Reflections of a 25 year old: “Am I CEO, Bitch?!”

Mark Zuckerberg, the original “CEO, Bitch!”

UPDATE: I wrote this in January of 2016, about a month to my 26th birthday. It is quite an important piece to me and as I resume writing about my journey I thought to share it here, unedited. Here we go…

Mark Zuckerbeg, the young founder of Facebook has this written on his complimentary card: I am CEO, Bitch! He, like many other CEOs make it look easier than it really is. Perhaps this is why so many young people, especially on Social Media, comfortably claim CEOship of companies that only exist inside their heads. Like thousands of young people on Social Media who claim to be CEO this, CEO that, I used to have ‘CEO & Founder of Topnotch Films’ displayed on my Facebook profile. One day the ambitious title disappeared, removed by me, out of respect.

I have always wanted to start my own company; you know, be my own boss and enjoy all the Freedom that comes with entrepreneurship. So in 2009, at 19, I registered a publishing company with the Corporate Affairs Commission. This company, Debcykol Publication I named after my childhood sweetheart – why, a young CEO has to be hopelessly romantic! I printed business cards and walked about with nothing in my head but a twisted sense of self-worth. Of course the company made no profit and experienced a pretty quick drop and a sudden stop in its first year.

I will write about my Trial N’ Error approach towards starting a business in my next post.

Since I read what I like to call lamentation of an Iroko (It’s snowing in Lagos by Jason Njoku) I have not remained the same. Some truths that I have been contemplating were cemented. Doing business in Nigeria is brutal and only the brutal survive. My friend Temi who works at MainOne did not help. Temi reeled out facts of the state of broadband in Nigeria and it felt as though he were reading a riot act to me. And a riot act indeed it was because “Tee Jay, you must brace up for the turbulence ahead or bail out right now!” was all I heard.

CEOs are gods. They create and can destroy when it becomes necessary to. – they get dumped on, envied, hated, and underrated (or overrated). And like mere mortals they too cry. But unlike ordinary people when they cry they bleed through their eyes, mouths, noses, ears, asses, and every single pore in their skin!

I used to be proud and arrogant, and mostly ignorant of the realities of doing business in Nigeria. But a lot has changed now…

… Few months ago I was invited to speak at a Youth gathering. The organizers wanted me to speak on Entrepreneurship, “we want you to teach young people how be independent like you” they said. I smiled and shook my head. The Topnotch Group put together have not made as little as Fifty Thousand Dollars and some people were inviting me to come and go and be speaking plenty Englishes in the name of motivating a gathering of wannabe overnight millionaires. I declined the invite, “thank you very much, but NO,” sharp sharp. I would have jumped at that opportunity to rehash my version of Jordan Belfort’s many inspirational speeches in Wolf of Wall Street.

I also now pick my fights sparingly, not because of decline in energy as much as a conscious decision to not get involved if it does not grow – or destroy – something for me. There is so much to do and so little the time to waste around in egoistic fights.

Doing business in Nigeria is difficult. Although I told Africanpreneurs in an interview last year that I have no fear about doing business in Africa I am not delusional about the turbulence that characterize the business space, especially for startups.

When my prodigal friend Cece Ireneh recently took over a business in Ibadan, Nigeria our mutual friends flooded Facebook with photos of the opening of the eatery, Wendy’s Kitchen. People will always flock around successful people and share felicitous messages but after that no one will care about your battles through the first (at least two) tumultuous years as you gain traction, or plunge towards bankruptcy and depression. I am happy for Cece but I pity her. Do I doubt Cece’s resilience? Oh she is pretty smart alright. I am in fact in awe of how fast she raised the money needed to take over the business in a matter of days (four days after we talked about it I think). But she is going to have to bleed and sweat, like many of us hopefuls, to grow that business. And become CEO, Bitch!

I just got off the phone with Sodiq Alabi of BEEF PLUS. It is a new year and we were discussing plans to grow our businesses and attract serious investment. BEEF PLUS is a pretty new business that is trying to revolutionize meat vending in South West Nigeria like Uber revolutionized Taxi business. (Suraj of JarusHup). He too enjoyed felicitations when BEEF PLUS launched, just like Wendy’s Kitchen. But since then, he’s been left to his and his wife’s devices. Except for the fraternal love from me and other friends who have either invested or are about to invest in the company.

There is also Yax Mokwa who is still slugging out Mursali, a social platform for Nigerian students and another online craze waiting to happen upon us. I am proud to be involved with Mursali right from its developmental stage. It has been everything but fun. Then there is Gimba Kakanda. Gimba is working on Nigeria Diary…. A platform that I am eagerly waiting to root for!

There is so much to do at my end, too. If I must be able to pay rent, to eat, to pay hospital and utility bills while building up my dream, I must be brutally honest with myself, and more brutal in my approach to business going forward. Today I look at Dangote, Funke Okepe and Igho Samoni among others with a special kind of awe. I do not envy them, I respect them. I worship them, because they have built these mightily successful companies and still manage to make it look like they live an easy life.

I am simultaneously building two companies. Topnotch Films and Praxis Magazine. They are really not two companies but one, The Topnotch Group. I have learned a lot since my first business failed. I will be 26 in February and I know I getting old. Herein lies the irony: I claimed CEO very easily back in the days when all I did was talk about my plans to become a billionaire but since I actually started the journey… I have shied away from the title, out of respect. It has been tougher and more humbling than I could ever have imagined.

Ladi Delano became a CEO, Bitch! when he was barely 23 (this was when he founded Solid XS, a premium Vodka business). And today, in his early 30s he is co-founder and CEO of Bakrie Delano Africa, a billion dollar investment vehicle. Jason Njoku of iROKO too is a CEO, Bitch! But even all of these guys are considered baby CEOs in some quarters. So what does that make me?

No, I am not a CEO, bitch! But I am growing into one. I am ready to bleed the blood and stress the sweat that will duly earn me such title. Then I shall wear it, in fact flash it humbly. Because this journey is the most humbling experience.

Aloha to all dreamers and workers out there. Fraternal love!