Agnes Loheni is the director of export sales and marketing at MENA, the Pacific-focused fashion brand she founded alongside her three sisters ten years ago. The business has operations in New Zealand and Samoa and is a finalist in this year's Auckland Export Awards.
Can you tell me about why and how you got started in business?
Although we formally established the business in Samoa just over 10 years ago, the seed was planted years earlier as young girls growing up in Auckland where our mother worked from home sewing dresses for many New Zealand fashion stores from the 70s through to the late 90s. As teenagers who had access to an expert dressmaker, we were always designing our own dresses. Many years later we saw the opportunity to create a business that would satisfy our passion for contemporary, forward fashion and that also reflected our love of our Polynesian heritage.
You wholesale your products throughout the Pacific. How have you grown your export markets?
Our main strategy in targeting our Pacific audience has been to focus our marketing around 'Pacific-centric' events. Showing at events like Fiji Fashion Week has elevated our brand and this year Fashion TV (Asia/Pacific) were present.
On the whole, our core market of Polynesians are located mainly in New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands and the US so e-commerce is an area we are putting a lot of our resources into. We use our website and social media to tell our story, and we currently have almost 70,000 followers on Facebook.
Last year Nike were criticised for using Samoan tattoo designs on their sports gear, and international designers like Herve Leger and Donna Karan have also used Polynesian-inspired designs in recent collections. We're not saying that Nike were right or wrong, but this clearly shows there is wide commercial appeal in our Pacific heritage designs and so as designers of Pacific heritage we are working to get that authenticity of our brand value across to the wider international market.
What have been the benefits as well as the challenges of building a business with family?
For us the benefits have far outweighed the challenges. We're a close knit family and so naturally one of the challenges we faced early on was keeping our relationship as sisters intact while we worked together in the business. There were times when we all didn't agree but over the years we've learned to manage this and we are better at having robust discussions without jeopardising our personal relationships with each other.
The benefits are that we are working towards a common goal and vision that benefits us as a family. The values we hold as a business are the same values we have as a family. Although we now have defined roles in the business, it's no big deal to cover for one another when needed. We just all pitch in and support each other like we do as a family.
What do you think could be done to encourage more people in Pacific communities to start their own businesses?
Definitely we have to promote our Pacific entrepreneurs who are making inroads in their fields. Having spent a number of years living and travelling around the Pacific Islands, our entrepreneurial spirit is very evident in agriculture, fishing, retail and commerce; the reality is that in the Pacific Islands where access to social welfare is limited, the drive to create your own opportunities is vital.
In New Zealand our entrepreneurial spirit may have diminished, but it has been replaced by the importance of education. We view education as the key to unleashing potential for our people. There are Pacific people taking the risk to start businesses, but the problem is how many of them can survive the critical first three years. With low home ownership rates amongst Pacific people, the lack of access to capital is often a hindrance. But, more importantly, I think that a lack of business skills and specific institutional knowledge is a reason they don't survive. So giving a hand-up to these businesses via some high-level expertise and mentoring would be really beneficial.
Lastly, what are your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
1. Ask yourself, 'why would anyone want to buy my product?' Understanding the answers to this question will hopefully help identify whether your product is something people want to buy rather than what you want to sell. And don't worry about trying to build your brand before you start. The key is to have a product you can sell first. You can build the brand from the ground up as you grow your business.
2. Spend more time on your business rather than in it. The day-to-day minutiae, although important, can often distract you from looking up and checking that you're on course for the goals and vision you have set.
3. Cash is king. We view cash for the business in the same way as we do food to fuel our bodies. Go without it for too long and you starve. You need to find ways to jumpstart cash flow immediately. Depending on the business or your business model, find a way to get full or part payment up front. Focus on converting leads to sales as soon as possible.
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