The balloon you leave for children to lay with is what Funmi Omoyele, a University of Lagos (UNILAG) Economics graduate, has turned into big business. The chief executive officer of Perfect Exquisite Concept (PEC) speaks to WILLIAMS BABALOLA about her life as a balloon designer and maker.
When did you start the balloon business?
Before balloons, we had been doing main decoration and main styling. We incorporated balloon in 2015.
Starting a balloon business in Nigeria is not an easy task, as most Nigerians don’t really fancy balloons. What informed your interest?
It was more of inspiration than interest. I saw a balloon one day, was fascinated about it and got a proposal shortly after showing interest in the sale balloons. We decided to sell. We decided to go with it, and we basically followed the market. So, whatever the market is requesting, we give at every point in time.
As the chief executive officer, what are your responsibilities?
To build structures, ensure that there are processes and create better working conditions for the team.
What are some of the hurdles you faced when you started?
I believe in the existence of challenges in whatever one does. For you to be able to write a success story, you must encounter some. I am not even sure I would call them challenges, because every time we see a challenge, we tackle it. We almost don’t even call them challenges; it is part of the journey. I don’t even know what to call challenges.
What about trying to break into a new market?
For me, they are not really challenges. They are part of trying to understand the market and breaking into it. There are many principles to follow. The moment you start to follow the principles, it’s not going to be easy. Knowing that life is run by principles, if you wake up in the morning and were able to identify these principles and act on them, you really won’t see anything as a challenge. That is how we grow. We identify an issue in the market and constantly look for solution at every point in time. We may call that a challenge because we are always looking for solution.
Were you ever deterred by the things you hear from people because of the nature of your business?
Of course, almost every entrepreneur goes through that phase. At a point, people said, “A University of Lagos Economics graduate, balloons?” The way they said it was quite insulting. But I have drive, and whatever I go into, I do it well, irrespective of what people say. I also understand the part in the Bible that says despise not the days of little beginning. So, this is our little beginning. Every success story has a little beginning.
While in school, did working as a balloon decorator cross your mind?
How about entrepreneurship?
Yes. In my third year, there was this cliché about how UNILAG girls always like boyfriends that have cars. So, you hear people say that they can’t date a guy without a car. Because of the drive I had, I told my friends then that I was not looking for a boyfriend with a car, but how I could pay the salaries of their boyfriends. Then, I decided to be an entrepreneur to build something that would stand the test of time. I wanted to go beyond just doing business, to build a brand.
Since then, I started to study project management. I would stay up till about 2am, reading, surfing the internet, looking for materials. I read a lot. In my final year, I organised a conference on business management and then we brought Tonye Cole, the chief executive officer of Sahara Oil and Gas; Damilola Oluwatoyinbo and Jimi Tewe to educate about 600 graduating students on entrepreneurship.
“Because of the drive I had, I told my friends then that I was not looking for a boyfriend with a car, but how I could pay the salaries of their boyfriends”
What have you achieved since you started your business?
Perfect Exquisite Concept runs a balloon styling organisation. We’ve worked with Mobil, SoFresh and so many other big organisations, apart from individuals. We also started an academy where we train balloonists from all over Nigeria. The turnout has been encouraging; people come from all states in Nigeria to be educated about balloon. That is a great milestone. We have trained over 60 balloonists in one year. In the course of that, we started a product line where we do products. Last December, we launched African Balloon Conference, which is the first of its kind in Africa. We hope it will be an annual event.
Did you attend any formal training in balloon styling?
No. Like I always tell people, I am the face of PEC and my husband is the brain of PEC. When I was pregnant, I had a very stressful experience. It shook me and I was always indoor reading and learning, offline and online. Then the balloon idea came. I saw something nice and told my husband; he immediately responded, “Yes, we can do it.” I told him to learn it and come back to teach me. The moment he taught me, I was able to handle it better than him. I thank God for a supportive husband; he is amazing. He learns everything and teaches me. He supported me from day one in all ramifications.
What personal principles have helped you to succeed in this business?
I am a person of many principles. First, timeliness; if we fix an appointment for 10 o’clock, it must be respected. That has really helped me. Most of our clients are aware of this. Second, integrity; when we tell them things, they don’t need to bother. If there is any reason we need to change it, we would let you know that an unforeseen circumstance has set in. The third is growth. Anybody that works with me knows that you always have to strive to grow. If you are not growing, you are dying and if you are dying, you must leave. You must have passion for whatever you are doing. I dislike when people say they are just working for the money. If you work for money, you can’t even come close to me. You have to work for something bigger than just money.
As someone conversant with event planning, why do you think some decorations turn out a disaster?
As much as I don’t want to say this, sometimes it’s the client. They bring a lion size budget and give you cat size money to deliver. It’s not done. Some people take the job to showcase their talent. But when they get to the market, they discover that what they were given is not enough to get materials for the job. But because you have been paid, you are obligated to do something, which turns out to be disastrous. On the other hand, some people do a job quite genuinely, get paid, but unforeseen circumstances set in. For example, you do an outdoor décor and it starts to rain, no one is to blame here. Clients want to see that you always want to go extra mile. If your effort doesn’t produce anything positive, but they know that you tried to go the extra mile, that is a win-win.
Have you ever worked on a project and it didn’t turn out the way you expected?
Just once. There is this client we have worked for over and over. We don’t produce balloons in Nigeria. We got balloons from a certain vendor, but we didn’t know the balloons had been in their store for so long. When balloons stay for too long in the store, they start to stick together and become messy. We inflated the balloons and finished installation, and just one touch, all the balloons burst. Painfully, the client was there with us. I felt very bad. Thank God, we had extra balloons that we didn’t even plan to use. So, we had to make use of them for that event. But it was absolutely embarrassing.
What distinguishes your balloon from others?
We have our ways and styles of doing things. We have people that say ‘I saw that design, I just knew it was PEC.’ There are things we incorporate in our design that makes it stand out. There was a time we did something for Sofresh outdoor, and people started sending me messages even before we posted to say we did it. We have our signature on almost all our designs.
Is the balloon styling industry making any effort to reach the government for collaboration?
Before now, no. But maybe after this conversation with you, we will do. Now knowing that a lot of agencies are aware, we can make effort to meet the government. We intend to join forces with others in the industry to see how far we can push this.
What plan do you have for the company in the next five years?
In five years, I hope I would have resigned as the chief executive officer. Then, the company would have grown to the point of having board members. It would have been able to position itself as a force to reckon with in the industry.
Upon graduation from the university, where was the first place you worked?
The first place I worked is Eden Nigeria, a Christian and entertainment ministry pioneered by Fela Durotoye. It was the first place I worked before I went to serve in Ilorin. I learnt a lot about business and entrepreneurship under the tutelage of Bade Adeshemowo. Maybe that’s where I got most of my energy. During my service years, I taught mathematics. I like to teach. After National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) assignment, I was busy learning. The moment I made up my mind to start a business, I started to get support. Someone opted to register the company as a Limited almost immediately, even without having prior business knowledge. I had a lot of support from both family and friends.
Would you like to relive some of the fond memories of your university days?
By default, I’m a planner. There was a time we planned a one week sport tournament in UNILAG and it was fun. We had sponsorship from 7up and few companies. We drew a budget of about N1.5 million, but we ended up spending N200,000. So, whenever I stumble on a challenge, I just remember that and believe in God to do same miracle. Almost throughout my university days, I was planning one thing or another. We try to add value to lives, We try to help people see a bigger picture, discover their untapped potentials. Irrespective of what course you studied, there’s so much out there for you.
Did these activities at any point affect your grades?
Not really. My third year was my re-defining moment. I had to sit down and ask myself what I wanted after school. I told myself, I don’t want to just get a certificate and be like every other person, but I want to do something different. I told myself that my life is worth more than getting a blue-chip job, bring up kids, paying bills and die. I think it was more of personal research and learning that took my time. Nobody should learn this; at my final year, I stopped going to class. And that was because I had a bigger picture. Now, I haven’t even collected my result from the school. I’m quite drastic. I stood in front of the senate building and said, “I’ll ensure I don’t need your certificate to feed.”
Starting a business in the Nigerian economy is not easy. What are some of the factors you have put in place to survive?
Starting a business in Nigeria hasn’t been a very smooth journey. But like I said earlier, every challenge is an opportunity to find a solution. The question is, what are the things the Nigerian government expects from a business? You pay tax, levy and all sorts of bills. We started to put most of those things in place, to avoid embarrassment by law enforcement agencies. But there are still times they harass us for no just cause. As a Nigerian, you will always find a way. As long as you have the drive and passion, you won’t see anything as an obstacle.
Who are the people harassing you and how do they harass you?
Some gentlemen always come to our office and claim to come from Lagos State Radio and Television Ministry. We neither use radio nor television. They come every other day threatening to shut the office. They want us to give them money that is not stated in the law. The law says, “If you use radio or television…” And we don’t use any of those.
How do you think Nigerians at all levels can contribute to nation building?
First of all, Nigerians must be positive. We are all tired of hearing negative statements about Nigeria from Nigerians. The moment we become positive, we will see the brighter side of things. All the countries we are running to, some people stood to build them. Dubai was a desert before one man started to build it. So, if we can stand to say this is our own, this is our home, we are going to build it. I believe we will do exploits. We can’t expect great result when everyone is shying away from what should be done. It’s not magic and nothing happens by itself; something must be done to trigger it.
What is your message for Nigerian youths?
I know it sounds like a cliché, but they must know their purpose. You can’t determine how you get to your destination if you don’t even have an idea of where you are going. Have a big picture and try to do things that affect people’s lives. If you do something for yourself, it ends with you; but if you do something for others, it remains forever.
How do you relax?
I am an introvert. If I’m not doing PEC, I’m in my bedroom. I’m quite an uninteresting person to be with. As much as we plan it, I don’t attend parties. I really don’t like going out. I like nature, beach side nature.