Words by: Victoria Taylor
Welcome to the inspiring story of Toks Aruoture, the founder of The Baby Cot Shop. Born and raised in Nigeria, Toks embodies the Nigerian spirit of resilience and determination. She has faced numerous challenges and setbacks throughout her life, but she has always refused to give up.
Toks’ journey took a new turn when she moved to the UK as a teenager. She had never experienced racism before, but her strong sense of self and her Nigerian upbringing allowed her to brush off prejudice and stay focused on her goals. It was this same mindset that helped her start a business from scratch during the 2008 recession, when she had lost everything and was expecting a baby.
Despite the odds, Toks refused to give up on her dream of owning a luxury baby and children’s furniture store. She poured her heart and soul into The Baby Cot Shop, focusing on exceptional customer care and a commitment to quality. Her efforts paid off, and today The Baby Cot Shop is a thriving business, beloved by parents all over the world.
In this interview, we’ll dive deeper into Toks’ story, exploring the challenges she faced, the lessons she learned, and the secrets of her success. Get ready to be inspired by one of Nigeria’s most dynamic and resilient entrepreneurs.
What inspired you to start The Baby Cot Shop?
My journey into nursery furniture and interiors began when my husband and I decided to emigrate to the United States. In the process, I acquired a gorgeous boutique specialising in luxury furniture and decor for babies and children. I had an interior design background, so I merged that with the sale of beautiful nurseries and began to specialise as an interior designer for babies and children. We lost the business in the 2008 recession and returned to the UK to weather the storm- I was also expecting son number four.
Upon my return, I researched the UK market and saw nothing remotely close to what we had been doing in the USA. I travelled around Europe to meet craftsmen who could deliver high-quality, beautiful furniture and curated a selection for our then-online store.
The demand to see the furniture in person led me to open our first location on King’s Road in Chelsea, London, six years ago and in 2021, we launched our in-house brand of baby furniture and interiors.
What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
My first challenge was the need for cash. I had lost everything, and being pregnant, I couldn’t go into employment. I had a moment of illumination when I realised the web designer who had just given me a quote I couldn’t afford wasn’t born with the ability to build websites. He had to learn, and so could I. I googled ‘how to build a website’ when website building was rocket science. And I had the new website up and running in 26 days.
The next challenge I faced was with products. No one in the UK wanted me to sell their items if I didn’t have a physical location, and those that were open to online selling expected me to buy a large quantity upfront. I needed funds and a warehouse to do that. So I headed to the European continent to look for skilled craftsmen who could create beautiful baby and children’s furniture. I curated a selection of interiors and sold them on the website.
Another challenge showed up one uneventful evening. I started to receive emails from my US suppliers asking me to remove their products from our website. A competitor had made the rounds to all of them, promising to do better in revenue- on the condition that I wasn’t allowed to sell their products. I went for a run mainly because I didn’t want my children to see me crying. Bu the time I returned, I had the answer. I’d create my own products designed in-house, and no one would tell me where and when I could sell them. The BCS collection was born in 2021, and we are growing from strength to strength.
What sets The Baby Cot Shop apart from other luxury baby and children’s furniture stores?
Our customer care is unrivalled. Because of this, we decided to offer fully bespoke furniture, so our clients can have exactly what they want. I infuse my values into the business, too. I practice living authentically and want people to have a pleasantly memorable experience with us, and they do.
Consequently, no ask is too much; we go over and beyond. To make preparing the nursery a fun and relaxing experience for our parents, we offer a full interior design service where we do the hard work of designing and installing the baby’s room; that way, all they need to do is say yes to swatches and finished samples.
Recently I had a business consultant say your products are perfect. You don’t need to work on it. It caused me to pause because we are always seeking to improve. We take on board customer comments and expert opinions and are guided by them. For example, a chiropractor recently told me new mums come to him with back aches because they have to pick up and put down their children in and out of the cot. And we have amended the design of one of our cots to make it comfortable for mums.
In addition, we work with the best residential interiors in the world to realise their clients’ dream nurseries. So we offer even more flexibility in the products we supply them; that way, they are not force-fitted into non-standard furniture and interior accessories.
How has your Nigerian heritage influenced your perspective on entrepreneurship?
Nigerians are go-getters and are incredibly resilient. I have had several instances where I was tempted to quit, but I just couldn’t- because what will I tell my tribe? I was lucky to have grown up in Nigeria, so I didn’t grow up being a ‘black girl’. I was just a girl, like all African girls in Africa are. So when I moved to the UK in my teens, I didn’t recognise racism. Some people treated me differently, but I thought they were badly raised. It took a minute to understand what prejudice looked like, and even then, I could brush it off because we ignore irritations like that.
Nigerians have incredible confidence; we believe in our ability to do anything we imagine, and the opinions of others do not dent it. There is a level of arrogance, too, where we are raised to see ourselves as the head and not the tail. This mindset allowed me to make bold moves that others would perhaps have avoided because society told them something different. I am very proud and grateful to be Nigerian.
Can you share some of your fondest memories from your childhood in Nigeria and how they have shaped your values and work ethic today?
I am an only girl, sandwiched between two boys, and I was the consummate tomboy. I loved to play as a child, my favourite being climbing trees. I was also very competitive and would challenge my brothers and friends to see who could get to the furthest part of the tree first. That competitiveness evolved into a “watch me” mentality. When I’m told something in business is impossible, I say, watch me.
Interestingly enough, I also slipped into traditional ‘girly’ play, like setting up a shop by attacking the stools in our living room, giving my brothers monopoly money and ‘selling’ every knick knack I could lay my hands on. Interestingly, I ended up owning a shop. My parents had just fitted a new kitchen, and back then, worktops had to be made from scratch by cutting to size and glueing on the Formica. I used leftover bits and created a two-storey dolls house with wavy walls – not an artistic expression; I just couldn’t cut straight lines. It was pretty but felt spartan, so I overlaid the insides with floral fabric, and it instantly felt like home. I was proud of my work and carried it gently, with bated breath, to show my mum and her friend. Mum let out a scream. I smiled from ear to ear, basking in the praise I would be drenched in since she had just discovered that her daughter’s talents had no end. Still in shock, mum explained to her friend that the Formica had cost her such a large amount of money per square metre, and of all the things in and out of the house, why did that have to be my drug of choice? She later admired my work- reluctantly- and dissuaded me from going after any other expensive leftovers in the house.
What are some of the key cultural values from your Nigerian background that you bring to your business practices and approach to leadership?
Generosity. Nigerians are generous. For example, we don’t typically believe in splitting the bill at dinner. Things have changed as we have more western influences today, but giving has always been a part of our culture. A community spirit is also part of most African cultures, and I see both qualities in how I treat my staff. At the Baby Cot Shop, we are family, and it was only recently I learned how to perfect some boundaries, but even then, I’m very much an open book with an open door policy where my employees are concerned. They know they can come to me with personal and work needs, and I will support them.
My values extend to my clients too. Years ago, I refused to allow my values to cross into business. I thought I needed to be insipid in my customer approach so I’d be taken seriously as a businesswoman. But as I removed the layers and received the boldness to show up as myself, those traits began to seep out. So you’d find me hugging a new mum who feels overwhelmed when all she did was come into the shop to buy a blanket. Or I’d cry with the one who has had her third failed attempt at getting pregnant. And I feel incredibly rewarded because I give my customers something they can’t buy or get elsewhere.
How do you see the entrepreneurial landscape in Nigeria evolving, and what role do you think the Nigerian diaspora can play in this development?
Every time I visit Nigeria, I experience a resetting of my mind. The tenacity displayed by this generation is admirable. Nigerian entrepreneurs just get up and go in the face of subpar government, much-needed infrastructure, and the absence of constant utilities like light and water. They don’t even notice what those of us in the west call an obstacle. So we end up spending our time fixing what Nigerians call normal. Their ability to build a business in the face of such resistance means they are developing muscles some of us in the diaspora won’t have the opportunity to. These people are not waiting for the government to fix what’s broken. Instead, they find the opportunity in every challenge. It saddens me that so many are emigrating – because the country has the components needed to make it one of the most desirable spots on earth, but the pieces are strewn about with no one to put it all together.
There needs to be more service delivery and attention to detail in the finishing of products. Our role in the diaspora extends to plugging these gaps through education and mentorship. With this, Nigeria will be a destination for world-standard goods and services in demand.
Can you share any advice for young Nigerians who are aspiring to become entrepreneurs, particularly those who may face cultural or systemic barriers?
Be yourself. You’d have heard stories that suggest you need to be someone else or tone down your ‘Africanness’ to excel… don’t. Learn the culture of the country you’re in, and understand their language too so you can understand their requirements and be understood.
But remember people do business with people and want to know the real you. Also, get a mentor if you can. Mentors are priceless; they’ve gone ahead and can see what you can’t see. Let your work speak for itself. No one goes shopping for a person with specific traits or ethnicity to buy a piece of jewellery; they look for the item and buy it from you. So attention to detail is a must in the supply of your products and services.
Can you tell us about your Living Inside Out Podcast?
The Living Inside Out podcast is a weekly show about navigating life through faith, mindset and an entrepreneurial approach. It was birthed out of my desire to hear stories of triumph from ordinary people like me. When I started out after losing my first business, I was desperate for stories that assured me that what I was experiencing juxtaposed against what I hoped for was normal. But I couldn’t find them. Success stories were usually far-reaching and almost always represented success with material things.
Sure, the Oprah Winfreys of this world are inspiring, but they are also larger than life and difficult to relate to. I wanted to tell exceptional stories of ordinary people. But I also needed to show that the possibilities would only be manifested if we worked on our inside to produce what we imagined. The mind is the engine room of our life, and whatever happens in there is what we will create externally.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly those looking to start a business in the luxury goods industry?
Have a strong why. This applies to whether you are in luxury or not. Your why will keep you going when it makes sense to quit. And if you’re going into the luxury space, pay attention to detail. Spend time in luxury establishments and observe, listen, and learn. It’s a different culture from the mass market. Authenticity will take you far because it has become scarce as people work hard to present their preferred version to the world.
Visit The Baby Cot Shop for stunning nursery furniture.
Click here to find out more about Toks Aruoture.
For another interesting read, find out more about self-taught mixed media artist Caroline Chinakwe.