This week, digital marketer and entrepreneur, Lanre Akinlagun is on the hot seat. He discusses his educational and professional background and also his interesting foray into entrepreneurship and his eventual move back to Nigeria. Read on for his compelling account and perspective on doing business and life in Nigeria.
Starting with introductions, could you please tell us who you are?
My name is Lanre Akinlagun and I am a digital marketer. I was born and bred in the UK, although I had a brief stint in Nigeria for about 3- 4 years when I was 15 years old. Interestingly, it was during this period I was introduced to the concept of marketing by my gate man (who actually today owns a very successful advertising company) and I fell in love with it. So I went back to the UK and studied Marketing and Multimedia at the London Guildhall University (Now: Metropolitan University), I got my first job at Universal Pictures.
Whilst I was there, I spent a lot of my time around him. He was attending advertising school on the weekends and would often tell me what he studied and how interesting it was, which was how I got hooked. It was my first exposure into understanding how any business works and I got that from him.
OK. So you went back and studied Marketing. What came next?
After college, I was stubborn enough to hold out for a job in a field that I wanted. Everyone was getting a job here and there but I was quite adamant that I wanted to get into marketing. I had previously applied to Universal Pictures a few times and eventually, I was successful. My role involved managing DVD distributions, so one of the things I did was the 50th anniversary of the champion’s league. I stayed with Universal pictures for about a year.
Why did you leave and what happened next?
Eventually I discovered that working at Universal Pictures UK was not as exciting and as challenging as I had hoped it would be. So I left and went contracting in different companies, learning new things. I was pretty resilient and wasn’t going to do anything else besides marketing and that’s were I discovered the emergence of digital marketing.
What is it about marketing that struck such a chord with you?
I just get it! When I was exposed to it, I just got it. Being able to sell things to people influenced me a lot, strategising on an executive level thrilled me even more than selling things door to door. Having a fantastic idea and being able to sell it has kept me loyal to the profession.
Alright. So what was your next career move and when did you decide to move back?
While at Universal Pictures, we had agencies come to us who handled digital marketing and at the time digital marketing was still very new and so I decided to learn more about it. This was one of the reasons I left Universal, because I went to work for one of the agencies where I could learn more about digital marketing. After working with the agency for a number of years, I discovered another aspect of digital marketing that has increasingly become important which is; analytics.
So I went to an analytics company working with agencies and I got my first exposure to Silicon Valley, start-ups, and generally the whole business aspect. I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley and that’s where I caught the start-ups bug. I then visited Nigeria to see what was going on because everyone said there were viable business opportunities in Nigeria. I must admit what struck me initially were the infrastructural challenges and so I left. Interestingly, a friend of mine then started a company in Nigeria called ‘Nollywood Love’, which was an online company for Nollywood films on YouTube. He kept posting on Facebook about how well the business was doing so I got intrigued. I visited him in his office, came up with a few ideas which he discarded and basically told me to join him and grow the company. I did that and that’s how irokotv was born. I was a member of the first batch of people that formed irokotv.
That must have been exciting…
I was leaving the second biggest company in the world, namely IBM, that offered me a very secure future to a Nigerian start-up! It was exciting but scary. The excitement of growing an industry had bigger potential for me moving back, but when you add the Nigerian factor where there hadn’t been very many successful start-ups, it was scary. I set up the UK office and came to Nigeria for 3 months, because to work in a Nollywood start-up I had to be in the environment to learn and understand the people, to be better able to market to them, and I guess that’s when I got excited. During this time, I realized there was more success in Nigeria than meets the eye, on the surface you don’t see it but when you spend some time and meet people you actually start to see it. After a year and a half with irokotv, I decided to explore my own start-up called www.drinks.ng
How did you go from Marketing, Universal Pictures, Irokotv, to drinks?
Well for one I used to drink socially, and I had helped out at a friends wedding with getting drinks and it was a logistically challenging experience, I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to get drinks and that’s where the business seed was planted. I went back to the UK and explored it some more, discovering that in the last 5 years for instance, Nigeria’s consumption of champagne had grown tremendously! The focus for everyone has been on champagne but what people haven’t realized is that there has been a change in consumption and culture for wine. Wine is actually a bigger market in Nigeria as it’s more widely consumed. More Nigerians are starting to move away from beer drinking to wine, with the wine industry in Nigeria estimated to be worth over $350million and all this research got me very interested in the venture.
So, how did drinks.ng kick off?
I pitched my ideas to some investors and luckily, they bought into it. So I got my first investment from them to start drinks.ng. Yes I was fortunate; but hard work over the years put me in the right place. Drinks.ng started in March and we have been in business ever since.
What are your range of services?
Drinks.ng is here to make life easier for every Nigerian with a wide range of services. The first involves clients buying drinks online, wherein you go to the website, see the drinks and prices, buy them and we deliver them to your door within 24-48hours. We also have an events team that services all kinds of events, weddings, parties and corporate occasions. Then, we have a commercial team which supplies drinks to restaurants and hotels. The unique thing about our company is that we are not just a drinks supply company but also a logistics company because we deal directly with all the big manufacturers and importers in a bid to eradicate the biggest issue in Nigeria which is counterfeit drinks. We want to make sure that people can get original drinks at the right price. Our core competition is the market place and our prices are exactly the same as theirs.
Interesting! From an entrepreneurial perspective, how has the experience been for you starting up a business in Nigeria?
It wasn’t easy and it’s still not easy. Some of our biggest issues have involved staffing; you need people to understand what it is to be responsible with certain aspects of a business. Another problem is getting the importers and manufacturers to work with you due to their strong loyalties to the market regardless of how the market is tarnishing the image of their brands. I would say it’s because there is no clear structure and no fingers to be pointed so no one sees it or does anything about it. Getting people to understand what we are doing is our biggest challenge. People cannot seem to understand how we can sell them original products for the same price as the market. One thing I notice with Nigerians is that we are averse to change, if something feels good and easy, we feel there must be something wrong with it. One of the hardest sells in Nigeria is convenience, as living the harsh life and going through stress is second nature to us and is seen as normal.
How do you combat these cultural and infrastructural challenges?
It’s been difficult but we take it one day at a time. Although I am Nigerian, I haven’t been brought up in Nigeria and so there are certain aspects of the culture I still don’t get. Even within the office there are cultural differences that affect us. For instance, customer service for black people is not high on the agenda in any part of the world, so when you are trying to teach it to people, they sometimes just don’t get it. When you try to be friendly or nice, people don’t get it either. Considering road transport is a key factor for our work, traffic and the cost of fixing our cars is another major issue for us. If I could solve one issue in Lagos it would not just be traffic, it would be traffic specifically on third mainland bridge.
This sounds quite challenging which leads me to ask if you’ve had any positives since moving back?
I’ve always been a proud Nigerian and I love Nigeria. Since moving back, I find my lifestyle happier and more pleasant. I work a lot and spend my evenings a lot better in Nigeria than in the UK. Also, thankfully every month our business and revenue have grown.
On a final note, how would you say you have managed to stay above water, and what tips would you have to share with people who are reading your story and are inspired?
On a personal front, speaking to my wife and kids regularly on Skype has kept me going and I also have a good support network with friends and family in Nigeria.
Regarding work, we all know starting a business in Nigeria can be very challenging. I think Nigeria has a lot to offer and anybody abroad would know that the western world has reached its pinnacle. The sky is just not the limit for Nigeria and so as an ambitious Nigerian, this is the place to be.
I would also say that if you plan to move back, try and find a soft landing. Also come regularly to understand the environment properly before you make the final move. The right mind set is also key, so don’t come back complaining about the problems because that just keeps negativity around you. Fix the problems because they are all opportunities.
Many thanks for your time and best wishes moving forward.