SEAN NDIHO OBEDIH, founder of Britain’s first multi-ethnic brand of first aid products, was recently interviewed by Ventures Africa. His business idea was first conceived in 2006 and launched a few years later. In recent years, Ynotplast metamorphosed into Urban Amour with new products to meet the growing demand. In Sean’s words “We have developed skin toned nasal strips, we have mosquito repellent patches and we are also developing various heavy duty first aid kits for sports and office buildings.”
Read the interview below to learn more about his venture and start-up experience.
What year did you launch and how did you start out?
Sean: The idea came about when I visited a friend of mine and his son came home from school crying. He had been bullied by other kids for wearing a white plaster across his forehead after sustaining an injury in the playground. ”Can’t you find one that matches your skin tone?” they asked. Well when he told us what had happened we couldn’t find anything in any shops or pharmacies and this is when I realised that I could change this because if I didn’t somebody else will do it; that was my Eureka moment.
Although the idea came in 2006, but due to various reasons it took about four more years of hard graft, networking, research, learning, growing and really trying to gain a foothold in the marketplace. It was one of those ideas that never go away. It was a challenge getting the main players to take me seriously but I was determined to never give up because to me this was a cause worth fighting for. The First aid industry is an old and well-established industry so I found it hard trying to navigate my way through the politics of the trade.
I did some thorough market research and the results I got convinced me that it was a worthwhile niche to fill. Africa alone has a population of nearly a billion people! I looked at what’s available on the market and realised that I could improve the concept and take it to the next level and create a 21st century brand that could rival mainstream brands like Elastoplast and Band Aid by Johnson and Johnson. We also had to rebrand and change from the name YnotPlast to Urban Armour after carefully listening to feedback from our customer.
It wasn’t as easy as I initially thought but the journey has been worth it. I have been fortunate enough to win a few awards along the way and most importantly people now have a choice that they didn’t have before and that is most satisfying. My son will not have to go through the same experience my friend’s son went through- the only thing that should be separated by color these days should be laundry.
What inspired you to venture into this area of business?
Sean: I would say that I was forced into entrepreneurship. My entrepreneurial journey started when I was very young- about 8 years old back in Rwanda when I used to buy Confectionary and other products and sell them at school. I remember when we were fleeing the war in the early 1990s my entrepreneurial instinct kicked in and I was always known as the guy who could get you anything that you needed. At age 14, I got involved in everything from sourcing and selling car spare parts to currency exchange.
This carried on when I found myself in a boarding school in Rural Kenya and I started supplying my fellow students with Sardines that I used to buy using my pocket money. When I got to the UK I got involved in Network Marketing for various companies and I also learned a lot from Self-help books but most importantly I learned the art of building teams from observing my mentors. I happen to be a jack of all trades, which is a necessity for all entrepreneurs. This exposed me to a lot of startup experiences.
If you look at the main players in the first aid sector, they have been going for more than 50 years and some close to 100 years. But I saw the under representation of black entrepreneurs in this arena even though black and Asian people buy and use these products everyday. So I thought why not? Which is where the original name -YnotPlast- had come from. I remembered that famous saying by Robert Kennedy “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Do you have any plans to expand your business to Africa region?
Sean: Absolutely yes, Africa is a very important part of our plan and with its ever growing middle class who need products to be tailored to their tastes we have alot of exciting times ahead of us. We are also looking to start working with hospitals through various ministries of health in different countries. For now we are in South Africa through a distribution partnership.
What is the first thing an entrepreneur must put in place before venturing out?
Sean: I believe that one must check their ego first, because the road to entrepreneurship is full of potholes and traps that if your ego isn’t in check it can lead you to disastrous results.
Entrepreneurs come in different shapes, sizes, colors and cultures. They are as diverse as any profession. However, they all have few things in common, which is their first currency – trust not money. They all also share the ability to spot a niche or gap in the market and convince themselves that they are good enough to fill it.
That takes a lot of faith, guts, serious planning but most of all great self belief and a great sense of adventure- hoping that all of those hypotheses will turn into tangible products or services that people will pay good money for.
What were the 3 three things your feared most before launching out and how did you overcome them?
Sean: The three things were first finding good people to work with, second finding funds to sustain the business and thirdly logistics. The only way to overcome these things is to go through them. There is no training that will ever prepare you for hiring and firing someone or cashflow management- especially when all you have is nothing but faith and a big dose of daily prayers. So I had to develop my three Ps in order to keep going.
Pride: I often asked myself who am I? who am I serving? I knew that it was for my people’s pride that I was working for- after all bandages should be flesh colored.
Passion: I needed to be passionate to keep going otherwise I could have given up and took on another product.
Persistence: never ever give up even when you things are tough, pivot change alliances but never lose the sense of mission.
In terms of startup finance, all the money that I used came from my jobs, I was working at my day job as a project manager and worked on my business in the evening, this meant that It took longer but I didn’t have any choice as I didn’t have any assets like a house to re-mortgage or a Rich Uncle to bankroll my dreams. But this made me more determined to make sure that I made something out of myself and I believed in the products so much that I was willing to risk everything for it to become a reality. I can say that we were using lean methodologies before Eric Ries wrote about them.
You just mentioned the challenges you faced would have forced you to take on another product if you had no passion for first aid. Do you have any plans to create something else?
Sean: I often compare entrepreneurs to Architects because our job is to spot niches, put a team and facilities in place to execute our plans and move on. Most entrepreneurs I know are not great managers but they delegate well. My passion is in the power of entrepreneurship and the power of people. That is why I started Search Funders International, which is a vibrant global body dedicated to an optimistic future for emerging markets.
We build on the proven success of the Search Fund model, where entrepreneurs are funded to unearth, acquire and manage a profitable micro-cap company.
Our mission is to catalyze equity and Search fund capital investment in emerging markets by promoting best practices and providing unique networking opportunities.
SFI is a private investment firm that specializes in partnering with search fund entrepreneurs. More than just a source of capital, SFI adds value to the search fund process by actively working with entrepreneurs to help them find, acquire and operate successful lower middle-market companies.
How does this work?
Sean: Search funds are an alternative investment vehicle. They are typically considered the most direct way for someone with limited capital or financial resources to run a company that they partially own. It’s a four-step process:
In stage one, the search fund entrepreneurs raise what is known as the search fund. This is a pool of capital that supports them in their search of a company in a highly fragmented industry with strong growth potentials. Particularly, they are looking for companies that have succession planning issues, where the owners are looking to get out of day-to-day operations.
Stage two, which is considered by far the toughest part of the search, is really identifying and making an acquisition. Once a company is identified, the search funders then make a second capital call to their angel investors and close on the transaction.
Stages three and four really are about operating the company, growing it and potentially exiting the investment. One thing to note is that there’s a lot of flexibility on the exit, depending on the investor mix. Traditionally, search funders have individual investors, and as a result they can hold on to companies much longer than traditional private equity funds. I am still forming a credible team but I believe that it will benefit many young people from the emerging markets countries and yield fantastic returns for investors.
What is your advice to budding African Entrepreneurs?
Sean: I would like to encourage anyone who wants to start their own business; it is hard work but it can be greatly rewarding. It can be a big learning curve, start small and grow at your own pace, I essentially believe that we only have one life to live so go for your dreams and make the world a better place.
Educate yourself in all aspects of your chosen business sector, It will save you time and heartache, You must have a burning desire combined with great determination to awaken the financial genius inside you. Then just jump off the cliff and see what happens; that’s what makes life interesting. Choose to use your time well and last, but not the least, choose your friends very carefully and learn not to take things personally but stay focused.
Who is your most inspiring African entrepreneur and why?
Sean: Many African Entrepreneurs inspire me, especially those that don’t get to make it to the forbes rich list. However, Cyril Ramaphosa is one that stands out for me because of his tenacity and ability to change with the times. In 2000, he set up Shanduka Group, now a leading African black owned and managed investment holding company established with investments cutting across natural resources, financial services, property, energy, beverages and telecom. The company, majorly controlled by the Ramaphosa family trust, now has investments apparently worth billions of dollars.
Tell us about growing up in Rwanda. How did the civil war shape your perception of life and business?
Sean: In April of 1994, I was barely 14 years old, I was in my second year of secondary school and life couldn’t have been better for my peers and me even though the country had been at war for more than 4 years. As teenage boys we had been spared the hatred and tribal wars that had pre- occupied our parents generations who unbeknown to us had been doing their part in creating a better society through intermarriages, religious activities and so on.
My father was a church minister and it was never a question to me growing up what ethnicity one came from because we were taught that everybody is the same and we were all created in the image of God.
I came to learn later that church was the only place that people from all ethnicities could get together without being affected by the administrative quarters system that had been put in place by various governments.
Having lost people, childhood friends amongst others, and eventually coming to Britain as a refugee, I learned that life is such a precious commodity. No matter what happens to you in life, just keep going because God spared your life for a purpose. We should strive to find our purpose in life and grab all opportunities that come our way.
I was incredibly fortunate to come to the UK 12 years ago. I am now married to a wonderful Nigerian lady and a father to one wonderful son who is 17 months old. I vowed that I will endeavor to fulfill their dreams by making sure that my life shines a bright light through the darkness of evils that we face everyday such as racism and discrimination.
We must be amongst those who would do extraordinary good even at extraordinary risk not for affirmation or acclaim or to advance of our own interests, but because it is what must be done.
No one is born a savior or a murderer—these are choices we each have the power to make. They teach us that no one can make us into bystanders without our consent, and that we are never truly alone that if we have the courage to heed that “still, small voice” within us, we can beat the drum of righteousness that can be heard in a village, a nation or even the globe these days with the help of modern technology.
Now the question is, how do we honor and preserve it? How do we ensure that “never again” isn’t an empty slogan, or merely an aspiration, but also a call to action? That’s what keeps me going.
Ynotplast , founded by SEAN NDIHO OBEDIH, is Britain’s first multi-ethnic brand of first aid products. To learn more about the company, click here: http://www.uk.skintoneplasters.com Follow on Twitter: