Nigeria’s startup ecosystem: Too many wise men, not enough fools

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Lobby backdrop at Ventures Platform Abuja. Photo credit: Nsikan Udoma

As I sat in the make shift training-room-turned-meeting-room, I thought about how the absurdity of my next answer was going to tilt the perception of the other four people in the already freezing room.

Here we were, 55 minutes into a one hour meeting discussing technology, startups, hubs and the role of government in all of this — you know this conversation abi — that’s all we have been hearing since this year’s “conference season” started.

The question was simple, “How would you say the startup eco system in Abuja is faring?”, the expected answer is one of two options: (a) an admittance that we’re not where Lagos is at yet, but we are making strong inroads to be taken seriously, OR (b) a strong defensive argument that the Abuja tech scene (and the North generally) has matured and isn’t being given the credit it deserves. Either response was acceptable, and to be honest, I would typically just give a hybrid of both options. But today was different…

“What do you mean there’s no eco-system in Nigeria yet? Not even in Lagos?” she asked, half in disbelief, and half in the way a woman repeats your answer to give you a chance to repent and retrace your steps. I nod in the affirmative, then proceed to the conveniently placed whiteboard on the wall to draw what I believe needs to be on the mind of everyone serious about the development of the Nigerian startup eco system.

An ecosystem — generally speaking can be loosely described as a community of living and non-living things that work together to form a system (that works), and if there is a breakdown of one arm of an ecosystem, it creates chaos.

My idea of a startup ecosystem.

The diagram above shows 7 distinct roles that need to be filled for a proper startup scene to flourish: Ideas, Builders, Users, Evangelists, Government, Money and Fools. In the past few years, well meaning people have clamoured for the roles to filled, and smart people have risen and are still rising to this challenge — taking up 6 of the 7 roles, but are being discriminatory to one group… because, well, nobody wants to be a fool. Which is rather ironic, because to succeed in any other role, you must first be a fool. Don’t believe me? Just watch! 🙂

We all know ideas are a dime a dozen, heck, the wonderful guys at Starta gave me and the VP team nice shirts that say things that illustrate how easy ideas are to come by. But if in 2007, someone told you to use (and be the driver of) your brand new car as a taxi, or have a stranger stay in your house while you’re away, or that you could watch full length Nigerian movies online, or that cheap same day delivery was possible in Lagos — you’d still be laughing at them now.

But some foolish people in the last 10 years have done these and more, and have gotten foolish people to build these products with them, and have gotten foolish users to use these products, and some foolish tech writers and influencers have become evangelists, and this growth has attracted foolish investors to pour some money in, and some foolish customers have paid money for the products. (The government, with it’s policies, had very wisely refused to make life easier for these sets of fools, but thankfully, they are also getting foolish these days).

“So, if there’s so much foolishness, why hasn’t the eco system picked up yet?” (tip: answer is the topic of this post) Simply put, we’re too smart for our own good!

You have a brilliant idea, but with this recession, it doesn’t make sense to foolishly chase it, what if it doesn’t work? Won’t people think you’re crazy or being irresponsible or proud if you keep at your idea? So you do the smart thing and stay in your 9–5. Yes, I’m talking to you smiling at your screen, please be foolish!

You want to build the future, but you’d rather build it with a top 4 consulting firm with a nice salary than with a startup hustling…. I know so many developers who have abandoned projects for job offers. “I’d build the future after I build my empire”, right? That sounds like a smart move, right? Please be foolish.

You know how there’s that friend that forces everyone to order food from a new delivery service? Or force everyone to use the listing website they just discovered. Please be that foolish person. Everyday. Personal testimonies have high conversion rates! We can all be that evangelist who’s foolish enough to advertise great products without asking for something in return.

Perhaps the most important set of fools in our eco-system are those with money. Everyone needs money. Startups need money, big corporations need money, even governments need money.

Please be foolish with your money.

Pay for that app. Buy the original version of that software. Support indie producers. Invest in early stage companies you believe can grow. No need to over analyze every time. Sometimes believe you are supporting something bigger. You see, the craziest folks who bet on smart individuals growing smart businesses reap amazing results, and these results aren’t always monetary — but the 1000+ people who became millionaires from Facebook’s IPO don’t mind.

As Nigerians, we’re very smart people, and I believe we can create and build amazing businesses from nothing — we’ve done this for years. But to keep up with the fast pace of innovation required, please lets be more foolish.

(For more motivation, please refer to the main picture at the top for words from Uncle Stevie)

Editor’s note: This post was written by Fola Olatunji-David, the Incubation Program Manager over at Ventures Platform. It first appeared on Medium.