The house Ile-Ife built: Jobberman founders share the lessons their startup has taught them

There is no question about it. Jobberman has become the go-to search engine for the Nigerian job market – and for many looking for an authentic made-in-Nigeria success story.

It has connected applicants to thousands of jobs in total with no signup fees whatsoever, and built a massive subscriber base spanning millions and further attracting over 50, 000 subscribers monthly. Receiving two applications per minute as far back as November 2011, it now boasts millions of pageviews monthly on both its website and mobile app interfaces, and an Alexa ranking of 31 for Nigeria.

Four years after it was started by three starry-eyed young Nigerians, they – now settled in their posh Lekki head office – have been noticed at home and abroad, including a ‘best young entrepreneurs’ listing by Forbes, for seizing the opportunity in a country plagued by unemployment.

In providing jobs for their fellow citizens across the board, they have what they would describe as the best job in the world.


Don’t teach me nonsense

There are those who will insist that a Nigerian education immediately puts you at a disadvantage, an assumption that anecdotal evidence across Nigeria’s technology eco-system might look to prove. But, like many stories that dot the landscape, there comes the curious case of Jobberman, founded at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife where all three honchos met and nurtured their dream into reality.

“I think that’s a myth, it’s not reality,” Ayodeji Adewunmi, the company’s chief visionary tells me. “It doesn’t matter where you lived or studied, what matters is what you can offer. Although we’re constrained by certain factors while living or schooling in this country, the major problem is the presence of mental barriers, which has little to do with the environment.

“The chances of success or failure of an individual does not entirely depend on the university system; instead it depends on the individual, because you are your own greatest enemy.

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“There are people who attended Ivy League schools, but still end up being unsuccessful, so an education system does not fully guarantee success; it all depends on the individual.”

It was while in school that they began to run the business, from the virtual space of their laptops and classrooms, attempting to strike a balance between academics and enterprise (“it wasn’t actually a balance”, one chuckles knowingly, “one had to suffer for the other to thrive”). ‘Deji was in medical college while his partners, Lekan Olude and Opeyemi Awoyemi were in the school’s Computer Engineering department.

Their journeys through drudging semesters only strengthened their resolve: they had found the answer to what-next-after-school?


We are the one

The uniformity of purpose that has kept them together stretches past their matching Toyota Corollas and similar university backgrounds to serendipity – their skills that happen to complement each other perfectly.

Opeyemi is the tech lead and built the site from scratch using PHP, Lekan handles corporate communications (“I’m the motivational speaker around,” he jokes) while ‘Deji is head of content.

But a set of complementary skills, determination in droves, and passion for what you do have never a company built, despite what you might have read in motivational books.

Funding, that eternal challenge of the startup, immediately became a problem; with their initial resources drying up soon after the company was established. It was a peculiar situation – while they were being hailed as pioneers in Nigeria’s emerging Internet enterprise space, they were facing existential challenges.

Enter, the saviours.

A significant input by venture capitalists straying into emerging markets was a God-send, being M-TECH cofounder Chika Nwobi’s L5Lab in 2010. But growth, rather than funding, is what ‘Deji describes as more important in the life span of any startup at that crucial point.

“Something about startups, is that like in any business venture, growth is essential,” he leans forward to make what appears to be a very important point. “So, if you can’t show growth, that business is most likely going to collapse, hence you can’t even attract funding, because with growth comes funding.  Agreed, funding is extremely important, but what start-ups need to be focused on achieving first is growth.”


Growing pains

What is the core of that growth?

Asides investments, the core of Jobberman’s revenue comes from listing fees, Lekan shares.

“We also handle a lot of customized services for other clients, very big clients,” he says. “And we partner with telecom operators like MTN to provide mobile content like job vacancy alerts by SMS and there are other arrangements which we derive profits from. We also run advertisements on the website which also generates revenue. We have a number of revenue schemes geared towards building more, but currently that’s all we have.”

But there is always, after the confetti of funding announcements has died down, the question of profitability. This is, after all, four years after the first recorded funding round.

Lekan says Jobberman is not making profits yet.

“We are on a clear path towards being profitable,” he continues. ”But at the moment we are not. One of the reasons is, by nature of what we do, it’s a market-based business; you have the job seekers and the employers and the critical thing about a market-based business is the market share. So sometimes you want to grow a little aggressive and do some strategic things to capture more market share. So we are focused on investing in growth but like I said, we are on a clear path towards becoming profitable.”

Profitability aside, in a country where start-ups crash as frequently as the sun shines; Jobberman is a success, at least in terms of how the public perceives the brand.

After four years of aggressive marketing campaigns via ads across websites and Facebook, traditional media campaigns, partnerships and back-end savvy have given it more than a fair chunk of the existing market share, no other job search engine easily comes to mind in the Nigerian space.

So I ask ‘Deji for insight into why many young entrepreneurs fail.

He sighs, and thinks for a while before answering. “In the universe of startups, startups are hard and volatile,” he offers. “I think it’s a general problem, not just peculiar to Nigeria, but agreed the Nigerian environment can be quite brutal to startups. Also people need to be realistic with themselves too. For example, if you’re trying to build a mobile gaming company, it’s not just about developing games, it involves distribution, marketing, meeting the right partners, these are the core things that define a successful start-up environment.”

Then he takes the gloves off: “You don’t just wake up and say you have an idea to start a mobile gaming company without all these factors being considered, which will determine the success or failure of that venture. It’s all about people understanding their limitations and also biting the humble pie to team up with other people. I’m of the school of thought that if you want to venture into something big, you need partners, they are very essential.”

A blanket call for partnerships? “Well, there will be exceptions,” he agrees reluctantly, “but creating a start-up alone can be very daunting, and it would be easier to involve other people. Also, your chances at success increase when it’s a partnership.”


Swing low

Opeyemi also has a piece of advice for the wannabe entrepreneur willing to delve into the shark-filled waters: “Based on the experience we’ve had in the last four years, the key things I’ll tell you to have in mind are, firstly, you need to clearly have an eye for profit, you need to measure as well, what I mean is knowing the necessary metrics you require to determine the future success of that business. Without these, you won’t know how much effort is required to achieve success. You also need to be relentless, be willing to dig deep and go all the way.”

If you’re a start-up, you should pay attention. Even though they say they are not as successful as they want to be, there is a sense of fulfillment that stays above them like a halo; an aura of dreams in motion – and it’s all well earned.

Profiles and lists flow in from CNN and Forbes and only in December 2013, they not only won The Future Awards Africa Prize in Enterprise Support but were named as one of Nigeria’s #Best100, to commemorate the nation’s centenary, by President Goodluck Jonathan and honoured at the State House in Abuja.

“For me as an individual, it’s a very good signal that it can be done,” ‘Deji says with a smile. “In terms of whether you allow the praises get into your head, I don’t see it that way, I see it as a call to responsibility for bigger things.

“One major thing this does to an individual is that it helps improve your pedigree and reputation, which you can leverage on for Jobberman or other future dealings. It’s just a call to more responsibilities, and the noise will eventually wither out and people will start to ask questions as to what you gained.“


The future is here

If the question is the future of Jobberman, then the answer can be found in how far it has come.

Jobberman is king in its industry, a fact that the trio is hoping to deploy in expanding frontiers this year and beyond. In four years, it has accumulated an estimated asset base of $12million, according to Opeyemi, with offices in Abuja, Accra and Lagos.

But there is never just one answer, as observers of Nigeria and the world’s tech space will tell you. While the Jobberman founders were being feted across Nigeria last month, the Nigerian-born founders of online shopping mall, Jumia sold their stakes in the company and resigned.

SEE ALSO: Is this really David Vs Goliath as Konga Sues Rocket Internet (Jumia)?

It will be recalled that Jobberman’s major investor, Nwobi reportedly sold his stake in the pioneering SMS platform Mtech and moved on to begin a similar startup, Betazoo and the popular car dealership site, Cheki. Is that a path ‘Deji, Opeyemi and Lekan see themselves following?

There is neither defensiveness nor subterfuge in Lekan’s immediate response. “Everybody has a price,” he says.

I say, spoken like a true businessman.

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