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Journey To A Start-up

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There’s nothing in the book that prepares you for how to start a business. Nothing.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to start any business until Boxing Day, three years ago when my friend, Lekan, visited me at home in Lagos.

Among other presents he brought to me on that day, was the digital version of a grandfather wall clock. I was thrilled by the gift but my excitement was soon mixed with confusion by Lekan’s parting words on his way out. “What are you planning to do next year?” he asked with a concern and sincerity that left me perplexed.

I was the GMD of LEADERSHIP, where for three years I had been working with chairman, Sam Nda-Isaiah and the rest of the team to rebuild the newspaper. I was on a three-year contract, which was due to expire in January, but I felt secure. And now my serenity had been shattered.

Lekan noticed my mood change and, not wanting to compound my misery, said he just wanted me to think about it.

I have always admired his start-up story. When a mutual friend first got us introduced, Lekan had just left Sahara Energy and didn’t yet have an office. We teamed up and shared space. I still remember the trouble that one of the big banks put him through just for a “bank guarantee.” The children of shylock asked for an arm and a leg.

He couldn’t afford the ‘ransom’ so he had to look elsewhere, mostly family, for help. A few years later, the same bank would throw anything – including the forbidden fruit and their treasury box – just to entice him.

We all know stories of people in this country whose start-ups have succeeded against all odds. PUNCH, where I had worked for over two decades, remains an inspiring example of a start-up saved from the jaws of death. And who can deny that LEADERSHIP, a publication that was started with seed money of about N20m raised from the launch of Nda-Isaiah’s collection of articles, has grown from a newsletter to one of Nigeria’s most influential brands?

For every start-up success story, scores have fallen by the wayside, fatally injured not only by poor vision or planning, but also by inherent environmental factors that appear solely designed and maintained to kill businesses, in spite of the founder’s best efforts.

According to an article in Inc.com, “while 25 percent of new businesses don’t make it past year one, only 10 percent of the businesses that make it past year five will die off in the following year, and only six percent in the 10th year.”

I wasn’t prepared for that world, not just yet. But Lekan had released a genie. I struggled with it for months. By the time I spoke with family and friends – especially Bunmi, Atilola, Niyi, Chris and Louis – it became clear that the genie would not re-enter the bottle. These guys made sure.

If you were to ask me what comes first, money or ideas, I would say monetisable ideas, except, of course, if you want to do charity.

It seemed absolutely crazy to start The Interview when we did. Magazines were folding. Print copy and advert sales were declining. But we had an idea. Do something really, really different in look-and-feel, style and content and you just might find a branch to perch on. We also decided to avoid the familiar demons – street copy sales, large overheads and the internet, especially.

Internet? Yes. We needed money to run the business and since the internet crowd is used to getting everything free, we decided to provide premium content to those who can pay and return to the internet in future.

Perhaps the biggest shot in the arm was goodwill. I cannot forget how we got the first adverts and interviews. In one particular instance, I had gone to make a presentation to Gabriel Ogbechie, the MD of Rainoil in room 754 at the Hilton Abuja on Sunday, July 26, 2015. I brought out my iPad to start the show and he asked me what I was doing. “My brother,” I said, “I want to show you what the magazine would look like.”

“Forget it, Azu,” he said to my shock and amazement. “I’m not interested in what the magazine would look like. I’m giving the advert (six months upfront) because I know where you’re coming from. Close the iPad!”

I remember that day with misty eyes.

I cannot count how many others who have stood by us, not just with adverts, but no less importantly, by their advice, encouragement and even paving the way for some of the interviews we have had.  I have read it in books, heard it in lectures, but now I know for sure that goodwill pays.

It’s early days yet. And there are still days when I wake up asking myself if there aren’t easier ways of earning a living. I’ve learnt a few other lessons too, which someone out there might find useful.

One, there’s a difference between signing a cheque and making a cheque. The CEO may sign a cheque; the entrepreneur makes it. The latter is certainly more gratifying, but is infinitely more hazardous!

Two, discount every promise of help you get by 70 percent, but never mind, with God on your side, your salvation may be in the 30 percent or less.

Three, if you’re for-profit, keep your eyes on costs, however small they may seem

Four, starting with what you have, what you’re passionate about, you will get what you need to start, if you need it badly enough

Five, never give up on your dream! One day at a time, it’s going to be alright in the end

Month after month, I’m convinced that we’re doing the right thing. I have an amazing team, a great family and a host of silent co-travelers who believe with me that with God on our side, our path will only shine brighter and brighter till the perfect day.

 

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