yinoluwa Aboyeji is the founder and general partner of Future Africa, an investment firm he has been working on since 2015. A serial entrepreneur, Iyinoluwa founded both Andela, an engineering-as-a-service business that helps companies build remote teams, and Flutterwave, a payment platform, before officially launching Future Africa in 2018. Originally from Lagos, he studied in Canada before his passion for finding solutions to Nigerian challenges brought him back to the country.
How did you become interested in becoming an entrepreneur?
Initially, I was supposed to be a lawyer. I went to school for that, but I made a good friend, a computer science guy, and we started our first company, bookneto.com. Our goal was to revolutionize the learning-management-system industry and defeat Blackboard. Let’s just say we didn’t succeed. We had to pivot several times, and ultimately we sold the business. I moved back to Nigeria in 2013 to learn how to implement e-learning in Nigerian universities and I tried to work with a regulator, but once again I had to pivot.
So, I started selling online degrees and we began providing financing for students who were working and wanted an MBA without having to leave their day job. Andela happened by another random chance: I met a friend in New York who had just IPOed a company that built platforms for universities to interact online with their master’s students. He expressed concern that although online education could work in Africa, it would be hard to replicate because of the costs and the lack of certainty around jobs. We ended up partnering and focusing on a skills-based model where we trained young people in building software. The resulting company, Andela, is now worth more than six hundred million dollars.
Future Africa came into the picture in 2015, when I got my first secondary stock-sale check out of Andela. I decided to invest that check in other founders who I saw were struggling to get access to resources, while also supporting them to raise capital from other sources. Upon leaving Flutterwave in 2018, as a result of our independent thinking, we had invested in a few exciting companies, and a lot of people wanted us to help them get into the investing space, so we spent a lot of our time supporting investors, trying to get them into the early stages of supporting innovators who are trying to build world-class technology.
What are some of the struggles or challenges you have encountered?
The successes I’ve had were because of the incredible team I had, and the failures I’ve had are because that team didn’t work effectively together. That was the real key with a number of our businesses. The market was good, and there was opportunity, but it was so critical for us to have a good team. That’s number one. Number two: government cannot stop innovation, and you don’t require government permission to start. When I came back to Nigeria I spent four months sitting in front of these guys’ offices, trying to get approval, and they never paid me any mind. It taught me to just start and figure it out later. Oftentimes, government's contributions are overvalued and you can probably do better without them.
What was your biggest mistake?
Almost everything was a mistake; I was always learning. It was really about our ability to navigate very rough waters. No one had ever done what we were trying to do. It’s critical for you to be very clear about where you want to go. I had a tendency, because there were so many problems to solve, to delegate the solving of problems and not maintain control of the overall vision. It's one thing for you to surround yourself with great people and I was lucky I was able to do that, but if I were doing it again I would hold on to control for longer. Where a lot of people saw a dead end, I was seeing just the beginning.
Another thing I’ve learned the hard way is that you have to have the courage to be disliked. That is a lesson I’ve carried with me. I didn’t make a lot of very difficult decisions because I was afraid of being disliked, and that was the wrong way to do things. Perhaps we would have had more impact faster if I had had the courage to do what needed to be done without worrying about being liked or disliked.
What is your best decision so far?
My best decision was coming back to Nigeria. Not a lot of people would have made that decision. I'm glad I did. Beyond that, my teams have been great, and if I hadn’t worked with those teams none of what we built would have been possible.
If you want to build a great company, get three to five people who could have each built a one-hundred million dollar company by themselves and come together to build a billion-dollar company.
Why was moving back to Lagos a good decision for you?
I grew up in Lagos, so I was always going to come back. In Canada, I was living in a society where I didn’t understand their problems and I wasn't particularly passionate about solving them. What brought me back was that I was very passionate about the problems I saw in Nigeria and solving these problems for Nigerians.
What have been the benefits of the Lagos ecosystem, and where do you think it still needs to improve?
A lot has changed in this ecosystem over the last ten years and I was part of it virtually before I came in physically. I started to engage our ecosystem in 2010 when I first got into tech, and it was key to a lot of my learning. No ecosystem is perfect – there are often a lot of challenges. I like to use the comparison that Silicon Valley has been there for over seventy years, while Lagos is maybe ten years into this and we've already made so much progress. We’re the number one startup ecosystem in Africa. There are billions of dollars being raised, and there are millions of people employed at tech companies, directly and indirectly. I think it is something to be thankful for. I do think that the ecosystem needs to be more optimistic and to think bigger. I feel like a lot of people are very content to stay with the small stuff, but ecosystems don't grow when they’re afraid of their shadow. People need to be bolder because they can do it. They’re the only ones who can, really.
Where the ecosystem has completely failed is in engagement with government and with the public sector. I think the tech community, more than any other community, has the power and the reach to come together and create a seismic shift in governance and create a role for technology to help solve problems. The reality is that if you live in my part of the world, if you live in Nigeria, the most difficult problem you need to solve is the government. And so my hope is that an ecosystem that's thinking very big can take on that challenge.
What professional advice would you give to someone in the early stages of starting up?
Find a customer! I’ve learned with all the startups that the moment we found a customer there was just so much less distraction. I'm not saying the issues won't come up later – they will – but if you find a customer, you can postpone those issues and build something of value.
What are the pillars that you've set for building the right team?
It's very dependent on the problem we're trying to solve, but there are some commonalities. One is finding people who have a deep passion for the problem, who want to solve the problem because they feel the pain just as much as you do. It's also important that you can be friends. You don't have to love each other, but you have to have things in common. It should be a gathering of equals in some way because you want to build a team of people you respect. My mentor once told me, if you want to build a great company, get three to five people who each could have built a one-hundred million dollar company by themselves and come together to build a billion-dollar company. The most important thing is that teams have fun together. Those are the things that really matter: fun memories with the people you work with and the shared passion for what you’re doing. Passionate work and passionate play, that’s the secret to fantastic teams.
Looking to the future, what are the challenges, and what are you optimistic about?
I think that COVID-19 has really exposed the need for us to march confidently into a digital future, to put human capital at the center. Many of us in the tech community have been working on these problems for years, so I can't think of anybody more qualified to provide solutions, and I just hope that we don't shrink from our responsibilities and that we instead think bigger about what we can accomplish together.
What are your top work essentials?
My laptop, my phone, my headphones and Red Bull.
At what age did you found your company?
I founded Future Africa when I was twenty-eight.
What’s your most used app?
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Great things are built by a number of people who, individually, could have built something simply decent but choose to come together to build something transformative.
What’s your greatest skill?
Building trust with people.