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‘Government should stop making policies that impede business growth’

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Ifiok Nkem

bIfiok Nkem is a digital marketer, entrepreneur, and member of the Forbes Business Council. Graduating from the university as a medical doctor, he did a turnaround, leaving medicine for technology, and founded SnapiLABs, a technology company with a wide range of cloud software products used by over 40,000 paid users in 47 countries. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, he talks about dumping medicine for tech, starting out with a borrowed laptop, why most startups fail and factors that impede business growth in Nigeria.

What made you decide tech was it for you and not medicine?
I WENT to university to study medicine because of my passion for saving lives. During my clinical years, I got to discover that the number one risk factor for most chronic illnesses in Nigeria is low socioeconomic status and most of the delays in health care delivery are also linked to this factor. Delay in getting to the hospital, delay in starting treatments, inability to complete treatments, and follow-ups; all linked to low socioeconomic status.

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The second factor is illiteracy, which is also linked to low socioeconomic status. This led to a massive shift for me; a shift from saving lives to empowering lives and I identified tech as the vehicle I could use to make this possible. That’s why now, I create software products that help business owners around the world with the number one thing they need to grow their business, more customers. And these businesses will in turn empower people who are dependent on them. I have seen people use our software products to generate more sales in five months than they did in five years prior. We have also empowered thousands of people with digital business skills through our videos, webinars, and workshops.

How did you start your business, especially funding?
I started from scratch with less than N50, 000 ($100 precisely) and a laptop I borrowed from a friend. I built a multi-million dollar digital business that has evolved today to become SnapiLABs. We are on a mission to create products that empower people to use technology and innovation to achieve more in their lives, businesses, and communities. I’ve been involved in hundreds of projects and consulted for high net worth individuals, businesses, and corporations including the government of Nigeria. I have trained and mentored thousands of people. I love building funnels, selling, big data, and afang soup.

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In what ways have you grown since inception?
It started as an idea written on a piece of paper, little did the founding team know that it was the beginning of an incredibly exciting and rewarding journey. Fast-forward to today, that idea on that piece of paper has blossomed into a wonderful bunch of curious people who passionately work towards a mission; keep evolving and bringing even greater tools to people and businesses worldwide and at the same time, providing a launchpad for online entrepreneurs.

We now have 11 cloud software products, grown from three to 25+ full-time team members and from zero to 40,000+ paid users globally. We recently moved into a new headquarter to accommodate our growing team and we are just getting started. We have over 40 young people currently at the lab, team members, interns, as well as startup entrepreneurs using the co-working space we have at the hub.

To what extent will you say COVID-19 affected you?
The pandemic affected us positively and negatively. Positively, our software patronage skyrocketed during the lockdown, as many businesses moved online. The demand for software products increased. In one month, we had over 1,000 new businesses purchase our stormerce software.

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Negatively, we had our workflow disrupted. Collaboration is at the core of our culture and during the lockdown, we were forced to experiment with 100 percent remote working. This affected our productivity and took a while before we could adjust. We now work two days onsite and three days remotely. Now, I’d say we have adapted and our productivity is even better than before the lockdown.

What other strategies did you adopt to survive the pandemic?
Aside remote working, I’ll say adhering to public health advisory and positioning our software products to help other businesses survive the lockdown. We understand that social distancing is the new normal, so we build products that help businesses survive in the new post-pandemic economy. An example is our VideoTours360 software, which combines cutting-edge tech to help businesses deliver interactive experiences to their customers at home. We launched it in December last year and we now have almost 3,000 paid users who have created more than 11,420 virtual tours for their businesses and clients. 

How would you evaluate the country’s tech space?
From our experience building in Nigeria, I can say the tech space has evolved and is still evolving. A couple of years ago, it was very difficult to recruit tech talent in Nigeria, but that has changed now. Also, the world is now more receptive to products coming from Nigeria. For us, we build in Nigeria and sell to the world. Our target market is North America and Europe and this accounts for over 85 percent of our customer base. We are looking forward to when our local tech space will evolve beyond social enterprises, fintech, and venture-backed startups to also accommodate more customer-backed startups.

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How can technology help in developing the workforce for the future?
The workforce of the future is going to be remote. Actually, that future is already here. Most of the arguments against remote working have to do with collaboration and monitoring and the solution to this is technology.

What is your assessment of the Nigerian business environment and why do most start-ups fail in less than five years?
Most startups fail because of poor customer acquisition, which is mostly due to a lack of strategy, adequate budget, and proper research of the market. They end up building a product nobody wants or is willing to pay for, or a product without the right enabling technology or cultural buy-in required for critical mass and survival. Another problem is focusing too early on PR and funding (investors) instead of customer acquisition, sales, and cash flow.

What are the major challenges you have faced since starting out?
Having to survive in a harsh economic environment and dealing with disabling government policies. Right now as I speak, we are having difficulties paying salaries and other expenses because we are unable to withdraw money from our bank account. CBN pegged dollar withdrawals at a maximum of $20,000 per month.  

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Another problem is the poor internet connectivity, this has affected our ability to collaborate in real-time with our remote team members. It also affects the cultural buy-in of our cloud software products in the local market. Another major problem has been payment processing. As I said, most of our users are in North America and Europe. As a software company operating from Nigeria, getting paid is a big challenge. Most of our customers are more comfortable paying with PayPal and PayPal merchant service wasn’t directly available to us in Nigeria before. However, the new partnership between Flutterwave and PayPal should solve this problem for us.

How do you think the government can address some of these challenges?
Our government should stop making policies that impede business growth. An example is the CBN Forex restrictions. These restrictions if needed should only apply to personal accounts and not business accounts. The government should ensure that the New Nigerian National Broadband Plan (2020 -2025) is implemented as this will open up the digital economy.

What should we expect from you in the next couple of years?
In 2021 and beyond, we are working on expanding our product offers, scaling the winners that have attained product-market fit, and also growing our customers from 40,000 to 400,000. We are working on expanding the lab (internship, incubation, and co-working spaces) to make room for more aspiring digital entrepreneurs who need training and support.

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