6 Lessons Nigerians Should Learn From Sarah Lacy

Sarah Lacy might have come and gone but the lessons I learned from her (directly and indirectly) have stayed with me and I thought I should share them.

1. No Excuses: The first thing I and several startup guys in Nigeria used to welcome Sarah was a litany of challenges we are having in Nigeria; preventing us from succeeding. No light, no broadband, no VC’s, government is not helping, no good developers, Nigerian girls use weave-on too much (ok, I sort of made that up).

Her response was concise: No excuses, the best entrepreneurs thrive in constraints. Constrains are what create opportunities that allow the best of entrepreneurs to make it big.

When you think in terms of opportunity, you will find yourself making a business out of what is constraining other people.

I will blog about one idea that came up the very day I stopped looking at the absence of light as a limitation but an opportunity.

2. Accept/Embrace Reality: When Sarah called Computer Village the ‘Nigerian Best Best Buy’ and showed the ‘Nigerian app store’ quite a number of people were offended. In fact at Garage48 one accosted me and told me if I saw the way Sarah was insulting Nigeria. I asked him the following questions.

Where did you buy this your laptop?

Where did you buy your phone?

Where did you buy Microsoft office and photoshop?

He smiled and said “kai! na wa o!”. I asked over 10 people on the table the same questions and it was an ‘aha moment’ for them all.

So why is this important?

If you do not understand your market you cannot take advantage of it.

A few people who still believe in Nigeria’s pseudo modernity wanted Mega Plaza to be shown as our main distribution nerve of computers, mobile phones and peripherals, but that would be lying to our selves. An error in that thought was learnt by Nokia and co when they came to Nigeria.

Nokia opened their shops on the Island, people strolled in played with the phones there took a ride to computer village and made their purchases.

So how does this affect us a startup entrepreneurs? If you are selling software, or creating hardware; if you do not have a presence or your main distribution in computer village, you might be doing it wrong. (*cough* INYE *cough*).

When I met Jason of NollywoodLove, naive me asked him why he was in FESTAC and not on the island, he told me plain and simple (and in Bri ish accent) “I have to be near Alaba. That is where my money is”. Of course the pseudo mordenites would say Silverbird is our ‘wood’, set up shop there and wonder why they are out of business in 3 months.

So I guess you now see the importance of the hawkers, they are Nigeria’s Vending Machine.

3. Don’t read TechCrunch: This one surprisingly caused quite a fuss with some people. Of course You are not banned from reading TechCrunch. What was meant is that you should pay more attention to other markets that are similar to yours so when the information that is influencing manifests itself, you will not be cloning Twitter but will be cloning (Bangladesh classifieds market)

On TechCrunch you will not read about the fact that 70% of Nigerians are unbanked and the startups that are working to take advantage of that opportunity. On TechCrunch you did not hear about how no single Nollywood video was on-line legally; you/we kept wondering how on earth we could compete with Netflix while Jason did the obvious: get a Partnership with Google; Buy Rights of Nollywood Videos put them on YouTube and is on run to hit $1m revenue this year.

On TechCrunch you will read about Square but that cannot be big in Nigeria yet (5% of banking population have cards), you should be reading Kenyan Tech blogs to learn about how companies are taking advantage of the new economy Mobile Money is bringing. You will not read about how people in some countries use Taxi’s a a payment distribution system. e.g Give the RedCab guy N1,500 Naira) and he credits your Facebook account with $8.

Of course another reason she said we “should not read TC” is the stories written there are not a true representation of startup reality even in Silicon Valley.

She just wants to stop you from feeling suicidal when you cannot raise $41million for your photo sharing Nokia app.

NB: Don’t read Mashable. As in.. Don’t.

5. Embrace the Foreign Companies: This one is personal. BSL (Before Sarah Lacy) I was ‘angry’ that Google, Microsoft and co were not doing enough to develop the ecosystem. Irritated with the elaborate marketing activities being organized by Google in the name of ‘developer days’; offended that Google was promoting creating content farms and slapping adwords as ‘startup ideas’; suspicious of their ‘Greek Gift’ of fiber/broadband to Nigerian Universities. Worried about the impact Google’s creation of competing startup products would impact our little guys (hello Google Trader, Baraza, Free SMS). She made me realize that proper engagement will allow us harness the potential FDI. Welcome engage and learn from them like China did. Because you know what? They do not owe you nada.

6. Do your own PR: This is an indirect lesson. When I read Sarah’s account of her brush with danger at Alaba, I smiled to myself. The very same story using the same facts could be written from a different perspective.

“Alaba Security forces were informed of suspicious looking foreigners walking briskly and taking pictures. Considering the recent invasion of Alaba market and a swoop by copyright agencies which caused traders losses ammonting to several millions of dollars, Bones and his team had to act fast. they accosted the people, who had no coherent explanation about their mission at Alaba market. They had to be taken away for further screening… blah blah blah”

What I am trying to get here is that if she wanted, she could have ‘spun’ the story in a way that favored Nigeria and made the bones and co. heroes’. But in reality, she needed to make the story interesting to her readers (I enjoyed it).

The fact of the matter is that most Nigerian are always looking for who will do PR for them. They get angry when BBC does a Lagos Documentary and does not focus it on Lekki Phase 1. We look up to Guardian UK or New York times to do favorable stories on us or write stories from our perspective. Now, we look at SABC to do the same for us. Una no dey shame?

Well, let me break it to you; if NTA was not a PILE of SHIT that is what they are supposed to be doing. If Thisday and co were not the Nigerian Government’s Press Release companies, that is what they should have been doing.

When CNN and co were instigating hatred towards the Arab world, you know their response?

AL Jazeera.


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18 thoughts on “6 Lessons Nigerians Should Learn From Sarah Lacy

  1.  I think we are getting ahead of ourselves here and should not jump to conclusions because a nice lady came here to observe things from the surface for just one week.
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    A lot of people even living in Nigeria do not really understand the way things really work in the Nigerian ecosystem. 

    The foreigners identify a potential market of 150 Million people (A figure pulled out of a hat because we have had no reliable census) ship in the goods to the indians, lebanese and Dangote (maybe Otedola before he became broke) who in turn pass them to the Hausa owned haulage companies and finally distributed by the Ibo traders.  

    Otigba is a temporary distribution hub by Ibo traders which will fizzle out and die the same way the Lagos Island and Surulere computer markets that existed before it also died.  Otigba is not our Best Buy, it is our Circuit City. We all know what happened to Circuit City in the end. 

    Otigba is also by-product of our lop-sided banking system non-existent payments infrastructure. It is a novelty to foreigners and our “Aje-burrers” should be rightfully offended because afterall they all buy their phones from Saka-Tinubu (another hub) or the odd guy who steals( I use that word cautiously) them from the UK and brings them to Nigeria to make a quick buck.

    The informal economy is huge and disorganized. The level of disorganization is also a reflection of our state of governance. Kayode Muyibi’s description of similar economies and their priorities was spot on and his advice “they should just stay away from the internet, and focus on the local brick and mortar”ideas.” should be listened to by the wise.

    The real opportunities lie in local manufacturing, reorganizing logistics, distribution and franchising. Trading or haulage should no longer be a tribal or cultural preserve. We have huge challenges that wont go away because we are “Brilliant, Crazy or Cocky”. It is not about giving excuses it is about facing reality. Do something else or leave if you have to be in tech. I left.

    I keep repeating that Dangote the 13th richest man on the Forbes list made his money from Nigeria by selling food and shelter. We should go back to the basics if we really want to develop or become rich anyhow.

    I remember Olorogun Michael Ibru (The original Nigerian business patriarch) watching me as we were doing a dinner/press event when Econet was about to launch and I was proud to be in the initial project team. He called me aside and asked me what my occupation was and I proudly told him “Consultant”. He then asked if I think I can ever be as rich as he was by doing what I was doing now? I told him I will try. He said “not here”. “If you want ot be as rich as I am, go and sell fish. I sold plenty of fish and I am rich” then he fell asleep….

  2. This is the honest truth. Brilliant. Thank God you saw the wisdom in her actions and have kindly shared it with us.

    Although you aren’t finished yet. I’d like to hear about this “no light opportunity” idea of yours. “I will blog about one idea that came up the very day I stopped looking at the absence of light as a limitation but an opportunity.”

  3. Great write-up OO, however my issue with this is that we seem Nigerians seem to think its ok to show a foreigner the dirtiest parts of the country in the spirit of being truthful to ourselves, can’t we be truthful to ourselves within ourselves, must we wash our dirty linen for the world to see? 

    You said it yourself that Sarah edited her trip to Alaba to make it seem like she was about to butchered just to make it more entertaining to her readers, is she trying to be “truthful” in that case? Nigerians need to be less naive when dealing with foreigners, the truth is they carefully manage their P.R to always place them in the best light possible while on the other hand we  report to them the multitudes of problems we face in the country at any given opportunity. We need to realize that the Nigerian P.R machine starts with us, not NTA..

    1. Abiola, 

      I would disagree with you. Hiding the reality leads to self delusion. Sarah stayed in VI. I took them to Ikeja too. Asides Ikoyi the ‘good part’ of Lagos don finish o!

      The reality of the situation is 70% of Lagos will embarrass you based on the standards you want to set.

      When you visit London, you are not taken to Canary Wharf only. You are allowed to roam as you wish. Camden is ‘hoody’ to be but it is not censored. So is Digbeth in Birmingham where I lived.

      If 80% of Lagos was ‘good’ and people focused on the 20% then you might have a case.

      I have always wanted to writ a post on “who is the true representation of the Nigerian youth”

      Of course you will prefer to focus on the 5% Blackberry pinging individuals forgetting the bitter truth which is that The Almajiris, Agberos, and ‘poor people’ are in an absolute majority. 

      “You said it yourself that Sarah edited her trip to Alaba to make it seem like she was about to butchered just to make it more entertaining to her readers, is she trying to be “truthful” in that case?”

      She did not lie. I just said she could spin/interpret the story in any way she wanted.

      The bigger question is; why are we so reliant on foreigners telling our story? Have you done a documentary that focused on only Lekki phase 1 that was refused  air time?

      Sarah wrote on local startups which showed she was not entirely one sided. If we want one sided pro Nigeria stories (lying to ourselves) we have to do it ourselves.

  4. Entertaining, and true! Nigerians are better at identifying our flaws via ridicule… Nothing we are not generally aware of!

    Lovely insight Victor, and I completely agree! Our idea of innovation merely stems from redoing things we see done in the Western world, our ideas should be tailored to our needs… Where is the market and what do they need?

    …I doubt we’ll ever run out of a need for fish regardless of the variety of tuna that gets imported 😉 

    Real nice Oo

  5. Think of Nigeria as a listed public company that does business in china. Would it do Nigeria any good to publicize the nature of the working conditions of its employees when it wants external investors to take it seriously or to show interest in investing in it?

    Whether you agree or not perception is key in development. Ask China, Ask Brazil, Ask even Malaysia. This guys spend quiet a fortune on positive PR, and believe me they do all have slums etc.

    If you want to sell a stock, you wouldn’t sell the realities of the business, the failed portfolios, the worse case scenarios, but you would sell the best case scenarios. Perception is important in everything we do, in sales, in marketing and even in communication.

    Nigeria has nothing to offer for an undeveloped country,Its costly to do business , Its highly risky to do business, it has no solid infrastructure whatsoever, we freaking know all that. Is that news to anybody? really? you call that coverage?Now what good does it do for us to showcase the worst part of us, as opposed to the best we can do? I am yet to see any positive results from all this kind of PR, be it by displaying slums or even showcasing the mediocre of what we have instead of the best we have.

    You would hardly see a US journalist or blogger talking about the 100s and millions of dollars lost to credit card scams in the US alone. Or even how most dotcom investments are actually ponzi schemes.The reality of Nigeria is simple, there is already an expectation of the worst case scenario, and by re-showcasing that in the Tech world is re-assuring foreign investors and likely business partner that we are not ready. Believe it or not, I wont invest in Nigeria, If I was not Nigerian, with what I read about Nigeria.

    Last year for example, I was considering to invest in real estate in Brazil? Why? Because I read an article from the economist about the prospect of the industry,  the amazing growth and rental yield. I didn’t read about the drug war, and honestly I didn’t know much about it , till Sarah mentioned it, am I reconsidering it? Yes I am.We are not selling gagsta rap music, we are selling the future, and to sell the future, we have to showcase the prototype of the best we have, not what we dont have, or the already realities, nobody wants to know that.

    Malaysia sold cyberjaya as replica of silicon valley before it even had the infrastructure, it was basically a plantation.They got all this tech firms to show interest, way before it was built, and they now have more than 50 tech companies there, employing a minimum of 6,000 employees each. No kidding. The foreign investors only realized what they needed to get into the market after they had already made up their mind to come in, but with a tax advantage of 6 years, and relatively low cost of running business who would reconsider the market risk?”

    After a lifetime of world travel I’ve been fascinated that those in the third world don’t have the same perception of reality that we do.”-Jim Harrison

    1. My good man. 

      1. When you are doing an IPO, you are obliged to do both a best case and worst case scenario analysis or else you get sued if anything goes wrong.
      2. Look at Sarah as an auditor, she is obliged to say things as she sees them. 

      3. Nigeria is growing and there is a lot of opportunity. Anyone that is not willing to take risk should forget about the reward. Ask Vodacom.

      4. The Malaysians did their own PR, not Americans. If you decide not to buy real estate in Brazil because of the truly negative issues instead of thinking of a work around, you will have only your fingers to bite when the World Cup in 2014 and Olympics in 2016 send prices through the roof.

      5. I believe in Nigeria that is why I moved back home. 

      6. I will not lie that Silverbird is our Hollywood. Alaba is. MegaPlaza is not the center of hardware and Software distribution in Nigeria. computer village is. Thanks to Sarah and others, I am now seeing things in a different and true light which will give me a much better chance of succeeding than if I spend my time lying to myself.

      7. We can either spend time re-branding or re-building. I choose the latter.

    2. What did you see THEN and what do you see NOW as regards to Nigeria’s future especially for entrepreneurs..I am just privileged to LISTEN to Sarah’s recent talk (2014) from a CD and I seem to agree with her (to an extent)..I am a Nigerian and I intend to “wade” through the current situation because I have “seen” LIGHT at the end of the tunnel.. a “confirmation” of what is to happen, Only the BOLD can take the bull by the horns, and bring it to “submission”..

  6. “…and is on run to hit $1m revenue this year ” Wrong, close to hitting a $1m in his 4 months of operating, should make over $1m by the end of the financial year.

  7. Well said, mate.

    In response to Point 3 .I would greatly recommend reading the Indian startup blogs like plugged.in and watblog.com for inspiration.While India may be  far ahead of us in terms of tech entrepreneurship  you can draw so many parallels between India’s problems and Nigeria’s – a lot of good startups to emulate?

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