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Exploring the Road Less Taken: Shola Akinlade

· Business,Entrepreneurship,Africa

Nigeria is the most populous country on the African continent, birthing over 180 million people. It also happens to be the 12th largest producer of crude oil and home to the longest bridge on the continent. It’s evident the country is well-positioned to attain economic growth however, it’s also so disheartening that Nigeria has still been largely shut out of international commerce that will allow local entrepreneurs and start-ups earn foreign exchange through the exchange of goods and services. This challenge creates an excellent opportunity for an entrepreneur who can help vendors accept one-off and recurring online payments with a modern, safe, and secure payment gateway.

Unlike most young adults, Shola Akinlade had an intuition that there is not a lot of competitive advantage when it came to internet-based businesses since we all have access to the internet. Throughout his life, Akinlade always understood the importance of solving a problem; this habit inspired a passion for making things. And thus, cultivated a maker mindset that eventually evolved into entrepreneurship. His company - Paystack - recently raised $1.3 million seed investment from both international and homegrown investors. Paystack's approach to solving the payments problem is simple, cleaner and more efficient because you don’t need to think of solving many puzzles before you issue a payment. My recent conversation with Shola uncovers his entrepreneurial journey.

What’s your life philosophy?

The two things I strongly believe in is (1) Africa’s problems are going to be solved by Africans and (2) we should not wait for other people to come figure it out. I started my career working at Heineken and quickly realized I should not be there because there are so many problems in Nigeria being tackled by so few people.

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

It’s quite difficult for me to plan now since we have 26 people on the Paystack team and thousands of customers. Every single day, I check our logs using a metrics-driven approach. And each day we also try to catch up with our KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

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

The turning point in my life was when one of my uncles gave me a personal computer (PC) at age 16. At that point, I had a gap year from school with nothing to do; just access to a PC and a lot of time to explore. This experience led me to see myself as more of a maker than as an entrepreneur.

What do you consider to be one of the greatest challenges for developing a business on the African continent?

One of the greatest challenges pertains to capital. It is riskier to build a business here, especially if you don’t have rich parents. Being that the support system to meet your basic needs on your journey is not there, most aspiring entrepreneurs keep looking for ways to cut costs. For Paystack, Y Combinator was transformative in helping us focus on the right things such as the problem we were trying to solve.

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

Everything was luck. My journey really started with all the experiences I had before Paystack. The only contribution was putting in the work and cultivating the courage to do my part. The rest figured itself out.

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?

It’s important to focus on early traction. Also, you should figure out how to serve the first few people before focusing on the clients you do not have yet. Prior to working on Paystack, I helped over 200 companies set up operations for their business. So when it came to my business, it wasn’t as difficult as it could have been.

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

Seth Godin once made the point that if you are learning to play the piano, you have to play the bad notes first and keep playing it over and over until you get better. To focus on our journey, we first had to articulate the clarity of our mission. I spoke to over 300 people on our waitlist before launching Paystack. This helped me realize very clearly that the payment problem is deep. Also, from my experience at Y Combinator, I know that it will take over 7 years to build a billion-dollar business. And this insight helped me realize it is going to be a lot of hard work that needs focus.

**Special thank you to Shola for taking the time to connect despite a very busy holiday schedule.

- Jeph

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