By Tilewa Kazeem
Very few people possess the skills and resources needed to recognize a defect in the way things are done and then devote their time, resources, and effort to fixing it, no matter how many challenges they face. Former CEO of FEW Model Africa, one of Africa’s biggest model agencies, and now, founder of Repdoor, a platform that promises to provide a community for models and all involved in that ecosystem, Bolajo Fawehinmi knows a thing or two about challenges. But never did her goals and missions get derailed. Starting her journey as a model who walked on the Miss Nigeria stage–despite her father’s wishes, Bolajo soon realized the need to do more for models and its almost nonexistent community at the time. This led to the creation of her first company FEW, where she was able to get her hands dirty and to a large extent, create opportunities for models to walk internationally for some of the world’s most powerful fashion houses. Having spent 7 years doing that successfully and passing on the keys to the kingdom, she now focuses on her tech start-up company, Repdoor which she says “is a platform that could largely and positively impact models on a larger scale.” The idea, however, didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. It was something that “started eating her up in her fourth or fifth year” of running her first company and was birthed by “the need for more to be done” and her exiting was the only way to get it done.
The likelihood of someone becoming a model has increased as a result of modeling agencies. This also implies that the likelihood of unskilled and novice models getting taken advantage of, underpaid, or worse is foredoomed. Which makes Bolajo’s experience and the need for a startup like Repdoor requisite. The founder explains, “Looking back at all of the things I’ve been privy to, in my years of talent management, there has to be a community. Models have to feel like they can depend on themselves and there’s a community where they can run to when they are not feeling good or when they are not feeling strong enough. Fashion Week is happening and models are in crisis, people are down and they are feeling bad because they aren’t getting shows. They’re asking themselves “what am I doing wrong? Why did I walk Michael Kors last year, and Michael Kors just finished and they didn’t even look at me?” It’s killing. It’s psychological. But what we are building with Repdoor is a community where models can network. Models are shy individuals. People believe that models shouldn’t be allowed to feel vulnerable or shouldn’t feel like they aren’t pretty enough and that you should be pretty every day. But it’s only a model that would understand and resonate with those struggles. So Repdoor is beyond tech, we might be coming through that route but it transcends that. We want to create a community where models feel safe, We want them to have something to depend on.”
The search for an agent is challenging for models. A model’s agent represents them and aids in their rise to fame in the fashion industry, which is one of the reasons why models fall prey to fraud and other schemes. They schedule jobs for models who are represented, choose tasks
that complement the model’s brand, and aid in the model’s professional advancement. This is a huge problem that plagues the business but Repdoor might already have a solution. Bolajo sheds some more light on that, “What we are serving right now is meeting agents. That’s the first problem a model has. They’re running around to get signed by an agency because that’s where the client is going to go. Now, Repdoor is taking on all of the problems one after another. The first problem is representation, secure first and everything else follows.”
In a country of unicorns and all-most-corns, encouragement is abundant should you choose to kickstart your voyage of creating a start-up. However, it is also important to note that not all start-ups make it to that stage. According to a 2020 report, just 39% of Nigerian start-ups survive due to the country’s 61% startup failure rate. Startup failure rates in Africa range from 75%in Ethiopia and 74% in Ghana to 58.3% in Senegal and 58.7% in Kenya. Not to fall short of that 39% percentile, first you need proper planning. Considering how much detail and attention needs to be paid during development, we ask the Repdoor founder just how involved she was in the backend planning and development of the entire app which is now available for download on the App store and Google Play Store. “This is the part that I run away from,” responding jokingly, “I do not get involved in it, I just talk. I’m a very finicky person so it took me 5 to 6 months to take different meetings with different tech companies. I was very upfront with my developers about the fact that I didn’t have any tech knowledge and I was not interested. They were very honest and very accommodating of my ideas as well. We ought to have launched last year but I wasn’t too satisfied with the design because it was too techy for what I wanted it to portray and it didn’t enumerate the necessary elements; fashion and modeling so I changed the whole design from the ground up, page by page. It was important for me to not make it too tech-centric and off-putting for models. Our lives are already too hard. I wanted something easy, and seamless and the initial design wasn’t giving me that. Hence the need to redo the whole thing. It’s been an interesting challenge.”
A product must be functionally capable of doing what it is designed to and doing it with good quality before it is released onto the market. It’s important to communicate a product: Users and future users must understand why they should use it, what advantages they can obtain from it, and how it will affect their lives. Repdoor is a product that functions as an “aggregator where models and agents meet in order to drive representation ease for models globally. Models would get to upload their portfolios on the platform, but it would still operate sort of like a LinkedIn and Instagram rolled up into one. It’s the future for modeling. “Bolajo best describes it as a “platform for seamless social networking” because its functionality stretches beyond that and the lifestyle element attached to it which is the “core of the product.” Discussing more on necessity for the product she retorted, “I just knew the product was needed. I don’t know how to explain it. I have the emails, I have the tours and I have all the data to back it up.”
Funding is an essential part when running a technology startup and securing venture capital funding, according to BCG, is an important milestone for start-ups like Repdoor and is an
important step that enables them to scale and develop novel products. When asked how funding for the project came about, she answered, “From the development till now I’ve financed everything, even till now. It’s not sustainable at all, I have to be honest. But you know when you’re determined to do something, it’s almost like nothing can stand in your way. Developing wasn’t easy but thank God for friends and family that understood what I was building and the financial consequences of that. I think I’m good at surviving. Because I survived for a long time with FEW. People think that the modeling business is so profitable but to be honest the profit is close to nothing. So if I can survive building FEW then I can do that with Repdoor. I understand that the tech ecosystem is harder to navigate without resources but in terms of the energy I had with FEW, I’m sure I can pull Repdoor through but it would be hard.” In the same breath, she spoke on the topic of taking on investors to help ease the financial burden of running a startup, “Investors are crucial to tech startups; if the opportunity comes and our visions align I’d take it on.”
The needs of every model around the globe are intended to be met by this one product. Giving them the freedom to choose what suits them best as opposed to the usual approach of telling them where to go and how much their cost is. Repdoor offers every model an equal chance and ensures that they discover something that complements their individuality and brand. An all-encompassing resource for modeling.