How Lil Ahenkan (aka Flex Mami) built her empire, Flex Factory through deep conversations

Updated: Sep 15

It has been a hot minute! But I am back in action after 2 weeks of not recording any eps for the first time in 18 months and holy frikken moly. But I’m so proud to be bringing you this episode.

It’s with a friend of mine, who you probably have seen on the likes of Instagram doing her super cool things. Lil is Australia’s favourite woman. Truly.

It’s a big call, I know, but she’s definitely one of mine and I know a lotta folks who agree with me. My bet is she’s about to be one of yours.

She’s a dj, podcasters, best selling author, diy guru, hilarious instagrammed as well as entrepreneur. And a damn good one, at that. So in this episode let us take you behind the scenes into her story, but first - and if you haven’t been blessed with her content on Instagram - just pop on over. Have a quick peek. Have a lol. Do some critical thinking and then come on back to listen to how she’s built her colourful world and business, Flex Factory

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!


It's funny because I switch out what I say I do depending on the context of the conversation or the situation I'm in. So if I'm in kind of like a creative space, I'll just stick with D. J. And M. T. V. Presenter because it's enough context that that makes sense. But then if I'm in a more entrepreneurial space, I'll talk about the company's, if I'm meeting someone in, you know, a far older demographic, I'll just go with, you know, I run a business, it's obnoxious to go through the whole the whole list of slashes and it doesn't, I just never goes well, It sounds like I'm gloating.

00:09:28 It sounds like I'm I don't know, it's not received as intended as well. It's I think when I go through everything I do it sounds as though I do a lot of things poorly when reality I am very good at all the things I do. I just think it comes across well when I elevate a picture. So I try not to, I'm like what is the context? What's the elevator pitch for today then? It's all of those things I'm going to go through every single list. Hi, my name is lil also known as flex, I do all of these great things like I'm a DJ and a T V. Presenter, Aaron to cos I'm a podcast, I'm a best selling author, I'm a very good marketer. Oh my God, you oh that's exactly what you are. You're a great market up. Holy gosh. You know when I was reading about you I was thinking to myself and I've been thinking about this a lot recently because I've been working on the intro for my book that's coming out. Yes, I know. Yeah. But I was thinking about like why people are the way that they are and like what it is about you in terms of childhood or the way that your parents have raised you or moment in your life that have shaped you to be the way that you are?

00:10:42 And I was thinking why are you the way that you are, Why are you so ambitious and sparkly and driven and all these amazing things. What do you think it is about you multi pronged? The most obvious one that comes to mind is growing up in a single parent household and be made aware quite early on the value of money, how I wasn't going to do certain things because I didn't have any kind of opportunities. I wasn't going to be able to take full advantage of because of my environment or how I was raised or the resources we had or that we didn't benefit from nepotism. I just think it was a bit too real for me early on and I think that in contrast to the fact that my family really instilled a lot of ego in me, they would call me princess and boss and really um I just felt a lot of respect in my household. I felt really special. I felt like I was one of a kind my family always went out of their way to make me feel validated and appreciated.

00:11:45 And I mean in some extreme ways, in some simple ways, like I remember when my mom, I was complaining about my teeth for those who can't see me, I have a huge gap in my front tooth which I love now, but obviously hated when I was a child and a teenager and I would complain all the time to my mom and she'd be like, no, it's so pretty. Don't you know that in africa is a sign of wealth and in Ghana people die for that and I'm like, okay, whatever. Until one day she came home from the dentist and she got a gap shaved in front of her teeth and I'd be like, why would you do that? And she was like, it wasn't even about you, like, I just think it's pretty and you didn't believe me, it's not where I was expecting years ago, wow, imagine being raised in that environment where it's one thing, so you might feel like you know, you are special, you are great, I really like and respect you and then to show you that way in a very tangible way that cannot be argued with. It's just like of course I feel this way my mom used to say things like if you go to school and people bully you number one, they're jealous. Number two, you tell them that you're my daughter as if that means anything to a bully, but I believed her because she believed her, Oh my God, that's amazing.

00:12:55 So the combination of those things kind of gave me this this approach to life that makes me feel quite invincible, but also quite entitled to living the life I want to and as someone who grew up quite imaginative, I think the depth of where I thought I could go as always quite far, I just don't ever think I had the skills or the resources to back up what I knew so well, so all those things made me, who I am, gave me the gumption, the gumption great word. My mom was a single mom and I was raised by her and I just think there's so much like, like it's just so special to have like this parent that really is like your, I don't know, I guess you do feel you get it channeled from one source and it's really bloody good. Yeah, exactly, Okay, so this is a show about business, let's start moving towards the story, how does this get started? When did flex factory become an idea in your head at what can you paint the picture of, like, what was happening in your life, what your kind of presence looked like online at that point and how it started.

00:14:06 Yes, so this was three years ago, 2018 2017 ish. And at this time in my career I was definitely still a full time DJ, I was touring, I was playing festivals and parties and at that point I was still in an MTV presenter and I guess I was in this weird limbo where I just assumed that My audience would be bigger. I probably only had about 40,000 followers or something. I assume my audience would be bigger because of the kind of opportunities that I was getting and the way that I was able to make a lot of money and and be in Esteem places, and so I was thinking about how this a career, whatever it is, just couldn't last forever and I really wanted to transition into something a little bit more sustainable in the sense of can this withstand hype and trend? And so at the time I remember I was having this thought that because influencing had become a bit of a sing, everybody on the internet with a bit of a profile who created content, was being regarded as an influencer and I really wanted to create some differentiation between me and traditional influences because I was not one at the time, you have to remember that it was big on bikinis, flat lays what I ate in the days, inspirational quotes and for me, I don't like to compete where I don't compare and there was a very specific look for an influencer that I didn't have and so I was like, I need to make my own land, I need to do something completely different.

00:15:38 So I'm not being measured against people that I cannot compete with. So at the time, and I've always been the type of person who likes to have big conversations, I like to ask people hypothetical questions, I'm really interested in the way that people think how they rationalize how they justify and what's informing them to do. So, and at that point in time, instagram has just released a question function And in my head, I thought this is a really easy way to get some quick engagement on my story and I didn't have to worry about doing tutorials and outfit of the days and things like that. And so I would ask the question every day and I would share the responses I got and it would start this huge dialogue and it was so cool to me because I noticed what I had that my other peers didn't have was an audience that humanized them. I wasn't just a body and entertainment. I was a person with thoughts and I was a facilitator of something far bigger than this discussion. I was like helping people build their understanding of the world. And it was also very exciting to me, I became my signature.

00:16:41 And so basically because I was a DJ, there was an expectation that I do much and in my head I was like, I don't want to sell a T shirt and a hoodie, it's just not that exciting to me. And so I remember talking to my soul mate, best friend who is now my business partner and she had given me this idea of like, you know, why don't you do something with the, with the questions. And I was like, like what? And she was like, I don't know, like a pds, like a pdf merchandise, like, no, if I'm going to do much, I wanted to be exciting, like I'd rather be? I don't know, like a card game and I'm just like how you gonna make a card game? I was like, I don't know like but I would rather do that than than sell a T shirt. And so I messaged a good friend of mine Bianca and I asked her if she would illustrate a random card game for me and I took the questions that I had asked previously and I made a few more and she's like, yeah, absolutely, this is like a fun activity. And so we printed 100 of this card game at a local printer and it was the most tedious process ever because we would get the card sent to us in A stack of the same question.

00:17:47 And so we would have to collect all 50 of the questions ourselves and then package them. It was just not fun. But once I got the cards I was like, wait, how do I sell them? So we made this random big cartel and I hadn't even considered, you know, even shipping them out. But Grace was like, I will help you like this is fun, I will help you do this. We spend every day together anyway, why not? And so we had put the cards in a big cartel and they had sold out in like 10 minutes, like real. Like it was instant and I was like I love these questions. I love these cartoons. What's big cartel, you know? Big car tellers, What's that? What do you mean? Big cartels, like Shopify, but not as good. Yeah, okay, got it, got it. It's another place to sell stuff. It's like squarespace, like weeks. But it's, I think it was free. That's why I used it. And so we had just put the game's up. I think we were selling them for $10 or something at that time. It wasn't even to make a profit. It was like an exercise to see if I could because what I was doing was asking for a bit much.

00:18:53 I wasn't just the transaction of selling a T shirt. It's like, well that has function, it has a purpose, it exists. Um as more than an aesthetic item. But with the cards, I was thinking, who am I to ask somebody to spend their money on questions on cardboard. Me apparently because it's sold out instantly. And so Grace and I would sit on my couch and we would put the cards in a little foil. Um this cute foil sealed packet. Um and then we would buy envelopes and put stamps on the envelope. It was just the worst. And I and Grace had asked me, are you going to sell them again? And I was like, no, no, I'm a DJ. I meant to be touring the world. I'm not gonna sit here on my couch and put cards into an envelope and then put a stamp on it and then go to the post office and deal with posted issues. I don't want to do that. And she was kind of like, I think you should try. Like I think you should just do it one more time and see if people like it. And I was like no, I'm not doing it Can people of it. But then what ended up happening is that a bunch of my audience who had missed out was like, well when's the next drop?

00:19:55 And I was like there is no drop. And it went from really excited like where's the next drop to vicious. This is so selfish, Why wouldn't you release more? So many of your fans want these cards? I was like, okay, Ruud. So then again we go and print some more cars and if you can imagine listen to the people, listen to the people, if you can imagine with an order quantity so low, it was so expensive to produce these cards. We weren't making a profit. We were spending more money. It was like free shipping as well. So we were spending money and producing them, shipping them, not making a profit. It was so tedious because I wasn't using my business acumen for this. This felt like almost like a exercising validation do I really have as strong of a connection with my audience as I think I do and I did and that was enough for me. I didn't need anything else from that interaction. So we ordered some more cars we, I think this time was about 200. They sold out in a day. Great ordered about 500 more. Again they sold out in about maybe three or four days and then it became clear that this was a thing that was happening and with every drop I had convinced myself that I wasn't gonna do this thing because it just didn't feel right.

00:21:06 I was on a path and like I am an entertainer, I am a D. J. M A T. V. Presenter, I don't sell cards, what is that? I'm gonna card saleswoman and I just didn't feel like I guess for so much of what I've done previously it felt like it had so much intention or that I had almost like laser focus, I had willed it to be true because I wanted it so badly. This was such a random thing that it had felt like such a throwaway exercise that I wasn't ready to put any effort into it. And so Grace was really the one who was like I will, I will handle it like pay me an hourly wage and I will pack it, I will deal with customs service, I will do all the things you don't want to do because I really think this could be something and so we did that for about she was your heart girl. Honestly she really was and to me, I think my perspective with that was I don't struggle with not feeling capable, I feel so capable. My only issue is that I want to do everything. And I know I can So with this, I was like, I've already got the validation from it.

00:22:08 I know what it can be done. Let me pause, think about something I actually want to do and then I'll do it. And she was like, I think this is what you actually want to do just and she said, I don't think you like the fact that you didn't work very hard for it. I think you're fighting against this fact that it was simple and easy and it's true because my therapist would say the same thing you like the struggle you like to break your back a little bit. So everyone can see how hard you worked and that you, you that you suffered for and this just felt too easy. So that's how it began. It began as much and then and then it transitioned from well, how do we turn this from much to a real business? And the challenges I didn't consider is that when making it as much there was no consideration behind Well, what are these, what what is a conversation card game to somebody who has no idea what that is. I don't know my face was on the packet because it was much for me now that it was reaching different audiences. What is the relevance of my face on this packet? Get my face off this packet and then also the name?

00:23:12 Think I have one, right? Oh my God, actually of your original ones. See like it makes sense as much, but it's like this is a game that asks you to, you know, dig deep and unpack what you think, like move this face. And then we were thinking, ok, well is this just the one card game? People were requesting more questions and I was like, I don't have anymore, that was not the plan. You've worked through all the questions already? Damn, I don't have any more questions. And to all this consideration, what do we make more games? Are we just selling card games? What else will we do? Do we need a better website? It's kind of like you have to think about the business plan of like, okay, what does this actually look like if we're going to take this seriously now and actually do this in a real way. Exactly. And the shortcut with having an established audience is that you don't have to think about your USP or even the digital marketing funnel because it was all there on instagram, I had my audience, we had awareness of exposure, consideration conversion all in one place and they were gagging for it.

00:24:14 So suddenly when it was reaching a new audience, I had to consider, well, is there even an interest outside of people who like me and like what I speak about and what I do and how can I convince or convey what this actually is to someone who doesn't even know that they need it. Like it's not comparable, it's not, it's a very low awareness product. And so the transition into merch to business was so confusing because everything I guess I went from using this product as a way to validate this relationship with my audience versus using my skills to validate this product. And that was that's two different things. One was like, does my audience like me or is this product good? Right. So how did you take that transition? The first thing I had to do was objective thinking, which is really hard to do when you can modify yourself because up until that point in business, the only thinking that I had to do in regards to my business was whether I liked it, whether it reflected me whether I felt comfortable with it, suddenly having to step away from me as the business and say, what is the relevance?

00:25:19 How do I sell this to a person? And it wasn't that difficult? I think what I just struggle with now is the fact that very few people think intentionally period so asking someone to think intentionally about the conversations they're having, why they're having them, what they think feels like work. It feels hard. It doesn't feel simple or carefree and that's not the energy I wanted. Also I think the fact that I called it a game, people are under the impression that there should be a winner and a loser and I was like oh no, it's just you you play an interesting insight all of these small things that I'm still dealing with now because I'm like wait that is that's a good thing to think about. So the main thing I did was, well the first thing I had to do was create an actual business structure around the product. The product didn't just exist on its own. So we moved the reflex game, that's what it was called reflex because you answer on reflex. Um and then we moved it to a website called flex factory in which we could talk about our values which is creating connection through conversation and then suddenly became like a bigger picture thing.

00:26:24 Um and that was really cool until people were like we have more cards and more questions and suddenly we have to think about the money aspect like what does this actually cost us to produce this game in a way that's not just like just ignoring at our bottom line and that was really hard to do because we wanted to produce the game locally, we didn't want to produce it overseas only because it's just another thing to explain to a customer. Not only are we explaining what the game is, why you need it, where to play and we're gonna play, why we didn't make it locally. No, we'll make it locally which made it very expensive. It still is expensive, but that's fine. The second thing we have to figure out was how do we separate this from me as a brand personally, which you can never really do. I think any brand I've even wear on a daily basis is now unduly tied to me. So the goal that was just introducing more faces, more voices, more conversation topics. And the third thing is how do we even know if this product is viable? You know, like it's one thing to keep selling to my audience, but like is it of interest outside of the audience.

00:27:26 And so we spent a lot of the first year and when you have to pay to acquire doesn't make sense. Exactly. So the first thing we didn't do any paid digital marketing, we really relied on organic marketing and I feel as though because at that time in particular my career was, you know, still on the up and up. It was very easy to use my pre existing media opportunities as a new way to talk about the product. So if I'd be talking to vote, they'd be like, what are you working on? Well, funny you asked about this whole conversation card games blah, then I would use that information and clip it, put it on instagram and that would become also, you know, a tool to like it's all for credibility and that was an awesome thing to do. So the first year was just like trying to find a way to leverage all the current pr and marketing I had coming in or the current pr and marketing I had access to and just shifting the conversation to reflex. And what I found easy was that like I had already spent the last year playing the game to my audience just without the physical cards. So I just needed to keep on doing that and keep encouraging them to share their audiences and they did because I think what I recognized with the conversations I was starting, people love this idea of being able to observe and not participate and so they would share the question card to their friends, get answers, where did you get this from?

00:28:41 How can I play, Who is this girl? Why is she making the game? And so it just became the circular marketing exercise. The more I just maintained my profile, the more I talked about the game, the greater audience share we'd have just by existing. And so in the first year, I know we should be talking numbers. So in the first year we made about 800,000, we didn't make, we did $800,000 worth of sales. And to us that was like, wow, that's so crazy because this was meant to be just a throwaway activity and it was then we were kind of like, so what is crazy by the way? Yeah. So what is, what are we doing? What is this like how are we scaling it? Are we not scaling it? Are we selling card games now? You two We fucked it. That's what we really fucked it. So we were still at this point where we were kind of like, we want to live less Grace tonight. We're like, we're still living life. We've still got other priorities where like, you know, Grace was working at a startup and then she quit and that was meant to be her eat pray love year just doing things she liked.

00:29:45 And then now we're doing another job and I guess we were kind of, it felt good like we've done it. We were selling the game like, so once we sell it, let's just take a bit of a break. And so we did. And we didn't do anything for the business for like, I don't know, four months, good time just went. And then we had this proactive meeting and we said, how are we going to run this business in a way that actually works for us because clearly we're both having hesitations with doing what's required. And so we said, let's work with a three pl let's work with an external warehouse and company let's get them to dispatch all our products and then we can just do what we do best, which is market the product And so long story short, somewhere between producing the game and working with this Threepio, I started making these like I call them wrap t shirts and essentially their, these vintage t shirts with these obnoxious like prince of like celebrities and rappers and they were super cool and so people can we buy these t shirts And before I considered the legal implications of selling those t shirts and I didn't have copyrighted access to, I didn't have the I.

00:30:53 P. O. S. We were selling so many of these bloody T shirts and it was just like we were making bank. And then, so the person who sold us the t shirt had been on our website and said, hey, we notice that you sell other products, do you want us to manage the shipping of these other products for you? Because they were looking for extra business and we were looking for ease. So he said, hey, that's a great idea. You can also ship out our cards for us, kill two birds with one stone. It'll be fantastic. Now, I will say, I didn't like the vibe of this three pl but that didn't seem like a good enough reason to not to not accept the help when the help was given, I guess. And so we moved all of our products, tens of thousands of dollars worth of stock to this random warehouse in Melbourne that we had never seen before. We didn't forget it, we didn't check that we didn't do anything which is like how bad could it be, you know it'll be fine. So the first couple of months it was fine. Of course there were growing pains with communication, growing pains were just like having to manage the business with external people.

00:31:57 Great and I best friend's soul mates were also next door neighbors. So a lot of the business was running like an ad hoc way, but like working with these people were like oh fuck we need to communicate with our standards are for shipping and you know what our customer service stands are and how long until order processing to dispatch and all of these things. And suddenly we were having to manage people which we just didn't consider. We thought it would be like oh good. And so issue number one, is that the cost what they were charging to ship out? Our order was just like, it just kept getting higher and higher. First it was something like $6 to ship out in order. Then 50 cents if you want to add a sticker, another 50 cents you wanna add a comp card if you want to send it on weekends would be this prize if you want to dispatch within 24 hours can be this price. And before you know it, the cost of shipping out. The product was equal to the cost of making the products were like wait a second and then the actual cost of like we were offering free shipping as well, Just all these things we couldn't afford to do because we weren't running the business in a smart way.

00:33:02 We were just playing around, we had money to burn also. We thought, so that would strike number one. You know, it just like they couldn't give us a reasonable and consistent Rate for what it would actually cost us. And then it turned to, if you do between 0-200 orders and it'll cost you this much if you do between 200 orders to this and short fine. But the reason why we started working with him was because it was gonna be relaxed and ad hoc and it just didn't turn out the way second strike was that they just had no care with like storing out things and packing our things. So they wouldn't do a stock take, they wouldn't show us the condition in which our product was being stored, it would arrive to customers crushed. They weren't using the pretty packaging we had spent, you know, $6 per box making, they just were really slip in. And that was really frustrating because, as you can imagine, a lot of our audience were fans of mine who were buying from me because they wanted the flair and the attention to detail and the creativity and they wanted that experience extended to the customer journey.

00:34:03 And they weren't getting that and we didn't know until months later when we're kind of like, what's going on here? Like why am I seeing somebody opened up a package in a random plain white satchel, This is not the vibe. We have red and white checkered pizza boxes that the cards go in, where are they? Oh, we don't know what those are, Maybe we've sold out of them, order some more stock, but what do you mean? Anyway, so that was terrible. And then the third strike with them is that they kept over promising and under delivering. So like we'll ship your orders in this time, didn't do it, if we make any mistakes, will handle that cost didn't do it. Anyway, that was terrible. But then Grace and I was still in that weird period of being like, well if they have all our stock, so probably like, I don't know, maybe like 10-15,000 units of the game. They had everything we sold, and at this point we also had homewares and we had all this other stuff that was just with them, even the cost to get this stuff back to Sydney to stock it, where our homes maybe.