How I grew from hawking food to raising funds for top startups – Lanre Messan

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David Lanre Messan is a Nigerian serial entrepreneur who has succeeded in the technology, entrepreneurship and fund-raising sectors.

He spoke to freelance Journalist Tony Ademiluyi on how he started, his strategies and his vision for Nigeria and Africa.

Here are the excerpts:

How did your upbringing prepare you for the challenging task of the cut-throat world of entrepreneurship?

My father taught me the art of curiosity and my mother taught me the art of entrepreneurship. These two elements are powerful tools to making the best of creating and delivering value. Knowing full well that my parents hold some of the best family values in life kept me consistent with the struggle and most importantly the vision.

You made your first million at 23 through your then companies Infinite Impact and Green Yaggy. Tell us more about how you achieved that?

I simply gathered 30 of the books I read online between year 2002 and 2005 and created an automated ebook with them. This was a huge innovation then considering the fact that it was the information age. The books were selected to focus on leadership, business, people management and success factors. MTN Foundation led by Kemi Oyagbola from her ChurchGate office in Victoria Island and some other leaders in key companies bought 1000 copies at N3000 each and that was it.

Are entrepreneurs born or made? Do you think that business schools can make one a better entrepreneur?

I think it is a combination of both. I’ve seen people who went to some of the best business schools but didn’t found a company of their own or start a business. On the flip side, some successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, for example never even graduated from college let alone attend a business school. So, to answer the second question, I do believe business school helps to sharpen entrepreneurial minds.


You recently had an event in Dubai where you brought together stakeholders in the technology sector most notably six start-ups. Tell us about the significance of the event and how it can translate into economic gains for the Nigerian technology sector?

A good question. Let me start by saying that Africa is gearing up to be where the next generation of groundbreaking innovations will emerge and global investors are beginning to see the potential. At GITEX Global, African founders and entrepreneurs reiterated this fact. As you probably already know, we’ve become community partners to NorthStar Dubai and GITEX Global. What this means for us at FirstFounders and the Nigerian tech ecosystem as a whole is that we can expect to see even more capital flow into the country because Nigeria was well represented by those Nigerian startups that were present at the event. As a matter of fact, ShapShap, one of the seven startups we led to the event won the Mobility Category of the Supernova Challenge, taking home the winning prize of $8,000.

You studied Mass Communication at the Lagos State Polytechnic. Why didn’t you practice as a journalist and why didn’t you study something more entrepreneurship related like Economics or Business Administration for instance?

If left to me, I wanted to be a pilot which is the reason I love jumping out of planes these days in every country I travel to. Lol – basically skydiving. But, realistically, I needed to do a course that has the robustness of curiosity, information and communication so I can articulate the very many ideas in my head for global change and entrepreneurial impact. That lead me to study Mass Comm. first but of course, I have done quite a number of courses on entrepreneurship and innovation with the likes of Harvard Business School, London Business School, Nexford University, Scalabl Academy and so on. I am very big on personal development which I did in the earlier years even before studying Mass Comm through reading books in my father’s library and exploring the world of business books on the internet for years.

In 2020 you launched First Founders Inc which has helped about 250 startups get incubated and raise funds for their operations. Tell us more about First Founders Inc and the motivation for delving into spearheading an incubation hub.

First Founders was founded based on my passion for innovation and impact. We are a venture studio that partners with early-stage founders to build, scale, and fund their digital ventures. It’s no news that the majority of conceived ideas remain just that: ideas. They are never executed or developed for myriad of reasons, the most notable ones being a lack of capital, talent, and technical expertise. At FirstFounders, we believe that startups can greatly impact the Nigerian economy in many positive ways and that is the motivation behind our unrelenting support for these budding companies.

You have raised about $10,000,000 for some Nigerian startups most notably Syarpa, a Fintech which you helped close a fund-raising round of about $500,000. What spurred you to go into fund raising and what is the business model behind it?

As I mentioned earlier, we partner with startups to build, scale, and fund their businesses. Funding is a crucial part of startup success, especially in their early stages before revenue generation or profitability is reached. To help these young companies secure funding, it only made sense for me to learn the art of fundraising.

As for the business model behind it, we simply take a percentage of the total amount raised as compensation for facilitating the deal or we take some equity in the company.

You played a role as a communications consultant in the eight-year administration of former Lagos State Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola and worked as a communications strategist for the Atiku Abubakar campaign team in 2019. You recently got an appointment to work on the campaign of Dr. Diane Regisford in a similar capacity. Can you share these three experiences with us?

I am passionate about national and geo-politics and if I get any chance to contribute my quota of knowledge and expertise especially in the area of strategy, I am always happy to do. So, working with these three leaders was just my way to add value to the advancement of leadership and the society at large. For Lagos State, it was purely an appointment to render a service on communications where I developed communication structures for all the ministries under the government through the Lagos State Public Staff Development Centre. For His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar, it was a sheer commitment to what I thought would be the beginning of a prosperous Nigeria back in 2019 and I simply gave my all to see it work but for some reason, it didn’t pan out as planned. And for Dianne Regisford, it was my first time to play in the political scene in the United Kingdom and I was appointed to be in charge of strategy which I gave my all too as well. Very great experiences that would remain valuable in any political setting I find myself again.


ALSO READ: 383 Nigerian tech startups raised over $2 billion in seven years – Report


Earlier this year, you joined the James Currey Society of Oxford University as a scholar where you got to learn at the feet of one of the founders of the society, renowned writer, publisher and scholar, Dr. Onyeka Nwelue. Tell us the criteria for your selection and share your experiences there with us.

I was selected based on merit following my ability to write and my drive for improving humanity with what I know. It was an expository on the literary world of African authors, writers and the creative space of African through instructors like Dr. Onyeka Nwelue; Stephen Embleton of the African Studies Center of Oxford University. Understand the different ways to write about African etc. One of the outcomes of these will be my two books that I will launch early next year.

First Founders Inc has a four-stage process with which they help startups scale. Can you take us through these processes?

Actually, it is a three-stage process which is further broken down into six other processes:

1. Build: Through extensive market research, we generate product ideas for our in-house startups. For client ideas, we perform market validation by designing a simple version of the product to test on the target users and validate the idea. Once confirmed, the full product is built and made available for beta testing.

2. Scale: Before the product goes live on the market, we develop growth hacking strategies for scaling.

3. Fund: We then introduce the product to investors. Once funding is secured, the product is scaled even further to capture even greater market share.

Some entrepreneurs like Michael Bloomberg, Donald Trump etc have gone on to delve into partisan politics. Do we see that happening with you?

I’m 100% focused on developing the Nigerian economy through the growth of innovative startups. However, I’ll stand for individuals that I believe can make Nigeria more conducive for startups. As for partisan politics, I don’t see myself blindly supporting any one political party.

You once hawked edible items in traffic to raise funds to pay for your browsing in your early, humble days. What lessons are there for an average Nigerian youth?

Honestly, we the older generation need to pull them closer. It’s no news that many parents ignore their children while they work to put food on the table. A big part of a child’s morals and values are taught by the parents. A while we learnt by observing our parents, it isn’t the case nowadays.

Today, if you tell a child “no”, you need to give an explanation for that answer. In summary, we have to teach them the dignity in labor and help them understand that wealth is usually acquired over time by working hard and smart. We shouldn’t assume that they’ll just know that.

How can the public policies of the Nigerian government help entrepreneurs especially the youths and those into technology which has been proven to have a very high potential to create massive jobs to drastically reduce the high spate of unemployment?

You’re probably aware that the Nigerian Startup Bill has just been signed into law by the president and has now become the Nigeria Startup Act. This Act is expected to make Nigeria a more conducive and enabling environment for startups. We hope to see the effect of the new Act in the coming months. Hopefully, it will bring the much-desired change startups across the country have been yearning for.

Lagos – Nigeria’s economic capital is congested. How can we create technological clusters in other parts of the nation similar to how the Silicon Valley is in California away from New York, America’s economic nerve centre?

Most startups are concentrated in Lagos because most key players and investors in the industry are in Lagos. Naturally, other new startups would want to be where the action is, where there’s an established business structure. There’s also the obvious benefit of networking. As for creating tech hubs and clusters in other parts of the nation, people need to be given an incentive to move there. Host hackathons in other states, state governments can create policies that make their state more favorable than Lagos, like tax benefits, for example. Truth be told, it has more to do with the government than individuals.

Stanford University is the intellectual power base of Silicon Valley which has made California the sixth largest economy in the world. How can we create universities that can greatly serve as the intellectual hub for the tech sector in Nigeria?

Nigerian lecturers need a re-orientation. In schools like Stanford, lecturers genuinely want to see their students succeed and they do everything within their power to provide all the needed support. Here, we all know that’s the case. So, the first step is the re-orientation of lecturers. Next is revamping our entire teaching syllabus to match with the world we now find ourselves in. I believe once these two areas have been dealt with, other things will begin to fall in place.

How can we create more tech unicorns in Nigeria which will lead to massive job creation as witnessed by Flutterwave after they raised $250,000,000 in Series D Funding which led to their massive recruitment drive?

I don’t think anything in particular can be done to create more tech unicorns. Startups become unicorns mostly because they have a great product and massive market that is willing to pay for the product. These two elements are what makes investors interested in deploying funds to scale such businesses which ultimately gets them to unicorn status.

Thank you for the privilege of your time and attention!

I’m glad to have had the opportunity.


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