Modupeola Sonuyi, 31, always wanted to own a fashion business. But after an earlier clothing business failed to get off the ground, she went to graduate school at Arizona State University and became a nurse practitioner. Then last summer, as she was chatting with her four siblings – Temitope, Oluwatosin, Tolulupe and Gbemisola – about setting up a side business together, she suggested doing something with traditional African fabrics. As children of Nigerian immigrants to the United States, they’d grown up in Orange County, Calif., wearing African clothes, and she liked the idea of promoting a pan-African culture to African-Americans who might not have that connection. Nine months later, the startup, Aso Dara, remains small, with just $50,000 in sales to date, but it’s growing fast enough that Sonuyi left her job to focus on the Phoenix-based business full-time. In an interview that has been edited and condensed, she spoke about how Aso Dara – the name comes from Yoruba and translates roughly to “good cloth”– is building a direct-to-consumer business almost entirely on Instagram.
Amy Feldman: How did you start the company?
Modupeola Sonuyi: I was the lead person because it was my idea. We were having a group chat on a Sunday. I went and got some fabric from a local African shop here in Arizona, and I found a manufacturer on Wednesday about 20 minutes from where I live. They had samples to us by Friday. I used my girlfriends for a photo shoot on Saturday, and put the store up on Sunday.
Feldman: How did you find a manufacturer so quickly?
Sonuyi: I went online and searched for manufacturers in Phoenix. There was one I liked that was also family-owned. They are the only manufacturer we work with. Everything was seamless. We opened our store online Sunday, and got two sales that day. We started an Instagram page and sales went up. I’d done it before by myself, and it was nothing like this.
Feldman: What was your earlier business?
Sonuyi: I did womenswear, classic structural pieces, tops and dresses. I had samples made, and had a website, and never went into production. This was before Instagram. I didn’t have any sales. My parents were like, “You have to be realistic. You should go back to school because this isn’t working.” I got a clinical doctorate from ASU, and stayed in Phoenix after I graduated. After failing at that first thing, it was really discouraging. I put in so much work, time and money. I probably put in $60,000, and I didn’t sell one piece of clothing. This time, I took out $500 from my bank account and didn’t have a business plan or anything. I did the opposite of my first venture, and the results were 180.
Feldman: Why do you think that is?
Sonuyi: I don’t know what the magic was, but there was something very different about starting up without planning. For the first business, I wrote a business plan and hired a model and photographer. This time, I was like, I have pretty friends, I have a camera, why don’t we just bootstrap?
Feldman: Were you surprised that it worked?
Sonuyi: I was very surprised to be honest. We spent time with this developing our story, what we want to promote. I think that had a lot to do with our success. It’s not like you can go to Target or Walmart and get traditional African fabrics. Most African-Americans don’t even know where to get access to that.
Feldman: Where do you get the fabrics?
Sonuyi: There’s an African fabric store here that we get a lot of fabrics from. They get prints from all over the world, from Belgium, and from Africa. We also travel to New York, and pick out prints from stores there. And we’ve gotten prints from Nigeria and Senegal. We try to get new and fancy prints that you don’t see elsewhere.
Feldman: What’s your connection to Africa?
Sonuyi: My parents immigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s. We were born here, but it was the culture we grew up with. We grew up with the latest African fashions, and even today when my parents go back to Africa my mother brings back African clothes.
Feldman: Are Aso Dara’s styles more traditional or more modern?
Sonuyi: It’s African fashion with a modern twist. The headwraps are traditional, and that is something we didn’t change. The headbands have wire in them, and they twist and turn on your head. And we have bikinis that are made out of African prints.
Feldman: How did you figure out pricing?
Sonuyi: My sister wears headwraps all the time. I talked to her about it. We did some market research on what headwraps normally go for and we priced ours a tad lower because we wanted to be competitive. When we put up the store, I asked, “How does $22 to $25 sound for a headwrap?” And my sister was like, “That sounds standard.” We will use free shipping, but we haven’t had anything go on sale, so we figure our pricing is about right. Our chokers are hand-crafted. With those we knew what it cost to make, and then set a markup. Our price of $15 gave us a profit. We didn’t take a lot of time to debate about that.
Feldman: How do you market the products?
Sonuyi: The only place we advertise is on Instagram. We post photos of people wearing our stuff. Pretty much all our sales come through Instagram. We’ve done some Facebook ads, but we stopped doing those because they weren’t getting us much return. We don’t have a huge marketing budget.
Feldman: It’s interesting that you can build an entire business on Instagram.