‘Sales, right knowledge make business success massive’
Segun Ogunlana is a social innovator, systemic designer and salesman. He is the founder of Avatar M&T, Afripreneur, AgentMe, Kanako and IjebuMarket. His interests are in infrastructure-related innovations and businesses.
The Chemical Engineering graduate from the University of Lagos has attended several training programmes covering entrepreneurship, sales, negotiation, innovation and design, product development and agriculture, with extensive hands-on experiences.
In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, he shares his passion for startups and building entrepreneurship skills.
You have a background in chemical engineering. What informed your passion for running SMEs and helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses?
MY passion for building a business started when I was in year four at the University of Lagos, during my Industrial Training (IT). While searching, I felt bad when a security man said, ‘if you know someone inside, there is a place, if you don’t know, no place.’ Luckily, one of the company contractors in my area took in my application. I did their test and came out first in my category. It was after that I started thinking of focusing on business where I will be rewarded, unlike knowing someone to get a job. One day while eating with one girl (also on IT) in the company’s cafeteria, I asked for her test score, and her response was, ‘was there any assessment to enter this company?’. I kept mute and finished my food. I finally made up my mind that I needed to start immediately and not wait till after graduation. I first sold clothes and failed, then sold Laptops and it was a massive success.
On helping entrepreneurs grow their business after I left UNILAG, I applied and got admissions to about three universities in the United Kingdom (Robert Gordon, Aberdeen and I was processing the University of Edinburg as my best choice).
One day after an encounter somewhere, I came home and asked my mum what was the point of going to the UK, working there, sending her money to buy a Benz and she won’t be able to leave the street. Did she ask me why? And I told her they would rob her because there is nothing for the youths in this country. We can’t have all the best and brightest minds leave. Let me stay and see what I can build; whenever those that left want to come back, they will also want someone on the ground like me to help out. Not too long after that, I knew it would be a combination of entrepreneurship and technology to make a large-scale impact possible.
What does it entail to be a social innovator, systemic designer and salesman?
Social innovation is being able to come up with innovative solutions to social problems that affect society. Systemic design is about designing systems and structures, which deliver needed objectives, while the salesman is all about selling; all are influenced by my background in chemical engineering that taught me research, problem-solving, process analysis, design and testing. It is all about designing, building and selling.
You are passionate about helping MSMEs and SMEs sustain their ventures. How are you achieving this?
This I am doing by focusing on building infrastructure-related innovation and startups, which enable anyone who is willing, entrepreneurs and businesses achieve their business objectives easier and faster. For example, look at the impact platforms like Instagram have created for comedians, content creators, influencers and musicians. Without that infrastructure, most people wouldn’t have been able to succeed at all. That is the power of infrastructure innovation and platforms.
What should entrepreneurs consider a major factor in growing their businesses?
Sales! Before you start, you need to learn how to sell; and sell the product/service to the right market to get feedback, which helps you to bring the right product to market. After that, anything that affects sales needs to be addressed properly. When you need more money for your business, those who will want to give you money will check your sales. If there is anything greater than sales, then it is ‘the right knowledge’ but if you add that to sales intelligence, then success will be massive.
How can small businesses thrive in these changing times?
They should keep learning and remain dynamic. Explore more methods of selling to customers and be open to new opportunities the current change in the market is providing. As a business owner, don’t always forget to talk to customers and keep your eyes open to potential changes in the market so you don’t go obsolete.
What factors should businesses look forward to in 2022 to thrive?
They need operational efficiency to reduce business costs. Increase sales knowledge, effort and channels to increase earnings and form adequate (non-competitive) partnerships to explore new customers and improve on their product/service quality.
Why do startups fail?
Several reasons, but the first is that this startup thing is not easy. Some of the things I have seen that lead to failure includes not doing proper initial market research on direct customers or market, inadequate team (in being complete and competent), finance, timing (calendar and market), competition and excessive direct and indirect cost of doing business. Even when you fail, it is nothing to feel bad about, as it is part of the process.
Are there local peculiarities that predispose startups to failure in Nigeria?
Yes. They include poor liquidity in the economy and low purchasing power of the market, inadequate talents as you likely have to spend time building, electricity, legal system, security and having trustworthy people, amongst others.
What are the consequences of failed startups in the Nigerian economy?
Recently, Elon Musk in the United States (an African) sent a tweet that he will pay $11 billion in taxes. That is one man in an economy that supports. Imagine many more like him in the US. If the government needs to have a great economy, they need startups to be successful. If they keep failing to provide support, you know the answer already.
How can failed businesses be revived?
A root cause analysis needs to be done to find out the problem. Adequate people management is needed to implement the solution as in many cases; the problem is connected to people. A redesign of structure and operations could be done to reduce the cost of doing business and increase revenue. In many cases, the way to revive a business lies within it. Just immerse yourself, study and you can know the way out.
Outbreaks of COVID-19 and the Omicron have affected and changed the face of businesses. What advice do you have for sustainability?
Businesses need to embrace technology, not only in the purchase of hardware and software but also inefficient operational design that allows the lower cost of operation. For example, a food/restaurant business should have home delivery as part of their option, which makes them pandemic-compliant just in case of any restrictions in movement as less physical contact is advised.
You run five businesses. How are you able to manage them effectively?
It is more of a ‘Startup Studio’ concept that I resorted to since 2015 when we couldn’t get favourable finance since we were doubted back then. So, we decided to build them each to a point of proven MVP that customers are paying for which we have just completed. Not all five businesses are running at the same time. Currently, the only one yet to be completed is Kanako – as we did a lot of work on it in 2019. Oracle accepted it as the first startup in Sub-Saharan Africa on its Oracle Cloud Startup Programme. COVID delayed completion in 2020. So, I spent 2020 and 2021 on the foundation for IjebuMarket, which is our platform for the sales and distribution of agricultural commodities and food. Currently functional is AgentMe and IjebuMarket. Afripreneur and Avatar M&T are partly functional as some things need to be completed. But Kanako is far from completion. I focused on just building the basics and doing most of the tests with my resources. We are done with most of the testing and will be inviting other partners and financiers in 2022 to scale them up, especially where needed.
What changes do you hope to see the government put in place to help businesses thrive?
Security, efficient legal framework, basic infrastructure, especially electricity, and open government makes it very efficient to access needed approvals. Others are more innovative policies to allow more capital to be unlocked into the market, especially as it concerns supporting startups and tax holidays.