Figuring out exactly what you want to do when you posses a variety passions is difficult (and something I personally struggle with. Sometimes, the best way to find out what you really want to do is to try many things and see what you naturally come back to. After over 15 years of working in retail, starting various design businesses, and selling vintage pieces at flea markets, Nilea Alexander‘s destiny began revealing itself. Shortly after she married her husband, Lamine, they both decided to make a career leap and open a cafe that fuses French and Senegalese food (inspired by Lamine’s native heritage to Senegal, West Africa). In 2013, Cafe Rue Dix opened its doors to the people of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, offering a twist on traditional West African food with a hint of French influence. More than a restaurant, Cafe Rue Dix embodies everything Nilea and Lamine enjoy, right down to the eclectic decor for which we have Nilea and her on-going love for design to thank. After a year in business, her inclination for creating an experience took a more serious form. During the winter of 2014, the Rue Dix name expanded and Marche Rue Dix, was born, a retail shop offering everything from vintage clothing to travel gear to artisan home goods. There’s no saying what’s next for Nilea and Lamine, but one thing is for sure: if it’s rooted in something they love it, they’ll make it happen. Today, we’re thrilled to chat with Nilea about their two businesses, the value of ideas, the importance of hiring well, and how fostering a connection between product and people is always a key ingredient to any successful business. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When you feel that there is a need for something because it’s missing in the market, you create it! That’s what it’s all about. I have also worked retail for over half my life, so I understand that people all just want the same thing no matter what the market (be it a restaurant, retail, service), and that’s simply ensuring a connection between the product and the person selling it. Being able to create that environment in a cafe and retail space in my own neighborhood just felt natural and super exciting for me.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
I have always enjoyed good food and good clothing — and mix in a bit of good conversation and that’s what makes my world go round. My first job was in a clothing store in a mall, and from there I developed a career in retail. Once I met my husband, I expanded my knowledge into the restaurant industry. Overall, I enjoy hosting and providing an experience for people. I love every bit about it! It’s truly what I believe I am meant to be doing.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
My Dad (who has an accounting background) has always been a good sounding board for me when it comes to business. I think the thing that has helped me the most is his advice to save money and spend it only on the things that really matter to you. My ideas really matter to me and I am a risk taker, so I’ve learned to always invest in my ideas.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
In reality, what I actually enjoyed doing happened to make up only 25% of my time, with the other 75% going to paperwork, permits, insurance, taxes, blah blah blah! But once you get a system down, it’s not so bad. It becomes more like 60:40.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Hire well! You are only as good as the people that represent you. A person with the wrong idea of what your message is will pass that on the customer. Everything can go down hill fast when your vision is represented wrong.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business?
When building the cafe, I did not do enough homework before we started. We dove right in and the construction process was a nightmare. However, I learned a lot. It felt like a moment of failure at the time, but it helped me so much when I opened my second business, Marche Rue Dix.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Sleep, hang out with my husband, and maybe save up a little bit of those magical three hours and put them together for an additional vacation or two!
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Money and time.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
That [the businesses] are mine. From the ground up, we did it ourselves. We did not have an investors besides ourselves. We envisioned it and we made it happen. That’s still magical to me each time that I think about it.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I don’t have many books, but talking to other business owners is invaluable. Also, in New York specifically, the Small Business Association was extremely helpful to us.
Has failing at something or quitting ever lead to success for you? Walk us through that.
Of course! The biggest experience that felt like a failure was building the restaurant. It’s like we hit roadblock after roadblock and it felt never ending, but it did have an end and there was light at the end of the tunnel. I learned so much about what not to do ever again. These are lessons that four years of business school could not prepare me for. That experience was invaluable and I am actually so grateful for it.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
The market, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. How has it evolved? Where is it now? How will it continue to evolve and can you evolve with it?
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Currently, I am 6 months pregnant so for the past 6 months it’s been my pregnancy app! But right after that it’s just my email to be honest. Nothing special. The first thing that I do when I wake up is to give thanks for all that I have in that moment — There is no app for that!
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious? (it can be the paperwork, negotiating with clients etc.)
Knowing when to stop! For my business, I can be limitless. I have learned over the years to put myself and my sanity first, with my business coming in at a very close second place.
Images from Cafe Rue Dix’s Instagram.