Entrepreneurs at this year’s edition of the Connect Nigeria Business Fair had the chance to peer into the past of some of Nigeria’s celebrated corporate giants and glean valuable lessons from their successes and failings. Over two days, these venture founders and top-level executives laid bare fundamental truths about doing business in challenging environments and shared their own success strategies with an eager audience.
There was a lot else hidden in plain sight at the exhibitions, around lead hunters, and the other aspects of the fair. A wealth of information lay in the open for the perceptive observer to pick up and put to good use in their enterprise building project. They were to be seen in the style of the convincing networkers, the subtle pitches, the customer sensitive showcases, and the attitude of individual attendees to the parts of the event that mattered to them.
We have chosen to recall five of the dozen or more lessons from the Business Fair that impressed us. Here they are, presented in no particular order of significance.
1. Have a Thick Skin and a Fixed Focus
Starting a business can be exciting. But that excitement can also be tempered by naysayers and opinions that doubt your chosen pursuits- even from your most trusted friends. Agatha Amata, founder of Rave TV, had a lot to say about this while she was at the opening panel session of the Business Fair.
“Do what works for you, not what people say will work,” she said. “There’s no second place in the race you’re running. When you realize this, you won’t be under pressure to succeed.”
Amata almost certainly knows what she’s talking about. Until fairly recently, she was the anchor of Inside Out, Nigeria’s first and longest-running TV talk show. When she started the show over two decades ago, her skeptics were numerous. They insisted that she was working on a pipe dream, something totally removed from Nigerian entertainment preferences.
Inside Out has outlived those criticisms, and inspired a number of other people to start similar TV shows.
Another of the speakers, Kanyisade Ademosun, made a similar point while recounting his own experience. His company, Seventh Space, builds movable living spaces and sells them at a fraction of the purchasing price for a regular home- a bold idea in Nigeria’s change-resistant business environment.
“They tell you that your business doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Everyone has that experience.”
His way of getting past the dismissals of his work was to reassure himself that he was helping to solve a real problem. As long as he was, the criticisms weren’t valid.
2. As Long as You’re Solving Real Problems, You’ll Be Fine
Afolabi Abiodun, founder and CEO of SB Telecoms, knows a thing or two about doing business to solve problems. Having witnessed great highs and low depths in his entrepreneurial transition, he’s become a big advocate of running businesses with a sense of purpose.
SB Telecoms is known among other things for producing the TAMS software, a productivity and payroll solution that’s been deployed by hundreds of companies. Abiodun says the product wasn’t originally built to make money for his company. It had been created to tackle a problem that he had grown to detest: poor punctuality and productivity levels among workers.
“We built the TAMS application to solve a problem, not just to make money”, he explained. “If you really want to survive beyond a few years, you have to do business for the right reasons.”
3. Master Your Business
At one of the talk sessions, the panel discussed the journey from small business to corporate empire. One of the discussants was Ayodele Ojosipe, head of Enterprise Banking at Stanbic IBTC Bank, pointed out that an initial step on such a journey would be to learn to convince oneself of their product’s worth.
“It’s only when you are able to sell the business to yourself that you’re able to sell to others,” he said.
This ability to “sell” one’s venture to oneself- that is, to design a pitch for your business that’s good enough to convince you –is best acquired by mastering one’s line of business. When you’re an expert at what you do, you can craft a message around it that makes it very saleable.
Amata chose to make this point from a slightly different perspective.
“Every aspect of everything that concerns your business is your business. If you know your business, you will be able to sustain it better.”
4. Sometimes, It’s Better to NOT Have a Plan B
This one might get a few eyebrows raised. But it’s an idea that’s been expressed by some of the world’s more successful businesspeople. And there’s an intuitive reason why having only one plan might make you more likely to hit the mark with your venture.
Amata is a fan of not having a plan B- if you can live with the associated uncertainties.
“I love what I do so much, I don’t have a plan B,” she said to a somewhat amused audience at the fair. When asked about this at the Q and A session, she explained, “Once you have a plan B, you might want to switch [when you come up against difficulties]. Having plan A alone lets you be more innovative.”
Mabel George, VP Business Development at Sigma Pensions, offered these wise words along the same lines:
“Be in it for the long haul. Even if it doesn’t pay off today, it will pay off in the long run.”
Ademosun went a bit further with his admonition. He laid into the fast growth ‘fever’, which he said had been encouraged by contemporary startup culture, exemplified by Zuckerberg’s Facebook and the other well-known unicorns. These were in fact exceptions to the rule. As far as he was concerned, there’s no single ideal rate of growth for businesses.
“There’s nothing wrong with growing slowly,” Ademosun insisted. For him, the relevant question is whether one’s business is viable and sustainable.
5. Think Past Your Present Position
While it’s okay to be set on making the most of your present reality, it’s also important to plan for the long term and think past where you are at the moment.
That’s what Fela Durotoye, CEO of Gemstone Nation Builders Foundation, devoted most of his talk time to at the Connect Nigeria Business Fair. He spoke about the need for entrepreneurs to outgrow their current environment, and not be bogged down by the limiting tendencies of the status quo of the industries and societies in which they operate.
All of this “begins with a can-do spirit,” as Afolabi Abiodun of SB Telecoms notes. It starts with a willingness and determination to solve real problems and create value, despite the obstacles that stand in the way.