Bridging the Gap between Indigenous and Foreign Businesses

INTERVIEW –Ayo Alao, the CEO of Jet Heights Services, is returning to Nigeria to bridge the lacuna existing between indigenous business operators and their foreign counterparts.

With the likes of Jason Njoku of iROKO, Bankole Wellington of E.M.E Records, Uche Pedro of BellaNaija, and many others who returned to Nigeria to make success out of their careers, more business oriented Nigerians in Diaspora are now following suit. Latest in the trend is Ayodele Alex Alao, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Nigeria’s most updated jobsite, Jetheights.com (now Jobemy.com).

In spite of his business waves abroad, operating from the city of Greater Manchester, United Kingdom, the Robert Gordon University trained Software Technologist, in this interview with Damilola Daniel, explains the reasons behind is home coming and why many Nigerians in Diaspora don’t plan returning home.

Tell us about yourself and your business?
I am Ayodele Alexander Alao, simply known as Ayo Alao. I believe the Alexander among my names reflects that of the ancient Alexander the Great who was a conqueror. As a Christian, I believe God has not called us into this world without giving us the ability to leave a mark. That is why I try to live a lifestyle of a conqueror and I’ve also taken that into my business. Whatever territory I go into, I do my best to learn all the ethics of that territory and I ensure I conquer that land. No matter how difficult a business is also, I make sure I compete and let people know that there is someone in that game too that is here to stay.

About my business....
I founded Jet Heights Services Limited in 2010 to develop jobsites and other Information Technology (IT) solutions for Nigerians and other Africans. The now popular jobsite in Nigeria called Jobemy.com (formerly Jetheights.com) is a subsidiary of Jetheights Services. Jobemy is a resource for the unemployed and employed professionals in Nigeria. We are currently one of Africa’s fastest growing job boards with over a million members and users in over 20 countries and territories around the globe. The site is a one stop centre for human resource solutions in Nigeria and other Africa nations.

Could you give us an insight on how the whole business journey started for you?
I actually started business fulltime in 2010. But prior to that, I’d done a lot of businesses as a student. During my undergraduate days at the Ogun State University (Now Olabisi Onabanjo University), I established a game centre, a video club, and novel club with about six employed staff altogether. I was managing the business together with a close female friend who is now my wife. Right from my school days, I just had that instinct to become an entrepreneur. That was why after my graduation and the compulsory service year, I didn’t really bother to look for job because I had enough money to be self-sufficient. All I was only looking for was a new business to invest in.

I looked at the opportunities around me then but none could really suit my academic background which was in English Language and Literature in Communication. So I knew I needed to take my studies further. And because of my interest in the business side of information technology, I had to look for an IT course abroad to enhance my skill. I am someone that generally loves concepts relating to e-commerce, but I know I couldn’t just jump into that field due to my academic background. I then opted for a Masters degree at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen on software technology. Like I said earlier, with no background in IT apart from personal training, crossing from English Language to IT wouldn’t have been possible if not for the Alex in me. (General laughter)

Practicalising the learnt skills...
After my masters programme, I met a Briton friend who was into an online human resources (HR) service; recruiting for oil and gas industry. He had built close to a million curricula vitae (CVs) from all over the world. So I partnered with him and I started adding new skills to his jobsite by redesigning and developing it. We recruited for some oil and gas companies in Dubai, the UK and some African countries. During that period, I learnt a lot about HR, I did some self-training about Search Engine Optimisation, and I also learnt how to use WordPress to develop websites. After awhile, my partner moved to Australia. The only thing to do then was to start something on my own.

So in 2009/2010, I launched a site called Jetheights.com, primarily as an online platform where people could get updates about Information Communication Technology (ICT). While that era was going on, I met a Nigerian friend who had a jobsite about Nigeria. He gave me some tips about what he does and I learnt from that experience. I also travelled to Nigeria to carryout some personal research. I discovered that the rate at which people were looking for jobs was a problem. As at that time in 2010, the numbers of jobsites in Nigeria were not much, the web designs were not great and user friendly, and the sites were not appropriately updated. So, from all the experiences gathered so far, when I returned to the UK, I merged my ideas and all I’d learnt from the two friends to refocus Jetheights’ vision into a jobsite that publishes vacancies on daily basis.

I ensured Jetheights.com was redeveloped and rebranded to bridge the gaps I discovered in others before relaunching it as the most updated jobsite in Nigeria. And truly, the site lived up to its brand. Several HR personnel got in contact with us. They send me job vacancies and we publish them. Initially, I was running it by myself before my wife came on board. From there, we launched jobsites for Kenyans, Ghanaians and South Africans job seekers.

Subsequently, I also redesigned the site to enable employers to publish their own jobs directed on the site. Apart from one or two other web publishers that had such features on their sites then, I think we were the only one with features where employers can publish their jobs and applicants can also upload their resumes on the site. We were very proud of that achievement.

Few years down the line, we moved from just publishing jobs to news. I launched a news site called nigeriana.org. It is a news site that leads you to our different other platforms such as the jobsite, video and movie sites, shopping sites, etc. I then opened an office in Akure, Nigeria to test run the business locally.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t all bed of roses because I once launched a forum site that was not too successful because of some challenges. Electronic spamming was one of the major challenges encountered.

From your data, how many job seekers have been able to get jobs through your platforms?
I would say thousands of applicants have secured jobs from the information on our sites. For example, from the very first month of relaunching, the number of successful applicants was very high. Within that short period, the site got to the top 500 sites in Nigeria with over a million views and close to 100,000 registered members. Thereafter, Jetheights moved up to be among the top 100 sites in Nigeria. We had a lot of traffic on our site from around the world, particular from Nigeria, some other African countries, the UK and the US. After awhile too, the mobile version of Jetheights.com was launched to further broaden our platforms.

How can one generate money from operating a jobsite?
Basically, you can generate money through Google AdSense by monetising the traffic on your site. Also, companies could regularly target your site to place adverts because of the traffic generated.

Jetheights recently rebranded its identity to Jobemy. Why the change of name?
With the success Jetheights has made so far, we feel we should have a strong brand name and identity that simply connote and reflect something more about jobs. That was why we came up with Jobemy.com which fully relates to jobs. At the mention of the web address alone, people can easily identify and understand that the site relates to jobs. This will also improve the rate at which people talk and search about the site.

Jobemy.com is the rebranded Jetheights that is positioned to compete internationally. Jobemy literally means ‘Job Be Mine.’

(Interject) So what has been the response so far?
It has been amazing. Riding on the platform of Jeheights, the reformed brand, Jobemy, was launched May, 2014, and in less than a month, it already recorded close to 700,000 views and about 300,000 registered members. We’ve had resumes uploaded from all over the world; not just Nigerians. So, with our backlog now, in general, we can boast of over a million members who use the site monthly.

We are also merging with a lot of HR companies in Nigeria and abroad. Our vision is that within the next two years, Jobemy will be a force to reckon with in the whole of Africa.

Why are you relocating back to Nigeria from a country where your business enjoys uninterrupted power supply and stable Internet facilities?
A lot of people think it is a dumb decision to leave the United Kingdom and go back to Nigeria. Well, in spite of all the challenges in Nigeria, there are more opportunities there in terms of getting companies to advertise on our platforms and building more business relationships with different organisations.

Like I said earlier, anything I lay my hands upon, I try to make it successful, no matter what. The truth is that, it has always been my plan to leave the UK for Nigeria to run a business, and I just made up my mind to do that now since all the challenges are surmountable. I had also carried out a test run. For example, apart from our Akure office in Nigeria, in 2012 we opened another office in Ibadan and a mini office in Abuja. With the performances of those territories, we discovered that Ibadan can be our headquarters in Africa.

Yes it is true that inadequate power supply and poor Internet service are the two biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs in Nigeria. I also believe that if those two problems are not solved, the success that Nigeria envisages in few years time may never be realised. We have also discovered that some of the products we bought in Nigeria were substandard. So, getting trust worthy people and product are the other challenges entrepreneurs face in Nigeria. In the small corner of my office in Manchester, with a token fee, I can sit there and download unlimited information from the Internet, while enjoying uninterrupted power supply. I know those opportunities might never happen in Nigeria.

However, over the years as an entrepreneur, I have learnt how to surmount these challenges. The way we’ve been able to deal with some of these challenges in our offices in Nigeria was to have multiple Internet service providers and alternative power supplies, such as solar power system and generating sets, even though they are a bit expensive to run and maintain.

Apart from the jobsites solutions, what new business ideas are you coming home with?
I am coming home to bridge the lacuna that exists between indigenous business operators and their foreign counterparts. For example, with the constant poor Internet service in Nigeria, I don’t see any reason why some of the big network service providers in Nigeria cannot partner with their counterparts in the UK and other developed countries.

How these kinds of partnerships can work are some of the ideas I am working on and taking to Nigeria. I already have a very good base in the UK and quite a lot of brands we’ve worked with here trust our brand for progressive business relationships.

We are already working with one of Europe’s leading video advertisers to partner some firms in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. We are leading the discussion and carrying out some research so that the efforts would lead to fruition. There is a lot of partnership to be made with big and small scale businesses in Nigeria. I believe that if the Internet in Nigeria can be better for example, a lot of unemployed graduate will have good jobs because job searching will be a lot easier.

We also plan to train aspiring young entrepreneurs, particularly on e-business. We already have a partnership with an IT company in the UK and some professional that we are taking to Nigeria for the training. Yes, I am an African to the core, but I also believe in using any useful knowledge, including the white man’s education to advance my root.

We will also be launching three e-commerce websites very soon, at the same time because that is the future of Nigeria. There are other ideas that we researched recently which have never been used in Nigeria. Another idea is the future of media in Nigeria which, among other things, should focus on strategically promoting good governance in the country.

In your own opinion, why are Nigerians in Diaspora not returning home even when the business oriented ones are heading back home to make success out of their careers?
I think some of the basic reasons why many Nigerians don’t want to return home are the risks associated with starting all over again and the shame factor of returning home with nothing much to show for their long stay abroad. Also, I believe many of them don’t want to return to Nigeria because they never invested back home while abroad.

I can only encourage Diaspora Nigerians to have faith in their origin despite the numerous challenges facing the country. Those who believed in the country are somewhat benefiting from it. For me, it is better to be a king in my country than become a second class citizen in another man’s country. I want to travel the world and still be proud to be an African and a Nigerian.

Ever since I finished my Masters in the UK, I’ve always had the passion to develop businesses in Africa, starting with Nigeria. I know that no matter how long you spend in another man’s country, you are never going to be like them. Yes, I might have encountered challenges in running my business in Nigeria, but I have also made some good returns on investment because of Nigerians. So I’m always proud of my origin.

With so many ideas to strategise on and implement, how do you relax?
As an entrepreneur, there are seasons to relax in spite of the urgency of the tasks ahead. In my own case, I interact with people, especially in church. And whenever I am stressed, I listen to good music. I think I listened to music a lot, probably because I also have passion for music.

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