When business economics grad Rachael Senjule launched Love Lakeri, a clothing accessories business, she was pretty confident she could manage the financial side of the venture. It was the marketing side she wasn’t so sure about.
“A successful business owner told me that, when you’re new, 75 percent of what you do should be marketing,” says Senjule. She took that advice to heart and went in search of a marketing mentor.
Her search turned up Starter Company. The Starter Company program provides funding, professional mentoring and other help to Ontario residents, aged 18 to 29, who are starting or expanding a business in the province.
Senjule decided to apply to the program. As an applicant, she had to prepare a business plan and two-year financial projections, which she did with the help of the York Small Business Enterprise Centre (YSBEC). YSBEC administers Starter Company through funding from the Ministry of Economic Development and Growth. “The YSBEC consultants helped me fine-tune my plans and projections,” says Senjule, noting that they scrutinized every last dollar and word. “After that, I had a really strong foundation for my business.”
Once Senjule had been accepted into the program, she met with her mentor, the owner of an Aurora art and ceramics studio, once a month for six months. The mentor encouraged her to try selling Love Lakeri products — vintage-inspired African-print neckties, headbands, belts and chokers — at consumer craft shows. Senjule got her feet wet by participating in a couple of small shows, then bit the bullet and rented a booth in the International Pavilion at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in Toronto.
“The shows made such a big difference,” she says. “The CNE was really expensive but it ended up being well worth it because it drummed up more sales, which I’ve reinvested in my business.”
By participating in the shows, Senjule also got a better sense of who her target market really is. “My target customers are artsy, young professionals. They’re ‘thrifters’ who care about where they buy from.” Senjule travels to Uganda regularly, in fact, where she hand-selects fabrics from Kampala marketplaces, and provides work opportunities to seamstresses there.
As part of the Starter Company program, Senjule received $5,000 in financial assistance, most of which she invested in web and logo design and quality photographs. “A really professional website really matters to me,” she says. “It’s like a storefront for an online business.”
And while Senjule was in the habit of checking out the websites of large accessories retailers for marketing ideas, her mentor encouraged her to see what smaller ones were doing, too. “They were targeting social media influencers — popular people on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube,” she says. So Senjule decided to try it herself by sending a complimentary Love Lakeri headband to an Instagram user (“who has really pretty hair and 50,000 followers,” says Senjule). The result? The Instagram user with the great hair got 3,000 “Likes” that day so “3,000 people saw my headband,” says Senjule. “Traffic to my website went up 20 times that day compared to what I usually have!”
Based on this response, Senjule plans to continue strategically sharing her products with social media influencers. She also plans to keep meeting her customers, up close and personal. “I’ve got a major show scheduled every month for the next six months!” she says.