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Creating a sustainable fashion brand - an interview with a self starter
by Startacus Admin
Christopher Pruijsen, youngest-ever President of Oxford Entrepreneurs, youngest-ever Startup Leadership Program Fellow and the youngest Fellow of the RSA in the UK interviews Luis co-founder (Luis and Carolina) of Mamahuhu Colombia, a recent Startup and sustainable fashion brand for hand-made leather goods from Bogota, Colombia for Startacus.
[Chris] I met Luis at a Power of Youth summit in Cape Town, South Africa this June, and have been supporting him and the Mamahuhu mission ever since. His story seemed to me so inspiring that I wanted to share some of his thoughts with you via interview.
Tell me more about why you decided to move to Colombia to start a sustainable business in the fashion space?
[Luis] I did my MBA program in Shanghai, China. After studying the footwear manufacturing industry in there, seeing the quality, the conditions, the salaries, the massive production, I kind of felt a negative inspiration, I wanted to do exactly the opposite, as an alternative to the factory/sweatshop setting. We found precisely that in Bogotá, Colombia, where we could exercise complete control over the entire process - from design to material selection to production - to ensure superior quality, and at the same time, having a positive impact on the community.
Where did the idea for the business come about? I guess when Carolina did a pair of Oxfords for herself in 2010. As soon as she published the pics, many friends wanted the same. A friend of us, who worked in a retail company by then, strongly suggested to make a Facebook group about it to see people's reaction. In two weeks there were over 500 friends from Bogota asking for shoes. We risked everything, left Shanghai and came to Colombia to grow the production from 10-20 pairs to 400 we do now per month.
How did you [Carolina and Luis] meet? Well, we actually met in High School in Spain, in Granada, when we were 16. We were friends for over 5 years, then got together before going to UK to study. We then lived together in Oxford, in Shanghai and now in Bogota.
How do you find it to both be partners in a relationship and business partners at the same time?
So far, definitely the best decision ever. When you are starting a business, it takes 24/7, I couldn't imagine doing that and not being with her (she says the same, haha). It is like a background application, all the day working on new ideas. Sometimes we speak about stuff while eating, or at 3am, or during breakfast, we save appointments and official meetings, our whole day is a brainstorming. Of course, when the difficult times come, and there is pressure, the situation goes to the limit, but we are getting closer and closer, even when fighting about the brand.
Do you complement each other in the business, and in what ways - what are your respective skills, roles, responsibilities?
Carolina is more focused on design, trends seeking, customer relations and sales, apart from being the main image of the brand.
I am more focused on international relations, strategic partnerships, finances, business model construction, and very often photography as well :)
What is the vision for Mamahuhu Colombia - and what is your ideal target audience worldwide?
Mamahuhu goes well beyond the purchase of a cool bag or a hip pair of shoes. In addition to including our customers in our brand experience, we also seek to raise the status of the artisans who create these amazing products. By keeping fair trade and production practices, we aim to have a positive impact in Bogotan communities while also improving the global image of Colombia itself as a country. We see ourselves managing a brand that is known globally, and that to some extent represent the amazing country that Colombia is. The target audience in very general terms is one of young professionals and students, looking for something new, unique, exclusive, exotic, and very comfortable at the same time. Of course knowing about leather is also an important point to appreciate our shoes to their whole extent.
Why Bogota? The capital of Colombia, with over 8 million people, and the centre of the leather distribution. Colombia is in fact together with Argentina one of the biggest exporters of high quality leather. Besides, there are communities or artisans on the outskirts who master the work with leather.
How did they get the manufacturing set up there? We started with a team of 3 artisans making some samples and little orders for friends, then found 4 more individual artisans and formed a team for each of them. Currently there are 5 teams, of 3-4 each. We did it so in their own little workshops, so we were helping them as well to thrive in their own businesses, by updating the tools and improving the conditions.
Do they have contacts there? Carolina is native here, although not connected at all with the artisans. We spent around 6 months looking for and testing different artisans/workshop.
What can Startacus readers do to help?
The Mamahuhu 2013 collection of suede footwear and leather handbags will be available on Kickstarter through December 11. For the project page, please visit here
For their contribution, Kickstarter project backers are receiving an item of their choice from such new collection. The brand is hoping to leverage the success of their Kickstarter project to open a small fulfillment center in Miami, Florida, which would allow their online store to serve both the United States and international customers.
What were the struggles with Mamahuhu that you learned most from / lessons that can help readers most?
Starting and growing for 2 years organically has been a huge challenge, selling one shoe and producing two, then 4, then 16, the pressure has been there all the time.
Lesson learnt? It is possible to start your dream without an investment of 1million dollars. You just need to be very efficient, and be keen to put and risk everything for it.
Second biggest challenge comes probably when you realised that your hobby/idea is becoming a business, so there has to be more order, bureaucracy, licenses, accounting, all the boring stuff we young entrepreneurs never think about, but it has to happen at some point... lesson learnt? Once you put yourself to it, some of the things are actually interesting, and even help to understand better other aspects of the company...
Cheers Christopher for undertaking this interview for Startacus - we appreciate your support and the best of luck to Luis and Carolina of Mamahuhu Colombia for thier business and endevours.
Chris' Bio: Christopher Pruijsen was the youngest-ever President of Oxford Entrepreneurs for March - June 2012. Christopher attended the University of Oxford, where he matriculated at age 17, and currently serves on the Global Advisory Board of the Kairos Society. Christopher is the youngest-ever Startup Leadership Program Fellow and the youngest Fellow of the RSA in the UK. He is the founding Country Manager for LetsLunch.com in the UK and is currently focusing on Artpi.co and Hackademy.co - which will shake up the fine art and tech education spaces, respectively.