I started my entrepreneurial journey long before I knew the word or could spell it. I went to a strict catholic school and “provisions” were contraband. Leaving the school premises was taboo. This presented an opportunity. Let it be known now that Edmund was/is an opportunity whore. I used to sneak out of school to buy this hard dough bread called Mukaka and bring it back in huge quantities to sell to fellow students. Back then I thought I was making money. Now I know it was a pittance. But the thrill… Ohh the thrill of it. Then suddenly we got a new Catholic priest for a principal. He drank stout, had a funny way of talking and so we took him less seriously. Everybody started sneaking away from school or as we called it back then “breaking bounds”. Mukaka sales became commonplace and I lost my competitive advantage. I tried to add butter to mine to differentiate it- but that was easily copied as well.
By SS2&3 I was selling my fellow students mattresses to the surrounding villagers. I didn’t need to break bounds for that. I’d take a mattress to the fence, toss it over and swap it for cash. I was Sir Law- AKA “The Law” back then. I was 15. A stupid little boy. Hopefully a far cry from who I am right now. Being Sir Law gave birth to the thrill of entrepreneurship. I have remained an addict- and I have many failures to prove it.
I would like to begin with my Mega-Supa-dupa failure- In 2006 I set out to cure HIV with my friend and business partner at the time. On our quest to curing HIV, we discovered drug candidates for Herpes, HepC, HepB and HPV. I also spent my Harvard school fees on experiments, got evicted twice and ended my days in the USA sleeping in my friend Ike’s basement. I was always broke and everybody laughed at me. Luckily, I had a pretty steady girlfriend at the time; because I am very sure I would have gotten absolutely no play. To keep my dream alive, I did a shitty deal with Vulture Capitalists that deliberately exploited my temporary Visa situation in the USA. We raised $3M and I returned to Nigeria. Over subsequent years we raised a total of $26M and we took our drug candidate for HepB to phase 2 clinical trials. In November 2015, we sold the company to J&J for $600M USD. Frankly if I made out like I was supposed to make out on this deal, I probably won’t be writing this post on this group right this moment, and for that reason I consider it a failure. I am not rich enough to not have time. I am not rich enough to never be poor again. So yeah, basically I have time. What is truly interesting is all that happened between late 2008 when I returned to Nigeria and last year when we sold.
HiTV- I started work at HiTV in the new year of 2009. I was the third most senior executive at the time. The GM for strategy and international business. I was 27 and driving a Range Rover Sports in Lagos- and it was my first proper, full time job. It wasn’t entrepreneurship as I knew it, but it was entrepreneurial- I had resources and I was given the mandate to chart my own course- and I was driving a Range Rover Sports… At 27years old. I didn’t think it was a big deal but in hindsight it was.
I was in charge of building a consortium of African media houses and broadcasters to bid for the Africa rights of the English Premier League. I was also in charge of selling our movie and Music channels abroad. It was fun. We won the rights for Africa from DSTV but no bank was willing to fund us. So we gave it up. I was downcast. A full year of dogged work down the drain. Along the line, I helped launched the One Music payTv channel that is still operational today and believe it or not I helped conceptualize the famous Sip Night club- it was meant to be a HiCafe. An upmarket chain of sports cafes in Nigeria. Mild wins that I thought made me ready for the Nigerian entrepreneurship hustle.
I quit my Job in 2010 to chase a business idea . I had been thinking of building a company called G-Pay (GSM Payments) since 2008. I wanted to change Nigeria’s payment landscape. I somehow thought to run some small businesses for “everyday cash” while I build G-Pay. So without much further ado- here are my smaller failures:
Bakery in Ikotun-Egbe- who asked me ohh? The idea was to have the bakery in Marina. Kit it up and have agege bread makers rent it by the hour to bake their bread and sell. Somehow my driver convinced me that Ikotun-Egbe was better. I’d wake up at 3am and drive to Ikotun Egbe from Lekki Phase1 and get there at 4.30am to oversee renovations and subsequent “launch” then drive back to VI for work at HITV (this was during my last days) in time for 8am.
One faithful day I arrived at Ikotun-Egbe and found a one-eyed baker sleeping there. I accosted him for sleeping there and he said he had been baking there since the previous owner. I told him, albeit not very politely to please leave. A few days later when I came back to the bakery I saw juju paraphernalia all over the floor. I be Bini boy nah… I can’t be scared that easily. So I ignored it. Fast forward till the end of the first month of operation…. The only month actually- I had invested 5Million naira in that bakery, opened it for a month and made only 15 thousand naira. I sharpishly closed the place and sold the locally fabricated oven. The only tangible thing there. Two years rent I paid in advance?? wasted!
Beach bar at Oniru Beach- I decided after visiting Oniru beach one Sunday night at 2am to find the place live and popping. Owning a bar there was something I wanted to get into. So I did. I bought a space for 400K naira. Kitted out a wooden bar for about 300k naira at the time and started business. Let’s just say my staff were running their own “shows” there. Not an ounce of profit. The crowd I saw there always somehow never came to my spot. I couldn’t fake it. I wasn’t their guy. I was too “tush”.
- I decided to convert the place to a pizza delivery place- I called it “Teasers Pizza”. I handed out fliers. Only my friends ever ordered pizza from me. It was da bomb pizza though. But the Oniru beach address didn’t do it for the pizza eating crowd. I decided to sell the spot to an interested buyer. I sold it for 400K. A week later The beach broke its banks and washed the bar out to sea. He had the audacity to “enquire” about getting his money back. Msschewwwww!
- In between all of this I was still pushing G-Pay. I was now $250,000 in debt with G-Pay because a “friend” of mine told me emphatically that he was going to invest. Let’s rewind a little bit- So I was chasing a payment platform for LAWMA at the time. LAWMA management staff gave me the “wink” that they were going with my solution. With that and my friends promise, I went back to my technical partner in the USA and ordered some hardware- a lot of hardware actually and had them modify their software and payment gateway for the nice sum of $250,000. I paid $75,000 upfront that I had my mother borrow for me from some Osusu scheme administrator. Both LAWMA and my friend reneged. My mother became in debt on my behalf. My parents sold things to get me out of that debt. When I resigned from HiTV I paid the depreciated value for the car. I had to sell that too to make up some funds. It took me and my family more than a year to repay that debt. If you know anything about money lenders they don’t play with their money and their phone calls never stop. Neither does their interest charges. I learnt valuable lessons here. Very valuable ones.
- Back to my bakery- in between my debt and stagnation with G-Pay, one early May day I received 30 or so missed calls from my driver-cum-wicked business adviser that took me to Ikotun-Egbe. Remember him? Anyway… I finally answered him and he tells me that the police and some radio station people wanted to speak to me as the owner of the bakery and that he is at the police station now. At this point I had even forgotten I “once” owned a bakery. I asked what for? And he spoke those dreaded words “eh Sah”… I said eh Sah what? He asked if I still remembered the one eyed baker and I said yes I did. At this point I knew this couldn’t be good so I told him to move away from the police. I asked him if they knew he was able to reach me and he said no. So I told him that if he tells them he spoke to me I will find him and kill him. Then I told him to continue his story.
He said “Oga that man with one eye. E be like say e do juju for that place ohh. Since e put that thing for ground that time that time.. This month four pipu die for the bakery. So dem go call one babalawo. The babalawo tell dem say person swear put for that place say who get am no go ever make money for that place. So as the rent don finish and everybody don stop work the thing wey dem put for ground no see anything chop.. So e don begin chop pipu wey dey upstairs. At this point I’m mad befuddled, confused, discombobulated. So I ask.. Or I say “but since I left there didn’t the landlord rent it to someone else?”…. Long story shorter; Basically since the rent was paid for two years homeboy business adviser/driver started running his own bakery parole from the place knowing nothing will ever take me back there. So four people had died that month.. It was strange so they called a native Doctor… the native Doctor said people are dying because something was buried. The Police found a one eye man who confessed he buried something…the Police wanted to interview me… Me ke? Mschewwww. Yes. You are wondering if this is true at all. It is. My imagination is not that great. If it was I’d have thought of Stripe and not G-Pay.
- Back to Novira Therapeutics- at the same time that the above was happening; as God would have it we had just raised 23M USD and I was due some “small” payments. I took the money, moved out of my BQ in Lekki Phase 1, rented an apartment in VI and bought a 2002 Hyundai… Changed my number and took a one month vacation in the USA before the police could find me.
- Part two coming soon…. I have failed a lot more… Although less interestingly as I deliberately and skillfully maneuver the pitfalls nowadays. In part two I will talk about ALL the iterations of G-Pay and how they died.
Let’s share our failure stories… I think they are as important.
Edmund “Diddles” Olotu is a Serial Entrepreneur, CEO of payment solutions company G-Pay and co-founder of technology device repair company Super Geeks among others.