“We Want Our Ideas To Change The World” – Ayeni Adekunle On Entrepreneurship, PR and Leadership

Ayeni Adekunle is many different things to different people. He describes himself as a stammerer, failed microbiologist, failed musician and failed author. To some, he is a respected Public Relations practitioner and journalist with a CV boasting the likes of Punch, Encomium, Hip Hop World, Thisday and The Africa Report amongst many. To others, he is a successful entrepreneur who runs his own PR agency and an entertainment newspaper. To his family, he is a happily married husband and father of two.

The BHM Group CEO recently sat down with TELL magazine for a no-holds-barred interview session covering his personal life, his work, his background and his aspirations.

Can you give us a brief summary of what BlackHouse Media is all about?

BHM Group is my first business that was registered in 2006 I think, while I was still a reporter. I remember having to pay three or four times to get the business registered. It was not even a limited liability company. It’s now a holding company for the businesses that we have. It was registered then and we started running it from my house in Akute – I was staying in a two-bedroom flat in Akute. I didn’t even have a dining table. I remember I bought a small chair and table, and I went to computer village to assemble a computer. At that time you could still assemble computers. So that was how we started.

A few years after, my elder brother and friend Ayo Animashaun said “You can’t be working from home, all the way from Akute. You should come to town regularly.” His own office was in Allen. He said, “Let me give you a chair and table in my office.” So he gave me a small space in his office where I was working from, and that is the story. We got our first staff, then our second staff. Eventually we went to rent our own small office and then we’ve grown and grown.

I think that what we have done is build a business from zero kobo because we didn’t have any facilities , we didn’t have any money and we didn’t borrow any money. If I were to say we borrowed, then I’d say…my wife had a job at the time so we had her ATM card. Anytime they paid her salary, that was the money we were using to run our business, pay salaries, pay money for transportation and everything else.

You should also note that after I left Encomium in 2007, I wrote for Thisday but it was for free. I did not earn any money. I was what you would call an external columnist. I had a column on Sundayand it was quite popular, but I did not earn a salary for it. For two years, it was my wife’s salary that we were using to find our feet. We really didn’t have business at that time. We started out working for musicians and actors and record labels who did not have great budgets.

It was in 2009 that we rebranded and began to work for corporate organisations, and I think that was when our story changed because corporate organisations valued the experience we had with entertainers and young people.  They wanted to use those platforms to tell their own stories, so it was a win-win for us. People now think we are an entertainment company. I don’t argue with them because I think entertainment has been very good to us, even though we are a full-fledged media and communications group with skills across different sectors – oil & gas, financial services, consumer goods, telecommunications, education, agriculture, politics or whatever.

We have contacts across the media. I don’t think it has ever happened in Nigeria that an organisation comes from entertainment  – working for musicians and dancers and actors – and they move to working for multinationals. That’s our story and we are proud of it.

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When you started working with corporate organisations, which was your first business?

Two companies gave us an opportunity and I will forever be grateful to them. I hate to discuss our clients because as much as possible, we like to keep their names out but two companies gave us an opportunity. One was Viacom. Viacom is an American company. They own MTV Base which launched here in 2005. We started working for them around 2008 or 2009. We did the pitch on the phone – it was a phone interview and we got the business. They didn’t know our office and they didn’t know us.

In fact when I was a reporter, I had written harsh articles against them, so I was so sure that they were not going to give a chance to “this stupid boy” but they were very professional, they knew what they were looking for. We were young people and our staff strength must have been around five or six at that time but they didn’t care. They just liked our ideas and they gave us an opportunity. For me, those are the kind of opportunities that change the course of people’s careers.

Also Hennessy Nigeria also gave us an opportunity. In handling media and Public Relations for Viacom and Hennessy’s, we were able to show what we can do and a lot of other clients that have come to us, have come to us because could see seen what we did for these other brands.

I saw your mission statement downstairs and two things caught my attention – excellent media and PR. How do you intend to blend these two?

They actually work together. I think Media Relations is the most visible part of PR and is almost the most measurable part of PR. I think they work together. What we do is to treat media very loosely. When you think of media, you think of newspapers and magazines and websites and TV and Radio – no. We think of media as any platform that provides an opportunity for us to have conversations. Let me give you an example. The artists that paint – they use the word ‘media’. Do you get what I am saying? If I can get on a bus in Gusau or Mgbidi and speak to 50 passengers, and convince them to try my new product, that bus as far as I am concerned is a media vehicle.

So we see media as any platform that gives us an opportunity to communicate with people we have identified as important to us or to people that we work for. Understanding the media in that way frees our minds from limiting ourselves to “I have to get into the newspaper”. There are some stories you can tell very well in the newspapers. There are some you can tell better on radio. There are some you can tell in the marketplace. There are some you can tell in churches. Whatever vehicles that we find we can use for that purpose will come in.

Now PR. People see PR as the conventional thing where you just issue press releases and chase reporters and editors – no. Our approach to PR is social, meaning PR has gone beyond the days when all you need to do is know an influential editor or know the publisher and you are OK. Before, you could only talk to the public and they couldn’t talk back. If you remember a few years ago to get into TELL or The Guardian, you had to write a letter to the editor if you are a reader. Out of 1,000 letters, TELL will only have space to publish five and there was no website of course. Even the five they published, they would cut it because of space.

That was years ago. There was no way for me the consumer, me the public, me the audience to actually talk back. If you say nonsense in your paper, I would have to write and the letter might probably go missing or something. Today, if you say nonsense, right now they will give it back to you now, now, now. You don’t even need to be on their platform. You can say your nonsense in your own market, or in your own magazine or in your own newspaper and somebody will take it to Twitter or to Facebook and they will tear you apart – right there. They don’t need your permission, they don’t need to come into your space.

The landscape has changed. The territory has evolved so our approach to PR is to understand how that media landscape has changed and what tools we need to use to make sense out of it. Before there was a brick wall and the media was behind it. You couldn’t get through – you had to talk to the media to get to the consumer. Today, they have broken everything into a free-for-all. Everybody is a potential publisher today. Every consumer, every brand is a publisher. Each time you put up a post on Facebook, each time you put up a post on LinkedIn, on Instagram or on Twitter, you are publishing content.

That is the thinking behind our understanding of PR – that to get excellent media and Public Relations, we must understand the mindset of the society today. Way back you would speak sign language. If I sent you this thing, you know what it means. You would know that this thing that Ayeni has sent has four legs and a head. This means that this thing that we have done will have four types of repercussions. That was the message. Then you too would craft your own and you would send me a book and I would say “Ah! 270-something pages!” That was then! So we need to understand the trends today to be able to make sense out of what we are doing.

You said in February that your company crossed the $1m mark. Can you give us details?

It looks like a lot of money on paper, but it’s actually not a lot of money. I’ve got a lot of phone calls. It’s not a lot of money. I actually feel sad that people think it’s a lot of money – no it’s not. How we try to operate is to be as open as possible, as if we are a public company. Yes, we are a private company but we want to operate that way. So we have never tried to hide our figures. When I said we hit the $1 million mark over three years ago, I was trying to do a couple of things.

We need to situate that in the context of this guy that left school with a third class; this guy that is a stammerer, this guy that didn’t study PR or Mass Communication in school. This guy is just a common microbiologist. This guy with all these disadvantages, has somehow been able to achieve this. We are in a far better position today than three years ago when we hit the $1 million mark. If I tell you what our projections are for the next five years, you will understand that $1 million – which is a big deal to me and for where I’m coming from – is probably what we will use to pay staff salaries in the next couple of years.

We are truly keen on building a global organisation. There is no excuse – “We are a Nigerian company,” “You know there is no power,” “You know the roads are bad,” “You know there is corruption” – no. We want to rise above all those challenges and build a company the world will be proud of.  There is no perfect system anywhere. The people in America, the people in China, the people in Singapore, the people in Japan, the people in Korea are working around their issues to create fantastic products and build great organisations. Look at what has happened in Dubai and in Abu Dhabi.

So we have this vision that in spite of all these challenges that we face, we can someday tell a story saying wow, in spite of all we have faced, we have built this company that is in 17 countries; we’ve built this company that is empowering 7,000 people across different cities and we’ve been able to help all these brands to do better business. We will not judge that by how much is in our bank account. We will judge that by what our driving purpose is, which is to place people first before profit. If we’ve been able to build the next set of leaders that can shape our industry, our country and the world for better, we are OK.

If we are able to create products and services that can make people’s lives better, we are OK. If we are able to build a company that can play its own tiny role in making the world see Nigeria in a better light, I have succeeded. If I can pay my kids’ school fees and put food on my table, I am a happy man.

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In the last three years, yes you’ve hit the $1 million mark. We all know the kind of challenges you face doing business in Nigeria without a godfather. You recently birthed ID Africa – what is the driving force apart from making money and affecting lives. How come after achieving all this, you’re still looking for more land to clear and process?

If I know the answer to that question maybe I won’t be here. I don’t think I know the answer to that question. I just know that if God plants ideas in your heart and in your head, I think it will be unfair to not pursue them. I don’t believe in accidents. If the idea comes to my head and I think about it and it makes sense, I’ll do it. We are launching three more businesses this year. Two of them are ready and awaiting rollout. So if the idea comes, it makes sense, the business discusses it and we think we can fund it and we have the right people, we’ll do it.

As I’ve said it’s not because I want to be the richest man. It’s not my ambition to be rich. My former boss used to advise me about dressing when I was much younger. I would tell him “Sir I love to dress well, but I don’t want to walk down the street and have people say “Oh wow, see what that guy is wearing.” I want to be assessed and judged by the quality of my character and the quality of my work. If I can dress well and do that – fantastic. If something needs to give, it will be dressing.” So it’s the same thing. I’m not driven by “Oh wow there’s this new car!”

I think that we are primarily spiritual beings that are having a physical manifestation. So if I’m on a flight or I’m in the house or I’m driving and an idea comes to me and I think it can solve problems and I think I can do it and sustain it, then let’s do it. Do you get what I’m saying? But to also be honest, I am also very afraid of failure. I’m very, very afraid of failure. I have suffered. I’ve gone to bed several times with no food. I’ve trekked around this whole Ikeja – I’ve trekked everywhere. I’ve begged for transport money on the street. I have slept on the street. I have seen stuff. So I know what it is to not have and I know what it is to not have hope.

I was telling my wife last night that I have friends that I know don’t like me that much. Failure is an orphan. So I’ve seen all that and I don’t want to go back there. So I am passionate about making the right kind of investment. Instead of buying cars and doing parties, I am passionate about investing in people and products and systems. That is how we built this place. We set up this office when we had nothing. I still don’t fly first class or business class. It is not important to me. If you think I’m poor and I’m broke – fantastic! Because I know what the money for five first class trips will do. I know who is paying for it. I’m the one paying for it.

I’ve learnt to make the right kind of investment. I’ve learnt to spend my time well. Judiciously. I’ve learnt to choose my friends wisely. I’ve learnt to invest in my business and my people because that is the only way this business can survive. As long as my business survives, I can at least live comfortably. I don’t want my kids to have as bad an education as I had. I don’t want to go back to Okokomaiko. So a combination of the understanding of why these things occurred to me and also the fact that right now as I speak to you, if I want to eat anything right now, I can afford to eat it – it’s a miracle. I don’t want to go back to the day when I didn’t have a dime. I know what it is. The day when I had just a pair of sandals.

I am young, and I have this very rare opportunity, so if we need to build twenty companies – fantastic. However we will never float a business that is not necessary just because “They are making money there.” We are not driven by money – oil & gas today, real estate tomorrow, no. If we see an opportunity to solve a problem; if we see an opportunity to create some value and use our people better, then we’ll do it.

On ID Africa, what is the company set up to achieve? What is your goal?

To tell stories.

Stories of…?

To tell stories. Your story. My story. Brand stories. Nigerian stories. As concerns Digital Marketing, Nigeria is very late to the party – if the party is not even over. We are fortunate to have an understanding based on our PR background of the fact that people who consume content on the Internet, we know what they are looking for. So how can we create a company that can give them that kind of content and deliver value to them and to the brands who are trying to talk to them?

The practice of Digital Marketing exists across all the platforms – Facebook and all that – but what people are doing is not even scratching the surface. They are still doing advertising. From the data that we have, people engage more with great stories and great content than advertising. If we are storytellers, why don’t we take that same skill into that segment and help brands make a killing? They have been spending a lot of money in the last couple of years. They are not seeing that kind of value yet.

We’re still at the point of – put this advert before this YouTube video plays. Everybody skips it! Do you use YouTube? You know when you want to watch a video and the advert says You can skip this advert in 3…2…1….” Everybody can’t wait to skip. So we think we have an understanding of how to use that social space better and create the kind of conversations that can help people meet each other and have a nice time whether it’s brand and consumer or consumer and consumer or brand and brand or friend.

We want to create a social agency that can make this happen. It’s not just a service agency. It is a product and service agency. We have our own products that we are going to launch in the coming new month and then we are also working with brands who want to try something else; brand who want to use this platform better.

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I observed that in most of your photographs I have seen on social media, you are dressed in white and the name of the group is BlackHouse Media. Where did you get that concept from?

 It’s from a Yoruba proverb. Ninu ikoko dudu l’eko funfun tin jade. Look at me, I’m having pure pap. But imagine those days, how the pot that they used to make this thing would have been – black, dirty with charcoal. That black dirty pot is Nigeria and Africa. You know dirty, rubbish, rugged. But from that Dark Continent, from that 3rd world, from that darkness will come some of the greatest ideas that will change the world. We want to be one of those ideas that will change the world. So the name is simply from that proverb.

My clothing colour is an accident. I like to dress well, but I don’t have time to dress. So as a CEO, to go to work you have to wear a suit, a tie, a pocket square, combine your socks, your belt…I don’t have that time! I don’t want to spend my time looking for clothes. I have a 9 o’clock meeting and I’m still trying to dress up? No. So I started wearing buba and shokoto which is formal if you put a cap on it and looks responsible. It’s not bad. So I started having different types – blue, brown etc. After a while, I just found out that I felt more comfortable in the white ones. I liked them. They stood out for me. So I told my tailor, “Don’t give me any other colour anymore. Don’t give me long sleeve. Give me short sleeve.”

After I while I found out that it fits well with this African story of who we are. Even when I travel abroad – I was in Las Vegas in January – I was wearing my buba and shokoto and cap everywhere. As long as the weather permits me, that’s what I am going to wear. So I can be ready for work in 15 minutes if I wake up late and I need to get to work at 8.45. There is no ceremony. I’ve realized that I’d rather invest my time in my work and spend time with my family than to be thinking about different suits, different colours, combining them well – today do I wear a blue suit and brown pants?

If I had my way, I would just wear a t-shirt and jeans and get the job done. There’s no time for all that. I just want to solve problems. It works well with out culture and our work culture is one of dress down. You really don’t need to overdress. Just be comfortable and decent with the job.

How can young Nigerians start and run a successful business like you did?

I don’t think BHM is successful yet. BHM will be successful by the grace of God. I think what stopped me for many years before I started was fear of the unknown. The day I overcame that fear, my life changed. Thinking that you need money to start is a lie. You don’t need money to start. Those two things limit people; prevent them from actually rolling out. The people there will make it look to you as if they are superhumans, as if they have two brains – it’s a lie. Nobody has two brains. You need to not let that fear hold you down and then you need to stop thinking that you need to have everything you need to start. Start small. I started from my living room in Akute. I know people who started their businesses from their briefcases.

The less resources you start with, the more you can actually improvise and innovate. Then don’t borrow money to start your business except it is a business that you have done over and over and you know your way around it. It is better to start and grow organically and get to a level where it is clear that you need some funding or some facility. I also think that it will help if we rethink our idea of education. We think education is just to go to university and get a degree and come out. It’s a joke. That kind of education teaches you only to be an employee. You finish, then you do your CV and you start looking for work.

We first need to understand as young people the role that kind of education plays, and the role the out-of-school education that we have also plays. You need to read. You need to make friends with people who are doing what you think you want to do. For the schools, we need to understand the importance of teaching business, leadership and investment in our curriculum – which a lot of curriculums across the world are doing.

There is this I.T. boom now. Nigeria has the largest Internet population in Africa. We should be teaching our kids all that from primary school. We should be teaching coding in primary school now. The students need to rethink their understanding of education. They need to learn as much out of school as they do in school. The schools need to understand the importance of teaching what will actually be useful. We are almost 200 million people. There is unemployment and underemployment and we have all these resources. How can we create entrepreneurs? How can we teach them to be entrepreneurs? Imagine teaching someone entrepreneurship from primary school up to secondary school and university.

You said you couldn’t start on time out of fear of the unknown. How were you able to tackle this fear?

I was pushed to the wall and my wife encouraged me. My wife believed I should do it. I had a bad job so it was easier for me to leave eventually. I had a bad job that was not paying well. So it was easy to conquer that fear. After two years, I just thought kini mo n wa na? How much am I even getting here? If I leave, worst case, I will starve and survive somehow.

It wasn’t an overnight thing. I left several months after I should have left. I would say “I’m leaving in two months.” Then I’d think again “How will I survive?” “What if? What if? What if? What if?” Even starting out, the first two years I was still getting job offers. I was still going for some interviews because of that fear that maybe I should actually find a job. I was still considering some job offers. It took a year or two before I decided that no matter what, even if they called me from a company and offered me N25 million per month, I’m not listening. Then once you start recording some small successes, you say Ehen! And it boosts your confidence.

Also having the right kind of friends helped, I mean it was my friend that offered me his office. I think having the right kind of support system around you – family people who understand what you are trying to do, or even if they don’t understand, are willing to support you. I have an elder sister who is an engineer. I would say herself, my wife and my friend Ayo Animashaun  were the people who said “Guy, we are behind you. Don’t worry. Worst case you will fail. Don’t worry, we will support you.”

So far, in the last 16 years…?

Well I’ve been working since 1994 which is some 21 years. But professionally, as a business – this business – it’s our eighth year. Personally, my own career in the media as a writer is sixteen years.

In the last eight years, you must have taken a lot of decisions. Which of them would you say was the most difficult and what helped you?

The only decision I think I have taken that I think is difficult and which I’m happy we took is to invest in our people without tying them down. That’s the most risky and the most important decision. We train staff anywhere in the world. If you need to go to Japan, oya let’s go to Japan with no strings attached. If we say we place people first before profit, we must invest in them, so our policy is build a better ecosystem. If the ecosystem is worth N10, and we have 10% of it, we have N1. But if we build our own and it’s worth 40 Kobo, it doesn’t make any sense. So the decision is to actually decide that somebody that you like, that you know can change the fortune of your company can wake up tomorrow and say “I’m leaving” and we still keep them as our friends.

All the people that have worked here still come here to play after they have left. We are still friends and family. They can still drop in to my house on Saturday. So the decision is that we want to love our people and treat them well. If you love people, you don’t tie them down. It’s like giving. You give without expecting anything in return. It may not be the best business decision but I told my board that I think we should try to create this business this unusual way. Let’s do something different.

Look at our story now. This person that you thought was so desirable left four years ago. You thought this place would die if this person leaves. That four years ago you were making N1000. Now you are making N15,000. You have grown x15. Can’t you see that God is blessing you? So why are you trying to hold people down? But it’s tough. In terms of actual business transactions however, nothing. I am having a ball and a groove. I am having fun. “There is nothing that is difficult – nothing. I am living the life that I always wanted to live. There are no issues, nothing. We don’t have bank issues. I can’t remember the last time we borrowed money from a bank. We don’t have bank issues.

It’s the normal challenges of everyday living that we face. Business challenges. There is nothing peculiar or spectacular. It comes, we deal with it and we move on. I love those issues because we come out better. I love the challenges because they make us better. Nothing is remarkably difficult apart from the fact that we decided that we want to invest in our people and in our industry. If you love somebody, the fact that they don’t date you or they don’t marry you does not mean that you should hate them. You should still be praying for them that well, God will be with you. It means we were not meant to be together. If you start scattering everywhere because you don’t get what you want, then that’s not love.

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Let’s talk about challenges now. What are the challenges you have been facing in the industry?

Dealing with people. We are 66-strong now. Dealing with people is tough. Different types of people. Different backgrounds, different mindsets, different understandings, it’s tough. Getting the right people. One of the easiest ways to know how much our educational system has been damaged is to employ people. You will see how much people who had 2:1 or 1st class don’t know. People who cannot even write simple letters or communicate properly in proper language, or carry out simple instructions. It’s difficult to find the right people to employ.

So you have to employ them as a fresh canvass and spend the first one or two months training and training and training. Then you finish training after 6, 7, 8 months and you think now these guys are going to do the job and they tell you that they are leaving. Do you get what I am saying? So finding and keeping the right people is very, very tough. Outside that, there are the issues that every business faces. I’m sure we are on diesel right now. Multiple taxation from the government. The kind of business we have built should be enjoying a lot of benefits and exemptions from the government because we are employing people. We are creating a miracle here. But no.

For me, it’s fine. The beauty of the story at the end of the day is to come up excellent in spite of all those issues. There are challenges like cashflow. If you are a young business or a new business, you will have cashflow issues. The past few years were very tough in terms of cashflow, but now we have stabilized. We know what our budget for the year will most likely be and we have made provisions for it. We spread our spending and we’re OK. Another challenge is to find a good work-life balance. When you are chasing your dream, how do you make sure that your kids don’t suffer for it? How do you make sure that your marriage doesn’t suffer for it? How do you make sure that your health doesn’t suffer for it?

It’s important to make sure that you eat well, you take time off to spend with your family, and in getting busy in the work to also develop yourself for the future so as not to get stuck in now. As you are working, things are changing. If you don’t upgrade your knowledge and invest time in building capacity, before you know it you will be outdated and irrelevant. As I said, I am enjoying every bit of it.

Where do you see BHM in 5 years?

Possibly Nigeria’s first global agency. We are building a company that the world will recognize as a doer, as a change agent. In the next 5 years, the story will be the story of impossibility, that these guys could never have done this – they could never. With the quality of education, with their age, with their experience and with their resources – how did they do it? We will be great case studies with the help of God.

What does leadership mean to you?

Service. Investment. Focus. Responsibility. Service meaning you are not the number one man. You are the last man. If you are a leader, you are the first to get here and you are the last to leave here. If you are a leader, you roll up your sleeves and get the job done. Service. Investment – you must be willing to sacrifice and make the right kind of investments into the people that are supposed to be following you. Material investments, personal investments. Focus – you can’t lose sight. You can’t take your eyes off the ball for one second or you’re gone. Its as simple as that. Why are you here?

Responsibility – you have to lead by example. If you are a leader of a football team, or of a city or of a company, what are the expectations that people have of you. Things as little as getting to meetings on time and treating people well. Not messing around with your followers. Taking the bullet for your guys – two of your guys have messed up, you have to take responsibility even if it means you’re going to be killed. You are the leader, the general. If you take your men to war and lose and you come back, you won’t say “It’s the men that you gave me. This one couldn’t fight.”

I think those are guiding principles, but also very importantly, you must be able to even know in the first place where you are going to and if you are actually leading. A lot of people think that they are leading. They’re actually just taking a stroll. There is nobody behind them. Where are you going to? Have you made your guys understand clearly so that even if you miss your way they can call you back? Have your shared the dream and the vision? Do they understand it clearly?

Most of the time, the leader just sees the vision. It is people that will take it and run with it. People. Nelson Mandela was not a dreamer of all the things that he was. He was recruited. In fact he joined them reluctantly. It wasn’t his vision. He didn’t found the ANC, he didn’t found the ANC Youth Council. It was Walter Sisulu and co. that toasted him and co-opted him. The rest is history. He caught the vision. He ran with it. It’s as simple as that.

Thank you very much Mr Ayeni. I really appreciate the time.

Thank you sir!

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