Mr. Kola Aina is the Founder of Ventures Platform, an innovation hub created to serve as a community and launch pad for technology-related innovators and entrepreneurs. He shares his vision with The Interview
How did Ventures Platform begin?
This platform for us is part of our journey. When we started six years ago, my partners and I were very clear on one thing: we wanted to create a platform for people that want to achieve dreams. We felt we wanted to be a technology company that would enable young people achieve their dreams. That was our dream. Years gone and we feel we are achieving our dream, but there is a limit to how people can achieve their dreams. They can work for us to make some money but at any given time they can become their own CEO. So we spurred on some other companies that created subsidiaries, but we can only do that for some time. The second thing is that we noticed that innovation was not as vibrant as we wanted. We realised that we have to come up with a model to set up a factory for people to achieve their dreams on a large scale. It is an organised platform to help people achieve their dreams and really unlock their potential.
Your father, Chief Oludaisi Aina, wanted you to manage his printing company, Regent Press, but you obviously chose a different path; why?
In reality, I have always been a person that set my goals and ideas. While I am very proud of what my father achieved with the Regent Publishing Ltd., which was one of the best in the country then, it was not really my passion. I’m grateful to God that my father gave me the blessings to pursue my dreams. I believe that when people are allowed to pursue their dreams, they can achieve their full potential. I am not sure I would have achieved what I wanted if I had remained in the printing business. For me, leaving Regent and pursuing my dream is a thing of self-fulfillment, and I think that is what every parent wishes for the children, and I am grateful to my dad for allowing me and giving me his blessings. When I look back now, I think we both made the right decisions.
Family businesses in Nigeria tend to have a hard time making it to the third and fourth generations; why do you think this happens?
It is a notion, and beyond a notion, there is empirical evidence that there is a problem for, particularly, African family businesses. And I think there are a couple of factors responsible for this. The first is, we are not really a society that trusts; we tend to find it difficult to trust people because of past experiences. So, generally, when people set up a family business, they believe that the management must remain a family business. But I have a different view. I believe that the management and the ownership of the business are two different things, and hence I think that what the family needs to focus on is the ownership of the business. It is possible to hire someone to manage a business, although it is not easy, but I think Africans or Nigerians must start to study the principle of succession planning and business management, equity and distribution - things that more advanced societies understand and realise. And that is why you can have Nestle and others - they all started as family businesses but they have grown to become large corporations. But it is difficult to point at any Nigerian company that has lived past one generation; it is difficult. And this points to the fact that there are still some challenges that we need to tackle in terms of succession planning and business management.
Do you think that might change any time soon?
We now have a crop of modern Nigerians who have studied in great institutions around the world and have picked interest to know how corporations are formed. My generation understands that you can go into partnership to restructure your organisation well. For instance, I don't believe that my son must take over my business. I don't believe that I will continue to be the CEO. My goal is to move on from being the CEO of Ventures Platforms in a short while. I want to move on to other things and give some people the opportunity to give in their best. By this, you will start to see a change and improvement especially as younger Nigerians are getting more involved in business. You will start to see a transition.
You work with the Presidential Committee on Job Creation co-ordinated by the office of the vice president. What lessons did you learn?
Work is ongoing. We have a mandate of creating 3.5 million jobs. It is not an easy mandate to achieve. I sit in the ICT chair along with Mr Bosun Tijani of CC hub in Lagos, and our mandate is to work with other professionals in the sector to create jobs. What we are doing is strengthening an existing hub and enabling the establishment of new hubs. As a committee member, I am happy that we have come out and we have a hub that is creating jobs. We are not just talking about it, but we are doing it. There are couple of initiatives that the committee has come up with that will create a massive amount of jobs. One of it is working with government to see how we can digitise its data, and just imagine the amount of jobs that will be churned out of this.
In the health sector, we've been able to identify a lot of practical things that the private sector can lead and the government can support. And we believe it will create a massive amount of jobs and right now we are currently in the implementation phase to see the roll-out of some of these initiatives.
You said ICT - digitising government records, for example - offers the best hope for the government to meet its job creation target of three million jobs a year; what exactly do you mean?
Nigeria recently passed the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill but, unfortunately, the bill has not been on the right path. We believe if the government puts its weight behind, then you can unlock a new industry or government data, private sector mining, government data, to do several things. I mean, an example is the budget. If the federal government makes a pronouncement that it is ready digitize its data, and if we can come up with a plan that states it sector by sector. You don’t even need to pay us to do it because we can monetise the data. Obviously, there is going to be a level of control in place, because there are some data that are confidential, that can be used for commercial purposes, but we are putting all controls that. What we are saying is, government will become more efficient, deliver faster, and create lots of jobs in the process. That is how to support; management alone can really unbundle and support job creation.
What real value-driven, disruptive work is going on in ICT in Nigeria, apart from repairs, adaptation and creation of fringe apps?
You have to look in the area of content and building solution to our indigenous problems, looking at very specific things, looking at ICT to improve the agriculture sector. We have people looking at the area of logistics and delivery of foods. We have young entrepreneurs doing stuff like creating online market for residential property on a monthly basis, like going to property owners to tell them ‘I can help you to get tenants to your property and they will pay monthly rent.’ That really will improve the availability of residential property and unbundling the two years’ rent palaver. So start-ups are a great way to to solve societal problems. What we need to do is to encourage more local patronage and start-ups. People always accuse government of not patronising start-ups, but I think fellow Nigerians are also guilty. There are so many Nigerians start-ups that can help us solve problems. The role of hubs, like ours, is to improve and help the start-ups come through and help them in getting a large number of customers.
Is not an overstatement when people talk about creating the Nigerian version of Silicon Valley?
I was in an engagement with the minister of communication and that was our topic of engagement. And I gave an example in New York City of how a couple of years ago, the former mayor of the city became interested on how the city can become a Silicon Valley and they came up with a plan with a few deliberate means and, today, we have New York Valley. That tells you that what happened in Silicon Valley is duplicable. Go to Kenya, they have made a lot of progress; go to Rwanda, they have done a lot in terms of driving the effort and here go to Alaba market. It is possible to create space for innovation, to create an ecosystem and that is the role we mean to play in Abuja.
Ventures Platform is the first full service innovation hub located in Abuja; how soon can you help Nigeria overcome its e-Government and e-learning challenges?
We have identified few sectors. One of them is the government and we feel that our proximity to the seat of power is very important. So we believe in getting young people to come together to solve challenges in government and proffering solutions and improving their efficiency. These are things we are trying to address.
One common complaint about start-ups in Nigeria is funding. Share your experience with us.
Years ago, we had a clear education plan and we took our proposal to the banks with a clear method of repaying back the money, but since it is not oil and gas, all they said was that it was good idea but they cannot finance it. It was a really a low moment for us and it was sad to see that a going concern will not get funding not to talk of a start-up. So, funding is really a challenge. What worked for us then was to go back to our shells and think of how to finance the project, hence we got some funds from family, friends and associates at that time but these sources were not prevalent or open to everyone, and that is a role that hubs can play. So start-ups that meet some criteria will get funding up to like $5,000 to fund their start-ups. And at a more advanced stage, we will get them to meet big investors. We hope to help solve that funding challenge.
Did you feel like giving up at some stage? What kept you going?
There are times that I feel very discouraged and I still do, even till yesterday, but I get a lot of inspiration from my dad and how he struggled to get his business right, and I have got to learn that good things don't come so easily, nothing that is worth having or doing that comes easy. In fact, I have a belief that if it comes too easily, then you need to be suspicious. One thing that I believe in strongly is a philosophy of "great" - which implies keep going even when it seems impossible. And for me, that is my motto and drive. I believe that, above all, God has a plan for every one of us, and this is in the Bible and Qur’an, but one thing is you have to work for this blessing. So sometimes the blessings are there but to unlock these blessings you have to play your part as well. That is my motivation.
What best practices have helped you in building the business so far?
Having a clear idea of where you want to go is very important. Obviously, that idea can change along the way but the idea of defining who you are and where you want to go, also ensuring that you put system and processes in place, is also important. I am a very systematic person and when I think of anything, I think about the system. And thirdly, understand what you know and what you don't know, and when you know what you don't know you have to identify yourself with people who know it, especially if those things are important in the business you are doing. In business, whenever you have a gathering of people, if you don't have a system, constitution, policy that stipulates how you do things, which is the culture, then you really cannot achieve anything. I think that has really helped us. We are not there yet but we are still working on those things and these are the things we hold very dearly.
People often say that even with good ideas you can't get far without strong political connections in Nigeria. What has been your experience?
It all depends on the sector you are. If you are delivering services, in my personal experience, particularly in this current administration, I believe we are in a dispensation where competence is held in high esteem. It is really about what you know and what you can do. Obviously, there is some patronage that happens within some circles and being good in networking is also good. Basically, it is one thing to know the right people and it is another thing to preserve the relationship, so I don't believe that business is all about knowing people, but it is all about networking, particularly in technology. You do not need to know anyone to build a great app. If your app is great enough to solve a particular problem, meet me and I will invest; I don't need to know you. Investors are looking for great ideas, ideas that within the next two years can be used to generate lot of money. So technology is a leveller and removes the need for man-know-man ideology.
What's the hardest problem you've ever had to solve?
The hardest part of this business for me is get certain employees to change their mind-set. Some young people have this mind-set that is very hard to change, so I always tell my people that your disposition and personality are far more important than your technical ability, because you might be the most technically skilled person but if you don't have the right values, morals, behavior, it is next to nothing. For me, that has been the hardest part - trying to work with team members to reorientate their mind-set so that they can leverage their skills more effectively. A lot of people are holding themselves back because of their attitude. To me, that is the hardest part because our business is a business of human capital and it is really about the person. Everything we built is all about people. We are not building goods but solutions and people need solutions.
How efficient and transparent is your selection process ahead of the forthcoming August to November 2016 first incubation cycle?
We will be very transparent. We are private sector and not government and we are investing our money, so we need the best ideas. Best ideas will win – simple. Just think about it; we are not spending government money, so we need the best ideas. We are mindful of the fact that we want better representation. We want to see lots of people from the northern part of Nigeria, the Niger Delta region. We want to see women and people from the lower cadre of the society, because we want to have a very unique success story, but most importantly we want to have the best ideas. So our selection process will be a three-step process. First stage is open now; we are in taking applications and shortlisting process by a committee with years of experience, and the next is where the shortlisted applicants will take an online course, where you will learn something even if you are not selected, and after the programme you will be tested and the finalists will come to Abuja for a face-to-face interview; and from there we will select the best to join the programme.
What measurable impacts do you hope make in the next five to ten years?
After ten years, we hope to be able to support the successful establishment of successful companies. Our programme on annual basis will support 30 to 32 start-ups incubated. If you look at it pragmatically, the success rate of incubation is about two to ten or one to ten. To me, if we are doing 36 start-ups in a year, maybe we will have three successful ones, but what we know is that even those that are not successful must have learnt a lot; also, having a very robust tech ecosystem in Abuja, and I believe Lagos will become envious.
And I say that in jest because I have respect for our friends in Lagos. But above all, we should be able to provide alternatives for Nigerian youths and give them role models that they can aspire to be like, to have a successful tech company.
What's your strategy?
First, we will provide the best facility so that we can attract the best; secondly, design the programmes so that we can guarantee the best outcomes, and, thirdly, have a very rigorous selection process.
You plan to incubate businesses, energise existing ones and basically serve as an ideas hub. What sustainable business models have you adopted?
That is the biggest challenge for hubs. On our part, we have a blend of a co-working space and an incubator, so our co-working space is a pay space. What I mean is that we are expected to generate revenue from our co-working space to support our operational costs, but we also believe that if we can select some very good start-ups, in few years’ time we will benefit from it. So this is a long term investment. There are many more sensible ways to make money and we are not out of ideas to make money.
Intellectual property laws and practices are still in their infancy in Nigeria. Do you think this might be a problem for Ventures Platform and its clients?
Yes, it can be a problem but what we are doing is to put the right controls in place to make sure that people that invest in our space are properly protected. Not only that; it is necessary for innovation to thrive, and for ideas to thrive there has to be openness. An idea is just an idea until it is implemented. So we intend to put in the right controls and processes in place.
What inspires you?
Impact: Being able to make impact in the lives of people. Being able to help people do something better; being able to help people live a better life, solve problems better. Just measurable impact, that is what inspires me. That is what wakes me up every day. That is what I wish to continue doing.
Who are your role models?
My dad, because I keep learning from him, in terms of working hard. My dad never takes no for an answer and he does not believe anything is impossible. My motto is "nothing is impossible," which is the remix of my dad’s motto which is "everything is possible” and I say "nothing is impossible." So he is my role model. I am inspired by Steve Jobs and his approach and design. He does not really care much about people. He remained focused. In sport I am inspired by Muhammed Ali. I tend to learn from resilient people in a whole, people who don't take no for an answer.