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Mark Essien : Solving Problems Creatively

When software developer Mark Essien sent his start up pitch for hotels.ng to Rocket Internet in 2012, he didn’t get a reply. At that stage, the start-up was still hotels.com.ng and was getting at most 200 visits a day. Something to be proud of, but not quite a ground-breaking effect. Fast forward four years, and two major investments, later and hotels.ng is Nigeria’s premiere hotel booking platform with over 7000 listed hotels nationwide.

In three years, hotels,ng has raise almost $1.5m in investment from Omidyar Network, the investment vehicle of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, EchoVC Pan-Africa Fund, a seed-stage technology fund, and Spark, a Lagos-based business accelerator. How did Mark Essien manage to bring his start-up this far? Through sheer determination, focus and embracing the creativity it takes to make business successful.

Mark Essien for Guardian Life Magzine

Mark Essien is what I call a creative entrepreneur. How does he balance his business side with his more creative inclinations?

I believe the core of business is creativity. There’s always a need to apply some form of creativity to any form of enterprise that one does. Also, it’s difficult to be successful at any kind of business without being creative. Based on that, I’d say y work constantly keeps me practicing my creativity.

How do you react to being called a problem solver?

I think that’s the greatest praise someone can give another person. Problem solving is the key to success in anything because, generally, without a problem existing there would be no need to for us to do r be anything. We could just be living out the jungle, eating fruits or something. So, I think the fact that we recognise problems and then go ahead to solve them is what makes us inherently human.

In addition to being the CEO of the biggest hotel booking platform in Nigeria, Mark Essien also spends some of his time writing and speaking about building start-ups. Have any of his words had any direct impact on other Nigerian start-ups?

I think it’s difficult to say directly how one impacts another person. I can never say it was because of something that I did another person was successful. I believe it’s really about what that person did and the decisions that they took. It’s the fact that they actually went out there to study and learn things. Everybody who has gone through some experiences and learned some things, probably through trial and error, he can make the next person’s journey much faster by documenting it so that the next person can simply look up this information and execute.

It would be easy to simply focus on being the CEO of a company, but Mark is dedicated to sharing his knowledge and experiences. Why is this?

I’m a very big advocate of learning, and I believe one can skip a lot of mistakes by studying. If nobody were to document anything, there would be nothing to study. And then everyone would have to start everything from the beginning every time and learn through trial and error, which would take really long. I write so that others can skip the mistakes that I made.

Mark Essien for Guardian Llife MagazineConsidering the current economic situation, how ha hotels.ng managed to stay ahead?

Well, because we’re a start up in a rapidly growing segment of the economy, we’re not as affected by the economic situation as other people are. Nigeria has traditionally been a very oil-driven economy and what is causing the current economic crisis is the fact that there is no more oil. Now, we’re in the technology business. And technology is one of the least affected areas by the oil price downturn. I think the fact that we’re not that affected by the economic downturn should be an encouragement to other people to also get into the technology space because I strongly believe it is the future of Nigeria. The people who invest in technology now are the one who will build the biggest businesses in Nigeria.

We already know hotels.ng is making plans for expansion across Africa. But are you working on anything besides hotels.ng?

I’m not currently working on anything else because I strongly believe in the power of focus. If you’re solving a problem that needs to be solved and you are spending a lot of time working on that problem, you will come up with great solutions that work properly. If you divide your time up into little pieces that are pointing to different things, then you’ll do none of them really really well. I believe if you’ve reached 95% of a project, it’s in the last 5% that the real value is created. So, I’m of the opinion that people should do things one after the other. Create one business or project, work on it very well, and only move on to the next one once it has reached completion.

Mark Essien for Guardian Life MagazineWhat has been the hardest thing about running hotels.ng?

Like most things in life, the hardest thing about running hotels.ng has been the learning process I had to go through, moving from one stage to the other. Three years ago, the company was a two-man start-up. Today, we’re about 80 people that make the company run. Within the space of three years, I had to learn how to scale a company, raise capital, and how to manage that number of people. I also had to learn how to give up control to the people running individual sections of the company. Also, the process of always having to stretch my own abilities is something that was hard, is still hard and I suspect will always be hard.

When you received $1.2m in investment funds, you were mentioned on Forbes. You also made Forbes’ ’30 Entrepreneurs Under 30 in Africa’ list. What did that feel like?

It was very nice, and very pleasing. It was also much unexpected because I didn’t know the article was coming out. So, when Ii saw it, I was quite happy and I thought to myself “well done”.

What advice do you have for people looking to set up businesses in the technology sector?

People looking to set up a start-up in the technology field should realise it’s very much about what you know and how much you practice it. There are really no short cuts to knowledge and you have to acquire as much knowledge as possible. This means you constantly have to be reading and learning more. And you don’t just get the knowledge, you also have to apply it. Use the knowledge you have acquired and keep on doing things with it because the more you do, the more you will be able to achieve something. There’s no need to sit around waiting for something to just happen because that never works. You have to be the one to put yourself out there; try something, make it work, understand what went wrong and try again. Every time, you will get better and better. At some point, the amount of knowledge and experience you have gathered will turn into something that becomes successful.

Mark Essien saw an opportunity created by the rise of technological and web penetration in Nigeria and used it to compensate the lack of certain conveniences in Nigeria. He had a vision for hotels.ng, and used his technological background to make it a reality. The technology sector in Nigeria is still rapidly growing, and people like Mark who have invested not just money but profitable companies are a huge part of moving the nation to a better future.

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