Ballager - Authentic Ethiopian Apparel and Lifestyle Brand
The story of how a beautifully designed and authentic Ethiopian apparel and lifestyle brand is setting up for a big success. Loline had an interview with one of the founders Mikiyas Solomon.
We all want to look and feel good. Some people are content with the rudimentary purpose of clothes. But many others do not let the power of what they wear go to waste. They use it to speak their minds, echo what they believe, and tell their stories.
This very need for humans to self-express gave rise to renowned international brands. Somewhere on the way, however, the brands’ voices got fuzzier. People neglected the representation and just wore the clothes. These people carried around symbols they were barely aware of.
This tale is not strange to our Ethiopian community as well. A country of thousands of years old history somehow has kept quiet when it comes to fashion. Its people did not mind having on other people’s stories. Ballager, an Ethiopian apparel and lifestyle company, brought light to the irony. They say, “Be your own label; wear your own story.”
Loline had an intriguing conversation with one of the founders, Mikiyas Solomon. Here is how a beautifully designed authenticity is setting up a young company for big success.
Ballager - the farmer
Ballager is only nine months in business and already a bold name. Four young graduates, Mikiyas, Kirubel, Victor, and Kidus, challenged the often negative “Ethiopian-made” stereotype. They aim to build globally competitive apparel and lifestyle brand. The word Ballager and the logo represent the farming, rural majority of the Ethiopian and African society. This is what they meant by wearing one’s own story.
When it all began
The idea for Ballenger came about two years ago. Limited resources, however, set them back for a little while. They got into other businesses to finance Ballager. As it was election season, they took multiple printing contracts to pile up what would later be their seed capital. Along the way, they researched the market in and outs. When they finally opened their first pop-up shop, they were surprised too. “People couldn’t just stop coming,” Mikiyas said in a celebratory tone.
What Ballager sells
You can find performance shirts, polo, and hoodies in their shop. However, they do not just sell you clothes. By wearing Ballager, you join a community conscious of what it wears. Ballager dresses those who pride themselves on their identity and want to have it on. Mikiyas told us, “We are a big nation and deserve to have a representation of who we are.”
Ballager, then and now
The four founders now have more people on board. There are permanent and temporary employees working for Ballager. Its products have grown in quality and quantity. They are pleased with their progress in their storytelling and customer services. They have about 80% of their customers drawn from their online presence. Adding services like delivery, Ballager is on a fast track to growth.
The biggest challenges
When Ballager began, resources were so limited that even transportation brought difficulties. Finding the right suppliers was another painstaking task. Mikiyas told us it was hard to find the quality they needed at the price they could afford. They finally resolved this by contracting a few of the best garment companies. Lowering their profit margins, they kept on without compromising on quality. With plans of scaling up, they are still on the look for more suppliers.
Mikiyas told us how complicated it was to start a business in an underdeveloped environment. “The system is just not ready,” he described. He spoke against the extra burden government bureaucracy shoved on them. Ballager, like other startups, was treated the same way larger and older companies were treated. It put them through unnecessary frustrations.
They had their business plans written and rewritten a few times. Initially, they went around the city trying to sell it to other boutiques. Many loved the story, design, and quality but didn’t think anyone would buy cloth with the Ethiopian-made tag. Ballager now has a proliferating business amongst those that rejected it.
No need to be intimidated
“When you first begin, you only see the giants that make you cringe.”
Mikiyas told us how it is typical of startups to see the market dominants and be intimidated. That makes entrepreneurs get lost, thinking they need big-budget marketing and entry. He told us, however, that once you are in you see things differently. There are many other entrepreneurs like you. He has learned that the startup ecosystem is open for those who strive.
Keeping the team motivated
Ballager is all about shared vision and responsibilities. Each of the four founders has a different professional background and brought together their skills for a single purpose. Mikiyas told us about their culture of openly discussing one another’s drawbacks. They do not also wait until a teammate burns out to praise his efforts. It is about bettering one another and working for a common goal. Looking back to how far they have come, Mikiyas told us, is an inspiration like no other.
A pro-competition attitude
“We aspire to inspire others into this sector.”
Yes, Ballager envisions having a dominant share in the market. But, it sees others in the sector as collaborators. Mikiyas explained the market size is too big for them to satiate. He encourages entrepreneurs to take a bold move into the market. He pointed out that soaring inflation is making imports ever-expensive. This has created an ecosystem for local businesses to thrive. Ballager proves that people would not refuse to buy great substitutes for their usual purchases. More companies, Ballager believes, mean conducive dynamics for all.
Rush into your business
Mikiyas advises people with ideas to take a daring leap. “I think the time is now,“ he said excitedly. He thinks it is better to get in the market sooner, explore it, and build a community.” If local businesses hush up, “he continued, “the global trend will grow louder”. This influence would later make it hard to understand and sell to our people.
The biggest lessons learned so far
No part of building up and running a company is easy. The Ballager team had lived through many tough days. Their idea was novel; getting finance was hard, and figuring out the supply chain became a serious challenge. It was quite a journey, and Mikiyas was ready to share his biggest learnings.
The co-founder said being in business has helped him change his business biases. He said he had also discovered it is possible to create a modern-day brand true to one’s identity. The other lesson he spoke on was how business should not just be about being lucrative. He has seen the importance of building a community, not just regular customers.