countrywide. Before targeting customers, we had to bring the shops online so customers could find them. People were skeptical about abandoning their old ways, even if the new ways improved things. Students trying to grow their side hustles adopted quickly. It was easy and fun to market to them. We held marketing campaigns across schools in Nigeria, and they registered and set up their stores with no fuss,” he recalls.
The Owlet employed the same strategy with business owners in their physical stores. Their teams went into the streets to teach business owners how to set up their stores, receive, process, and deliver orders to customers safely and conveniently. “We showed them how efficient things could be. We spoke to adults who had responsibilities but could not afford to be away from their business, so they don’t miss out. The Owlet is providing a more convenient market for them to advertise and sell their products/services.”
They repeated the trick when The Owlet teams broke out into the markets to help the traders set up their stores. Donning their bright orange brand color, groups of fives could be seen at strategic points around Lagos markets. One particular success story comes to Elijah’s mind when discussing their very aggressive marketing campaign. “There were these spare part businessmen that one team was trying to convince about all the money they can make from this online store. They didn’t budge. There was no angle the team did not play. These people did not want to register.”
“When we tried to explain that it could help them operate their shop away from their shop, they asked us why they would ever be away from their shop. Checkmate! We had no response to that. One of the girls mentioned that okay, think about it as having another store, and one you don’t have to pay rent for. They refused. One looked like his resolve wasn’t strong enough, so we pressured him until he caved.”
“He allowed us to register and set up his stall for him. Now he had it on his phone, and while we were still trying to convince the others to join their friend, he received his first order. It was from another business owner that another team had registered a few days ago. The team helped him to process it right there. It was incredible validation at the most momentous time. We got the rest to register easily”
The Owlet has emerged as a more conducive marketplace to conduct business. It is an online marketplace that makes the shopping experience safer and more convenient. It has been mooted by business/tech writers across the continent as Africa’s first social media market. With the app, you can set up a stall, list your goods with pictures and videos, receive orders, and get them delivered to a customer through The Owlet. Customers can look for what they want by browsing through the market listings like a physical market. The difference is you can search and find things faster. You are guaranteed to get your purchases in pristine condition too. It has become the smart shopping choice for Africa.
Elijah refuses to divulge any plans while acknowledging the speed at which The Owlet is growing around Africa. He also welcomed any competition. According to him, the focus is on improving the shopping experience for business owners and customers, not competition. “We are not thinking about anything apart from the experience. Our focus right now is on getting more people to enjoy this new commercial shopping experience. One of the best things about being the first to do something is that you are not looking over your shoulder. I’m not one for marking out the competition. If anything, they are welcome. If they can improve shopping for people. Why not? Isn’t that what we set out to do? It would be nice to have some helping hands,” he laughs.
“I know we are moving fast, but is that not better than moving slowly? The inefficiency of the physical market, its unsafe and inhumane conditions are general problems in Africa. One that we have set out to solve head-on.”
He claims that while they have helped increase leads for business owners who subscribed to The Owlet by at least 18.2% while helping to drive revenue up by another 9%, his main pride lies in two things. The changes The Owlet is bringing to the shopping experience and the team he has built. “We are changing the way people buy and sell. That’s a tough sell, but we are doing it, you know? We have grown gradually but from strength to strength. We still haven’t gone out for funding, and our lights are in no danger of shutting down. We have built partnerships with businesses that trust us. They trust our social media marketing services to help keep their products in customers’ faces. We are changing the shopping experience on both sides of the coin.”
On his remarkably young team, he said, “I am really proud of the work we have put in to be where we are. Their exuberance motivates me. From our developers to the social media handlers to the marketing and sales team, the team spirit is alive. We have built a solid and bubbling squad. It’s a tightly-knit family because we act and react with each other. There’s a free flow of communication within the structure that allows every department to move in tune with each other.”
The Owlet is driven by young professionals who are savants in their space. Based on an external evaluation, the average age of the company’s employees is 24.8 years. It is no coincidence. There’s an underlying youth empowerment motive behind the company’s youthful recruitment drive. Even on The Owlet’s social media pages, you’ll see pictures of different teams engaged in one activity or another. You’ll find them at press conferences, marketing campaigns, and company retreats. The Owlet has gained a strong and positive employer identity for its work culture and highly-enabling environment.
The Owlet is building a better bridge between business owners and their customers. They have created a better and more convenient marketplace that offers a better experience. The Owlet is a digital market, an easy-to-navigate market that allows entrepreneurs to earn more from their businesses even without a physical shop. For customers, The Owlet makes shopping easier, safer, and more convenient.