My daughter’s wish inspired my business
Ibrahim Murema confesses to have always been a handy man. He has always loved to make things from scratch and has had a passion for building things. When he was younger, he used to build toys for his siblings.
“I would make toy cars and lorries from hanger wires, and toy trucks from used milk boxes, chicken houses from sticks and so on. I would use everyday items, a lot of them waste, to create various things,” he narrates.
It is for this reason that when he left his 20-year-old Information Technology career during the pandemic, starting a furniture making business was the best option.
“I started by making the usual furniture: tables, couches, and dining sets. I then moved to making doors and wardrobes, and even doing floors and wall units. I have been involved in some projects where we had to work on all wood elements for an entire house,” he continues.
But one incident made him change his course to start creating doll houses.
“My daughter, who was six at the time, asked me to get her a dollhouse to keep her dolls. My first instinct was to shop around for one. I was a bit disappointed since the best deal I could get was too costly, and was made from plastic. I knew those wouldn’t last long. Then it hit me – I could actually make a dollhouse for her,” says the father of two.
And that is how Lulu FunStore was born. Being a strategic person, Ibrahim reached out to a designer and an architect to help him design a dollhouse. They began developing designs for Kenya’s first LED-lit dollhouse. For one year, they worked on designing, prototyping and taking the product into the market.
“We managed to create a product whose main frame is made from upcycled wooden pallet, making up eight rooms. The miniature furniture inside the dollhouse is made from wooden offcuts from the workshop – wood that would have otherwise been thrown away. In addition, we fixed a nine-volt battery powered LED lighting system throughout all rooms. We then finished it up with child-friendly paint. The end result was an environmentally-fri endly product that is of good quality, which once the child outgrows, can be turned into a bookshelf,” he explains.
Ibrahim is glad the dollhouse has served as a tool with which his daughter bonds with the rest of the family. Ibrahim’s hope is that as he makes more of this product for his clients, it shall also be a tool of bonding for families.
“I am very happy at the interest the dollhouse has received since we launched it. I am now looking for strategic partners to help with taking this product for wider mass distribution for a wider audience. I am very grateful for the customers who have supported us, loved and shared the story,” he shares.
He has employed three workers, with who he consistently works on projects together, periodically adding resources based on project needs. He hopes to find strategic partners to grow Lulu Dollhouses into a household brand and that in the coming years, he will develop more exciting products for his clients.
“I also hope, through strategic partnerships, maybe through financing institutions or venture capitalists, to acquire an entire production facility with automated equipment, to streamline production for efficiency. I also hope to step up my distribution and elevate my marketing,” he explains.
And even as he enjoys having clients requesting for the dollhouse, one of the biggest challenges is getting production right, constantly.
“After designing, planning and creating a prototype, getting the production process going with efficiency is a challenge. This is mainly because of the sort of automated equipment needed, the cost of qualified staff and space needed. With the many hours of planning and being present, I have been lucky to get this part right,” says the hands-on expert.
Another challenge is working capital.
“This industry is capital-intensive, where large expenditures are usually incurred before any meaningful revenue is realised. Warehousing too is a problem since I require space to keep the very bulky stock that we use in making our finished products,” he adds.
In addition, marketing has been a challenge, especially considering the cost of traditional marketing avenues.
“We are now looking into digital marketing. Telling from my age, I may have to work these smart young people to realise a return on investment for any marketing we do, if we decide to go that way,” he adds.
Ibrahim observes that when it comes to business, people think that it frees up ones time because you are your own boss. However, running a business requires one to manage time and resources since you have clients (who are your new bosses), employees whom you will have obligations to and suppliers who you have to maintain good relations with, because you never know when you will need that timely credit for a project.
“In furniture making, people really complain about project completion timelines. Since there a multitude of moving parts to complete an order, sometimes we in the industry make unrealistic promises to clients just to get the job. In my experience, when you are honest with the client about timelines, as long they are stuck to, they are usually okay. In the event of a potential disruption to the schedule, communication really helps,” he says.
His advice to those starting out businesses is for them to have grit and ensure too that they have great communication skills, leadership skills, finance management and critical thinking.
“That way, you will stand out from the rest of the crowd to develop and successfully put in the market products that solve people’s problems, and make a profit while at it. Strangely, these are not skills they taught me in school. It would be nice to teach our kids these skills while preparing them to be technically sound,” he says in ending.