Amaka Okolo is the Chief Executive Officer of Promovers Limited. She talks about her staying power in a challenging business environment in this interview with MAUREEN IHUA-MADUENYI
A lot of startups in Nigeria collapse before their first five years. Why do you think startups don’t survive in this country?
It is a general notion; not only in Nigeria that businesses die before their first five years. What happens to businesses in Nigeria is a function of what happens in the imaginations of those who create such businesses. So, many businesses are created out of the need to merely survive. People want food, shelter and clothing. They want those basic things of life and as soon as this is achieved, the vision terminates. It becomes a problem to reinvent a growth curve for their businesses and get it into a new trajectory.
But when you begin a business and have in your mind that you want it to be value-driven as against self-survival, what will happen is that at every point in the growth cycle, you are looking at those values and benchmarking them against others. As time goes on, you discover that there is no end to the values one can create and present to the market place and this in turn spurs you to strive further towards this quest for value creation.
I actually did celebrate after we crossed the five-year mark with our first company, Promovers Limited, which helps those who move house and also do facility management. We have also gone ahead to build BrandMyCar, a company that blazed the trail in vehicle branding, especially for private car owners and Strada Media, a media measurement company.
What is the secret to making small businesses survive the harsh business climate?
There are no secrets any more in business. What we have are just people who have the determination to succeed. Do you know that the most successful businesses in the world are those that were founded during harsh economic environments? The Coca Cola formula was founded when John Pemberton was hungry and broke. The industrial revolution was inspired by growth in population and the need to have a faster way to produce goods and services.
The secret, if I may use that word, is in the ability to read the market and be able to project the future dynamics of demand and supply and then provide the values to satisfy those demands.
More and more Nigerian women are becoming successful entrepreneurs in a world that used to be dominated by men. What is it like for a woman in the business world?
It sounds funny when I hear people drawing a distinction between men and women entrepreneurs. I am not a hard-line gender-sensitive person but in the world of entrepreneurship, the language people want to hear is value. Whether a man or a woman, the important thing you should have is the vision to make things happen by bringing new values to the table.
I acknowledge that men have been in the frontlines of business for many years but that was in the past. Do not also forget that even in those days when women were profiled by the society as silent supporters rather than contributors, there were still women that broke boundaries and made great impact. Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti became a millionaire and well-known political leader. So, it is not about how many men out there. The real world of entrepreneurship is gender-blind.
People say that it is difficult for women to be successful in their businesses and in their homes. What is your view about this?
I just gave the example of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She was very successful in business and in the home. She was also very successful in politics. We all could readily measure her success by the quality of children she was able to raise. Her children – Olikoye Ransome-Kuti was a successful medical doctor. Same as Beko. Fela was Nigeria’s most original and successful musician.
I think this is really a thing of the mind. If a woman sees herself as incapable of making it as a business person, there is no way she would be successful even if you start her off with a billion dollars. I also believe that a man who is scared of what he will face out there will also not be able to run a business and grow it to success. It is therefore not about the female gender. It is about what you think, how you think and the values you have built into those thoughts.
For instance, the idea for Brandmycar as a transit media advertising platform was birthed in 2014 in response to the needs of some of our clients whom we serve under our partner company, Strada Media seeking measurable and alternative advertising platforms.
Our platform matches everyday people (car owners) who want to earn extra income with brands who want effective mobile out-of-home exposure. Brands travel with everyday people to their various touch points, where they work, where they live and where they drive to and from. More than busy drivers, they are advocates and brand ambassadors for brands.
It was the successes we recorded in this that we are leveraging in the launch of our latest product, Brandmykeke and Brandmybike. Our patent approved design for advertising on the three-wheeler automobiles otherwise known as Keke Napep.
The Brandmykeke platform, in simple terms, is advertising deployed on the hoods and back panels of tricycles or three-wheelers (popularly referred to as ‘Keke Napep). It is a made-to-measure advertising solution ideal for mass market products. Prior to the introduction of the Brandmykeke platform, producers and brand and marketing communications managers of mass market products had a seemingly horrid time getting their products across to their target audiences, especially within close-knit communities such as the Ajegunles and Idumotas of this world.
The easiest part for us was to recruit cars based on demographics, locations etc. In less than four weeks after we launched, we had close to 2,000 registered car owners on our platform in about seven states of the federation. The next thing we had to do was convince advertisers that the platform was right for them and would help them reach and most likely exceed their marketing/brand objectives. By first quarter 2015, we ran our very first campaign and now we have successfully run over 10 campaigns for different brands in varying capacities.
Before cars are branded, we execute service level agreements with each car owner and train the car owners instilling the values of the brands they will be representing in them. The cars once branded are also fitted with vehicle trackers allowing brands to monitor the travel pattern of the drivers and their campaigns online real-time.
How do you cope with running three companies?
I think the secret to this is having the right team and delegating as much as possible. Training and capacity building also have a big role to play. We empower our people so much so that they can deliver on projects with little or no supervision.
What are the challenges you face as an entrepreneur in Nigeria?
The challenges are the same as in most other places. First of all is developing the thick skin that will help absorb the shocks of possible business failures. Your employees will come and they will go but you, as the owner of the business, are the only one that cannot really be sacked from your work. This fear, in essence, is what keeps the entrepreneur working hard to ensure his business stays afloat.
You may also mention lack of access to capital as strong challenge here. Those who wish to survive and grow their small businesses run away from bank facilities because of the huge cost of money in Nigeria. There are no venture capitalists or angel investors. That is why so many small businesses grow very slowly here in Nigeria.
Have you ever been in a paid job and why did you leave to start businesses of your own?
Paid employment actually did prepare me for the entrepreneurial world. I have worked in various capacities across different industries mostly financial in the brand and marketing space. I started my career in 2002 at ValuCard now unified payment working in the administrative department moving a year later to the marketing department, with core interest in brand management. I had a brief stint in sales before leaving ValuCard in 2005 for the then Starcomms Telecoms. From 2005 to 2010, I transitioned from UBA as a Retail Brand Manager to e-Tranzact as the head of the Brand Management and later to Oceanic Bank as a Retail Brand Manager.
I had just joined Oceanic Bank during the era of the banking consolidation. I was asked to resign and was called back two weeks after. In the space of two weeks, I had got two job offers but declined all as I knew that was my opportunity to delve into the world of entrepreneurship. I have had no regrets for the decision I took and I can’t thank God enough for where he has brought me thus far.
What trainings have you had that have helped you get to where you are today?
As an entrepreneur in this era, leadership training is very critical because you have to learn how to, not just manage people from diverse backgrounds, but also to be able to make them give their best to the business. You also must have to learn a lot about financial management. You have to be a bit of an accountant, an auditor, a procurement manager and the lot. Throughout my career as a working class person and an entrepreneur, I have not missed the opportunity to equip myself with new knowledge, especially when I sense such would help me and my businesses perform better.
What is your advice for young people who wish to be entrepreneurs like you?
I am driven by two principles, first is my faith and trust in God the Supreme Being and then two sayings: one is a slogan and the other a quote.
The slogan is Nike’s “Just do it”. I have actually registered and started about eight different companies in five years. It is my belief that you never know unless you take the bull by the horn and at least try.
The quote is by Harriet Tubman “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars and to change the world.”
When I started the first business venture Promovers in 2010, I had very little or no capital to start. I got everything I needed to start my business free of charge (my first office, marketing tools, etc). I knew what I wanted to do and trusted God to get me there.
To the entrepreneurs in the making, if you have a dream/an idea, just do it, trust in God completely and he will lead you through every step of the way.
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