I first met Lola at a BTNG event. She was one of the speakers on the night. And what particularly struck me about her was not only is she tackling a hard problem with her startup Transthat, she also had this sage quality to admire – on one hand, deftly providing wisdom nuggets from her experience, and on the other, confidently saying, “I’m not quite sure of the answer to that question but I’m going to find out.” She was wise but no BS artist!
As it turns out, London can be a very small town for Nigerians – we have friends in common. And I was right, she’s also razor-smart; MBA from Imperial, technical chops building applications ranging from startups to investment banks.
We met at the Natural Kitchen, Baker Street and the following is an edited version of our conversation. Enjoy.
Papa: Who is Lola Ekugo?
Lola: I am an IT Specialist. The third of four children, my father is a Petroleum Geologist and my mother was a Chemistry teacher, now a Petroleum Marketer. I am a first class graduate of Business information systems with a passion for solving challenging and important problems using innovative technologies.
My career kicked off in the technology division in the financial services sector 12 years ago and I have since been involved with startups in the travel, hospitality and logistics space across the UK and Nigeria.
I am a strong believer of putting 100% in whatever I do, and that time is one of our most valuable assets. I love to explore and learn about people and cultures and have visited over 25 countries so far.
Papa: That’s a while in the profession. What interesting areas have you worked?
Lola: I build and work on applications that solve problems and provide a value-add. And I’ve done so in various sectors. For instance, I worked in the Financial sector on trading applications for about 10 years, it is interesting to see the growth in Fintech over these years. I’ve also worked on building my own startups which tackled varied problems including an online restaurant reservations platform in Lagos.
I’m currently working on my 3rd startup Transthat which is in travel and logistics space.
Papa: Yes, I heard you speak about your startup and I think Transthat is targeting a very sweet spot – building something people (in this case Nigerians and Nigerians in Diaspora) want. But let’s hear it directly from you.
Lola: Working on Transthat and tackling the problem head on has been a great experience and I am happy to talk about it all day! Simply because Transthat feels like a combination of all my different experiences; career, personal preferences and previous startup experiences.
To be specific, Transthat is a platform that connects travellers who have extra luggage space and want to earn some extra cash, with people who want items from “abroad”. Transthat will hold the money in escrow to ensure that transactions are done safely and securely on the platform. I love to travel and find peculiar items and mostly have some wasted and unutilised luggage space and I’ve also experienced first-hand the pain of shipping things to Nigeria.
Papa: I must say it seems to me that it’s a very hard problem you’re trying to solve. There are a lot of things you need to become a master in other to stand a chance of succeeding. You have to navigate logistics, law and regulations, marketplace issues, before even getting to the tech side. How do you think you can test your hypothesis?
Lola: Most startups and business are built on risks and assumptions. One puts out hypothesis and take steps to verify that this is indeed valid. In my case, I’ve done quite a bit of research in respect to speaking to people, authorities and experts. I’ve also lived in Nigeria and U.K which gives me a first hand experience of what Transthat is trying to solve. To an extent, many of us have been on one side of the coin where you are either in Lagos and in dire need of an item or coming into Lagos with an empty suitcase.
Definitely, the ultimate test is to launch Transthat and see the sort of traction we get. That’s when we can truly have feedback which confirms if our assumptions are indeed correct. We’re of course happy to adapt based on feedback in ways to make the product better.
Papa: I would definitely use your service, and have actually signed up on your landing page. I can imagine how a process could work; if I was in Lagos and needed a shoe, sports equipment or accessory from abroad or wanted to send my transcripts to my father in Nigeria. But talk me through what happens if I decide to send 3 laptops to my colleagues in Nigeria. What will this entail for me and you?
Lola: We’re starting with the basics. Transthat has the buy option and transfer lite option.
We’re keen on security and ensuring that transactions are fulfilled. The buy option is where someone in Nigeria knows what they need and where they can get it from. So they make that request. The requestor pays that money needed for the purchase to Transthat. We’re the middleman and facilitating this process. The traveller will purchase the item and once delivered to our office in Lagos, will get paid.
For the transfer option, we’re also starting with a lite option even though we know the demand is very high. We are starting with documents only before we work up to more valuable items such as laptops. While we continue to build on the security element that gives us the confidence to roll out to more valuable items.
Papa: There are a few startups that play in similar space. From relatively new players like YC backed Shypmate now called Envyl, or more established, like Mall for Africa. What’s different about Transthat?
Lola: Some unique points to note about Transthat is that it is not limited to things you can buy online from abroad. So a request can be made to pick something up from a local market or a local gallery without an online delivery service. We are also looking to utilise extra luggage space so every traveller has the potential to earn extra money to spend when they arrive in Nigeria and use up spare forex before they leave their destination by building trust in a community of travellers and requestors similar to the Uber and Airbnb models.
While Envyl and Mall for Africa are great startups and some of our market reach is the same, we are tackling similar problems using varying models.
Papa: I listened to your talk at the BTNG event and was struck about how you answered some questions – with what seems to me to be either ‘hey, I don’t know, but I’m going to figure this out’ – confident but not cocky. Is this your veteran side speaking? Or is it more like your understated style.
Lola: I don’t think it’s any of the things you’ve mentioned. One thing I’ve learnt from my experiences is that where there’s a problem – there’s usually a solution. So while it might not be obvious or be easy to solve, the knowledge that I can resolve it means I’m more comfortable in the present. This is probably what you’re referring to as ‘confident but cocky’.
Papa: You mentioned you’ve been involved in a few startups in the past. What would you say is the key experience you’ve learnt and bringing to this? And related to that, how do you know it’s time to move on?
Lola: The key experience is the importance of understanding your users and your market. This is especially crucial if you’re not the typical user of your product. I strongly believe that you should go directly to your users; ask questions, observe them in natural environment e.g watch them work, use your product, etc. This helps you to better appreciate the pain points you’re solving on their behalf. It has to be a total immersion to get the right insights. It is also important when testing your assumptions/hypothesis with a version 1.0 of your product not to get too carried away with building in too many features that your users may never use and end up delaying your launch. Just make sure that the basic features are there and that your product can do what it is supposed to do first then you build on that using your customer feedback. Lastly, your team can make or break your business so it is very important that decisions are not made hastily and time is taken out to ensure that you have the right people on board.
In respect of knowing when it’s time to move on; the key thing is to be honest with yourself. You know what you planned to achieve, you can see the market reaction, and your data (or lack of it). In other words, you have enough information to know if it’s not working and should be honest enough to admit if it’s time to move on.
The other thing worth mentioning is is to know when your passion is gone. You can’t run your startup without passion. Even if the data is encouraging, and you lose the passion for the problem you’re solving – this is a bad sign.
Papa: How do you think that Transthat fits into the future of technology in Nigeria?
Lola: Technological innovation and economic growth have been strongly linked over the past few years. Technology has the power to improve people’s lives and is doing so already in terms of infrastructure as well as connecting the world. Transthat is hoping to create more access to other countries for people who may not have had this access before. In addition to using the logistics of air travel more effectively.
Papa: It’s always fast moving in the technology space but for you personally, what’s the long term impact you hope to make?
Lola: I genuinely think Technology is the key to the future. If I can make an impact or make a change for the better to the lives of people – even if it’s a small number – then I’m completely happy.
BTNG is a community for tech enthusiasts in London building things for Nigeria. I’m actively involved and can’t recommend it enough as it’s the best place to connect with like-minded makers. Register for next event here.