Nigeria needs to groom great managers to lead companies or start businesses later in their career…
I set off quite a discussion on Naija Twitter this week by posting the tweet above. I got a range of responses and responded to many but thought it best to flesh out my thoughts in a blog post that allows more than 140 characters.
There are numerous business opportunities in Nigeria today. In almost every sector there are several things that need to change and are waiting for the brave soul who will embark on the mission. Thankfully, Nigerians are one of the most enterprising people I have met in the world. This will bode well for us as a country in the long term but it is also our achilles heel today.
Having worked in 3 startups (including Paga which I founded in 2009) and being around hundreds more while working in VC at Cisco in Silicon Valley, I know first hand that it is incredibly hard to start and execute on a business. It is even more difficult in Nigeria! So many things need to come together for success but at the core it comes down to the ability of the team to execute, the ability of the leader to lead the team toward a clear vision and handle all the soft issues that will arise each day. Unfortunately, no matter how smart you are the sure way to learn these soft skills is years of work experience. Those years of work experience also teach you how to work through others, drive sales targets, make sales pitches or give presentations, get knocked down and back up again. One of my investors put it best, she said those years simply teach you “life” — you can’t buy in a course the lessons you will learn. Work experience improves your odds of success if and when you start a business or when you become the leader in any organization.
Globally, the average age successful entrepreneurs started their business is 36. Of course there are always outliers…but there are very few and far between, and the smart ones always quickly brought someone with more experience to partner with them on the journey. I started Paga at 31 after 13 years experience working for 7 companies (including 2 startups) and in a variety of roles. Add to that 2 years at Stanford Business School. Over that period I was fortunate to be around a lot of companies — see successes and failures. I was fortunate to be given opportunities that helped me grow as a person and a leader. I also experienced my own failure — I was fired after 3 months in my first job after university! After that firing I went to work in a mail room and also a late night shift at an election phone bank…I never let any of that deter my focus or desire but that is another story…
Even with all of my experiences, Paga won’t be where it is without the awesome people who have chosen to join me on that journey (note — rather than starting their own thing at the time — and some have since already left to start businesses, others will for sure). Also, even with all the years of experiences, I continue to learn every day at Paga and I am by no means perfect. However, I am sure I won’t have made it this far had I started a business immediately after graduating University.
This brings me back to Nigeria and the situation with 95% of the tech entrepreneurs I meet in Lagos. I have two fundamental issues.
a) Most are recent university graduates, and have barely any work experience. It is an unfortunate fact that most universities in Nigeria do not provide a solid education. Given that fact, I think anyone graduating a Nigerian university today should want to gain real world learning by thinking apprenticeship — can I find an organization where I can find mentors, learn and develop as a person? The most insightful responses to my tweet were those that rightfully asked “where are the jobs?” As an employer, one of my biggest headaches is finding talent. The second headache is ensuring that people hired break out of the mold of just doing what they are told but rather be curious, ask questions, move the ball forward. There are jobs — not for everyone for sure — but this is where the best will rise above others. The best will get the good jobs. That will always be the case in any market. However, many who would be in the group of the “best” seem to be opting to entrepreneurship without any experience. They might be good developers — some even claim they are “full stack” developers like that should make me giddy! Being a good developer does not improve your odds of running a successful business!
Those who do go get jobs then have “side hustles” — and thus are not focused in their current jobs. This is a vicious cycle. If you are not focused on being the best you can be at your current job, odds are you won’t understand what it takes or means to do excellent work. Also, those around you won’t have faith in your abilities to execute as they have not seen it first hand. Today, I am deeply grateful that while I was working for others I was heads down focused on excelling, growing my own skills, doing great work and making my bosses look good. I wanted anything my name was associated with to be top notch. I am confident anyone I worked with in the past will give me a positive review — of course with development areas — but positive. Two of my former bosses are investors in Paga — both were among our first set of investors. If I didn’t do great work for them they would not have invested and continue to advise and support me years later.
b) Nigeria is fundamentally not ready for most tech ideas and many for which we are ready are mostly now red oceans (vs. blue oceans). Most of the tech entrepreneurs I meet are looking to create an app that does XYZ versus change something that millions of people are having a problem with. There are so many bread and butter problems to be addressed in Nigeria before the market is ready for the developed world tech ideas that are not solving fundamental problems. Worse, I’ve met some who are trying to solve real challenges but look at it as building an app. I think people who do start businesses in Nigeria today should be focused on solving the bread and butter issues we have in Nigeria today. As a VC friend put it today — they should be looking to remove “friction”. Some of them might require technology, and thus technology minded folks, but are not fundamentally technology businesses. As an example, 70% of Nigerian adults are not banked and the 30% who are banked still cannot pay for goods and services efficiently (as I experienced yet again yesterday). Thus, I started Paga to solve these issues. Paga is a financial services company with a simple mission aimed at making payments convenient for all (online and in-person) and delivering universal access to finance services. We are first a financial services company but because our work is very heavy on leveraging technology thus we are a Fintech company.
Finally, as an angel investor I am looking for the combination of brilliant entrepreneur with the experience and passion to solve a problem that affects millions of people and fundamentally changes our society 10–15 years from now. The opportunities exist in various sectors of Nigeria. The smart people also exist. What is missing is the managerial experience. I think we need to encourage more people to stay in paid employment longer to develop their skills and grow their experience. By doing so we will build great companies and great managers. Some of those managers will rise to lead the companies while others will leave, after being groomed, and start other companies. These new companies will have a greater likelihood of success because the entrepreneurs have “experienced life”, are better managers of people, and more mature. This is the cycle that has been successful in other parts of the world and what I would love to see in Nigeria!