“One can’t prepare for everything, but one needs a backup plan in case something goes south.”
Helge Hoffmann is a Namibia-born entrepreneur and the founder of the local casual fashion & accessories brand Namibwear. Helge grew up in Windhoek, where he spent most of his life. After finishing his school years at the Delta School- and Secondary School Windhoek, matriculating in 2006, Helge worked as an IT Intern before applying at the AAA School of Advertising in Cape Town, South Africa where he had the opportunity to study graphic design.
After a very tough first year at the school, his understanding and passion for design & marketing grew more and more in second and third (final) year. Next to his studies, Helge started doing freelance work for friends and smaller businesses before finally graduating in his third and final year in 2010 with a BA Degree in Graphic Design and a Diploma in Marketing. The year after, Helge moved to Stellenbosch where he completed another Post Graduate Diploma in Marketing at the University of Stellenbosch. It was during this year that Helge also, next to his studies, started his first two business ventures, Antiques Africa and his former design brand, Hoffdesign.
In 2012 Helge joined the team at the Globecreative agency where he got to work on several cool brands such as Finweek, mpact (Mondi), Showmax and more. 4 years later, Helge sought to gain overseas work experience and decided apply at advertising agencies based in Germany. With 5 agencies offering this strange white man from Africa a job, he accepted an offer at Joussenkarliczek, a strategic design agency near Stuttgart, where Helge worked on big international brands like STIHL, TeamViewer, LG, Oettinger and more.
From his overseas experience Helge writes: “I was not only able to develop further as a designer and art director, but I also learned some valuable business insights, strategic thinking, typical German work-ethics and business practices that I am now able to apply to everything I do today.”
During his agency career, having worked on a lot of brands for a lot of people and businesses, Helge felt a strong desire to start a new brand of his own, a new project and business venture. Alas, in 2018, with some encouragement of his girlfriend Carolina, the Namibwear brand was born. Starting off with only a few t-shirt designs, the Namibian startup company has since launch seen various new t-shirts collections, hoodies, sweaters, caps, flip-flops, phone covers and there are a lot more designs and product releases in the pipeline.
Tell us more about Namibwear, what inspired you to start this business, the services you offer as well as the team behind your startup (if any).
“Namibwear is a passion project which took roots in my early days as graphic designer dating back to 2011/12, but the brand wasn’t officially founded until late 2018. During the initial launch phase, I focused on the branding, designs, photography, marketing, website and so forth, while my girlfriend Carolina who encouraged me to start the business, helped with the admin and reaching out to suppliers and manufacturers.
The concept of Namibwear grew out of a deep love and pride I have for my home country Namibia. Having spent most of my life here, I wanted to start something where we can share this passion with fellow Namibians and people who share a similar deep connection with our country. Besides always wanting a clothing brand of my own as a sort of creative outlet, I also felt that there was a gap in the Namibian market for a high quality casual clothing brand featuring modern and sophisticated designs that appealed to proud locals and visitors of our country. Being a big fan of modern minimalism often found in Nordic (Scandinavian) design, I always try and make something clean and sophisticated, a design that is well balanced, using modern design- aesthetics and principles and combining this with Namibian themes. Since launch we have released over 34 different designs, investing in premium quality products including:
• Men’s and women’s t-shirts
• Unisex hoodies and sweaters
• Unisex range of caps
• Laser engraved wooden phone covers
• Men’s and women’s flip-flops made partially from recycled materials
Being a passion project and, even at this stage, still somewhat of a start-up company, realizing the brand would not have been possible without the input and occasional wisdom of Carolina, the after-hours help of my mother Agnes and my good friend Richard Steinbach. These individuals including myself are the core people who make up the Namibwear Team.
Namibwear would also not be possible today if it were not for the awesome support and valuable feedback from our customers, sharing the pride, both locally and abroad. Nothing makes us prouder than people representing us, sending us their photos and sharing their stories with us. All this and more makes up the Namibwear family.”
What challenges have you encountered on your entrepreneurial journey and how did you overcome some of them?
“From almost quitting college to my first failed business ventures to a pain-in-the-butt world pandemic, challenges certainly are plentiful, but it’s how we deal with them that makes the difference.
One of my first business ventures was an online antiques trading platform called Antiques Africa. The concept was to create one platform tailored for antique traders and vendors in southern Africa where they could list their products and sell these online. While the idea showed a lot of potential, for my partner Nick Taylor and myself it proved extremely challenging to get enough vendors on board, figure out the logistics, do all the product photography, listing & marketing ourselves and designing & developing a stable & easy to use platform for a large number of antique vendors.
After 7 months of hard work and sometimes extremely tedious processes, we scaled down our efforts and resources and I shifted my focus back on building up my freelance design business. While the antiques venture had failed, the experience gained was extremely valuable and, in many ways, also contributed to the existence of Namibwear today. Like many other failed endeavours, I took it as a learning and tried to do it better the next time around.
At the end of the day, one will fail a few times, both from a personal and business point of view, before getting it right, and that’s okay. If you believe in something, and put your heart and soul into it, the results will speak for themselves. In the case of Namibwear, my passion for my country and the need to create, bundled with a huge amount of persistence, hard work and support from family, friends and epic customers has helped me to overcome most challenges so far.”
What advice would you give to someone trying to break into this industry?
“Running my first business venture taught me that one cannot run before you learn to walk. If you ask me there is no easy way to get into the fashion industry, even casual fashion. It does require a good understanding of design & trends and personally I think one needs to get the product right, with prototypes and testing, before one can roll out a complete collection.
Start small scale and try out a few things first, make some t-shirts for your friends or families. It’s a big investment to bring out a new collection so make sure it’s done right. At Namibwear we spend a lot of time first of all creating our designs and making sure our products are manufactured following high-quality standards and ethical procedures. There should be no cutting corners when it comes to this. Higher quality and ethical manufacturing means higher production costs and lower margins, but this is usually rewarded with repeat purchases and loyal customers which is 1000 x more valuable than making a quick sale with a cheap product.”
Do you have a business philosophy? If so, what is it?
“Our business philosophy is to provide high-quality products featuring Namibian-themed designs at fair prices. We believe in an inclusive culture, uniting locals and working together with likeminded individuals and institutions. We want to share the Namibian pride, our diverse heritages, and of course the natural sceneries with the rest of the world.”
What are the company values that have been integral in getting you this far?
“Namibwear company values include:
- Honesty – being transparent in what we offer and our service capabilities as a local start-up clothing brand. Only offer what you can deliver, be transparent in what you are able to offer as a business and what not. While it is impossible to meet every demand, we do try our best to meet exceptional customer satisfaction.
- Fairness & Integrity – providing fair pricing for high quality products, ethically sourced and manufactured.
- Trust – assuring value for money with your purchase and providing safe and convenient payment methods backed up by a 2-week product return policy.
- Local is lekker – wherever possible we work with local suppliers, manufacturers, service providers, talented artists, photographers, artists and models from Namibia and also South Africa.”
One often hears of poor customer service & experiences in start-ups; what measures do you have in place to ensure the best experience for your customers?
“I must honestly say I can’t relate to this. Sure, startups don’t have the manpower or financial needs to provide certain service features that one might expect from established businesses, but I find that many smaller companies and start-ups go out of their way to assist customers and try to meet their expectations.
Thanks to our social media presence and modern ways to communicate, we offer several ways for customers to get in touch with us and in fact we highly encourage customers to interact with us. We like to talk and listen to our followers and consider these as being part of the Namibwear family. Our return policy assures that one can easily exchange an item if it doesn’t fit for example and although we do need to have fixed company policies, we do tend to be flexible in order to meet customer satisfaction. Certainly, things don’t always go 100% according to plan, but we do try and make the purchase experience and after sales service as pleasant as possible. As a proudly Namibian start-up, I feel it is our duty to go the extra and show commitment and provide good customer service across the board.”
What role does your startup play in nurturing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Namibia?
“We hope that Namibwear can inspire others when it comes to quality Namibian brands. I think it’s important to lead by example, no matter which industry, by setting new standards and exploring new ways of innovating, conducting business, promoting online ecommerce in Namibia, working towards sustainability and encouraging more collaborations amongst Namibian entrepreneurs.”
How significant is collaboration in the growth & scaling of a start-up?
“Collaboration is extremely important, especially for startups and smaller businesses. When we had our first products, we only had an Instagram channel and a Facebook page to promote and display our items, but without a retail space where we could stock our products, it was hard for customers to view and feel the quality of our items.
Luckily, we have fantastic weekend markets where we could display and sell our first t-shirts and phone covers which gave us a base where people could really see what we’re all about. Besides the markets, we approached a few vendors and asked if they would be interested to stock some of our Namibwear products, and while most vendors were interested, it was impossible for us to meet the wholesale prices needed for the vendors to meet their expected margins. It was thanks to smaller businesses and startups like Leon Engelbrecht Design that stocked a limited selection of t-shirts and phone covers which people could try on, see and feel with their own eyes which made people experience the Namibwear brand for the first time in a retailer.
In 2020 we had the opportunity to open a popup shop at a local shopping mall, but paying rent, utilities and staff salaries would have been too much to carry on our own, so we teamed up with another entrepreneur, Daryn from N!A Caps, to give it a go and share the retail space. Besides getting along really well on a personal level, our products complimented each other and we’ve even produced a few caps together.
Another collaboration we have just entered is with our new our delivery partner, eBikes4Africa which use local drivers and e-bikes to deliver parcels all over Windhoek. Not only does this encourage local entrepreneurship, but we also lower our carbon footprint by using e-bikes instead of usual couriers by van.
We hope that more Namibian companies and startups will be open to do collaborations in future, because at the end of the day we’re all in this together.”
In 2020, entrepreneurs lived through a tumultuous period with the arrival of the COVID- 19 pandemic; what was your biggest business lesson that you can share?
“We opened up our first ever pop-up shop that, after just about 1 and a half months, we had to close due to the COVID-19 lockdown regulations. Not being able to trade normally but still having to cover running expenses, we decided not to continue beyond the contractual 3 months and scale down to selling only online through our web shop. Thankfully we invested a huge amount of time & effort in building a fully functional online shop, which is easy to use, safe and secure, up to international standards, offering many forms of payment and product delivery/pickup options. For us, having an online point of sale means we can still be present and continue to build the brand, introduce new products and keep our business going throughout these difficult times.
What’s more, through my experience as an entrepreneur, I am able to shift focus on one of my new ventures like the Nordern Design Bureau during times where business is slower due to the pandemic. One of the biggest business lessons I have learned during these times is that one needs to be flexible and be able to adapt to changing conditions. One can’t prepare for everything, but one needs a backup plan in case something goes south. If something does go bad, try and keep your cool and make the best out of the situation presented before you.”
Cell/WhatsApp: +264 81 716 2121
Instagram: @namibwear | @ach.helge