If you missed the first part of this story we suggest you start here: no seriously! Talking about this Kenyan brand so far has covered everything from drones, to a Hollywood movie and the Royals. However this all didn’t happen over night. Mark Stephenson, Sandstorm Kenya‘s Managing Director, has spent ten years building this company into a world-class Kenyan brand.
But it all looks so effortless.
I’m really happy to hear you say that because if you’re doing your job well it should look effortless, like it just happened. There was another interesting guy who worked with us on production a while ago and he did worked a lot in Asia. And the first thing he’d do when he’d walk into a factory was close his eyes and listen. He could tell by listening how efficient the factory was. We’ve worked hard to ensure that everyone knows what they’re doing in our factory. When you are making something, it’s really complicated because there’s a lot of hands that touch a product from a central store to a working product, people who distribute, cutters, sewers, quality people, and so on. And when there’s a lot of people involved they’ve all got to know what they are doing because one weak link brings the whole thing to a halt. And making that happen is quite challenging but it’s about processes.How many employees does Sandstorm have and how many products do you produce in a month?
Eighty. We basically made 2500 bits of stuff last month – and this ranges from big stuff like seat covers through to bags and small accessories like wallets.
Do you work on collections basis?
The way we worked in the past is that we made a lot of the same thing for a long time on the principle that there was enough demand for those things and it’s easier to organise your production if you are making a lot of the same stuff.
As a marketer, I’ve spent a lot of the last years perfecting on operations because I always talk about a brand being a promise. The first thing you’ve got to do before you start making promises to the world by pushing out a lot of marketing messages is make sure that you’ve got a business that is in an operational kind of setup. This means that you can keep these promises. So a lot of it is how you’re organised. Then there’s also the fact that scaling production is also quite difficult. Going from making a few things to making many more things can be challenging. So our strategy initially was to make things that made enough contribution as possible. By that I mean more expensive canvas and leather bags.However, we’ve always had the view to develop a product that was more affordable. If you’re developing a more affordable product it’s so you can reach more people and if you achieve that you’re more accessible and more people are going to buy from you. If more people are going to buy from you, you have to be able to meet that demand. So that’s another reason we created the Urban Safari range. There’s no tan or green, there’s black, grey and bright colours. Bright colours for Sandstorm?
Yes! And that product has been an important part of the mix and also something that’s part and parcel of opening new shops. If you’re going to reach more people you can’t be selling the same stuff. I think over the next 12 months we’re going to start collaborating more with other people. Now that may be with apparel designers, accessories for their collections, or initially, experimenting with print. We’re doing a collaboration with a Scottish surf brand that is run by a South African called Staunch and we’re doing some interesting prints.
But I think that it’s important that we share these stories because we can all go out and start a brand. But reading advice can almost give you belief in your own dreams. And then realising it’s only a fraction knowing what pitfalls and challenges you’ll face but more about pushing and persevering and believing in your end result. I think that if more people can believe that the sort of thing that we do is possible and we create that belief by going out and actually doing it, rather than just talking about it, then that’s good. Competition is a good thing, this market is growing and lots of people want to buy things we should be making things in Kenya. We shouldn’t be importing everything.I think also there’s a tendency to believe in shortcuts, yet there isn’t any. It’s that tired, old analogy, it’s like building a house. It’s supposed to start with the solid foundation and work your way up. If you start with the roof you’re going to have a problem. You’ll see a lot of the time with the fashion shows and stuff, a lot of that is starting with your roof. Your roof is your marketing, putting yourself out there, creating visibility and working to create demand. But if it isn’t being supported by everything else underneath it then its just hype.
What we do know, one of the biggest challenges within fashion is that making stuff is difficult. And making stuff here is even more so because there aren’t enough facilities and building your factory is hard and expensive. I always say ideas are easy execution is hard because making it real in the level in quality is difficult.
But you also have to create your own quality policies since there isn’t an external agency governing it?
Isn’t that what KEBS is supposed to do? However, I think every business has to have quality control. You’ve got to walk the talk. I think that it’s like someone walking into a room and saying they’re funny and then there’s someone who actually tells a joke and everyone laughs. The same goes for quality. You can say its quality but no one will believe you until they see a great quality product. Quality has to start within.
How do you change the thinking process to purchase quality and Kenyan?
There was a philosopher called John Locke in the 1600s who talked about objective and subjective quality. And what he meant by that was that talking about something being good or bad quality is intensely subjective. I think it’s no coincidence that a lot of Kenyans who have related to us have travelled or lived overseas, then they’ve come back and they’ve found a Kenyan brand that matches the level of quality they’ve experienced overseas. Sometimes you hear expat go ‘x, y or z is better back home’ which really makes me really cross. It is not true that things of great quality can’t be made here because we’ve done it. And it is not true that Kenyans don’t appreciate good quality, because they do. It’s just that, for many people their appreciation and understating of quality is different from somebody else’s. But that is largely based on their experience.In a developing economy, things are growing really quickly and people offer goods and services to fulfil a need. The mass and scale is all at the base of the pyramid and that’s all driven by price. So it’s not necessarily about fine quality but fulfilling a need at a substance level. As the economy develops and matures, and you begin to get more competition and wealth, then businesses and brands all need to raise their game. The way they will compete domestically is by offering value which comes from a combination of price and quality. You need to get to that point, where people get more exposed to better quality so that their understanding and appreciation of it changes, and eventually finds its way through society. So in our workshop it’s about making sure that the guys making the products are at the understanding and appreciation level of those who are buying the products. Advice for designers trying to break into the industry?
You always have to have a plan. For example I’ve always got 12 months of stuff/projects that I want to do in the workshop. There’s always stuff that I want to do next. The job is never done and there’s always something that we can do better. I’m very happy if people think that we’re great but I think as soon as I start to think that we’re great that’s the beginning of the end. You’ve got to constantly be striving for greatness. As soon as you think you’ve gotten there, you might as well pack up and close shop.
Other products in the works?
We’ve got some campers totes that will do some print on. So what you’ll be seeing is more colour, print and more products for women. Because we’ve got a lot of products for men, we’ll keep feeding that market and need. But these additions have always been part of the plan it’s just that you can’t do everything at once.
What do you hope to see in terms of growth for the industry?
I think what The Association of Fashion Designers of Kenya (AFAD-K) is doing is good where they create platforms to share knowledge. I think the more that businesses like ours can put something back and share knowledge and experience the better. I think that’s really important.We wrap up the meeting but not before I naturally take a peek at the cream coloured tent-material bag with leather straps he’s got with him. That surely can’t be sturdy material, I think to myself. But he invites me to pick up his bag, which was shockingly heavier than mine. “I like to push the bags to the limit, to test their quality. If I hadn’t picked it up I wouldn’t have guessed it was carrying what felt like a month’s shopping in there. Sturdy, aesthetic bag?! Music to any woman’s ears! If I wasn’t sitting down with the MD of one of Kenya’s most successful brands I’d probably have started unpacking my sling-bag and appropriating his ASAP.