The World Needs Her Autobots

autobot_transformers_1440x900An emerging trend I’ve noticed over the last year and half is that entrepreneurs and startup owners are sneering at people seeking paid employment. It’s rather ironic, this turn of events, considering that a few years back, parents and family usually sneered at kids who thought to start businesses, or threatened to disown children who turned down paid employment for the improbable ‘attraction’ of being a business owner.

Entrepreneurship fundamentally is embracing uncertainty, and the average entrepreneur may sneer at the endless routine  of paid employment. The average banker, for example, represents a human bot, doing the same thing over and over again, day after day, week on week, year on year! It is that endless routine that helped make my mind up about going into business – and I was one of the lucky ones who had a pretty interesting job.

Then there’s CCHUB. I remember once going to CCHub to find a developer – my thinking before then was that if there was a  place to find good developers, it would be the hub. Maybe I misunderstood what the hub stood for, or what the hub people thought about paid employment, but after my visit, I felt a little pity for the concept of paid employment and it’s adherents – the bots. The guys at the hub all seemed to mentally spit at the thought of working 9-5 (and more) jobs.

So what’s really wrong about having an autobot job, especially considering the most common flaws of startup entrepreneurs?

  • If we all became entrepreneurs, who will work for our companies?
  • The average entrepreneur often lacks true brick-and-mortar business skills, and needs to be guided or supported by trained managers – where would the managers come from if everyone became a startup owner.
  • Often, the glamorous stories of entrepreneurship conveniently skip those months where there’s no revenue, the zero account balances and the debts to family and friends. Because the market is very volatile, and support systems are lacking, the average entrepreneur needs a family structured in a way which has that support of a regular pay check, when one partner is running a startup.

One of the things I’m very sure about is that the fours years I spent in and out of paid employment help build a foundation for how I currently run my business. If I didn’t learn anything positive in my last job, I did learn how not to run a business, and how not to treat the people who work for me. My last job taught me management, at no cost to myself, and there was no way I would run a team where people are happy (most of the time) to work with me. There are clear differences in the way I run my team, and the way my close friends run theirs, and this is clearly down to our experiences in jobs we had or did not have.

I’m currently sitting here, typing out a blog, deliberately giving the silent treatment to a logistic staff I called up to talk to. I learned that from my former job – say 10 words, and let it sink in with silence, only broken by the sounds of a keyboard.

Steve Jobs was one of the greatest CEOs ever, but he was one of the worst managers who ever lived. It needed autobot managers to keep his team moving and working, because working with Steve made “working in a living hell” the kindergarten of horrible job experience. But he was smart – for the most part of his second coming at Apple, he hired great managers. The best CEOs are probably the ones who are smart enough to hire great staff and managers or who have had experience in autobot jobs.

Recently, I was reviewing the career of Sim Shagaya, founder of Konga.com and DealDey. He’s one of Nigeria’s leading start founders, and one of the few guys Nigeria’s smaller startup CEO would close up shop to go work for. He also has a very impressive CV, don’t let me tell you, check out his LinkedIn. We love SIM because we think he’s cool. But once in his life, the cool Sim was an autobot!

The world is defined by CEOs, but run by managers. A world without it’s autobot managers will be a world full of really angry or depressed people. This is because most startup CEOs are really shitty managers of people. Managing people is a skill that rarely comes naturally, and one of the best ways to gain management is through traditional employment.

It is great that we are beginning to build a startup culture in Nigeria, and young people are aspiring to start and grow businesses, with less protestations by their families. It is also important to note however, that not becoming an entrepreneur is also a very valid career path. I also think every entrepreneur should try working for someone else – the experience is invaluable.

Being an entrepreneur is cool. Very cool. Nothing beats that feeling of seeing something one started from nothing grow into something. That feeling is rather difficult to top. But nothing tops (negatively) that sinking feeling at the end of a month which had no revenue, knowing not where money is going to come from. Startup culture is often a swing between heady highs, and hopeless lows. In the midst of so much uncertainty, of emotional extremes, the world needs her autobots to keep things going smooth and calm like.

And hey, the Autobots, if you really think it through, are the good guys. Life could be much worse, in a world where we also have Decepticons.

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Are you building capacity? You could start with your house boy

Image credits: http://calabarboy.com

As I write this, my driver is sitting in the office chill room, reading www.ventures-africa.com and he’s doing quite well. He’s told me a few times this morning how interesting it is, and I believe him.

About a week ago, I noticed the two drivers we have do nothing during their off hours, but sleep. That in itself is not a bad thing, when there’s nothing else to do and your job does not require for you to think, but I was struck by how much time they are wasting sleeping, and wondered if that much time could not be used positively.

I had an idea – make them read.

Know it’s funny, what do drivers know? But I thought about it. These guys can read ok. They never have issues when I send notes to them about things that need to be done, or bank runs. So if they can read the notes, why not newspapers, or finance, or entrepreneurship? I do not want these drivers to be drivers in two years. I want them to be more useful to everyone, including myself.

My mind was made up. I called them in and told them they would have to start reading. Their first responses were classic. Speechless, they stared at me for a moment, wondering what I as up to. I told them again, that I want them to begin reading. They laughed again, but I told them I was serious. I explained to them quickly why I thought it would be good for them, and how it would work.

Simply, the plan was they would read – anything but sports, entertainment or romance. All soft sell stuff was inadmissible. Only real reading would count. At the end of the week, we would do a review of what they had learned over the week. I knew I would likely be too busy to do weekly reviews, so I added a caveat that I could ask for a review at anytime, so they had to keep on writing.

Last week passed and we did no review. Then we had a power problem this morning and a small window opened. I walked into the chill room and called them up. I asked about the reading they had done, and was greeted with muffled laughter. No they had not read anything. On impulse, I handed my iPad to my driver, without asking if he knew how to use one. There was a news piece on Dangote I was reading, so I handed that to him and asked him to read it too, and review.

An hour later, my driver had not returned.

The next time I passed by the chill room, he was hunched over the tablet, reading! I felt a touch of joy when he looked up and I noticed he was reading another article, one on entrepreneurship. He quickly volunteered his response to my unasked question: he thoroughly enjoyed the Dangote news and will unload to me later on.

I asked his driver colleague why he wasn’t reading, and he said he had no time, that there were too many things on his mind. Ok, I thought, I’ll give you what is on my own mind. I explained to him how reading could be the difference between the kinds of problems he had now, and having my kinds of problems. I told him that while my problems are big, I bet he would rather have my kinds of problems than the ones he currently has. He agreed. Again, I went through the conversation of what the difference is, between those rich people and the poor ones – education, knowledge. When I handed him a newspaper editorial to read, he did not refuse.

My own driver at this time ventured to explain what he had read, but I told him to write it down instead. A quick, to the point review. He returned in 20 minutes.

This was his first review:

Dangote want(s) to expand his business and take it to the [next] level, by listing his company on to London Stock Exchange.
By my own understanding, by listing his business to London Stock Exchange he will get more money to expand his business but loss his chairmanship of the dangote groups.
In real sense, it is good for his businesses and his income, because more money will come into the business.

Yes, I was impressed.

I was so impressed, I let him keep the iPad for a few more hours, digesting all he could. When we met again, shortly before I left office, he was ready with all sorts of insights, and conversational topics. He also had questions. For example, what is the meaning of “only you can sell you?” I realized too that my driver could write better than he could speak – so I encouraged him to write his thoughts, as these would help him better organize his thoughts. Since he had a bit of time before we left office, he quickly wrote me another review of three topics. These were even better than the previous one – I am currently thinking of opening up a section on my blog to post his thoughts on.

So what have I learned – I have learned again, that every human has the capacity to be great. Greatness is something everyone is born with – only time and opportunity nurtures some to be greater than others.

Today, I remembered once again, a story I had heard about Neil Blackburn, a former MD of Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (now ExxonMobil). Neil had joined the company as a roustabout, but was so smart and hardworking, when he retired, he was heading one of the most lucrative regions of the global energy company.

My driver is obviously smart. He could be the next *insert big title of choice here*, so the question for me is, how can I help him reach into himself and discover his potentials? Can I be the mentor he needs to become the person he could be?

A passage from his second review read:

(To gain) Self-confidence, you need to have a mentor, and follow his footsteps to achieve your goals.

So if he is ready to take that step, will I be ready to help him? Equally important, if that domestic staff you have is showing crazy promise, would you be ready to help him or her?

One of the things we do in our office is to ensure that our ‘domestic’ staff understand our business. We hold quarterly retreats, where we discuss quarter trends, progress, insights, profits and (God forbid) losses. Our office assistants and drivers attend those sessions too. When we had our recent knowledge event, thy attended too, and we were lucky we had them around, because they made the big money lunch at Eko Hotel justifiable.

If you can’t do anything else, be a mentor. Even if it’s to your gate man, or house boy.

If you can’t do anything else, be a mentor

Two weeks ago, I was in Akwa Ibom, and I was going to be there for five days. It was going to be the longest time I would be visiting in a few years, so I planned an extra activity into the family event I was attending. I was planning to visit with the principal of the oldest senior science school in the community.

I had attended this school for what I would describe as some of the lowest periods of my life, and until recently, every memory form that place was horrible. However, I’d recently thought about some of the programmes I have thought about getting involved in, and could not find a better place to begin. I had decided to work with a couple of young entrepreneurs and professionals, and old successful professional to setup periodic mentorship rounds in this school, and a few others in the local communities, to help the kids in secondary school see what’s out there.

The reasons for getting myself involved in this mentoring business are two or three fold:

A few years back, I had also gotten involved in teaching basic computer classes to local kids, which opened my eyes to the opportunities for giving back to our communities.

The little I want to reference to my short time at this science school is that we had a lot of fantastic students back then, who were a lot more brilliant than I was. However, life happens – a lot of these brilliant chaps are still out there looking for work, with their top class papers. They are looking in the oil industry, or ExxonMobil to be specific.

Meeting up with some of these old mates, the big conversation was jobs. There were no jobs. Because the Nigerian system was so Nigerian, they just could not get jobs in the oil industry. All of then were currently doing trainings, similar trainings, to better their chances of getting into the oil industry.

The other topic was a slight disappointment on the part of my friends, at me, that a thoroughbred scientist like myself, would be out here, building a career in advertising. The fact that my company had hands in online advertising, applications development, bla, kini, ko, etc. made no difference.

I realize now, that growing up, the only difference between my life and a lot of people I grew up with was the support system of family, and more importantly mentors. My family built my values, and my mentors, specifically, my MENTOR, opened my eyes to what the world really needed. My mentor used to spend hours talking about what the world really needed, what the industries needed, and how important actual experience was in life after university.

Because of the insights I had, I spent a great deal of my university years outside of the university. Before I met my mentor, I was an A student. Two years later, I was getting ducked marks for not meeting minimum attendance requirements – but I was spending quality attendance in the oil industry and volunteer projects.

My friends where still making great grades. When I set up a project group, to get my friends to be more involved in building experience, very few friends were willing to put time on it. Not a lot of people were willing to follow an ex-A student, who was now a B student (because I hardly met attendance %, there was no way I could score As). It got to a head when I decided to build an application for use in the oil industry for my final project – I could not find a supervisor. No one was willing to supervise such a silly venture, till I met a man who took a risk by supervising me, despite his doubts about the project. When he finally saw what I was doing, he gave me an A without seeing the final product.

When I graduated, I had a job waiting for me. A few months in, I got offered a project and moved to Lagos. I haven’t returned since. In my time in the oil industry as a student running a project, a position was opening for me, which my mentor had groomed me for, but because he had done such a fantastic job of mentoring me, I knew the oil industry was not the place for me. I disappointed my mentor by not taking the oil route, but he supported my decision. When I wanted to setup my business, he was there to support me, and I owe a lot to him.

It was during my conversations two weeks back that I realized that without my mentor, I probably would have been a good student, come out and hugged my papers, waiting for a job in the oil industry. Because we grew up in the oil industry, it was all that some of us knew, the beginning, the end.

And it is probably what the kids in the science school are currently thinking. There’s not a lot wrong with our teachers. They were trained in the 70’s and 80’s, and back then, finishing school and getting a job was all they knew. Nothing had happened to change that. This is the reason they have nothing better to teach the next generation. Because they are limited by what they can see, and they can only teach what they know, the students will have no options different to what the teachers tell them. The oil industry cannot employ up to a million Nigerians (upstrean/downstream), but no one is telling that to the teachers, or students. ExxonMobil can only hire so many graduate engineers with little skill and no experience, but the teachers may not know that.

This is why, if I expect better from this generation, I have to help share a different perspective with these young people. If the next generation is to be better, if they are to do better, they need exists to open them to alternatives. They may not see alternatives in their local communities, but their minds should be opened up to these alternatives. They should be made to see the need to question the norm, to dare to be different, to branch out, off the beaten path, to be crazy and not be afraid. They should be made to see that getting good grades is fantastic, but also that there’s nothing wrong with building skill and experience outside of the walls of the classroom.

We should mentor.

We should work with schools to provide perspective. We need to help build extra-curricular activities which help the students see more, and experience difference. We need to expect change, but more importantly, we should be the change we want to see.

I have never believed in one perfect way, but I am hoping to take a few trips down to that school, and with the support of the teaching staff, hold talk sessions with the students, and share experiences which I hope, along with other experiences better than mine, would help these kids make better decisions, and see beyond what exists in their communities.