Turning tables on female boundaries
Talking business with Lucy Agwunobi, co-founder of Arredo by TRT.
Being a woman entrepreneur in an industry largely dominated by men can be daunting. But not for Lucy Agwunobi, the co-founder of Arredo by TRT – a Nigerian company that designs and manufactures high-end furniture.
It was the thrill of breaching uncommon boundaries that first attracted Agwunobi to study architecture and to later start her own business in the male-dominated furniture industry.
Agwunobi’s journey to conquer the Nigerian furniture industry began as a child whose love for design and beautiful homes spurred her to later study architecture at the University of Nigeria. After graduation in 2005, Agwunobi worked as a project architect for a furniture company for two and a half years to gain practical experience before going back to school to pursue a master’s in architecture. In 2010, Lucy teamed up with her newly-wed husband, Jonathan Agwunobi, to co-found Arredo by TRT.
She says her husband was instrumental in them starting at the time they did. “I kept thinking we needed capital and more experience. But he told me that I was ready and we could do it. After we got the first contract, I became more confident,” she says.
Unlike most entrepreneurs who struggle to find capital to launch their business, Agwunobi says Arredo by TRT was launched without capital. This is because the business model demanded clients to pay a certain percentage upfront before the completion of a project.
“Our model is not retail,” Agwunobi explains. “You don’t come into the store and buy it off the shelf. Our model is ‘made-to-measure’. So we didn’t need much capital; we had experience and drive and that’s all anyone needs.”
The need for experience becomes clear when Agwunobi explains that little avoidable mistakes could cost a business the entire budget of any project. These mistakes would be, for example, not documenting your client’s colour choice (instead of just taking the instructions verbally), labelling errors in the production drawing as well as ignorance of industry standards and appropriate wood choice.
Although Agwunobi concedes that they made a couple of bad decisions and lost some money in the early years of the business, they were able to pull through with their ability to “learn fast and keep on going”.
“Choosing to be innovative with our designs and the use of high-quality materials and accessories made us stand out and helped us grow consistently. Most jobs we get are from referrals,” she explains.
However, with growth comes more responsibility. In the beginning, Agwunobi did all the designs herself and outsourced the manufacturing to an external factory. Nowadays, Agwunobi no longer designs the furniture either. She has ceded that responsibility to in-house architects while she focuses on managing the operations of the company. Her husband took over the supervision of the design, production and client relations.
The couple also faced the daunting challenge of starting a family while growing a business. As time went on, they began to hire more people to reduce the work load. But soon they faced the major challenge of finding highly skilled workers who could be retrained to meet the company’s standards. Also, the high cost of production made their products less competitive when compared with mass-produced, imported furniture. The Agwunobi team overcame this challenge, and others, by consistently providing quality furniture with unique designs.
Today the company has its own facilities, providing employment to more than 25 full-time employees at its offices in Lagos and factory in Abuja.
Agwunobi says while working in a male-dominated industry can be challenging, the trick to breaking the mould is to know what you are doing, have a good track record within the industry and maintain a good relationship with your clients.
“Don’t forget it wasn’t just me – having my husband as a partner helped because two heads are better than one. Where I’m more analytical and systems-driven, he is business savvy, creative and a go-getter. It’s just a matter of everybody working in their area of strength.”
Going forward, Arredo by TRT hopes to take furniture from Nigeria to the world and change the face of “Made in Nigeria” furniture through innovation, technology and unique craftsmanship.
If you are thinking of starting your own business, Agwunobi’s advice is that you need to find and learn from mentors and gain experience.
“Don’t just go into it, thinking you can do it on your own,” she says. “You can probably do it on your own, but you will fail a lot before you figure it out. So getting some kind of mentoring cuts off time from your learning curve, and enables you become successful faster.”