Last month, She Leads Africa hosted one of its bootcamps in my city. Of course, being the homebody that I am, the prospect of attending, held absolutely no appeal to me. Well, until I realised that my life was actually looking pretty pathetic – being cooped up indoors, as Billy No-Mates was not quite working out as I thought. Okay, maybe it won’t be so bad to attend SheHive – you know, just to get an opportunity to be out in the sun. Remember, I’m not a business person, I have no interests in entrepreneurship or whatever people call it these days – HUSTLE! But, what would it hurt to attend? BellaNaija was getting an all-access pass anyway. What would it hurt? Well, I had a surprising (category: unexpectedly pleasant) experience at SheHive. I’m a grinch, so that’s saying a lot.
As it was an entrepreneurial boot camp, the panelists shared stories and lessons about business building – encouraging the audience on how to best leverage their business ideas for maximum profitability. One of the panelists, Njeri Rionje made so many simple, yet valid points, I went away thinking, I’m going to become an ambassador! Spread the goodwill of the country of Success and Common Sense. I’ll share some of the lessons here, hopefully, you’ll find them useful.
A few years ago, my cousin was trawling through the streets of Facebook, when she received a message from an old school mate in Nigeria. As with all long-time-no-see reconnections on social media, Funmi* and friend promised to stay in touch. They even decided to go one step further… ensure that this reunion was one that neither of them would forget. “Let’s do business together“, they declared.
True to their word, it became memorable. Friend (who just had a baby) told Funmi that she had this brilliant business idea to make good quality, imported diapers available to new mothers like herself. She said that in her experience as a new mother, the imported brands were expensive and not readily available (This one is a big fat lie! Did she check Idumota? But, let me not interject too much.) Funmi had not been to Nigeria in 10 years, so she wasn’t quite aware of what is available where.
Anyway, friend said she had the channel of distribution (other Yummy Mummies like her) and all Funmi was to do was send her the diapers, they’d split the cost, and friend would pay Funmi’s share to her bank account in Nigeria (to kuku keep it from always going dormant)
Five batches of diapers later, not a single deposit was made into Funmi’s account. Friend always had one story or the other – people were not paying, Nigerians like credit, market was not moving… ah, what happened to the long line of people waiting to scoop up these diapers?
Principal was gone. Profit was non-existent. Poof! Friendship? What is that? Lesson learned: before you go into business with your friends or family ensure you have proper documentation; specify what each party is bringing to the business venture, and ensure that there is a fail-safe mechanism in place. My recommendation: each party should bring in something – money, skill set, something! Also, do your research: my cousin blindly threw in good money, after a bad business venture, with someone she barely knew. She invested in something she had not asked about. She didn’t even need to go far, I was a phone call away. “Ngbo, is it hard to find good quality Huggies in Lagos?”
You cannot afford to be intellectually lazy, if you want to be successful. Plus, the internet is teeming with information. Do some ground work.
Another thing that I learned from SheHive was the need to ensure that your business idea is catering to a niche audience. Be creative, or try to be… try! I know it’s not easy to think up something fresh and interesting, but try. And if you’re going to be doing something every one is doing, then find a way to do it differently.
In the past 1 year, I’ve seen hundreds of people coaching business owners. It’s like everybody and their mama is a business coach. In fact, business coaching is the new motivational coaching, and it is the most tiring thing ever! The only thing that exhausts me more than business coaches is the emails with: “I want to be the next Uche Pedro” But, I shan’t go into a rant about this.
Stay focused, Atoke.
Still speaking of creative ideas, why is it that new mothers suddenly feel injected with the spirit of entrepreneurship in the diapers/ baby clothes department? Once people have babies, peren, they suddenly see a need for baby clothes, and start looking for how to bring in things from OshKosh B’Gosh and Mothercare. Next thing, it’s “I want to open a baby clothes store” Baby clothes stores are everywhere in Lagos, second only to RCCG parishes.
It reminds me of how my parents dabbled into Cat Fish business. Having worked all their lives, they suddenly found themselves old and unsure of what to do. Retirement was boring and it appears church and Gideons International endeavours were not enough. So, someone said “Obokun business” was ‘moving’, and that was it. Off to Ikorodu, they went: tanks, seedlings, or babyfishlings… whatever tiny catfish is called. They threw in so much money, and tried experiment after experiment.
“Mummy, why are you guys raising fish at the back of the house?” I asked one day, as I stared in wonder as both of my parents hopped from one tank to the other, feeding fish.
“O’n move” ( I don’t know how to translate the ridiculousness of this statement into English… someone, please help me)
Anyway, the fish all died, or got stolen. I’m not sure which came first. Or maybe they were served with Daddy’s Sunday Pounded yam meal. Either way, that went belly up. Next on the agenda was ice block making. By this time, at least they had a target market. The folks who lived on the street behind ours were permanently in a war of wills with NEPA. Our street had a good union, (plus the local government chairman lived on our street, so… we kinda always had electricity. Shout out to Seinde Callisto.) With a target market, (people always want cold water, right?) that business fared much better than the Obokun Fiasco.
Please, let’s start thinking out of the box a little bit more. Creativity is an essential part of successful businesses. Be way ahead of the curve, and if you’re going to swim with the other fish, at least wear some glitter, so you can stand out. (The fish analogies keep coming; I can’t seem to help myself)
Another thing I took away from SheHive is ‘Know Your Numbers’. This should be the mantra that anybody who wants to do business seriously.
There’s so much hype around being an entrepreneur that in the midst of all of that, nobody actually talks about their numbers.
When Nigerians at home are trying to encourage you to come back home, they are quick to tell you “We’re making money here. Come to Naija, there’s money to be made in Nigeria”
What nobody ever shares is the scope of the expenditure: rent, cost of getting good staff, electricity, data plan, costs of actually fixing up the store to look pretty… Nah! They don’t tell you about the millions of Naira that go into setting up those nice stores you see on Instagram. They also don’t tell you about the piss-poor trickling sale numbers.
A friend of mine once told me that her parents had been helping with her staff salaries for the past 4 months, because sales were bad, and she could barely run the store by herself. Of course, collecting money from Bank of Les Parents is some form of equity/funding for the business. Document it.
Pay yourself a salary, but don’t dip into business money to buy gala for your kids while you’re in traffic. Everything you spend on the business should be adequately accounted for. This comes with great responsibility, and if you’re looking to expand, you need to actually be responsible.
Also, knowing your numbers is key, if an investor or a partner is going to come on board. Venture capitalists want to know where you are, how far you’ve gone, and the bench mark for profitability. There are way too many business people frittering away their business funds, at the same time expecting investors. How is it going to happen? You’ve paid yourself an inflated salary, bought yourself company car; in fact the business is paying your house rent and your children’s fees. With zero accountability or processes in place, this is a ship headed for the ice berg.
Finally, before you get in bed with a business partner (or staff) know where they stand in terms of values, and ethics. This is not to be mistaken for ‘she and I attend the same NASFAT meeting.’ Religion and ethics are mutually exclusive, but that’s a conversation for another day.
At SheHive, one of the speakers stated that while business partners should share the same values and ethics, they did not necessarily have to share ideas. Your partner (or staff) should not be sheep who follow blindly, without any ideas of their own. Find someone who disagrees with you constructively, and challenges you to be better.
This is where the board of advisors come in; a collection of trusted individuals who share your goals and values, yet have a distant enough perspective of the business to provide you with insight.
My dad and some of his cronies were on the board of each others companies. They were not involved in the day to day activities of these companies, but they attended meetings regularly to help each other move their respective businesses forward. At the time, all I remember from the trips back and forth from Kaduna and Jos was that Daddy Dearest would return with loads of Debino (dates) and Maishanu (ghee). I grew up thinking, “I’m gonna be on the board of all of my friends’ companies and live in Dates Paradise for eternity!”
Of course, that dream hasn’t come true, but I’m still hopeful.
Finally, if you’re going to get into business, please put your back into it. Be ready to put in THE work. It honestly grinds my gears when I get emails from people who want publicity for business that even Blind Bartimaeus can see will tank in 2 years.
Let me conclude by adding something about passion. Everybody says it: be passionate about what you do. Passion is what made my parents move their cat fish tanks to Ogbomosho, when they say Oshodi people were not about to be spending money on Eja aro. They were passionate about going into fish farming, and they didn’t throw in the towel.
(Much to the consternation of their daughter, who is a weird mix of embarrassed and proud about it)
I’m super grateful for the opportunity to learn from successful African business women; and even though I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur, I hope I’ve been able to distil and disseminate some of the knowledge I got from that awesome weekend in July.
Peace, love & cucumber slices.
*not her real name
I’ve recently decided that any book that I read, and love, I’ll buy for someone else to enjoy.
So, I’m giving out 5 books
1: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
2: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
3: Homegoing by Yaa Gyaasi
4: Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John
5: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
If you want any of these books, please send me an email with “I want XYZ” in the subject line. Tell me why you want the book, and where you live. (Don’t worry, I’m not a stalker, it’ll just help me with figuring out logistics for delivery.)
Please note that there are terms and conditions… Of course, there’s a catch! There’s no free lunch in Freetown. I’m giving out 5 books in total. I hope I’ll be rich enough to do an Oprah… where everybody gets a book. But not yet.
Update: Giveaway is over!
Nobody wanted Homegoing, so I’m going to give that slot to someone who wanted Stay With Me. Also, because, I didn’t realise my heart would be so tender, I’ve decided to pick 3 more people. So that’ll be a total of 8 winners. #AspiringOprah Tingz
PPS, I forgot to add this, friends and family are automatically disqualified.