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Exploring the Road Less Taken: Kola Aina

· Business,Africa,Entrepreneurship

It’s an exciting time to be an entrepreneur focused on serving African markets. As startups are gaining a better understanding of local markets and shying away from the one-size fits all approach to launching a business, there are more investors looking at the African continent as the ultimate market to invest their capital. Just last year, venture capital funding in 2017 reached $560 million, recording 53% year on year growth.

These tremendous opportunity positions Ventures Platform to be a strategic player in the continent’s economic growth. Founded with a belief that for the longest time, Africa has been the biggest recipient of donor funds and there exists a white-space to make a true impact in sectors ranging from agriculture and health, Ventures Platform works as a Pan- African early stage fund focused on supporting post MVP teams to grow their startups. Ventures Platform has also invested in companies such as Paystack, Proteach, and Printivo. My meeting with Kola while on a business trip in San Francisco uncovers his entrepreneurial journey.

What’s your life philosophy?

My favorite book is The Alchemist. I believe everyone on earth has a purpose; the quicker you understand what that purpose is, the better. As it states in The Alchemist, If you do good, the universe conspires to help you. So when working on anything, it is important to start from a place of understanding, purpose, and supercritical to know your why. Every great business has a personal purpose; it starts with a why that is personal to the founder.

What’s something you do every day that is non-negotiable for you?

I am an obsessive calendar person. On my calendar, I have a wake-up time, gym time, prayer time, and a time for meetings. The first thing I do when I wake up is to look at the calendar to figure out where I am going to be. Also, whenever I am dealing with complexity, figuring out how to spend my time helps me to be more efficient. I also break my day into strategic and tactical to figure out how much time I am spending on each task. For me, hyperfocus is super important to attaining hard meaningful goals however, I also realize disconnecting from my work a bit greatly helps with productivity.

What are the formative ingredients in your childhood that came to create your perspective?

I give credit to my dad who woke me up at 5 am every morning to make sure everything is fine around the house. On Sundays, we went to his factory and during school holidays, I would intern at his office. From these experiences, I learned grit is superior to being smart. The tenacity to not give up and to find a creative way to solve a problem is ultimately what is lost in a lot of entrepreneurial cases.

What do you consider to be one of the greatest challenges and setbacks for developing businesses in Africa?

The greatest challenge is definitely talent; whether it be engineers, data scientists, or a business development workforce. The dilemma is that most smart people in Lagos are not in building companies or working on companies. They work in Telcos, Banks, and big firms such as Accenture and KPMG. What we need more of is getting smart human capital in consulting and banks to build companies based on insights derived from running, for example, Guinnesses’ distribution or KPMG’s taxations. Seeing that this is a challenge is why Ventures Platform is focused on supporting companies with the capital, building teams, and nurturing growth.

When you think about how you built your company, how much do you think was your skills, intelligence, and talent and how much do you think was just luck?

Luck plays a critical role in all entrepreneurial endeavors. Additionally, the timing was a huge component as well. Most people fail to appreciate the importance of timing. It’s one thing to work very hard, however, when favored by time, the stars begin to align.

If someone is trying to start a business and has no money or no connections - just an idea - what is the one thing they need to have or focus on?

The first thing to do is to identify a problem. Second, to build a solution that works. Third, to find 5 people that will use the product, will love it, and give you feedback. Once you are obsessed with making the customer happy, it fuels word of mouth. At this points, some investors are then in a comfortable position to help scale the idea as fast as possible.

There are a tremendous number of opportunities on the African continent. How do you stay focused on your journey?

Well, I have seen what not focusing can do to you. Learning to focus was the turning point for me. When I first got back to Nigeria, I wanted to be a multi-business man. I was pursuing about 5 ideas, which didn’t turn out well. Eventually, I read this quote; “Discipline pursuit of less.” This really struck me as it helped me realize it requires discipline to do fewer things. There is actually an illustration of a whale going after a school of fish and another illustration of a school of fish going after a whale. That is a depiction of focus; you choose which side you are on.

Over time, I’ve also realized you don’t achieve greatness when chasing too many things. And when I say greatness, I mean the impact of scale and volume. The ability to build a company that touches a significant number of people or to invest in companies that change the way people access healthcare, for example, is absolutely worthwhile. Achievement is not about how much money we make, it’s about doing something in a sustainable and smart way.

Bonus Question

As a Venture Partner, do you think there is potential for some entrepreneurs to build alone?

When you look at the documentary, The Men Who Built America, you realize that despite their strong, aggressive, and bullish characters, they had teams. Yes, you can be a visionary to see what no one else sees however, building a tech startup for example, requires significant competence and the association of a team who has a vested interest.

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Jeph

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