See Part 2.
After the first 6 months of furiously building Hotels.ng, things started running on their own. I was no longer an essential part of the process. So I took a 2 week holiday in Germany. That holiday was super-useful in discovering the parts of my process that were not working well and still needed me. I advice everyone to disconnect from the company for two weeks and observe how well it runs independent of you. If it requires you to be there, then it is not a scalable business.
So the day I came back, a tech founder friend of mine called me and said he had to tell me something important. I asked him what he was. He paused, then said: Rocket Internet are building a hotel booking website. It’s just like yours.
Rocket Internet. The guys with five hundred million dollars. Coming up against me. I had barely $70,000. I started sweating.
I had actually pitched those guys a while back to open a hotel booking website in Nigeria. I searched my email for the pitch-deck to see if it gave away anything. Reading that document made me realize how different assumptions about a business are from when you actually start the business. That would not help them.
How do we beat Rocket Internet? They had everything. Over the following week, I kept thinking about that. But then I noticed something - they kept studying us, trying to find out how we did it. They were trying to beat US.
That’s when I realised that somehow or the other, barely knowing it, we had become the largest hotel booking website in West Africa. So I didn’t have to beat Rocket Internet, they had to beat me.
If you think of it in battle terms, at this point we have two armies, both moving in darkness, trying to get as fast as possible to a particular location. The battle has not started. We were in the deployment phase, and we were far ahead.
So far, we had moved much faster than them. We had done smart things. Even when they started moving, we were accelerating faster than them by any metric you could count. And at a fraction of what they spent. Our total budget of our 20 man team was not up to the annual salary of their MD alone.
So on reflection, I understood how we could beat them. In this movement phase, I will always be faster because they have so far not demonstrated any ability to outsmart us. At some point in the future, both sides would have arrived and it’s time to start the actual battle (which involves having the site the customers prefer to use). A lot of that is based on your ability to market wisely and to build a product that delights customers so much that they market it for you. In both of those aspects, if this were something that more money means you must automatically win, then there would be no instagram or snapchat.
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I know that the team we have at Hotels.ng is good enough to win, even against a deep pocket competitor like Rocket. They have been around for 6 months now, and barely dented our number 1 position. The way we move will make it stay that way.
When you are doing something that is changing the way an old and established market like the hotel industry in Nigeria is, with a lot of old rich men involved, you will face a lot of people who do not understand what you are trying to do.
We have faced a lot of hassles from different sectors - from the troubles our inventory guys face to the banks not understanding our business to the police trying to find out more about what we do, to our cars getting arrested.
This is Nigeria. This is Africa. This is normal. My advice: Have backup, have friends in high places, because if you truly disrupt, you will need their help to solve problems.
The reason so many foreign companies came to Africa and left again is that they could not deal with the problems. You have to know that there will be major problems, and you just solve them and keep going, without ever being distracted from the mission and vision.
It’s not easy to work with someone in close proximity for many months and then fire them. But the role of the CEO of a company is that of a care-taker of a company. You are there to do the best for the company. If a person genuinely cannot contribute to a company, a CEO is obliged to lay the person off.
I think it is better to just maintain a high standard when hiring and fire fast if you must fire. Because we are all humans and all kind - when you know someone well, you may be hesitant to do what’s best for the company because of pity.
The tech scene
What we are building is not in isolation, it’s in the middle of the tech scene. This scene has been invaluable for the company and for me. I have never been a big fan of Lagos, but the fact of the matter is that this is where Nigerian tech is going to be. It will cluster in Lagos and likely in Yaba area.
Since coming to Lagos, I have met a large number of the “twitter famous” people. Each of those people have straight-up provided me with ideas or information. And those words really made a difference.
I strongly believe that technology is so complex and wide that without being in a community, it can never really take fruit and become something significant in the countries economy. One person discovers something, tells someone else. And the second person can use that info and connect it to solve a problem with his business.
The Nigerian tech community is small, but it is helpful. It needs to grow so that we can build a real technology industry here in the biggest African country. The success of technology in Nigeria will determine the success of technology across the rest of Africa, and in my opinion, I think any continent that is left behind in technology industry will forever fall behind in the global economy.
These small apps and websites we are creating now are important for this continent. They have the ability to change and transform it. They are what will create the future industries. So no matter what, we must never stop trying to build a local technology eco-system.
Building Hotels.ng has been hard. But it’s worth it to look at the site/business and see it working. See people booking hotels every day and it all somehow keeps running. All of this was done with the help of a larger technology eco-system, people who were willing to risk capital and the persistence and hard work of the team.
It’s been a good two years. Looking forward to the next two!