Founder of ALA, an entrepreneur and business leadership academy, Mr. Austin Okere, spoke with Emma Okonji on how entrepreneurs and business leaders could ride on technology to succeed in their chosen careers. Excerpts:
How can technology enable businesses in Nigeria, considering the fact that most businesses go into extinction after few years of operation, while some struggle to remain productive?
The thing about technology is that it is an enabler, even though technology in itself will not run the business. People need to acquire technology skills and apply the skills in running their businesses to grow bigger and faster. From my technology-based research, 500 people can have business ideas, and each decides to start a business, but the first impression about a business is to reject certain proposals that others may want to sell to the business owners like insurance, but if there is persistence, the business owner may tolerate and decide to listen to the person with the proposal. If there is further persistence, the business owner may accept the proposal. After that if the person with the proposal still persists, the business owner may begin to desire the proposal. That is the nature of business such that out of the 500 people with the business ideas, 300 will immediately drop out at the rejection stage, and the remaining 200 will continue based on persistence. Along the line another 150 will drop out, remaining 50. So 60 per cent drops out at rejection stage and 30 per cent drops out at tolerance stage and before the acceptable level, another 40 will drop out, remaining only 10 people who will eventually make and run the business successfully, and the 10 represent 2 per cent of the initial 500. So a successful business that is driven by technology is 1 per cent talent and 99 per cent desperation and persistence in business. So businesses must continually and persistently apply technology to sustain it, because technology is an enabler of business.
What in your views are the reasons why businesses are not attracting investors, including the tech start-ups?
There are various reasons why most businesses do not attract investors. Some businesses blame it on government policies that are not protecting upcoming businesses, but the government will in turn blame it on the populace, saying that change begins with the people. Businesses must open up without hoarding ideas that could be beneficial to all. If they are open and transparent without working in solos, it will allow investors to invest in them. We have different categories of people who run businesses in the society. Some are self-centred and only think of themselves without considering others. Some are tribesmen who believe only in the group they belong to and will not want to contribute or share ideas outside of the group. We have another set of people called the citizens who consider the interests of others, while pursuing their goals. So the attitudes and beliefs of these various categories of people who run businesses, determine the type of investments that they attract to their businesses.
You started your career as a technology person, but today you have moved into entrepreneurship training and mentorship. What is the motivating factor?
I have a technology background and I started by establishing CWG Plc as the founder, and I nurtured it to a level where I think it can stand on its own before leaving it in the hands of capable people to continue running it, and today I am the founder of Ausso Leadership Academy (ALA), which I established last year to mentor entrepreneurs and business leaders. The focus is to mentor leaders to optimise the jobs they create in order to enable sustainable shared prosperity, through institutionalising and scaling their businesses geometrically. ALA aims to impact at least 200 entrepreneurs each year in cohorts of 40 delegates per masterclass. It is expected that the entrepreneurs will achieve double digit growth in revenue after they would have imbibed a code of governance and a culture of succession and legacy. So because of my technology background and expertise, people and organisations within and outside Nigeria often call me to seminars and conferences to speak about cybersecurity. I have been invited to the Indian Professionals Forum at the Indian Embassy to speak on technology based issues. People also invite me to give talks on entrepreneurial mentorship and I see myself as a serial entrepreneur. So whether my entrepreneurial skill is in technology, banking or stockbroking, the methodology of entrepreneurship and business is the same.
How do feel leaving CWG Plc as the founder to establish ALA?
I feel great to establish a technology company and later bow out after several years to leave it in the hands of capable leaders. Since I left CWG Plc, we have had two Chief Executives and the second is currently running the place. What happen with most businesses in Nigeria is that a lot of people start a business and they are not patient to complete the institutionalisation of the business and the business growth becomes stunted at some point in time. The truth is that no one can be relevant in an institution for ever, and 20 years is a long time for anyone to remain in charge of a business and transform that business to a level that he or she can leave it in the hands of other capable leaders to run the affairs of the business and take it to the next level. Most times some people want to remain in charge of their business until their sons and daughters are old enough to take over the business, and in most cases the sons and daughters run such business aground because of lack of interest and understanding about the business. For example, Guinness Ford, J.P. Morgan are big and global brands whose founders had long left the management stage but the businesses are still running successfully without their sons and daughters taking charge of them. That is the same vision I have for CWG and ALA which I founded, and my plan is to make them self-sustained in the future.
There are upcoming businesses, especially start-ups, who desire to list their business on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) in order to raise money for business expansion. At what stage can a business be listed on the stock exchange?
Listing on the stock exchange for business expansion is a good business idea, but there is need to consider the peculiar nature of the business before attempting to list on the stock exchange. CWG Plc, which I founded, for instance, listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange but companies must be careful in listing on the stock exchange to raise ‘Series A’ or ‘Series B’ funding for their business, because people that want to invest in your business at the stock exchange, want their investments to yield results three times within a space of five years, and their expectations are high. Again businesses must consider the stability of exchange rate before listing. If exchange rate is fluctuating and may be rise to a certain level at some point in time, it becomes an issue to pay back loans or divided at high exchange rate, whereas the exchange rate was relatively low when the business was listed. So the best way to successfully run a business is to avoid money that you do not really need to run the business, to avoid a situation where investors will take over the business and the owner of the business becomes a management staff in his or her own business. So before going to list on the stock exchange, it is advisable to first test the business plan, understand the unique value the business is providing, as well as understand the type of partners needed to provide the value into the customer segment. There is also the need to understand how to secure customers in a business and how to grow and keep the customers. The delivery channels of the business must be clear and understanding of the business turnover, are all key factors that must be considered before listing on the stock exchange. So businesses need simple models and certifications to grow and remain sustained over a long period of time. Before going to stock exchange to raise money, a business must first have a clear structure, innovation and transformation plans as well as legacy. Going to list at the stock exchange, comes with its own advantages, because organisations will want to do business with your company, knowing fully well that your business has a long term vision and it is transparent, but listing has to do with a lot of considerations.
What are the success stories and challenges of ALA Academy, one year after it was established?
It has been one year of amazing success, and it is the reason we are celebrating our one year anniversary. As an Entrepreneur in Residence, teaching at the Columbia Business School in the United States of America for over a decade, I had the vision a year ago to establish the ALA Academy, and one year down the line, I stand strong to say it has been one successful year of grooming champions in entrepreneurial business. I said to myself a year ago that if I could impart knowledge in Columbia Business School, then I could as well set up same in Nigeria to train Nigerians, but I initially had some apprehensions that I may not be able to handle it successfully all alone, because the Columbia Business School where I still teach, is owned by a group of entrepreneurs who pulled resources together to set up the business school on trust. So my apprehension was about how I could successfully accomplish my vision alone and still maintain the standard of Columbia Business School that is set up and run by a group of successful entrepreneurs and businessmen, but I took a leap of faith to do it alone and today it gladdens my heart that it has been one year of success for ALA academy in Lagos, Nigeria.
People that have passed through the academy have become successful entrepreneurs and business leaders that are managing their own business. Business owners come to ALA academy and they graduate to become better business men and women and that is the essence of the academy. At ALA, we grow businesses and make them more attractive for others to invest in. One year from inception, ALA has remained true to its purpose of mentoring entrepreneurs that will in turn, become the drivers of sustainable economic growth, creating an oasis of outstanding businesses in Africa. So far, we have enjoyed ever-increasing recognition and endorsement from key stakeholders.
What are your strategies to sustain ALA in the long run?
We have laudable initiatives like the ‘Take Five To Give Back’, which is a simple initiative that will allow businesses to develop the society in which they operate, by impacting on the society. We may not give tangible things to the society, but we can help the society to grow and achieve more. So for instance one of our strategies is to mentor local government chairmen and councillors in governance, so that when they return back to their local government councils, they will be able to do things that will propel the society to prosper. We have other strategies to sustain ALA and we are ready to unfold them as time goes on.