Rags to Riches: How This Entrepreneur Did It Without Internet And Smartphone
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How far would you be willing to go to achieve your business goals if you had to start from zero, in a rural community, and you lacked the basic tools and resources you needed to pursue those goals?
Would you be willing to, for instance, consistently type reports on an old Nokia phone that’s not even the smartphone we use today?
Well, here’s Abdullahi Muhammed, a Nigerian entrepreneur who did just that.
He comes from a very humble beginning, a common man, traumatic childhood, in dire financial straits, in a country where basic resources like electricity, personal computers and Internet connectivity were luxuries. He turns to writing, creatively improvises for the lack of resources and starts to move things.
This guy has won prizes in11 writing contests and authored two published books. He’s the founder and CEO of Oxygenmat Ltd, a digital marketing company with six figures in annual US dollar revenues. Not bad for a company based in Nigeria.
I’ve interacted with him several times and found him an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs. I set up a Skype call to hear his story.
Here are the extracts from the interview:
Can you tell me about your childhood and how you started your first business?
I was born in Kano, Nigeria, to a loving family of five. The economy was good and my parents were middle class doing fairly well.
Around 1992, when I was only 3 years old, ethnic crises took over the city, and it happened to occur every couple of years.
The economy took a downward spiral and my parents’ finances became really constrained. The crises reached a peak in 1998 some weeks after the death of the Nigerian military dictator, General Sani Abacha.
My family narrowly escaped being murdered – we’d have been killed had we not absconded from our home to stay with my uncle in Sabon Gari, the only relatively safe area in the city aside the military barracks, just few hours before the rioters stormed our house. We lost a large chunk of our properties and once the unrest subsided, we departed Kano for Lagos – for good.
Thanks to the crises and frequent relocations, I had to attend six different primary schools and had a somewhat traumatic childhood. My family had to start life from zero – well, almost.
I’d hawk garri – a type of local flour made from cassava – after school to make some cash, and that was my first business. I was just in fourth grade at the time.
At different times during my primary and high school years, I worked as a cleaner, waiter, bricklayer assistant, casual factory worker, phone repairer, among others.
You didn’t mention anything about writing. When and how did you start writing and were there some challenges you had to overcome?
It was in 2009; I was in the first year at the University of Ilorin studying Law and I was still doing some hustles on the side to pay the bills.
A student association was staging an essay contest. At the prompting of a friend and despite my fears and self-doubts, I drafted my entry on paper. It was really messy, the ideas disjointed and with lots of crossed-out parts. Then I typed it on the notepad of my Nokia 6080 phone – the only tech gadget I had.
I borrowed a laptop from a friend, transferred the draft to it via a Bluetooth device, edited and printed it – ready to submit.
But I became convinced everything was all a waste of time. I was going to tear it up and never look back. It looked too uninspiring to beat any other entry. My friend insisted I submit it. I grudgingly did and to my surprise, I clinched the second prize. I felt great and started searching online for other writing contests I could enter.
I didn’t have a computer or a reliable Internet connection but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I would type my essay contest entries on my Nokia 6080 phone, save it in my email draft and borrow a computer from a friend to retrieve it, or use a Bluetooth device to transfer it.
I’d sometimes trek several kilometers to access the Internet to do my research and eventually submit my entry.
Within two years, I’d won several prizes including iPads, laptops, cash and sponsored trips.
By the end of 2013, I’d entered in 100 contests and had won in 11 of them. My obstacles and lack of resources actually acted as fuel in helping me succeed.
So when and how did writing become a career for you?
That happened in 2013 through my first website, Naija Writers’ Coach. I had started it to cater to the constant requests from friends and well-wishers that I share writing tips with them and let them in on writing contests they too could enter.
The website became pretty popular within a year, reaching over a 100,000 people. I leveraged the platform to publish two books, “Your Right to Write” and “Vertical Writing.”
I was able to monetize the site through affiliate marketing, book sales, consultancy and freelance writing. Over time, I shifted my focus to freelance writing and consulting and when my client base expanded, I took the big leap and started my company, Oxygenmat Ltd.
So what are your offerings at Oxygenmat Ltd?
We’re a boutique digital marketing company helping our clients with content creation, content promotion, infographic creation and online reputation management.
We’ve worked with clients from the US, UK, Australia, Canada and about 19 other countries. We also build and manage Web assets in small niches which provide a secondary and somewhat passive stream of income for us.
We’re all about helping our clients increase their brand exposure, get more traffic, engage their audience and increase their revenues.
Let’s talk about your education again. You had a First Class degree in Law. How easy was it?
To be honest, it wasn't that hard, but it was a lot of work.
I was combining my university study with my writing pursuits and other side ventures to pay the bills. I was also an active participant in a number of student associations, so I was all the more engaged. That made it challenging and there were times when one or the other of those engagements suffered. But I tried to maximize the little time I had, work extra hours and maintain a positive mindset.
It paid off as my First Class degree was the first in the history of my department. I won the award of the Best Graduating Student in the Faculty of Law and was awarded a scholarship by the President of the Nigerian Senate.
What advice do you have for other folks from humble backgrounds who want to be entrepreneurs?
Become passionate about something, have a positive mindset, work super hard and smart, learn as much as you can and always find ways to improvise when you don’t have the tools or resources you need.
You’ll have doubts, face challenges, make mistakes and probably even fail. But you only get lucky in the end if you keep moving, so do just that.
Abdullahi’s story is one of many stories where entrepreneurs have reached their goals in spite of the lack of resources. Everything is a perspective; entrepreneurs see opportunities when everybody else sees obstacles. The most important lesson we can learn from this interview with Abdullahi is that everything seems difficult, initially, but if we stick on and continue our pursuit towards our goals, anything is possible.