Ideas are common. It’s the will to execute them that counts.
Entrepreneurship is not something I ever saw myself doing. At age 8 or 9, I had just read Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island.’ After that, my life ambition was to be a pirate. When the movie ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ was released, it easily became my favorite movie of all time, still is.
As I grew older, however, I began to realize pirating was an impractical career path. We lived thousands of miles from the nearest ocean, I couldn’t swim to save myself, and I had an overbearing parent who insisted that I follow the ambitions of my peers and go after the usual options — engineering and medicine. I ended up studying management and accounting, but that’s a story for a different time.
Anyways, now that the background info is out of the way, I can honestly say my first foray into business was when I was in university. Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, was a full-on university community, complete with student hostels, staff quarters, duly elected student union government, grand lecture halls, top-class sporting facilities — the whole nine yards. I stayed with an uncle during the holidays.
Now this uncle had a thriving business selling water by the tankers. He was lucky to find an area on his land where underground water flowed in opposite directions. The junction where both streams met is where he sunk the borehole to pump the water up and store it in a large reservoir. Come rain or shine, water was always flowing out. On a good day, we sold water to between 8 and 13 water tankers. It was the easiest business ever since there were no unnecessary overheads and fixed costs were minimal. A single day’s income was enough to keep the business afloat for 2 to 3 weeks.
Whenever I was home on holiday, he would ask me to clean the reservoir. Now in a traditional Nigerian household, when you’re asked to do something to help around the house, you never get paid. But my uncle always paid me. He said he wanted me to learn the value of being productive with my time and getting paid for it.
That was the spark for me. And so I started to look at the world differently. If I can get paid for climbing into a reservoir and scrubbing it clean, what else could I do to continue getting paid?
Luckily, the school I was attending provided ample opportunities.
The Lecture Notes
The first was through a lecturer who insisted that complete notes were a requirement for passing his course — International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS). Basically, if you didn’t have complete handwritten notes of all his lectures, you weren’t passing his class. And you must pass this class because it is a prerequisite to an advanced class in the next academic year.
Naturally, most of my classmates, I included, did not have complete notes. For me, the subject was boring as hell. I could barely keep up with internal cost accounting, so keeping up with the international stuff was already too much to handle.
But then I heard one of my classmates complaining about it and wishing he had someone to get him a complete set of notes for that course so he could pass. I asked him how much he was willing to pay for it and from there we just got to talking about the possibility of outsourcing the task. I gave him a quote and started doing the writing for him.
By the time I finished, almost everyone had heard about my outsourcing service to write the full semester’s notes on their behalf. I had like 20 people ready to pay there and then. I knew I didn’t have the time to do it. Hell, I didn’t even have complete notes myself. But the money was good and there was no way I was letting the opportunity pass.
So I started asking around if there were any fellow students from a different class if they were interested in making easy money. All they had to do was copy a semester’s worth of handwritten notes. Turns out there were tons of like-minded people around. Two people signed up immediately. And that was it. Instead of submitting one finished copy after three days, I was delivering five to six finished copies in a week. The money was rolling in.
Sadly, I didn’t know much about how to manage my finances at the time, which is ironic since one of the courses I was taking that year was financial management. And so like any typical university student with some money to spend, I blew most of the money on booze and parties. Heh, I don’t regret any of that anyway. Those life experiences were necessary.
But what’s even sadder? The lecturer never asked for those completed notes. Some of my classmates experienced buyer’s remorse at the end of the semester, but hey business is business. That was one of the best years of my life.
The Outsourced Laundry Service
This opportunity would have slipped by me but for the intervention of my then roommate. He was one of those roommates that always looks out for you, a true bro. If we had a test or exam coming, he would ask if I understood the subject matter enough. He knew I always struggled with some of the various formulae and technical aspects of financial accounting. If I didn’t, he would explain in layman terms until I understood.
Anyway, we were talking one day and he mentioned that he met a fellow student on the university campus who wanted to sell his washing machine. Up till that point in my life, my clothes had always been washed by hand, by me. This was the case for everyone too. A washing machine was basically a luxury item at the time. So we both knew this wasn’t something just anyone could afford.
And he was like, “why not just use it instead?” At any given time, there were thousands of students on campus. Surely we’d find a few people among them who wouldn’t mind getting their laundry done for them. Of course, we would have to charge student rates, but still, there was money to be made.
So he went back to the guy selling the washing machine and pitched the idea to him. He would get a fixed rate for washing the clothes while the rest was ours. We had one primary focus on our end — marketing. And where better to start than with the people you interact with every day — classmates. It just took word-of-mouth marketing to get some of them to get excited about it. After all, what university student wants to spend their weekend washing dirty clothes?
But there was a big problem.
At the prices we were quoting, these people expected us to include ironing and folding in the service too. They were simply unwilling to pay for washing only. We either ironed the clothes before delivering them or there was no business to be done. Other segments we polled said the same thing. We needed to push through this barrier. What other choice did we have? We could already taste the profits. And so I did the needful.
That’s right. I ironed my classmates’ clothes!
Here’s how it went. On Friday evenings or Saturday mornings, I would go to the campus and visit my customers’ rooms one by one to do a pickup. Since the guy washing the clothes was living on the campus too, it was just a short trip from one hostel to the other.
Anyway, I would drop the clothes with him and take my leave. When he was done, he’d send the clothes to me through local transport. The cost was negligible, plus it meant I didn’t have to come back to do a pickup.
When the clothes arrived, usually later that evening or the next day, I’d get to work. I would iron the clothes, fold them, and put them in a bag. Arrange each one and then hand-deliver them to their respective owners on Sunday evenings.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. A couple of times, I had to stand there while my classmate criticized my ironing work. I admit I did burn one or two shirts mistakenly, but well, shit happens. However, this was the first time in my life someone I usually sat next to in class would give me a tongue lashing, and I just had to sit there and take it.
But I also had happy customers. And they always paid their bill. So at least I never had to chase anyone for late or nonpayments. There was that.
Anyway, that was my final year in school. Same for the guy washing the clothes. And so the business ended once we graduated.
The lessons I learned
These events taught me some of the biggest lessons in running a business. What’s even better is that I personally experienced them so the lessons were deeply ingrained.
A lot of people think it’s beneath them to market themselves or their services to people they know. Sometimes, they even feel embarrassed because they’re only in the initial stage of their business and it seems a tad desperate to be providing services for your own classmates.
But here’s the thing — if you can’t sell to people who know you, how do you expect to sell to people who don’t know you exist?
Also, green is green. When I was collecting the payments from my classmates, I never felt any sense of shame. I had worked for this money. And whether it was coming from my classmates or from some stranger, my account balance was growing. Yet again, I had been productive with my hands and got paid for it.
But I think the most important lesson for me was that there is a mighty fine line between an idea and its execution. No matter how well you plan it, things won’t always turn out the way you expect. And yet the execution is the most important part — it’s what gets you paid.
Ideas are important, for sure. But everybody’s got one and therefore not that valuable. Execution is everything.