It’s not every day you find Nigerian technology entrepreneurs fresh out of the university, with no prior ‘corporate’ experience making the kind of waves the Jobberman trio have made. Opeyemi Awoyemi, Olalekan Olude, and Ayodeji Adewunmi, listed among the 30 under 30 Best Young Entrepreneurs in Africa by Forbes, met while still in school and started building on the idea of making Nigeria’s number one job website. They called it Jobberman.
In February 2012, Jobberman was number 8 in Forbes Africa magazine’s list of Africa’s top 20 startups. Now, Jobberman (at the time of this interview) has 790,000 job seekers and over 9,000 companies registered on their service.
In this interview, I got to speak with Ope and Lekan, co-founders of Jobberman, (because we have heard Deji speak over and over again) about starting a business while in school, getting incubated and getting funded…among other things.
How did it all start? Jobberman, the idea, you being part of it.
Ope: It started back while we were in university; it was in my third year. I was supposed to be on an internship, but I had been running my own business from my first year in school. I can’t say whether it was chance, luck or something I was determined to do. I had played around with the idea of a job website but I was never serious about it until my fifth year in school when I had a discussion with Deji. He thought the idea was great and he set out to help take something that was a hobby for me to something that could be a real business. So, we decided to start Jobberman properly as a business. A week or two after the decision, we discussed with Lekan and we started looking at what could make this idea a reality. That’s how the business took off.
So the idea was originally yours?
Ope: Yeah, the idea was mine.
Then you sort of pitched it to Deji?
Ope: Deji knew about it all along but I was not serious about it, like I said. See it like the same way when you hear about the Twitter story, it started with Odeo, someone working on something randomly. Then, at some point, you look at it and see how this could be a real business.
How are three of you connected?
Lekan: We were in the same school and we didn’t know we knew each other, but in a way we had aligned values and focus. I knew Ope, Ope knew Deji, I didn’t know Deji knew Ope. That kind of a thing. Ope and I used to be in the same class. Deji, being a medical student, was just far away in another faculty. I remember when I was contacted about Jobberman, I guess the both of them had talked about it, and they needed some stuff done. I opted to join the team fully instead of just doing something simple and that was how we got in.
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But three co-founders. You don’t get that every day. What was everybody bringing to the table that made you guys think that three was a good number?
Lekan: Ope is typically the ideas generating person. Deji is, maybe because of his background as a doctor, the investors’ darling. He is very good at putting his thoughts and presentations across and he has very good organizational skills. I on the other end, well at that time though, I was very good operationally and I had some financial skills for that level.
In terms of our strengths, Ope was bringing the technology, Deji was trying to build a business out of the idea, and I was bringing the operational and, later by extension, the sales and finance part.
Ope: Basically that’s it. I had the technology skills and the idea initially; Lekan, from a strategy and operational point of view is very good at that; and Deji is more like, ‘Let’s build a great business; put everything together, make it look good, make it look shiny.’
So, when you all decided to make it a full business, what was the next step?
Ope: The first thing we did was to establish our goals in terms of what we wanted to achieve. Back while we were in school, we had that dream of making Jobberman the number one jobs website in Nigeria. We decided what we wanted it to look like and we started working towards it. Regularization came a little bit later but we were clear on the fact that we just needed to put something together in terms of jobs and job seekers. It was key that we started doing something really good, so we just moved into action and started working. We were students so it was not a 9-to-5 thing for us, but we devoted about 2 to 5 hours daily. We also got some help from other people in school. We kind of started hiring for Jobberman while we were in school.
How were you paying them if you were hiring?
Lekan: We had pocket money and we were doing some other stuff on the side to get money.
There was no formal contract per se, so how did you know that one day Lekan and Deji won’t just run away with your idea and execute on their own?
Ope: Most people miss it with the whole idea that they can do everything alone. For me, coming from a technology background, I could actually have decided that I wanted to do it alone. I could code the website and launch the website, I had done some things in marketing and sales, but it doesn’t really work that way. What I have discovered is that everybody brings some strength to the table and without those strengths, the business is going to fail. When you have the technology strengths, you don’t necessarily have the other strengths to turn it into a business. I would say three of us combined had the strength to turn it into a business jointly. We recognized that fact and we were open about that.
Lekan: It wasn’t ideas alone. I think it is a three pronged pot; if we ran away to start the idea, we didn’t have the technology. I mean, I was in computer engineering also but I wasn’t a coder so we were relying on Ope. Except we had the money to hire a coder and even if we hired a coder, we needed someone that could think as well as code. That was invaluable in terms of what Ope was bringing to the table. I for example, if I said let me take it and run away with it, I know my weak points and I know I would have just been a joker. I guess Deji would say something similar.
A BIT ON THE TECHNOLOGY
Let’s go back to the beginning and building the technology. What was it built on?
Ope: PHP basically. It was a little bit complex, at least to my level of coding then. At first, it was just a website with some MVC and I think I put some external widgets too, then a little bit of mobile website. At some point, the technology grew past my level of competence. I can recall, while I was doing my youth service and we were getting a lot of traffic, the site would go down almost every other day. It was at that point that I knew it had grown beyond me. So, I kind of moved more to digital marketing, which was my competence, and let someone else be the CTO at that point in time.
When was the first time Jobberman went live?
Ope: 2007. It had been existing since 2007. We started pushing advertising, even if it was just a little bit of social media advertising, in 2009.
From when you started pushing it till six months after, how many people were using the platform?
Ope: Six months after, we were already at around 40,000 users and by then we were already in top 50 most visited websites in Nigeria.
ON INVESTMENTS AND INCUBATION
At what point did you realize this was a money maker and it as time to bring in the investors? Or were you approached?
Ope: We were approached
Ope: We started officially in August 2009. By November 2009, Chika Nwobi of L5Lab approached us. He thought what we were doing was something that was interesting. L5Lab is an incubator and we were the second startup to be incubated. We consummated the whole relationship in January 2010; that coincided with the time we finished school so, we moved down to Lagos. That was the first investment.
The second investment, series B, came from Tiger Global. We had a meeting in October 2010 and by February/March 2011, we had a deal. On both deals, we were approached.
You never had to go through the hassle of preparing a pitches, charts and sales projections?
Ope: We never had to. But definitely, they asked for the numbers after the introductions were made. We never even had a business plan; it was more of execution. That was much more important than the whole paper work.
L5Lab incubated Jobberman in January 2010. Did it have any significant impact? Do you think that you could have survived without incubation at any point?
Lekan: Yes and No. L5Lab came in and added a lot of value to the business. They infused cash and ensured that we had a clear focus and plan. Come to think of it, we were fresh graduates, bubbling with a lot of ideas and just doing things anyhow. We were seeing some traction and L5Lab in a way helped us prune our focus. Even if we were able to survive without them, it would have been very tough.
So you think incubators are good for entrepreneurs?
Ope: Yes. Definitely. I recommend it. Because to a large extent, all you understand is your idea and that you want to change the world. But you need advice from someone who has been an executive somewhere, who has learnt how exactly businesses are run, and who knows how exactly growth is achieved. For me, what I’ve learnt from L5 is how to focus on getting things done.
Have you ever had any disagreement with you investors and how do you settle them?
Ope: Our investors are wonderful guys. We have really not had an opportunity to quarrel yet. Definitely, at some point we have had different stances on how to move forward but we work it out the same way Lekan, Deji and I work out our differences – we get together and do an analysis. Nobody argues with the numbers.
EDUCATION + EXPERIENCE
What informed your studying Computer Engineering?
Ope: I was a brilliant student in secondary school. Was. I was advised do something in science. I knew I was going to have a hard time with medicine or pure sciences but the idea of computers felt shiny and I wanted to do computer engineering because I thought it was all about computers. That’s why I studied it. Of course, it didn’t take me long to find out that it was not all about computers.
Lekan: I think for me, fate has always had its own way of trying to beat me back to my path. I know my first JAMB, I chose medicine and surgery and pharmacy. I didn’t get in because I had a bad score so I had to go to the polytechnic where I studied electrical engineering. When I was done, I tried to do direct entry to the university, but it was tough to get into electrical in Ife so I opted for computer engineering. In retrospect, that gave me a kind of mindset that anything you want to do, once you set your mind to it, you can do it. I have moved across – from wanting to study medicine to electrical engineering, to computer engineering – and I was passing in school. Maybe not as much as I would have loved, but it crystallized my mind that even if I wanted to study finance or even medicine today, it’s just putting your mind to it.
Did any of ever consider having a 9-to-5 job?
Lekan: We had offers. While we were in school, Ope was a fantastic web designer; he was very good and promising. People were paying top dollar for him to even touch their website. For me, while I was in school, I interned at Goldman Sachs and at the end of my period in school, I already had a full time offer to join them in London. Deji was, like I said, everybody’s darling, so even while we were in school, people were begging him to write feasibility studies and proposals and do research for them. He had a lot of people wanting him to do one thing or the other. So some cash was coming in from his own side too. Even when we left school, we sat ourselves down and asked if we wanted to go ahead with pursuing Jobberman.
I’m trying to get over you giving up Goldman Sachs because you believed in Jobberman.
Lekan: I got a book from Harvard Business Review on decision making and I read through it. The part that really interested me was on how you can use weights to make decisions devoid of emotions. All these things in life are very emotional. One thing I think all of us have learned is how to take out the emotions and just put all the facts on the table and try and make a decision based on those facts. So I just listed out all the opportunities I had, even the interviews I was having at that point in time, and I listed out what I wanted in life and in a job, then I created weights to them. Even though it was going to pay the lowest salary, when I used the weighted average system, Jobberman was tops.
So your own motto is: make decisions devoid of emotion, more on logic
Lekan: Yes. Sometimes it could be very tough, but…
Ope, you started a business when you were in 100 level, who does that?
Ope: Me. *laughs* I won’t give all that credit to myself. I had a very industrious older cousin, about three years older, and he started his first business when he was in pre-degree. We were in year one together and by then he had already made his first million. Having that kind of person being close to you kind of gears. He is brilliant but he tells you school is not important, and even while you don’t want to believe him, you see first class students and they are not really doing anything special.
I’ll give 80% of the credit to him. It’s not like he asked me to go and start a business, but I had the skills. I was already doing web and graphics design, and a few other incidents at that point just made me understand that it was the right thing to do. Even though at that point I was already clear that I was not going to ever take paid employment, I would not have been able to guarantee it 100% because at some point in life, reality sets in. Immediately after school, I wasn’t too sure. I had a few offers as well but I just looked at it, what was going to work? For me, Jobberman was it.
Three of you started the business in school and it never affected your studies? Or you just figured since you already know what you were going to do, school didn’t matter?
Lekan: I don’t think it affected anything. Whatever happened to my grades in school, I don’t think I’ll lay it at the footstep of Jobberman. We were very professional with it even from the word go. We had times when we met, we had tasks to do, and we knew that we’d have to outsource some of them. We knew we had to cut some of the time that we used to chase girls and play around to put into work. I guess we were pretty focused.
Ope: Jobberman was not distracting. I just had to cut a lot of stuff. For me, it was basically about business and academics. So, I had to cut off stuff like football.
Do you think anything would have been different if you hadn’t gone to school? Did formal education help you get to where you are now?
Lekan: Apart from the fact that we met ourselves in university, I could say education didn’t do so much. I tend to tell people that most of the things that have happened to me as an individual and have brought me to where I am are more of the things I read or discovered on my own and did by myself.
GETTING A TEAM TOGETHER
At what point did you start hiring full time staff? How did you pick them?
Ope: We have HR
Ope: Before HR, it was pretty much selective. It didn’t work for us all the time, but we identified talent and personality. We do a basic test for what we want the person to do or if the person has a portfolio, we get an idea of whether the person can do the job even if the person has no formal experience. We did a lot of that in the beginning and we had about 60% success in terms of hires in the first and second year. They are still some of our top gunning staff even up till now.
Lekan: One thing we did then was, if anyone is going to come in, the person will probably talk to at least two of us. That would ensure that we see things from different perspectives. Ope would probably ask questions from a technical side and I may be asking just to test the person’s analytical strength. We’d agree on whether the person is good enough to do the job or not. With time, what we have done is standardize that process by bringing in HR. Now, you come in, do case studies and a presentation. That pretty much sums what Ope, Deji or I would have looked for in a candidate. Eventually, when the candidate goes past that stage, two out of the three of us get to see the candidate at any point in time.
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What are the top things you look for in an ideal candidate?
Lekan: The person needs to know how to think on their feet. You don’t need to know what you are doing, just be smart.
Ope: We tend to repel when someone acts dull or unsmart. You need a competence – formal or informal. As much as at the moment we are heavier on formal experience, we frown at people who are not experienced at all, whether formal or informal. We frown at people who assume or believe that it is the work of the employer to train them and it is their job to earn a salary and get trained while earning a salary. We want someone who is their own CEO.
How much value do you place on education as opposed to experience?
Ope: We place a lot of value on education but we prefer to hire not necessarily proportional to the level of education. I have seen smart people who are not that well educated in terms of formal education. We have people here who are not top class students, but in terms of their way of communication and the skillset they bring on board, they are hot.
Lekan: We aren’t particular about the school or whether you were the best in your class. If you have experience, we look at your track record. If you are a fresh graduate and you have no experience and you want to come in, one of the major things we’ll be looking at are soft skills. That’s why you have to do a presentation. We want to also test your thirst for knowledge. We want to ask a couple of things and have an intelligent conversation with you. But outside that, if we were to hire you for a specialist role, and you are put to a test and you can’t pass, we won’t hire you.
REVENUE MODEL AND PROFITABILITY
Outside investors’ money, how do you make money from Jobberman?
Lekan: The jobs you find on Jobberman, a percentage of them are being paid for by companies. To list a job is free, but to go the extra mile by using some of our tools is paid for. Typically, people pay between 7,500 naira and 15,000 naira to put up a job. That’s pretty much how we make our money. We also have other ancillary services and value added services. We have a level of partnership with MTN, Airtel and Etisalat through third parties, and we make some money out of that. We have some candidate services, like helping them write CVs and appraising CVs that we make money out of too.
What kind of added services do you offer companies?
Lekan: For example, we are a member of a group called The Network. What we do is: if a Dangote wants to fill a position in Cameroon, and they don’t understand how it is done there, we have partners all over the world that we can take the job description and all Dangote will see is the list of candidates.
Also, for companies that want some level of bespoke services, we allow them to come in and tell us what they want and we advise them on how to go about it. We also allow companies to access our database. So, say you want to fill a position and you don’t want to go through the process of trying to list a job, maybe because you think it is too slow for you. You can just access our database, pick your candidate, interview them and hire.
You also charge candidates for jobs available. Why?
Ope: So, what we have done on the candidate’s side is to try and balance a freemium model with a paid one. That way, we are able to give value to users who are not ready to pay but want to use the basic service, and for those who want more out of the service, they are able to get value too as well.
Lekan: We realized that when we give our candidates more value, even when we charge them, they will be willing to pay. In case you want to do some extra steps, then we charge. But we are more aggressive on the companies’ side
What value adds do you have for your users that sets you apart from other job sites?
Lekan: Having a nicer interface and mobile site are things that are very key unique propositions that consumers would rather do with than do without. Beyond all that, we have an applicant tracking system for companies and for the job seekers. We have taken time to understand how job seekers think. Jobberman has the highest volume of available jobs in any media, whether print or online, in Nigeria. Job seekers keep coming because the jobs are there. We are still looking forward to developing some more tools that job seekers can use. Our upper hand really are the jobs; that’s what job seekers want.
Profitability, are you there yet?
Ope: We are not there yet but we are close.
How close is close?
Ope: Well, in the next 12months.
GOING BACK IN TIME
Was there any point where any of you thought entrepreneurship wasn’t working for you anymore and you wanted to just give up? Maybe take one of the job offers you were given before?
Ope: I don’t try to portray us as supermen, but it just never happened. Maybe it’s because it was a little bit early in our careers, but it just never happened.
Lekan: I guess what actually happened was, while even still doing Jobberman, we had other offers and interesting ideas of people coming to say they wanted to do one thing or the other. But we kept coming back to say let’s focus on Jobberman. Assuming Jobberman had gone down, we would have just taken a new idea to implement, but going back to our past? I don’t think any one out of the three of us has that mindset, to go back to paid employment. We’d just move on. We’ll cut out loses and move on.
In retrospect, is there anything you would change?
Ope: A lot. But the real truth is that I think life is a matter of time, chance, luck and opportunity. All these factors play in and they form one big thing but if you remove one factor out of the whole thing, it changes the whole dynamics.
Lekan: Maybe if we had used more professionals in the early stage, maybe it would have been a lot different but of course, you can’t be so sure. The internet industry is a very nascent one, it is not one that has been there for so long. So, people that are actually professionals in another industry come into the internet industry and can’t fit in because it is very youthful and dynamic. It changes very fast and maybe some of those people haven’t worked in fast changing environments like that. Maybe that’s what I would have changed, but I can’t know what the outcome of that would have been.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
What’s the plan for Jobberman in the next five years?
Lekan: We’ll still be doing what we are doing – adding more value to candidates, ensuring that we make it a lot easier and faster for companies to get candidates. It would be centered around those two set of people: candidates and companies
And if you had to choose one group to focus on, who would you pick?
Ope: It’s a market place, you can’t focus on one and leave the others. Lekan would say jobs, I’ll say job seekers; but you need both. If you don’t have the jobs, you can’t have job seekers and vice versa.
ANY LAST WORDS?
What is the one thing you think any aspiring tech entrepreneur in Nigeria should learn? What things do you think can help in their entrepreneurship journey?
Lekan: Face reality. Focus. Look at the numbers. Execute.
Ope: Be focused and relentless. Execute very well. Run a business; don’t run an idea.
For more on Nigerian founders stories, read about Sim Shagaya and Jason Njoku.