In this interview series, we chat with amazing women about their relationship with money. We discuss all things finance (no-holds barred) with the aim of demystifying money myths, highlighting mutual experiences and learning from one another. This week, we are joined by award-winning Architect & Product Designer, Tosin Oshinowo.
First of all, I’m a huge fan of Ilé Ilà. Your chairs remind me of my childhood home. We had these wooden chairs with print cushions, very “functionality meets comfortable”.
That’s good to hear. I’m glad it evokes such feelings because I always try to make sure that the product is designed with the end users in mind. I have a very strong affiliation with my city and my culture always comes out in my work. I’m very particular about home grown solutions.
Well, Hello and welcome! Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Tosin Oshinowo. I live and work in Lagos, Nigeria as an Architect, Product Designer, Writer, Speaker, and Entrepreneur.
I was born in Ibadan, where my father studied to be a Medical Doctor. After schooling and working abroad for a while, I moved back home to Nigeria when I was 29, and I’ve been here since. I currently run an Architecture Design Consultancy firm, CMD Atelier, and Ilé Ilà, which you already mentioned. I like clean lines, and it reflects in my design aesthetic.
What is your first recollection of having to handle money?
Probably when I went to the United Kingdom for A levels. I was in a foreign country, I had to be responsible with money. I couldn’t afford to be wasteful. I remember getting a monthly allowance of about 100 pounds. We would go into town on the weekends to shop etc. That was my first active experience of learning to prioritize, for instance, if I wanted to buy a nice top or trainers.
In one word, what does money mean to you?
Freedom- the opportunity of choice. To some extent, money signifies security.
Is there anything you wish you knew about money before you started earning an income, something you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?
Hmmm, I remember I wasn’t very good with money in University. I got a credit card in my first year when my child account got upgraded to a student account, and that came with a £1000 overdraft. Honestly, nobody should have a credit card without a source of income! It was a disaster. The funny thing is I don’t think I spent up to £500, but the interest had piled up to about £4000. I used to hide the letters from the bank so my mum wouldn’t find out. The day she eventually found out, she first of all cut up the Credit card right on the spot, and paid off my outstanding debt. I’ve never had a credit card since then! I’m very anti-loans. I do know that for a big business, credit could be a sort of pulley system. I however find that in my situation, where I offer a service, I hardly need it. If I decided to seriously upscale Ilé Ilà, I might have to consider this, but even then, I would rather look for a grant, or any available offerings from say the Bank of Industry. But personal debt is a no-go area for me. My early experiences have taught me to live within my means, save, invest, and be mindful of inflation. Running a business has also helped me understand a lot more about money.
We’re smack in the middle of a pandemic. What have been your biggest lessons as a Business Owner?
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to always have money put aside. I mean, I always have 3 months worth of salaries put aside, but this is unprecedented. I do have a second backup source of funds but I’m wary of tapping into it. I could never have thought I would have to put aside 6 months to a year away of salaries but here we are.
You also have to make decisions about possibly downsizing your teams, and this is especially difficult where it comes to technical teams, where you can’t just break up a team that has grown in competence together. So I think the biggest lesson is just to be prepared for the worst.
When did you first earn money and from doing what?
When I was studying at university in the UK, I got a part time job in my second year to supplement my pocket money, to buy things my parents didn’t find important. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough.
Do you find that your spending habits significantly change with a bump in income?
Yes, I think the more you earn, the more you can afford to desire. You can afford to get a decent watch, go on more interesting holidays, attend interesting events etc.
The more means you have, the more desires you’ll have.
Would you say that money played a role in choosing your course of study and in charting a career path?
Money did not play a role in my course of study. In fact, if I had known it was this poorly paid, I wouldn’t have done it. I think for Lawyers, Architects etc, you don’t tend to make a lot of money if you don’t own the practice. It didn’t even occur to me to find out how much Architects earn as a young person, It’s a scam considering how much time you spend in school. I’m not sure our parents considered encouraging us to study courses we could realistically earn from. There must be a long term masterplan for every investment, including Education.
I’m very comfortable now, but I realize that this doesn’t necessarily apply across board in my field. I have friends who studied other courses and earned well even as fresh graduates. That’s already a guarantee for potential upward mobility.
So do you think we should toe a line between the advice to “follow your passion” and “follow the profit”?
Well I think the country you live in determines how much you earn depending on your profession. For example, a doctor in the US might have better opportunities to earn more than a doctor in the UK where the healthcare system is operated by a National Health Trust.
There’s a level system, and you earn comparable rates unless you’re in private practice.
I’ve been relatively lucky because I had a foreign education but if I had to go back in time, I would still have studied something creative but maybe not architecture.
But definitely don’t chase money over excellence/passion. It just doesn’t work. There has to be a balance of passion and common sense.
Ever had an “aha” minute/epiphany that made you realise you had to start saving?
The credit card incident!
I also learnt a very hard lesson during the first recession. I had a bit of money and I remember I had traveled outside the country and it was in October. (The recession started in September and by December, it was all a mess). I had FX* then, and I remember that prior to that, I had used my card and there was no limit on how much you spend. This last trip however, there was a limit on it but I wasn’t aware of why. I hadn’t paid attention to what was going on with the economy. Only to return from my trip and realize that my money had dipped in value. The Naira had gone from N160 to N300 or so per $1 literally overnight. So basically half of what I had had disappeared. Someone had previously mentioned to me to save my money in FX but at the time I didn’t understand.
I learnt from that experience. You can’t just earn money and store it away. Your money must be making money for you even when you’re sleeping. Money itself must be working to earn its own keep.
Do you actively invest?
I currently invest in market funds, both local and foreign. I also have investments in land and property.
What influences your choice of what to invest in?
Diversification- Don’t put all your money in one place. I don’t waste money on trendy things, and I don’t keep surplus money in my account. Anything I have as an extra, I usually invest in something. I only keep what I need for immediate spending.
What would be your first three spends if you suddenly came into a huge fortune?
I would probably invest in land. Because I work in Architecture, I have a good understanding of urban development, so I would probably invest in an area that is potentially due for urban expansion. It would be a long term investment.
I could also look into upscaling Ilé Ilà.
I would probably buy a new car, but most of it will be invested.
Tell us about a time when money really stressed you out and how you managed the situation?
I was quite stressed towards the end of finishing Maryland mall, for two reasons. One, I think was my naivete as a business person at the time. I agreed to a very discounted fee after a very stringent negotiation with the client without fully appreciating how much work I would need to put in. I slowly found myself running off company savings towards the end of the project. The irony is that a lot of people think when you’re finishing such a project, you’re making a killing. On the bright side, we gained a lot of credibility and potential long term goodwill from that experience.
One thing I learnt from the experience is to always ensure my business has a steady stream of income and not be solely focused on one big project.
Shot by Ifedayo Photography on iPhone
Let’s talk about personal finance. Do you budget?
Yes I do. Even the process of working out how much I’m paying people requires financial planning.
What do you think about separating business and personal finance?
That’s tough for an entrepreneur because you are your business. I take personal responsibility for how the business is doing. I remember the year we were building the Maryland Mall, I didn’t pay myself at Christmas. It was more important that I sustain the team than pay myself. As a business owner, you make several sacrifices, work weekends, things like that… I would just say don’t get into the habit of taking money out of your company. You have to keep reinvesting. It’s like a flower, you have to water and grow it.
I literally used some saved up money to start Ile-ila, that’s how it has grown, I had no capital investors. You’ve got to be deliberate about growing your business too. For example, the first machine I bought was from a surplus bonus from a previous job. Whenever you get a sizable amount of money, Don’t get carried away. It is so important to understand your overhead, and use it to determine how you spend.
Do you sometimes find yourself feeling intimidated by finance and investing jargon? Do you think banks and financial firms could do better with communicating financial jargon?
I’ve had a very disappointing experience with some banks. I’m currently going through one right now where the accounts officer didn’t explain the process for something adequately. So as we go along, new things keep popping up. Nigerian banks say a lot about supporting SMEs but it’s obvious they don’t have our best interests at heart. On the other hand this is why your core network is important. Over the years I’ve made friends with a lot of financially savvy people who understand accounting and Economics who give me investment advice.
If you could be a superhero, which character would you be?
I don’t know, but I would either want to fly or be invisible. Can you imagine all the things I could hear?! I could be inside Aso Rock. 😂
What is the most expensive thing you have ever bought/paid for yourself?
It would have to be property. I’ve sometimes swapped a portion of my professional fees for an equity stake in a development.
What has been Your most ridiculous purchase ever?
I’ve had moments when I would buy a ridiculously expensive dress and wear it only once. But sometimes you need those kinds of moments where you look good and feel badass.
I know we’ve discussed your disappointment with Nigerian banks but…What bank(s)/financial organization/apps do you use and why?
These Nigerian banks are liars! You can quote me. They always say they support SMEs, but it’s difficult for you to get them to pay for Architectural services. I won’t mention names but some of these banks are more interested in making themselves look like global brands than actually serving the customer.
I use Stanbic IBTC for market funds. They have a reputation for being trustworthy.
Have you ever fallen for a ponzi scheme?
No, I don’t have that kind of money or greed. Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is.
One thing you don’t feel guilty indulging in?
What book or person has had the greatest influence on your financial life?
Gosh, I don’t think there’s any book. I do a lot more History reading. I learn mostly from the people that happen to be around me, from their kind advice and direction.
Let’s round off with a series of quickfire questions
Entrepreneurship vs. paid employment
Saving vs. Investing
Half and half- I believe in spreading your risk
Spending your own money vs. spending other people’s money
My own money. I don’t like to be indebted to anyone. Nothing in life is free.
*FX: Foreign currency