6/3/2015 - Editor's Note: In the Start Me Up series, the Kellogg School spotlights members of the Kellogg community who are bringing bold entrepreneurial visions to life.
Whether at home in Lagos, Nigeria, or spending time in California or Oregon — the base of his company's U.S. operations — Tope Folayan ’01 gently dismisses the suggestion that his rigorous schedule might be burdensome. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
“There’s a little bit of euphoria,” Folayan says. “When you’re excited about what you do, a lot of things that might seem time-consuming or tasking are not quite that anymore.”
Folayan, the co-founder and co-CEO of MallforAfrica
, a company that connects customers in Nigeria to more than 100 U.S. and U.K. brands, including Macys, BCBG, Net-A-Porter, Carters, Kitson and Juicy Couture, has good reason to be excited. What began as a simple shopping app in 2011 has blossomed into a multinational e-commerce and delivery business with more than 50,000 subscribers, warehouses in Oregon and the U.K., 26 pickup centers in Nigeria, and plans to expand across Africa.
The company is a family affair, with Folayan's younger brother Chris as his business partner. “He pretty much runs the U.S. side of our business,” Folayan says, “and he is an IT person — so he is the genius behind the app that makes everything work for us.”
Business vs. engineering language
Running a virtual mall is not necessarily a position to which Folayan aspired, but it's one that requires the kinds of skills that allow him to bridge the gap between two worlds, and to mutual benefit. It’s something he’s been doing for much of his life.
Always good at math and physics as a young man, Folayan left his native Nigeria for Stanford, where he studied mechanical engineering. From Northern California, he headed to Los Angeles to work for Raytheon, the technology and defense giant. It was there that he realized that “there is a business language and there is an engineering language,” he says. “I wanted to learn how the business side of the house speaks.” He decided to go to business school.
Kellogg and its MMM program proved a natural fit. And it was during his time at Kellogg that Folayan and his brother first partnered up, working together on a business selling long-distance minutes online. “He built the website, I ran the business,” Folayan says. He’d observed that African students were forking over big money to phone companies to call family back home. The website the brothers created allowed more affordable access to faraway loved ones. “It was the beginning of a partnership that has existed through today,” he says.
After getting his master's degrees, Folayan worked as a project manager for Hitachi’s medical devices division for several years in Santa Clara, California, putting those language skills — “engineer” and “management" — to work. But he longed to return to Africa, at least part time, and put some feelers out among the Kellogg community. His network came through; Folayan was offered a job as a consultant to telecoms in Africa.
Inconvenience and opportunity
After a few years of splitting his time between California and Nigeria, Folayan decided to settle down in Abuja. But back in Nigeria, his American shopping habits weren't so easily satisfied. With widespread complaints of corruption and fraud, many online merchants often wouldn't accept orders from a Nigerian address. So, Folayan called his brother, and simply had the things he wanted to buy delivered to Chris's house in California — an address that didn't set off alarm bells for online sellers. From California, Tope arranged to have his merchandise shipped to his home in Abuja.
After one too many phone calls from his older brother — "Things go on sale, you want them now," says the elder Folayan, laughing — Chris made a simple app to streamline the purchasing and delivery process. Fast forward a few months, and total strangers were showing up at Tope's front door, asking about deliveries. Chris's app had been passed around.
Annoyed at the unwelcome intrusions, Folayan rented a space down the street from his house, and had people ship their deliveries there. "Someone should have hit me on the head," Folayan says. "I thought it was an inconvenience I was getting rid of."
Eventually, the two brothers realized they had an incredible opportunity on their hands, and acted accordingly. Through MallforAfrica, Nigerian customers can shop their favorite stores via the company’s site or app. MallforAfrica then places the orders with American and British online retailers, and has the orders funneled from either a warehouse in Oregon or the U.K.
MallforAfrica contracts with various logistics and freight companies, and the goods are delivered to either a pickup center or right to their front door within two weeks. The company makes money by adding a small percentage to the retail cost of the merchandise ordered through the site.
Folayan says that bridging the gap between well-known brands and the country where he grew up is good for both. And despite the astonishing growth of the company he and his brother started so recently, he's humble about their role in its success.
"If you had the opportunities we had, you would do the same thing," Folayan says. "You know you have to do it, or somebody else is going to do it," he says, "and you feel blessed that you have the opportunity to do it."
Read more in the Start Me Up Series: