If you think starting a company is tough in, say, Los Angeles, try doing it in Lagos.
Almost every entrepreneur everywhere complains about the scarcity of funding. It’s especially tough in Nigeria. Investors here, if you are lucky to meet one, are less likely to fund “mere” ideas, and more likely to expect candidates to show tangible products or services with demonstrable revenues. So, it takes money to get to a tangible product, even though it takes a tangible product to get money.
Also, Nigeria is a very traditional society. Your friends and family expect you to get a job, get a consistent income, get married and have children. That can make entrepreneurship a sometimes lonely path for those who follow it. It can also present practical difficulties, such as the difficulty in hiring skilled workers when those workers expect salaries rather than the risk/reward possibilities that help staff startups elsewhere.
Fortunately, there are also bright spots in the picture of Nigerian entrepreneurship. One of them is Obafemi Awolowo University, where I studied engineering. The faculty and my fellow students were passionate about entrepreneurship and their passion was infectious. By my senior year, I was ready to start a company. But what company?
This First Person Perspective Was Written By Owolabi Olatunji, Co-Founder and CEO, Hutbay
Cofounders Seun Popoola (far left) and Owolabi Olatunji (third from left), with teammates.
My parents and relatives had had difficulties finding houses to rent at various times in Lagos. House and apartment hunting here is, like so much else, traditional. Weekly magazines carry real estate listings. It’s often tough to tell from a listing whether a property meets your requirements. And there’s no way to know if a listing published a few days or a week before is still available. It’s a frustrating process.
But technology could make the process more effective for buyers, renters, sellers, and agents. It could even make it fun. When a property meeting your needs comes on the market, you could be notified immediately—the listing would search you out, rather than the other way around. Agents would be notified when buyers or renters expressed interest in their properties. You could share listings with friends and family for their advice, or access online expertise to help you make a decision.
That was the idea behind our company, Hutbay. To help overcome the challenges I mentioned earlier, Seun Popoola (my co-founder) and I took on contract projects while we bootstrapped the company. We also decided to go with the Microsoft Platform and host our service on Windows Azure. It may sound dramatic, but we couldn’t have realized our vision without Windows Azure. It saved us the expense not only of hardware, but also of a database or systems administrator to manage that hardware. And the platform’s elegant capabilities make our applications faster, more flexible, and more scalable than they would be otherwise. For example, we use Blob Storage to reduce the processing load on our web instances, so pages load faster. The Service Bus is one of our favorites. We use it on a daily basis to handle communications between our hosted services and also to handle configuration changes on the fly.
Microsoft’s program for startups, BizSpark, has been invaluable too. It gives us the licenses for Windows Azure, Visual Studio, and SQL Server, which we couldn’t have afforded on our own. BizSpark gives us marketing support to help us reach larger audiences—and networking support to help us reach the investors who are funding our expansion. Suddenly, running a startup in Nigeria seems a lot easier than it used to. And if we can do it in Nigeria, you can do it anywhere. Just do it!