Femi Odewunmi is the Managing Director and co-founder of INK Business Design, a brand agency. Multi-talented with a background in systems analysis and now a branding specialist, he led the launch in 2014 of the believe in Nigeria project. A self-confessed petrol head and photography enthusiast, he speaks to The Interview on various topics. Everyone in Nigeria seems to agree that entrepreneurship is the way to go for Nigeria. However, there is the constant complaint that government isn’t doing enough to support entrepreneurs.
What are your views on this?
The best part about entrepreneurship is being able to create something of value. In terms of support, as we know, financial institutions are not always very forthcoming. Aside the issue of high interest rates, there’s no real support on how businesses work. For instance, entrepreneurs sometimes start out with enthusiasm, but do not necessarily leverage their networks as they should. This can have an adverse effect. We must learn to build up our networks. From the early 2000s, it was tough. From 2010 onwards, things opened up more. There are more small and medium-sized (SME) initiatives, government funding and private equity firms ready to invest.
You have been running INK Business Design since 2010,how has the experience been?
I have always been what you call the odd one out. I have always wanted to create things and do things differently. I have always had that streak. Straight after school and qualifying, I went into IT. I worked as a systems analyst at YNSL Consulting. I recall a notable application we developed for a CDMA company. I felt a sense of achievement. So after working with others at Blue Labs, we created INK when we realised that we could create value by doing things our own way. We wanted to focus on brands. Previously we had worked with the big agencies. We decided to start our own. It was not always smooth sailing but I do not regret the decision. In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to convince potential clients to come on board, but we have stayed true to our ideals and have grown as a business. We are currently trying to increase our international clients. This will help drive forex earnings as well provide a different working environment. It’s a whole different experience from working with Nigerians. Both have their merits.
Just last year, you bought out your partner and are now going it alone. What informed that bold decision and what do you think about partnerships?
It was time to move in a different direction. Partnerships are about personality and contentment. I believe that they work very well. There are several successful partnerships that I know, Debola Williams and Chude Jideonwo for example.
How much of a part does ‘vibe’ play in informing your selection of clients?
It is huge. The worst kind of work to get is when we don’t get creative license to work. Clients can sometimes be very opinionated. The reality is that anyone can design, but if you really believe in something, you will give and get better value.
You must have seen some parts of or even all of the 2016 budget, or at least read about it.Tell us, are there aspects of it you can say guarantee entrepreneurs in the country some sort of comfort?
The budget is seemingly good in terms of the development it aspires to achieve. Perhaps some recurring expenses could have been lower, given that there is a funding challenge. The two main points about the budget are funding and implementation of the funding by those responsible for it. As usual, implementation will be key. Without proper implementation, any admirable aim of the budget might never be achieved. For entrepreneurs, business has gone beyond just having an idea, starting the business and whoop, you’re made! There are many support systems needed apart from finance. But the budget does not scare me as such.
How has your relative youth affected your business?
It is exactly my youth that might have helped me. A healthy dose of youthful exuberance and some stubbornness have been a positive part of my entrepreneurial journey. Stubbornness in the sense that you just don’t take no for an answer; it helps to have that. As you get older, you are less inclined to take risks. It is good to take advice, but it is also sometimes healthy to believe in an idea and run with it.
Every entrepreneur has had those moments when throwing in the towel appeared to be the only logical step to take; you must have had such moments too. Can you share them with us? How did you deal with them and what factors turned things around for you?
In 2012/13, we went bankrupt. It was a pretty tough time. There was hardly any work coming in, the client base was thin. Morale was low. I was tired and started to think, perhaps I should find alternatives, even maybe salaried work. But at the time I recall reading Sir Richard Branson’s autobiography and some of the things he did in times of adversity. I was encouraged and we introduced our “Go big or Go home” model. We wanted to increase our international client base and projects that we had been too ‘shy’ to take on previously, we went aggressively for. The risks paid off and I’m very glad that I didn’t pack it in at that time. The idea was that we were a team and we went for broke.
What’s your 2016 forecast for entrepreneurs in Nigeria?
Our internal motto is “do great things, build great things.” People will look for more opportunities in the face of adversity and that can be a positive thing. Some people might leave their jobs and start enterprises, as there is a lot of uncertainty in the job market. There is untapped potential in agriculture. At least, everyone must eat. If there is downsizing being done, the canteen will still open. For us, we plan to be more innovative and to work leaner. I believe it should be a good year.
Do you get invited to speak on entrepreneurship?
As they allow it, I definitely speak on entrepreneurship. I am passionate about sharing experiences. There is an incubator that I work with and I speak to many start-ups on marketing and positioning. There are also a number of start-ups that I mentor.
Are entrepreneurs born or made?
There are three types:
1) those that are born so. They have always had the idea that they want to create value.
2) Those that are forced into it for various reasons (economic etc).
3) A mixture of the 1 and 2.
I believe that I am a mix. I have always wanted to do something, but might not have done anything about it unless there was a push. My push came when there was an opportunity to form INK. I think probably the most successful entrepreneurs are born so. Entrepreneurship education is very important. There are many people out there who have ideas, but are not equipped to channel them in the right direction. If there was a way that from the secondary school level they could learn the ins and outs of taking opportunities and getting out there and doing things, there would be many more people running their own successful enterprises.
Tell us more about your Believe In Nigeria project.
In 2014, emotions were running high over various political and local issues in Nigeria. Wherever you went, the mention of government or happenings brought passionate discussions about how government was failing us. There are always complaints about Nigeria, whereas we all have a role to play. We can all be part of the solution. When I’m abroad, people generally have positive things to say. When I tell them I’m a Nigerian, they are surprised. So I thought about how we need to get more people to see the positive side of Nigeria and its people. It’s a simple premise – spreading positive thoughts inspires positive actions. If we all play our part, the net effect will be positive. For example, each time I go abroad, I make it a point to wear my BIN t-shirt. From Houston to London, I have only ever received positive feedback. Airplane crews ask about it and engage me in conversation. It gives me the opportunity to show that there are many Nigerians who behave with decorum. It’s as simple as that. Because we sometimes receive messages better when there’s humour to them or less formality, we collaborated with Don Jazzy to produce Arise and it was well received. Nigerians abroad loved it. The truth is that government will always be there, but we can also do our bit and hopefully people will be inspired. For now, everything is online only.
Projects on Nigeria,with the initiators claiming patriotism as their motive,usually don’t last. Before you know it, no one hears about the project anymore.How will this initiative be different?
I see it as a project, not a campaign. It’s not about being, here, there and everywhere and that is why we’re concentrating on online only. There are two major issues, in my opinion that lead to the death of these initiatives. First, sometimes the leaders of these initiatives tend to get sidetracked by the recognition and opportunities that come with the increased visibility;second, is when people simply remain stubborn about changing their way of viewing things. The BIN premise is a simple one. We want to create the equivalent of I ️ NY or I ️ USA. Little by little, we will get there. If it’s reaching a few people at a time and inspiring them, we are happy with that as a start. At a recent speaking event in America, I was the only person to get a standing ovation. The others all wanted to know more about Nigeria, as they had only ever heard negative things. These things make a positive impact. If we tell a good story, it will get out there.
In driving this project, how are you going to do things differently?
As I mentioned, we are looking at the way that we reach people. How do Nigerians consume information? Humour works. Music works. This allows the message to be sent and received in the spirit that we want. If communication is too serious, Nigerians might switch off. We are also launching Greenland, which will showcase Nigerians who have become fully successful here in Nigeria. That should resonate.
How has the response been so far?
It has been very positive, both at home and abroad.
As a PR professional, what are the factors you think are contributing to making Nigeria such a hard sell, even to its own citizens?
There has been decades of a mentality of deprivation and this is hard to suddenly overcome. It has to be a very gradual process. There has traditionally been a lack of consistency, but if we keep pushing, we can achieve collective pride. There are many Nigerians doing great things at home and abroad. Thirdly, there is also a sense of entitlement and the feeling that government owes us, rather than us actually doing things, despite the failings of government. If we focus on those things that bring us together, such as when the Super Eagles are doing well on the international stage, rather than the ones that separate us, we will all work better together.
How would your ideal Nigeria be?
I’ve never thought of it in totally. I don’t think we will have a model country, but we don’t need it.
What keeps you going?
My passion is to help businesses grow. It is very rewarding when you see the growth from an idea to value creation. When you give advice and you see growth. Then they come back and share that with you, it’s very rewarding.
What books are you reading and why?
I always refresh myself with The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. It helps with thinking of new ways of innovating. I used to read fiction too such as Tom Clancy and Dan Brown, but hardly have the time and I’m no longer patient enough. I’m looking at the option of audio books. That way, if I enjoy the experience, I can save time.
How else do you relax?
I enjoy photography. I’m now very much into aerial photography using a drone. I get some good photos and I find that they are very much appreciated. I shared one on social media recently and my uncle could not believe it was Lagos. There is a lot of beauty to be seen in Nigeria. This also happens to be another way to portray Nigeria in positive light. It’s rather like a mesh network;we are all interconnected and the word spreads.