BF: Now please make welcome Mr Seun Owolabi, The Co-founder and Chief Strategist at VeriCampus
You’re welcome Sir
Seun: Hey guys 🙂
Thanks for having me!
And thanks to Tobi and the awesome team at Breaking Frontiers for this opportunity. So I’d make it brief, and would be sharing a few key lessons that I’ve learnt over the years.
Firstly, the bio kinda says it all, but I’d just give a little extension.
I’d like to consider that the most important thing I’m here for – the thing that has always driven me the most, has been the idea of ‘Empowering Solutions’.
Let me break it down a bit…
In high school, at 14 years old, I started my first business – which was a game center. I always heard people arguing around me, about who’s better in Fifa and Tekken and whatnot. To me, that was a problem that needed a ‘solution’. Also, my house was behind the school – so I was like ‘why not give these people the opportunity to prove themselves’… I was going to ’empower’ my coursemates to solve that problem.
So I hired my junior brother, we cleared the boys-quarters in the house, painted it, converted our Playstation 2 into the first console for the game center, and started.
Less than 2 months on, we made so much money, that we bought another console, another TV, tons of games, I had break time money for days, and we were so successful that the land-lord complained that too many people were coming into the house – so we shut down the business.
Yeah. That’s the story I like telling the most. The humble beginnings aspect. Every other thing after that, was just a follow-through. But here’s the time where I discovered what I really loved. And here’s where I think every entrepreneur needs to find her/his footing – and prepare themselves for the crazy world out there (using the word Entrepreneur, I mean literally anyone starting anything – which I’d assume should be everyone here)
We had two very successful parties in high school (we called them ‘bashes’ at the time). I was in charge of logistics. You needed to see the excitement I got from just being in the background, making sure the sound was okay, that there were enough drinks, people weren’t bored… etc. That’s what thrilled me. I wasn’t interested in either the dancing or the partying. I was passionate about empowering the ‘big picture’.
And in the university, I went on to work on a lot of incredible initiatives that involved volunteering and making stuff happen. I was so overwhelmed with work, that on a particular day in my final year, I had 7 meetings with 7 different student groups at the same time! Sunday 3:30pm! But I never felt more thrilled to be a part of something bigger than myself.
I’d cut the long stories short now.
I’m highly of the opinion that entrepreneurship is laden with plenty buzzwords, hype and this and that. But we need to distill it to the essence. I’d explain in a few minutes, what has helped me so far, and what I think would also be of help.
Number 1: FIND YOUR STORY! Entrepreneurship is hard. Whoever tells you it isn’t, is flat-out lying to you. I’ve always liked the startup route, and never really had a normal 9-5. But I worked every single holiday while I was in the university. I hated sitting down at home for more than 2 days. I still do. I had found what I was passionate about, for the most part. I had found some sort of story. So, putting in the work wasn’t entirely difficult.
Number 2: MAKE QUICK WINS, AND CELEBRATE THEM!
When I told my mum I wasn’t taking the job offer I got at KPMG, or exploring her ‘connections’ at Chevron, she was devastated. But no sooner than that, I had some money saved up, went to rent a small office in Opebi and stopped working from home. That was a quick win for me. And it helped her to be a bit more confident that I knew what I was doing.
Number 3: FORGET THE ‘MONEY MONEY’ FUNDRAISING HYPE. BUILD A BUSINESS!
Now, let me expand on that briefly
My first company never needed a dime of outside money. From when I started my first company in 200 level, we started making money and putting it back into the business. More than 7 years on, it’s self-sustaining and practically runs itself.
Number 4: EMANCIPATE YOURSELF FROM MENTAL SLAVERY (lol).
If you don’t know where that line came from, you’re probably like our interns that are born after year 2000. I’m always like ‘whoa!’ So there are people born after year 2000 that are already interning? I’m old! Anyways, jokes aside, let me explain number 4.
I’ve travelled ten countries in the past year.
And I’m currently working on setting up our company’s European office.
It’s not necessarily because I love travelling that much, or because Nigeria isn’t a viable market enough, but I discovered that the type of challenges we’re tackling in Nigeria, as entrepreneurs, aren’t audacious enough. And I get it! Late last year was the first time I left Nigeria, so I’ve been in the system all along. It’s hard to think like Elon Musk when you’re busy ‘flying bike’ to buy petrol on a hot afternoon. I’m in my ’emancipation process’ from all that.
We need to start looking past our challenges, and start thinking about solving deeper problems on the long run, even while establishing simple businesses on the short run. Remember, quick wins 🙂
Number 5: GET YOURSELF A CO-FOUNDER.
Doing business is hard enough alone. Try and get a firm believer in what you do, and who you are as a person – and take the person on a journey. You guys would learn together, you guys will fight, and sometimes it might not end up well – but sometimes it does! And that’s the awesome part! I’ve been privileged to work with the most awesome co-founders over the years.
Number 6: BUILD UP PEOPLE!
Free all the ‘Steve Jobs was a douchebag’ hype. You’re not Steve Jobs. You rise by lifting people up. As a leader, you need to be tough. And firm. But you also need to be empathetic. And be transparent. Fun fact. 80% of our interns (almost 30 of them, over the years) have gone on to start their own businesses. Most times, competing businesses. But I’m happy! I take it personally, to teach them everything I know. Every thing! And watch them soar. Build people.
Number 7: KEEP A JOURNAL.
Record videos of your times at meetings, or when you’re selling your stuff at trade shows, or rant when you get rejected. But document.
I tried to avoid regular lessons that you can learn online. You guys are lifelong learners. So I wanted to just share a bit of my story with you, and hope you picked a few things
Number 8: TIME!
Yeah, and show up early. Lol. I learnt this the hard way. By getting to bus stops late, and trying
to flag the bus down, and the driver just be looking at you like who’s this random guy?
Thanks for having me 🙂 I’d love to take your questions, if any…
Question 1: What’s VeriCampus about, and how were you able to build the strategies and structure that govern it?
Answer: Good question. VeriCampus is an EdTech company that helps schools help their students succeed. When we began, our core product was a platform that helped schools deploy a quick mobile presence to domicile all their information sources. Simply put, a platform for building mobile apps for schools.
Over the years, we have, through feedback and research, added another product offering, which is utilizing AI to improve and scale student support.
To your question on governance, we’re pretty early-stage at the moment, and are running a lean operational model. I’m terrible with micro-details (except for the product aspect), so my co-founder is in charge of those.
The most important structure, for me, is the structure that identifies and adapts to change. Things are changing crazy fast these days. We try to stay on top of things. A lot of our initiatives have been learned along the way, but we’ve made an effort to make manageable, incremental steps to improve our business processes. If we’re looking at a Google or Interswitch – and how structured they are, we can get overwhelmed. We take one thing at a time. And every new, template we start using for example, takes us a step closer towards a more structured business.
Hope I answered your question relatively well.
Question 2: In your view, what’s the future of I.T. or “Tech-preneurship”
Answer: The future of I.T is what we make it. This sounds like a philosophical answer but stay with me. Yeah, it is. Industries are built on the backbone of good governance and infrastructure, but they are driven by the private sector. We are the private sector. More-so, as Tech-preneurs, we are powering the private sector. The future of I.T, for me, especially in Nigeria, is we, learning how to get beyond the little details of ‘does the page scroll from left to right and then pop slightly before it reaches the bottom’ and put more effort into delivering real, quantifiable value to those we’re building stuff for. Solving problems. Your focus as an Entrepreneur/Founder is on tackling the big problems. It’s then, and there, that you can garner the resources for getting the best people to focus on the little details. The code is just a means to an end. VALUE, is the end in itself.
And I also would say – there’s a need for us to be patient. Things are looking up. Granted, things might be taking a bit longer than we anticipated. It’s easy to get frustrated by the things that aren’t working. But that’s why we’re who we are. We are here for the long haul. Here to play the long game.
Question 3: If you have a business idea in your head but the business has a lot of “oldies” that you have to compete with, how do you survive? because everyone thinks those “oldies” have more experience.
Answer: Awesome question!
Oldies want to remain relevant. They have more resources, more experience – and most importantly, more credibility. Startups have none of those (for the most part). So here are the options:
– LOOK WHERE THEY ARE NOT LOOKING.
Earlier this year, we lost a pitch against IBM for a client here. We worked hard. And losing was terrible. When I was talking to an adviser about it, he said ‘you either partner (as an implementation partner), look where they aren’t looking (in terms of offering a more streamlined, focused product), or compete on economics of scale (price, time-to-market).
Each of these different factors would be dependent on your business idea and its operational dynamics. So, study your idea carefully. Also, one more thing.
I listened to a talk by Clayton Christensen at Singularity University last week, on leveraging third-party systems to build your product – and focus, at the initial phase, on understanding customer needs. I can’t stress that enough. Focus on solving a customer pain point. When young founders are building their platforms from scratch (zero lines of code), I’m like ‘okay, nice – laudable, but this isn’t your priority. Leverage open-source platforms. Run lean. Solve your customer’s problems.’ Ayo Dawodu would be speaking sometimes this week, and he’s highly knowledgeable on the ‘Lean’ movement. So he’d have more to say.
So, yeah. The oldies have more experience. Deal with it. But you’re young, agile and fast-moving. Even though it seems like they have everything, the big companies are scared of the little edge you have. And you’re on their radar.
Question 4: He said find yourself a co-founder. How do you deal with a co-founder that shares in your views and goals but he’s not interested in making money at the early stage of the start up rather than work to build the business? Also, how do you even choose the right partner?
Answer: Well, good question. And one I get asked a lot. Co-founders are like spouses (spices? :) ). Finding a spouse takes different journeys for each of us. Sometimes, you get lucky with the first one. But most people don’t marry the first person they date. C’est la vie. Marry, in business sense here, means running some kind of long-term commitment or agreement. My co-founder – we started working together from my second year in school (2010). We registered our company in 2015! That was the first time we really put pen to paper. I’m not advising you do so. But take your prospects on a journey. If he/she is focused on money, and you see a few things that are valuable in that person, then maybe make things flexible…
Or maybe you might need to grind it alone for a while. Get a quick win, and then reach out – if you think you’d still need the person. But as the visionary, it’s your fiduciary responsibility to make the best decisions for the business per time, while following your ‘ gut feel’
Question 5: Funding is key, no matter how we take it for a sustainable business. How were you able to convince investors to invest in your business over £30000 pounds or so that we hear.
Answer: Yeah, funding is key, and helps you scale. Our initial funding was $60,000. Not a lot, but enough to get us good runway and focus on product. Now, to your question. You’d be surprised how much I’ve pitched, and gotten ‘No’s’ from tons of investors. Each experience taught me a few things. Let me list a few.
1. Your personal brand is key. Investors, most especially international ones, would do their ‘personal due diligence’. Check your Twitter, check for brand mentions, testimonials, PR posts etc. The more ‘good stuff’ they find, the more they’re convinced that you are a viable candidate. And they’d do so for both your personal, and startup brand.
2. Unit economics and ability to scale.
Investors want 10x returns. This is hard to achieve, and takes a lot of time and identifying product-market fit. In the short run, bold, courageous ideas attract good investors, but these ideas have to show that they can scale. Show them numbers. Research your target market. Apply for tons of stuff.
You’re gonna fail a lot of the first ones. But you’d start understanding more, the more meetings you take. So, my ultimate advice? Convince investors by talking to as many as possible. You’re an entrepreneur. You’d know what you did well, and what needs to be improved.
3. Team Team Team.
Investors invest in people. Start attracting good people. And be a good one yourself. It’s a long and humbling business.
Hope I answered well enough.
BF: Yes awesome
So much good stuff you just gave us, we appreciate you a lot.
Seun: Mon Plaisir 🙂
When the Mind is Transformed, the Man is transformed.