Bastian and I were in NYC last Monday discussing some customer acquisition strategies I had for making Nigeria into a top 3 subscription market before the year’s end. He kept on telling me that we should ease our way into it. Test out one or two to see if it works. I disagreed. He told me, as he usually does, that I always try and do things too fast. Too big. That I have a natural bias for action.
It got me thinking. I consider myself to be a man of action. Everything I do I run at it at a thousand miles per hour. Fully in. I just prefer to just get things done. I consider myself super impatient yet inhumanly patient at the same time. But is Bastian right… Do I have a natural bias for action?
Academically, 80% of my executive team is smarter than me. Raw academic intelligence. Stamped and certified by universities across the world. At the equivalent of high school, I thought I was smart. When I started Chemistry at university I discovered, to my horror, I was slightly above average at best. So I knew in life it wasn’t going to be my ‘genius’ that would work in my favour. It had to be something else. I had to find a way to bridge that natural (or trained) intelligence gap.
When I was young and we lost at football (I was really good in my younger days) I used to cry. Literally burst out in tears. This ended when I was about 13.
I like to win. I realised I have this unyielding dedication to winning. I fundamentally believe in working harder and faster than those around me. I don’t plan for the future, I plan for today and tomorrow and do everything in my human capacity to improve the odds of that success. People always say they want to ‘win’. But I usually come across a barrage of excuses as to why this or that couldn’t happen.
Moving to Lagos
The first time I visited Lagos as an adult was April 2010. I visited again in September 2010. By October, I moved back and have made it my home since. It wasn’t even a debate really. There were no long term considerations, thoughts of financing, the business needed me in Lagos. So I left. Very few of my friends knew I was returning until I actually landed in Lagos. I’ve been there since. 4 years.
I have just ended a lightening tour of rapid business, investor and market development. 7 cities - 8 flights - 12 days.
Johannesburg - Kigali - 5th October
Kigali - Nairobi - 6th October
Nairobi - Lagos - 8th October
Lagos - London - 10th October
London - New York - 12th October
New York - Cannes - 14th October
Cannes - London - 16th October
London - Lagos - 17th October
As I write this I am actually ill. 3/4 days after every one of these types of tours, I fall physically ill. Every time. People think I am on some mogul moving, ego boosting, conference shaking globe trotting orgy. In reality, I rarely stay in any place more than 48hrs and am brutally efficient about why and where I am at anytime. If something changes and requires me somewhere else, in an instant I leave. I probably change or adjust every flight I have flown this year. That’s the dedication and flexibility of spirit required to chase down the almighty dollar. Wherever she is residing in the world
Between 2002 and 2010 - I didn’t have a serious (read more than 1-month) relationship. I was so focused on winning, to hell with my personal happiness and relationships with others. Nothing could stand in my way. I would work 18hrs regardless and nothing else would matter. And when I mean one, I actually mean any. That was from 22 to 30. (granted 22-25 were university years). My first compliment to the lady (now wife) who broke that run was she was a ‘sweet distraction’. I actually said that to her.
No passport? No problem
My son was born on the 30th July 2013, there was an investor meeting in Lagos. I was in London, but no problem, eh? A few hours before my departure, I discovered I had lost my UK passport. Fuck it, I travelled to Nigeria anyway. I’Il figure out a way to get back into the UK. A trip to the consulate later and problem solved. But it meant I spent more time away in the first two weeks of my son’s life on the road, than with him.
Results of inaction
Bastian and I were willing to invest $250k in a gaming/betting company in 2012. One of my best friends was the founder. We couldn’t reach terms. I told him he would regret it as when the chance is gone, it’s gone. When new markets emerge you exploit them as furiously and as fast as possible. Simple. I was speaking to, quietly, the most profitable internet company in Nigeria recently. I know Jumia and Konga’s numbers. Combine them. It’s bigger. No outside capital. Boot strapped and stupidly profitable. Anyway, I was speaking to the founder of said company at dinner a few weeks back he told me in 2012 that any well funded betting company would be generating millions of dollars in profit today. That in fact the 20th betting company in Nigeria is profitable, growing and big.
My biggest regret as an investor was my inability to drive that deal home. But I have iROKO. With Spark (which we started way too early) my exposure to internet in Nigeria is unrivalled. Yet I still regret. My friend is still doing well. Beautiful car, house in London, six figure salary. But he would be a millionaire. Many times over. Super liquid, if he would have embraced that opportunity. If we had the courage and bias for action.
I fucking hate excuses. I try to slay them whenever I get the opportunity. The reason I am successful is because I wanted it and was willing to sacrifice it more than anyone I had met to date. Some of the higher intelligence crew have made their own way, but to my mind, building a startup is hard. If you are unwilling to sacrifice friends, family, social status or immediate linear wealth, you will fail. The emotional capital will bury you.
So before you start, truly ask yourself the following - are you willing to do what it takes to win?
It’s been an interesting 2014 for iROKING, we have largely remained silent (aside from me blogging) as we rebuilt the brand and fundamental product offering. It is still very much work in progress but what is settling to know is that we have still managed to largely hold our desktop and mobile audience. As you can see from above, even with a seasonal dip during the summer months, we ended Q3 (September) with 953.4k users on m.iroking. We have seen gentle reduction of the iroking.com (desktop) site ending last month with ~23k unique users. With other partnerships we remain in the ~1.1m uniques per month range. Not where we want to be, but not too shabby.
What I really love about iROKING is the balance towards Africa. Of the top 10 (below) countries 7 are from the continent, with Nigeria and Tanzania taking the lion’s share of 66.81%. The total activity on the platform (mp3 downloads, video downloads, music streams etc.) stood for Q3 at 4.625m up 12% from Q2’s 4.125m. We are actively trying to build our Internet TV in Africa strategy for iROKOtv and are a rounding error in terms of traffic and usage in Africa compared to iROKING. We are desperately trying to export lessons learned from our little (revenue) sister site.
iroking vs the Don Dorobucci!
I still feel iROKING has a great shot at being one of the first music platforms to reach 5m uniques in the coming years. There are just a few things we need to achieve on a product side to improve that. With the emergence of MTN Music+ (a mere $0.90 per month for subscription and 150mb data) it is interesting to see what impact this has across music services in Africa. Thus far, no impact, but I suspect that it’s merely too early to tell. As we all know MTN has arguably the largest media buying budget in Nigeria and across Africa. The jury is out on whether us mere startups can compete in the new customer acquisition wars.
I was at the 88mph offices yesterday having a long conversation with the Mdundo guys; you know, waxing lyrical and trading war stories… They’re biggest in the East. We’re one of the largest in the West. Mdundo have a great product team and are fully focused on bringing the best from the East globally. If you look at interest and search terms (not the best proxy) there are some interesting trends.
But that graph doesn’t tell the full story. The beast in terms of search terms, interest and impact in Africa is still Notjustok.
They had a 2/3 year head start and blew with the industry. We all have a long way to go. But there will be a platform with 5-10m across Africa. We are just focused on trying to be in with a shot.
Is still a struggle for all platforms. Simple as that really. The business models don’t quite match the popularity. Yet. But they will.
iROKO is a tough place to work. Bastian and I are unreasonable people, with unreasonable demands and a very very direct way of communicating. Bastian is the operator - a cold and hard operator. He primarily cares about deliverables. In terms of day-to-day tactical management he is like x10 better than me. Today, in fact, Bastian probably runs 80% of the business. This year it has been a concerted effort to marginalise me from day-to-day decision making. Time for me to graduate from a mere founder to an actual CEO. We have finally introduced an organisation chart and new VP system where we have pushed down the chain as much tactical and budget decision making as possible. Yes, we set the budget framework, give input and ask the tough questions, but we are now too complicated an organisation for me (especially) to be founderish (getting involved in everything) about things. I am more the relationship making, strategic thinking, big deal hunting, investor relating, cheerleading kind of CEO now. When I was a founder, by definition I would get involved in everything, which would slow down everything (I am very good at not replying emails). We don’t micro manage. We never have. We ask you to deliver something then provide you the resources. Then it’s on you. You are really really naked in these type of environments. We don’t accept excuses as an organisation. It’s almost impossible to hide amongst your peers when the targets and demands are person by person and tracked and debated openly. And frequently.
Is this normal? Over the last few months I have sought out and had a series of meetings with founders of most of the big internet companies in Nigeria. Something which has kept coming up is our collective difference in cultures, yet our inability to hold onto talent. No matter the startup, we all have a churn problem in Nigeria and especially in the executive ranks. Globally, high turnover at startups is actually super normal. And good. It’s called the violence of startups. As you rapidly move from one growth phase to another the demands placed on people show them incapable of executing at this new level, burn them out or a better performing individual is promoted before them. Which hurts their ego. So they leave for pastures new.
iROKO as a business really started in January 2011. For the entire year we were based in Lagos with a tiny office in London. We hired 8 executives that year. Only one remains today. In 2012 we bulked up as we had raised $8m that year and opened the NY office so a further 13 executives were hired to fill out our NY office and build the competencies we believed will make us a great company. Of those only 4 remain today. 2013, we slowed down considerably and had some executive departures which we never replaced that year. 2014 has been something of a dramatic change. We have swapped out some 70% of our executive ranks. This is mostly due to closing of the London office and others having worked for 2-years finding better opportunities elsewhere.
- Better pay elsewhere
Startups don’t usually pay very well. As their unit economics don’t quite make sense yet, they are forced to conserve or raise cash to fund the difference. This is definitely not a conducive environment to high paying roles for employees. But what typically happens in Nigeria is that once you have worked at a well known startup, it’s relatively easy to move into a larger company with better pay and benefits as most digital natives in Nigeria don’t reside in the corporate world. And they increasingly need them, so they pay up for them.
- More linear career opportunity
Some people genuinely want to build a linear career. Startups are just not suited for that type of individual. Whether they are recently engaged, married, or want to build a family, some linearity is good. What typically happened at iROKO was that people would be drafted to do several roles with a jerky short term temporal nature to it. If the business strategy changed and that role disappeared. Poof! like magic they would be reassigned to a new project. Most people hate that. Larger companies offer some linearity. Startups in survival mode are happy to make payroll.
- Lose belief in the company.
Late last year the word on the streets was iROKO was going to die. There was so much negativity from out going employees, me retiring folks and our apparent ‘structural issues’. The naysayers were out in full giddy force. Boy they were pleased. As I mentioned at the time [the death of iroko] very few people actually had access to our numbers so as we had a monster Q4 2013 and profitable December, They kept on talking. A year on. We’re still here. Doing what we do. Everything dramatic this year has been controlled. But still some left on that basis.
- Wrong cultural fit
As I said. iROKO is a tough place to work. Bastian and I are unreasonable people, with unreasonable demands and a very direct way of communicating. Some have called it ‘bullying’, in reality at iROKO, there is no room for politics or posing, we as a company collective only care about delivery. And if you don’t deliver, you get called out. Not just by us. But by your colleagues. This means that folk with self esteem issues need not apply. We tend to attract extroverts who are happy spiritedly debating a point even if voices are raised and feelings are hurt. I’m okay with that. We’re not a commune. We’re trying to build a meritocratic high performance culture. So unfortunately, no planned careers and hands on management here. It’s all rapid delivery. Swim or sink.
- Mercenary employee base
Nigeria has to be one of the most mercenary work forces I have come across in the world. If someone is earning N45k, they can be offered N55k and would leave in a heart beat. That’s not always the case, but it has been overwhelming in my experience. Founders of Spark have also had the same experience, as have quite a few other founders I have spoken to in the technology community. Our turnover in Lagos was significantly higher than in London or NY. Our executives just stayed longer. Typically at least 2 years. That’s why in Nigeria, it is not uncommon to find people who have worked in 2/3 of the big internet companies in less than 2 years.
Young and inexperienced
I want to give a special shout out to Karanja who runs our Heroes programme in Lagos. A perfect example of the rewards of a High Performance Culture at iROKO. I can’t even remember when Karanja joined the company but he worked with our subscription team on fraud prevention and customer support in NYC. I think for his first year or so I never actually had a conversation with him. But early this year, on one of my rapid trips to NY, I happened to over hear him on the phone with a customer. I had honestly never heard someone so patient, polite and controlled with a customer. And our customers are belligerent at the best of times. iROKO has never been as great as we wanted to be in customer support so we were about to embark on creating our customer heroes; 24/7 phone, email, live chat and social media support. We wanted to have the best customer service in Africa. A few months later, I invited the entire NY office to Lagos for a global gathering. It was supposed to be for 2 weeks. As we started building out the customer Heroes programme, it became apparent Karanja was the best person to lead it. So I asked him to stay. To abandon everything in NY and stay in Lagos. A place he was visiting for the first time. He agreed without hesitation. 2 weeks has turned into almost 9 months and he has remained in Nigeria. He didn’t even go back to sort out his things in NY first. You know get his things in order. He just stayed. I respect that immensely. We built our entire customer support around Karanja, I know he has at times struggled and wondered what he got himself into, he built our global customer support from 2-3 people to about 40 in a few months. 100 hour weeks were the norm during this time. He has definitely had to accelerate his learnings hard and with mistakes especially around recruiting, managing, motivating and understanding ~35 or so employees he manages in Lagos. But we have supported him all the way. Not just Bastian and I, but the other executives. And his performance has been admirable. Oh did I mention? iROKO was his first full time job outside of college. Karanja is like 25 and from Kenya.
High Performance is what matters. And it should be demanded not only from management, but executives and junior employees…
When WuraTV launched a few months back, I wasn’t surprised. I had known Mike for a few years and knew something like this was in the pipeline. I actually like WuraTV founder Mike Ojo. When Kuluya was created, he was super helpful in my understanding the gaming space as he is a very successful publisher of gaming sites. When I was in NY, we met. When he came to Lagos we met again. Over the years he has asked me to allow him license some Nollywood titles for his sites. I always refused. Why help create the competition? No bother, competition will exist anyway, in fact the largest competition I have today in Nollywood came directly from my first 15 employees. Nothing I can do to stop it.
My cordial relationship with competitors isn’t rare. From Marie at BuniTV, to Simba at Wabona, to the good folk at Africa Magic, I have always kept an open relationship with my competitors. It’s good for business.
But that’s where it stops. At iROKOtv, we compete to kill.
When I rally my troops, it’s blood on the streets we are after. I never let my personal relationships with VOD founders cloud my willingness and hope that in competing with iROKOtv, I can kill or make it economically unviable for them to exist. I would simply prefer that most of them just didn’t exist. There are 92 VOD platforms in Africa. New ones launching all the time. This is an expensive expensive, long term game. Building a subscription platform is expensive. The more noise the harder to discern a signal. Di I mention how difficult it is?
How do you hurt the competition? In VOD it’s simple. Price and content. Netflix has grossly underpriced its offering since launch and only recently adjusted those prices nearer to reality. We are attempting to pull hundreds of millions of African non PayTV subscribers into our universe. Price is a big barrier to that. With our $30/year plan (equivalent to $2.5 / N400 monthly) we are by far the most value focused player in the space. It takes a little commitment but we are not finding that a major issue. We currently have the widest, and with our new international offering, the deepest content library of any VOD player in Africa. This is something we have obviously been building for the last 3 years and are only planning to accelerate that in 2015 and beyond. What made us very difficult to compete with in 2011 was we simply exclusively signed up 50% of addressable Nollywood content. That essentially slowed down competitors and enabled us to make the dramatic shift off YouTube onto our platform on our terms. We could literally move around people easily. Today, that wouldn’t be possible. Anyone attempting to move a YouTube audience would find things mighty tough. iROKO has been called many things. I don’t believe a ‘soft touch’ is one of them.
When I hear ‘competition is good’ in the ecosystem in Nigeria, I usually shake my head. It’s pretty ridiculous. From Google to Facebook to Microsoft to Intel to Alibaba. These companies were built on vicious competitive edges. PR aside, if you read into their individual stories beyond the hype headlines, you will see instances of almost monopolistic moves to own their markets. All that hippy shit of big enough market for all is pointless and is socialism rearing its ugly head.
Building a company is really really hard. It’s important one recognises that and builds with a zero sum mentality to ensure he wins. Then, like Bill Gates, gives it all away to gain respectability. But remember, in the end Microsoft was one of the most feared companies in the world and only the US government could stop them from owning the internet and everything else.