The Nigerian digital industry does not have a shortage of talents, thanks to Utiva, a talent accelerator startup founded in 2017 by a brilliant, youthful, and enigmatic entrepreneur, Eyitayo Ogunmola. He has given many Nigerians access to the fundamental computing skills required in the twenty-first-century workplace.
In an exclusive chat with Business Elites Africa, Eyitayo provides more information about the business and some of the current initiatives the company has in place to make sure that Nigerians acquire more skills in 2022.
BEA: What made you start Utiva?
Eyitayo: It was in 2017. I was in the U.S., and I was working with one of the largest international development firms. We were building technology products and wanted to build an educational product. I advocated for local engineers and developers in Africa, but we couldn’t find any.
So I saw the gap, and I saw that there were opportunities, but there were not a lot of talents. I just told myself that I would just come back to Nigeria and create a solution with great data scientists and product managers. I wasn’t sure how we would do it, but I just had faith that it would happen. In 2018, we started officially, but we started the wrong way. But in 2019, we got much more structure.
BEA: What were the steps you took before starting the business?
Eyitayo: Whenever I’m doing something, I just jump right in and figure out things along the way. So the first step I took was that I drove down to the Federal University of Agriculture with one of my friends. We got some students together and asked them what they would like to do after school. We realised that many of them were not exactly sure what they would do. So, I started a very small coaching program for university students that I thought they were going to pay. I was naive.
We had about 25 universities where we were getting young people and training them. I knew that if I had started by helping people to learn online, no one would trust us. So we started with helping people to learn physically. We had spaces in different locations where we were doing various training programs. And then COVID started in 2020, and we started doing online training.
BEA: Did you have any resources or anybody to help you at the early stage?
Eyitayo: Unfortunately, I didn’t have a co-founder, but I had a very large network of friends. I had amazing friends who were always willing to jump in and support me.
BEA: What were your goals when you started this business, and have you achieved them so far?
Eyitayo: What we wanted to do was to become the biggest learning platform on the continent. And, I think we’re kind of lucky today. We are the biggest right now in terms of learning technology skills. I don’t think any company is doing the volume we are doing. One of the things we also set out to do at the very early stage was to create a different path to learning for young people.
Today, we’ve created more than nine different paths, from Data Science to Product Management, Programming, Blockchain Technology, and Artificial Intelligence to Product Design. One other thing we wanted to do was to create opportunities for companies and businesses to train their workforce. And I think we’re working with over a hundred companies right now.
However, there’s so much to do. Africa is so big. It’s a continent of almost 1.2 billion people, and about 700 million young people. Utiva is just a very small element in a vast, massive world of opportunities. There’s just so much to do. And we are looking forward to an amazing future.
BEA: Speaking of Africa’s size, the tech ecosystem on the continent has seen an influx of venture capital funding. Do you think we’re growing too fast?
Eyitayo: In terms of venture capital investment in Africa, I think that we have not even started. It’s like we haven’t unveiled the opportunities yet. There’s just so much to do. I’ll give you three different opportunities in three different frameworks. Access to credit is not solved in Africa, which means that you and I spend all our money to buy everything we have.
That is not a way to supercharge an economy. So there are massive opportunities that we are sitting on. Education has not been unraveled yet. If you solve education, you’ll be solving millions of other problems attached to education.
In terms of government and policy, Africa hasn’t figured out governance yet, and by just solving that governance problem, you are unravelling many other opportunities. So think about it: if we can solve governance problems, electricity, and the ease of doing business, imagine the millions of young people that would kick start new businesses. Even investors abroad will be tired of investing in Africa because there are just so many opportunities to invest here.
BEA: How did you raise your initial funds?
Eyitayo: We have only raised about $15,000 at the very early stage from an investor who was my friend and a mentor. He gave me the money without signing a document. I’m quite happy that we didn’t raise too much because we would have used all the money to charge problems.
But along the way, we started raising impact funds that don’t dilute your business. They are like free cash to help you build, experiment, and grow.
BEA: What strategies did you use to market your business?
Eyitayo: Friends. But now, we are marketing through multiple channels. We’re running ads, doing different documentaries, and doing road shows. But when we started, we were just doing storytelling and getting my friends to re-share.
BEA: What have you enjoyed the most about this journey?
Eyitayo: The most important thing I have enjoyed is the amazing team that surrounds me. You know, I have super brilliant individuals that I am building with and that have built with me.
BEA: Tell us some of the mistakes you have made as an entrepreneur.
Eyitayo: I mean, it’s like mistakes are an integral part of building a business, but I’ll tell you some of the ones that come to mind, some of the very early ones and some of the later ones. Let me start with the later ones. Pursuing business-to-business (B2B) relationships with all your life and believing that you will get deals is a fallacy. It might not come. You must make sure that you have options and alternatives.
At the very early stage of my business life, I wrote proposals to companies looking for deals, and my entire financials were based on those B2B deals. I just believed they would come, but it was a dead end.
The second mistake I made was that I hired bottom-up, maybe because we didn’t have money. But that’s a very wrong way to build a business.
Don’t hire bottom-up; hire top to down. Hire the senior guys from day one. Don’t say, ‘oh, I would let these young people build for me for the first year and then when we make money, we’re going to hire those senior guys.’ If you can hire those senior guys right now, you should hire them.
This is because, as an entrepreneur, you must be the one learning from your team, not the other way around. So for me, I was the one teaching my team. But now I have team members that are teaching me. And lastly, when you’re building a business, everything is about sales. You need to be selling every minute. In fact, you need to sell like your entire life depends on it.
Well, I understand people are trying to build things, but if you sell and make money, you can go back and build.
BEA: What are the best skills you feel any young person should acquire today?
Eyitayo: Tech skills. I mean, if you really want to be successful and give yourself peace of mind. You must learn a tech skill because it would give you opportunities. Tech skills do not require that you have any form of background.
The nine major tech skills I recommend are data science, product management, product design, cyber security, cloud computing, programming, blockchain technology, business analysis, and digital marketing.
But when you’re learning these tech skills, you must be ready to sacrifice because tech skills require that you practice a lot.
BEA: For someone who has a tech business idea, how do you suggest they start?
Eyitayo: Number one, find a mentor that you can trust. Someone that, at least, can help you refine your idea. The second would be; find the community that will help you incubate your businesses. A lot of them are out there. The final and most important one is going out and talking to customers. Whatever you know is just in your head unless you talk about it. Get out there and talk to customers – devote one month to talking to customers.
BEA: Where do you see Utica in the five years?
Eyitayo: In five years, we should be the biggest learning platform on the continent. That is what we should be. The continent is our vision.