Do your research, trust your gut, it’s going to be a lot of hard work, but in the end, it will be worth it. – Derin Oyekan
Derin Oyekan is co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Reel, an eco-friendly paper brand, offering bamboo toilet paper with a portion of the business supporting SOIL, a sanitation R&D non-profit in Haiti. Reel, co-founded with Livio Bisterzo, officially launched in the US in March 2019 and has sold over a million rolls of toilet paper, growing almost 1,000% year over year since launch.
At age 40, Oyekan has already made three career pivots: engineering to marketing to entrepreneurship. Oyekan has a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, but never worked as an engineer, opting to start his career in Internet marketing. Oyekan held multiple growth marketing roles, taking brands from pre-revenue concepts to multimillion-dollar businesses. He then moved into entrepreneurship, starting and advising on several ventures before co-founding Reel in 2019.
Oyekan shares his insights on entrepreneurship, career planning, and how his specific background (in engineering, as a person of color) has influenced his journey:
Caroline Ceniza-Levine: Why toilet paper? How do you know an idea has potential? How do you decide that something isn’t working?
Derin Oyekan: Toilet paper is one of the biggest consumer product categories. It’s also an essential item. These are two characteristics that made it very attractive as a product category to go after. It was also ripe for disruption/innovation as it had been stagnant for decades.
We usually look at the addressable market to decide if an idea has potential. If it’s a small addressable market, can you charge high enough to build a substantial business, and if it’s a lower price point product, is it a large consumer category? Can you innovate in some way?
I rely heavily on user feedback to decide if an idea has legs. Pre-launch, market survey to understand what people think of the idea and if it’s a product what they would be willing to pay for it. Post launch, NPS (net promoter score) is metric I pay a lot of attention to as it tells you how many of your customers would be willing to recommend your product/service to the friends and family. You don’t want to always pay to acquire a customer or sale. Ultimately, if it’s a non-VC funded business, it’s working if it has the potential to offer those involved with it a good income and offer investors a healthy return on their investment.
Ceniza-Levine: Your business must have experienced a run-up in orders during the toilet paper hoarding period. How did you scale? How do you manage for growth?
Oyekan: It was crazy. We essentially sold out of three-month’s supply of toilet paper in a week. It did put a lot of pressure on our supply chain. We were able to use that opportunity to step up production and feel confident that, should anything like that happen again, we would be well-positioned to be able to meet demand. We were able to secure a credit facility solely for our inventory production and that has allowed us to continue to scale.
Ceniza-Levine: There are many established toilet paper brands, and they are conglomerate companies. How did you break through?
Oyekan: We went out with the approach of trying to build a cult-like following for our toilet paper. We are obsessively focused on the customer experience. I wouldn’t say we have completely broken through yet, but we are definitely on the radar of the big 3 paper manufacturers as a brand on their heels.
Ceniza-Levine: You have a co-founder. How did you meet and decide to work together? How do you decide who does what? What advice do you have for business partners or aspiring entrepreneurs considering going into business with someone else?
Oyekan: We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Originally, I was going to consult with him as a growth marketer but we had such a great first meeting that we decided to see if we could do more together. He told me about a concept he was working on. I loved the idea, we worked together on refining it and the rest as they say is history.
I think our partnership works because we bring complimentary skillsets to the business. I’m a growth marketer and good manager of small teams, and Livio is great at fundraising and brand building. My advice to aspiring entrepreneurs would be to make sure you have complimentary skills with your partner so there is a clear delineation of responsibilities.
Also, making sure you can keep each other accountable. Ultimately, you want to be in business with someone you believe cares about the business as much as you do and is willing to work as hard as you are to make it succeed.
Ceniza-Levine: You went from electrical engineering to marketing to entrepreneurship. How did you decide on your career pivots? When did you know it was the right time to leave specific roles or companies or businesses you started?
Oyekan: I’ve always been curious about how things worked. As a kid, I liked taking things apart to see how it worked inside and then put it back together. Even though I got the degree, I never actually pursued a career in electrical engineering. I graduated right around the dot com bust of the early 2000. I accidentally discovered a position for an internet marketing position after graduating and really enjoyed learning about how businesses succeeded or failed online. I was very passionate about it and really threw myself into it.
I usually changed companies when it was pretty obvious there was no more room for growth. Fast forward to 10 years later and I got the entrepreneurial itch to go try to do my own thing. A few ventures failed and some succeeded. A couple I exited to go pursue other things. I always went with my gut as to when to make changes.
Ceniza-Levine: How has your engineering background informed your marketing and entrepreneurial approach? Would you recommend a science background or coursework for people early in their careers and thinking about certifications or grad school? Do you wish you had taken business or other courses or picked another major?
Oyekan: I think my engineering background has definitely informed my problem-solving approach to marketing and entrepreneurship. I genuinely want to help solve consumer problems. I wish I would have taken more finance related classes just to be a well-rounded entrepreneur. Fortunately, I’m working on that now. I would highly recommend a STEM coursework as a precursor to becoming an entrepreneur.
Ceniza-Levine: How has being a person of color influenced your career choices and the decision to start businesses? What advice would you give to POC professionals and entrepreneurs as they manage their own careers?
Oyekan: I think being a person of color has probably made me a lot more cautious in the career choices I made. As much as I like to consider myself a risk-taker, I’ve unconsciously limited myself to “safe” career moves. Most have been lateral.
When I decided to become an entrepreneur however, I threw caution to the wind and mostly went with my gut feeling. My only regret to date as an entrepreneur has been shelving an idea I was passionate about because others told me it wasn’t worthwhile. This was in the grocery delivery space in the very early days when it was just Instacart and Amazon Fresh was a test concept in Seattle.
My advice would be to trust your gut. As a POC, eyes are always on you but don’t let that limit the career decisions you make. As they say, “people are gonna talk anyways, so you might as well do what feels right to you.“
Ceniza-Levine: A products business requires funding. There are reports of difficulties obtaining funding for POC founders. How did you fund Reel?
Oyekan: Fortunately for me (and for Reel), my business partner Livio was able to help lead our efforts in securing a seed round from previous investors in his prior successful venture.
At previous companies, I have definitely experienced challenges with raising funds. I think the best way to overcome that is to build a business (or proof of concept) whose metrics look so attractive that investors will line up to fund you. Easier said than done, I know, but I think that has to be the attitude and approach.
Ceniza-Levine: What do you know now that you wished you knew at the start of your business (Reel or other venture)?
Oyekan: At the start of my first business, I thought I would have a lot more “free time” but I quickly learned that I ended up working much longer hours. You wear so many hats and with limited resources you end up doing a lot more. I wish I knew how important it was to prioritize self-care during the entrepreneurial journey so as to prevent burnout — something I definitely experienced.
Ceniza-Levine: What has been the most rewarding thing about being an entrepreneur?
Oyekan: It’s always great to get positive feedback from a customer or client. It makes it so rewarding and worthwhile. Having positive press and peer recognition is also great.
Ultimately, the goal is to have impact. With Reel right now, just knowing that we are literally changing lives with our partnership with SOIL is incredibly rewarding and continues to fuel our drive to do better.
My favorite takeaways from Derin Oyekan?
It’s important to prioritize self-care. Trust your gut, and don’t let other people limit your career decisions. Be passionate about the problems you want to solve.
Ultimately the goal is to have impact. – Derin Oyekan