Below is an excerpt from the interview, you can read the full script here.
ASA: Let’s digress a bit. A lot of people want to own a business, but taking that step; there’s the fear of uncertainty. How would you describe your readiness at the point you decided to quit your job? Like, what and what did you have sorted out? Income source, business plan…
Michael: I quit my job in April 2014. But to be sincere, I had quit in October 2013. A senior colleague, who was like a mentor told me that I should first go build like six months savings. That was the only reason I had to wait till April. So I saved up. By then, I was already making money on the side from Excel consulting.
And about how it started. When I changed job after about a year, and joined 21st Century Technology, it was because of my Excel skill. They had to create a role for me that didn’t exist initially. So the people at the company were like “what really is your role?” One day, a colleague came around on a Saturday morning and he was like, “you are at the office on a Saturday? You really take this thing serious.” He looked at what I was doing and was like “Wow, you are really good with Excel. Why don’t you make a business out of it?”
That was where my passion for a business based on Excel was awakened. I contacted a friend for business cards, started talking online about what I can do with Excel. I went to online job platforms, Odesk, Freelancer and set up account on my Excel expertise. My part-time Excel business began.
Gradually I started getting jobs in and outside Nigeria. It wasn’t like I was starting from zero when I finally quit my job. I already had something going in that line. It was like taking something that was part-time and making it full-time. Basically, I had a life savings that would cover my business expenses and bills for nine months.
Also I informed everyone I had done jobs for that I’m now doing this full time. Telling them I need their support. And people will always want to support you with things like this. I didn’t really have a business plan. I felt I’ve been doing this part-time. Now I have not just 2 days a week but seven days a week to work on my business. I wouldn’t know if that affected my business, because everything kept changing every day. What I thought 2 months back was not what I think 2 months after. It was like facing reality on a new level. So business plan, I didn’t have, but I can’t say whether it would have made any difference if I had.
The other thing is that I try to focus on value. Someone once told to focus on my branding; “package myself”, that was the term he kept using. Go and print flyers. I printed flyers but some of the flyers are still in my room. They didn’t fly.
I even paid money to be listed on one business directory. Till today, I don’t know if I was listed. Almost 2 years now, nothing to show for it. So I tried to focus on value. Though it looked almost like not well packaged but I was able to get clients. Once someone needs your service and they are sure you are good in the field, they don’t care about your packaging. They don’t even care what your office looks like, whether you are talking to them wearing a pair of jeans and t-shirt. If I was to go back and redo things, all the money I put in making flyers and other traditional advertising, I would not have expended my life savings on that.
I did a lot of things for free and now I am benefiting from them. After I started I did a free online training and I’ve never had of anyone doing Excel online training in Nigeria. So it put me on a new level. People couldn’t consider me like yet another consultant. It took me 3 agonizing months to build video content. And now it’s that video content I use for our online and class training. That was my biggest and most rewarding investment.
ASA: In the last few months of running your business, what would your say is the toughest decisions you’ve had to make?
Michael: The toughest decision is more on my personal weakness. Being a techie person, I’m more of the kind of person who wants to do things myself rather than ask someone for help. Business doesn’t work that way. I built my website myself, content creation, marketing. I was doing almost everything myself. If I could, I would have registered the company myself without getting a lawyer.
So the toughest decision for me was to get and partner with people. I was almost like forcing myself to be who I was not. It was inevitable. But today I’ve partnered with people to be my marketer, to help with strategy. Though it’s still not as smooth as it should have been, the marketers are the ones who have made it possible for us to do monthly training, since January now. Before them, my effort to do that did not quite work out.
ASA: That brings me to the next question. We all have personal weaknesses, but we just have to adapt to get what we want. Right?
ASA: Considering the African environment and using yourself as a case study, do you think anyone can become an entrepreneur or are entrepreneurs born? Like, is there a bunch of people who can actually be entrepreneurs or is it something anyone can become?
Michael: On the surface it looks like a question with a simple answer. I’ve looked at so many people I look up to; people who when they give me advice on business, I’m like, if these people knew this much, why are they not running their own business?
Not in a way to belittle them, but seriously, why does he still keep his job. So I found out that the truth is anyone can be an entrepreneur, but I don’t know if everyone really wants to be. Because there are some people who I feel what they want is best satisfied having a regular job. They are happy with a regular job. They don’t care about how well you are doing as an entrepreneur. They are not tempted to become like you. With that, I feel everything is all about fulfillment. There are people who get fulfillment being an employee. They only hope to be CEO of a particular company someday.
As for entrepreneurs born or made, I don’t think there are born entrepreneurs. They are made. You can be lucky if you grew up in a community of entrepreneurs; maybe friends or family who support entrepreneurship. Their influence will help you in making progress. But it’s not like you are born an entrepreneur. You have to decide that this is what you want.
People keep saying I don’t have the personality of an entrepreneur. I’m terrible with phone calls, terrible with replying to emails. I will rather do things for free than even charge money. You owe me money; you will be the one reminding me that you owe me. So there are a whole lot of things that would seem to want to make the entrepreneur journey almost impossible for me. But I know I’m getting better. Because I’ve decided that this is the only way for me.
What I want is: I don’t like doing things when I know I can do something better. I read a lot. I know what’s being done around the world. You know when you read about something, and you come back to where you do something the world has stopped using 20 years ago, so that you can be relevant in your job. I should be able to live a life where I am working on something that I know is cutting edge. That was what led me to become an entrepreneur. Everybody has their own reasons. So I believe entrepreneurs are made.
ASA: Inspiring! You talked about your blog. Your blog has actually helped your business.
Michael: A lot!
ASA: Right. Because, as much as it’s competitive online, there is opportunity for just about anyone to get in and make an impact. So what’s your advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on embracing digital media?
Michael: I will start by saying that the story of starting my business would not have been possible without my blog. Even getting the MVP award. People have contacted me because of what they saw on my blog. Most of the works I did before quitting my job were because someone went to my blog, looked for my contact and called me.
So the advice I will give is this. Like you said, it’s very competitive out there. It’s almost getting saturated but the truth is the saturation is in one part. Almost everybody in the Nigerian blogosphere is focused on gossip. Everyone wants to be the next Linda Ikeji, or BellaNaija. So to set yourself apart, it’s not hard. You may feel that you will not be getting as much traffic as news and gossip bloggers. But you will get quality leads and connections. People will see you differently. You’ll have a lasting impression.
Blogging is one of the strongest marketing strategies. I’ve had to meet with people, make friends based on my blog that are now business clients, enriching my life. Embracing the digital media by creating real genuine content, doing things that are of value to people will always set you apart regardless of the amount of traffic you get in comparison with the trend-focused kind of blogs.
Starting my business too, I’ve found advertising online much more rewarding than the flyers, that didn’t fly [laughs]… and other traditional media. I feel small businesses are losing out a lot if they are not on digital media.
ASA: Absolutely. Do you like movies?
Michael: Not too much. But I watch once in a while.
ASA: What one movie that no matter how many times you watch, you want to watch it again?
Michael: Don’t laugh! I enjoy animation.
ASA: [laugh] We seem to share the same likeness there. I enjoy animated movies.
Michael: Oh. The one that, in fact, I watch whenever I feel like things are tough is Treasure Planet. The story line, it’s almost like going against all odds. One of my favorite quotes is from that movie. A part where, ok for someone who has not watched it, so you don’t get confused. There was a quote where Captain Silver was having a heart to heart chat with Jimmy. Jimmy was asking him how he got the wounds he had. Because half of his body was burnt, almost like a cyborg. He was like how did that happen. So Captain Silver said, “Sometimes, when you are pursuing a dream, you have to give up some things to get your dream”. Jimmy then asked him, “Was the dream worth it?” He said, “I’m hoping it will be worth it”.
So, sometimes you don’t have to look at what has happened to you. You have to look at what you want to achieve. Even if you feel you are paying too much, you still have that hope that someday, if you keep ahead, it will be worth it. All this struggle, pain, all this hitting your head here and there is going to be worth it.
So, I watch that movie whenever I feel down.
ASA: True! It’s about taking action every day, with the assurance that someday, it will be worth it. One more question about Excel. What is the most amazing thing you have done with Excel? One.
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