HOW THEY STARTED

If you are looking to find out how Nigerian brands started here is the place for you.

INTRODUCTION TO HOW THEY STARTED

Some time ago I read a book by David Lester and I discovered how some global brands started. The book was titled HOW THEY STARTED: GLOBAL BRANDS.  That book did not only open my eyes to ‘mysteries’ but also provoked some deep thoughts within me. Today I wish to share two of such thoughts with you.

No African business was featured in that book

As an entrepreneur who has been seeking a one-time solution to the dragon called unemployment that has been afflicting the youths of my generation, my excitement was lost with the discovering that as I read through from the first to the last page none of the companies featured was founded by an African, let alone a Nigerian. I didn’t know whether to accept the fact that no Nigerian has been able to build a global brand or not. But, even if that is the case I was certainly convinced that most Nigerian youths have got far more potentials than some of the founders mentioned in Lester’s book. And so if they could build companies that are today trending globally, Nigerian youths can do much more.

The second point I reflected deeply on, was the genesis of all the companies profiled in that book, they all started from the Western world (Europe and America) where the business environment and conditions are far different from what is obtainable in Nigeria and other African countries. Following from this second point, I thought to myself that despite my appreciation for the book as a working principle for startups, it would be a colossal disaster for aspiring entrepreneurs in Nigeria to apply some of those principles highlighted in the book without recourse to “local content”.  So the book is not the solution I have been seeking for Nigerian unemployed graduates after all.

WE NEED A NIGERIAN VERSION OF HOW THEY STARTED

I checked for some Nigerian companies that have been successful and my findings proved that indeed there are.  And some of them even more successful than the David Lester’s Global Brands.

My next task was to set out on an investigative research of how these Nigerian brands started, why they started and what they did that shot them to the level they are today, to the extent that other parts of the world are benefiting from their products and services. I was so startled by some of my discoveries that I made up my mind I was not just going to do a book on this, but must find a way of getting the book into the hands of the majority of Nigerian youths in our generation. I will do this because of my conviction that entrepreneurship is the sure way out of this national nightmare of unemployment.

Have you ever paused to observe that some products and services have become so much a part of us that we have to be reminded that there was a time such products were not in circulation? For instance, it is quite easy to assume that on creation God probably gave man a mobile phone and an ATM card knowing that he (man) cannot do without them. In that odd case it is actually difficult to ask ourselves how they started.

HOW THEY STARTED BY KACHI OGBONNA
HOW THEY STARTED BY KACHI OGBONNA

BEFORE YOU GO AHEAD

Let me start by warning: reading the stories about these brands is going to provoke a lot of thought that will lead to different actions by different individuals of different classes.

It is fascinating to learn why and how some of the businesses we are so used to and often take for granted actually came about. It will interest you to know how much of their development was carefully planned and how much happened out of serendipity. It is intriguing to wonder what could have been without some of those twists and turns of fate, and to wonder what might have become of some of your own ideas if you had done a little bit more about them.

Could there be just another brilliant idea, for a brand-new global business within your reach if you could just put away fear, leave your comfort zone and do something extra about it? I have started a number of businesses myself right from my University days, some have been successful, others not too successful, yet I still get the same buzz of excitement from reading these stories, that there is still another idea I will develop to global prominence.

SOME OF THEM GREW SO FAST

For me one factor that makes this more tantalizing than ever is the speed at which some of the businesses grew and are still growing. There was no company like Jumia at the beginning of 2012, iRokoTV was founded only in 2011, while Wild Fusion started in 2010. Flutterwave is today valued more than any commercial bank in Nigeria but it was founded just in 2016. Kuda was founded in 2017, Andela 2014 and Paystack in 2015. Yet today, each has got tens or hundreds of millions of people and multinationals benefiting from their services regularly.

I am sure that in 10 years’ time, several multi-million dollars worth of businesses that will be as popular as InterSwitch is today would have sprouted from some young Nigerians somewhere, yet such ideas are still being nursed as I write. That is the nature of the world we live in, it is a digital generation with technology speeding up virtually everything including the rate at which businesses can grow. The question to ask is; could one of those new businesses be yours? Conceiving the idea alone is much satisfaction, how much more bringing it to the limelight?

WHY ARE YOU READING THIS POST?

I do not know why you have chosen to read this post; I just hope it delivers what you want. Maybe that is all the inspiration you have been waiting for to start your own business, and if it fulfills that, then wonderful- you have chosen a very rewarding but also challenging path. And should it put you off the idea, then well done for realizing that perhaps you were never meant to be an entrepreneur-actually not all of us must be. Some are better fitted as team members.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE AN ENTREPRENEUR?

So, for those that are choosing the path of entrepreneurship, let’s answer the key question: what does it take to be an entrepreneur, judging from the people whose stories are told throughout this section of this blog? The significant qualities that rose above the rest are the ability to spot a gap and seek to fill it; determination to find a way through in the face of challenges and the uncommon trait of honesty in the business world.

In the course of this work, I observed and can actually prove that age, extensive experience, privileged family background, and startup capital are not necessarily the requirements for starting and growing a great business. For instance, Slot started with no capital; Cosmas Maduka of Coscharis dropped out of school at Primary 3, slept in the shop and started at age 14; Omatek was started by a female Corps Member; Mitchell Elegbe of InterSwitch never knew his father; the Igwe twins were office cleaners and slept in a generator house for ten months; and Dangote had to trade as a pupil. So whatever your current financial status, age, education or family background you can still build the next global brand if you are determined to see your idea work

WHAT INFORMED THE CHOICE OF COMPANIES WE SELECTED?

We set out to find a wide variety of businesses spanning almost all sectors of the nation’s economy but focusing majorly on such businesses the average citizen would think of starting. We researched hundreds of indigenous brands and decided to feature those whose start we are able to trace.

  • Every company profiled here was started by an individual or group of persons who had an idea; such individual or group must be Nigerian(s).
  • There was something daring, innovative, humble or enterprising about their beginning.
  • They are all household names today, at least in their sector.
  • Every business here has been a success and is still in existence today.

Above every other thing, we wanted to prove that good ideas turned into businesses by one or a small group of people have gone on to become global giants since post-independence or thereabout and continue to do so even today. We also purposed to show millions of Nigerian youths, that there is no reason or difficult circumstance that is an acceptable excuse for failure, a life of mediocrity or involving in crime. We are proving that through the stories of people who have passed through worse challenges and situations yet braved through to succeed and are occupying enviable positions and are also serving as role models in the society within and outside the country.

For ease of navigation, the different brands are grouped together under various industries, though some of them could easily have fallen into more than one industry. Wherever possible, we have spoken directly to the founders and in cases where they could not be reached for one reason or the other, we have relied on information from top management of the companies, the companies’ archives, published articles and interviews and available family members who have genuine information about how they started.

Each article or interview included has been checked for accuracy by a representative of the company. It must be remembered, however, that each of these organizations is in a continuous state of flux and details given here can quickly change, but our emphasis remains on ‘how they started’ which to us does not change.

It is also gladdening and encouraging to note that some of the best companies profiled here were started by women, considering the fact that in Nigeria and indeed Africa many are of the opinion that there is a gender barrier and that there is a limit to the height a woman can rise to. Equally worthy of celebrating is the fact that in a country which has been polarized by ethnicity, great entrepreneurs have emerged from North, East, West and South. We equally take pride in the fact that we have companies that were started by teenagers as well as those that were started by elder statesmen.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THESE BUSINESSES AS A GROUP?

Why did they start?

Motivation on the side of the founder and willingness to offer service has always played a significant role in the subsequent success of a venture. Very few businesses succeed if it was founded by someone whose only interest and passion is perhaps just to make money. The majority of the businesses collated here were founded by people who were passionate about their idea or product-whether that is to create something new, as in the case of Interswitch and Wakanow or to improve something already in existence as with SLOT and ABC.

Some were forced to turn the way of entrepreneurship by adversity, so they needed to survive, make a living and pay necessary bills as was the case with Peace and Tantalizers. Others spotted ahead of others the direction the world was headed and decided to position appropriately-this was the case with Omatek. But we observe that in all cases, the passion is always matched with a clear belief that the fledgling business would be able to make enough money not just to survive but to make an impact in the society, as was the case with Wild Fusion.

ONE THING IS CERTAIN

Whatever the reason behind the business, one thing is certain; in a country like Nigeria with a population of over 200 million, a ready and huge market exists for any aspiring entrepreneur. And in the course of rendering service to such a huge populace making a living from it is inevitable. In fact, this is a particular point that was re-echoed by almost all the CEOs we spoke to; every one of them spoke glaringly of how Nigeria is littered with unlimited opportunities. Some of them actually claim it is the best place to start a business in the world, others further added it is the easiest place to succeed as an entrepreneur, because every day everywhere and in every sector you find irritants and very poor services that you only need to improve on and you have a business.

HOW DID THEY FUND THEIR GROWTH?

Most ideas struggle to be a reality because of lack of capital, but in almost all cases the initial capital came from the founders’ themselves, with very few exceptions like Interswitch. Tantalizer had huge difficulty securing bank loan to start, as a number of banks could not see any future for the business they were proposing and so were not ready to risk their money in such a venture. But not giving up on their dream the founders sought alternative ways of funding and banks later came begging to invest in them. Coscharis, SLOT and Red Media developed a novel way of funding their rapid growth by starting with very little or no capital.

EFFECTS OF COMPETITION

It is often said that the first entrant into any market has got a significant advantage, able to build market share and brand loyalty without significant competition. That is true as we see in the case of iRokotv and maybe Jobberman, but most other companies profiled here were not the first to make it into their market. ABC and Globacom are clear examples of entering the market with better service and pulling a remarkable market by virtue of improved service. So as fantastic as it can be to be the first mover, it is far more important to be better than the first movers. Success in business the world over, eventually seems to come down to giving customers value for their money, not just at the beginning but as you progress in the business.

Before I let you go, I will leave you to ponder over this. As we look forward to producing our next edition of flagship product; HOW THEY STARTED soon, can you promise yourself that your company would have grown to feature in it?

Kachi Ogbonna

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