Ope Banwo –The Serial Entrepreneur

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” This famous quote from Winston Churchill best describes the life of Dr. Ope Banwo, an accomplished attorney and entrepreneur.

In his 28 years of doing business, Dr. Ope Banwo has started over 50 businesses; although he admitted that majority of those businesses were “spectacular failures.” He said his “mistake-driven life,” comparable to Rick Warren’s “Purpose-driven Life,” has made him a better serial entrepreneur, business start-up specialist, author, and a corporate solutions provider.

Dr. Banwo, who is also a chartered accountant and a social commentator, holds several degrees in law including LL.B, B.L, LL.M and a PH.D. He was admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 1986; the New York Bar, 1997 and Federal District Court of Nebraska, United States of America in 1997. He is currently a Managing Partner at Banwo and Igbokwe, Attorneys-at-Law (with offices in Nigeria and the USA); Chairman of Stingomania Records Limited and Founder of The Internet Millionaires Academy. Dr. Ope Banwo, in an exclusive interview with FinIntell, shares his experience in doing business and why he helps others to start their own businesses.

Tell us about your love for setting up different businesses
I am principally an attorney; and being an attorney basically gives you the platform to be anything you want to be because you are trained to think in so many dimensions. I have always been fascinated about business. I started my very first business just a year out of school. Even though the business was a spectacular failure, it was a life-changing experience for me and that hooked me into business forever. So, I have always been in business despite the fact that law is my primary field. I have started more businesses than I can count and I have helped other people to start several businesses at the same time.

I call myself a serial entrepreneur because I enjoy setting up businesses, but I don’t enjoy managing them. For many years, I used to apologise to people whenever they say I don’t finish a business before starting another one. I used to think it was a bad thing because that was the way the society interpreted it. But as I got more matured in business, I realised that people have different talents and skills. Some are born creators while some might not be creative but can manage business very well. You don’t have to be a creator and a manager at the same time; and you don’t have to apologise for whichever one you are.

I happened to be someone that can create and manage business; at least my law firm has been in existence in the United State of America for close to two decades and I have businesses in Nigeria that have been around for more than 12 years. However, over the years, I discovered that I was no more passionate about managing businesses. I am more of a creator, an entrepreneur or a risk-taker. I like coming up with ideas; but whenever I set up an idea and it starts working, I get bored. Then I go to the next business. Before now, I used to interpret that as a bad thing. I used to feel that I don’t have depth or that I don’t know how to stay with a particular business. I then realised that those judging me were even people who had never set up anything before in their lives. I have started more than 50 businesses in my life. It was just about four years ago that I realised that there is nothing to apologise for. My talent and skill is to set up businesses and move on.

As a business creator, what plan do you have in place to ensure your businesses are well run?
I have a model now. Whenever I am setting up a company, I am already planning on who I will hand it over to within one to two years. The mistake I made in many of the businesses I had set up was not to set it up with the knowledge of handling it over. The way we were trained then in school was to set up a business and manage it forever. But I have realised that any business that I try to manage for more than two years starts having problems because I like to think and experiment with different ideas. Whereas, a time comes in the life of a functioning business that one shouldn’t thinker; just let the business run. Leave what is working! Just because I cannot stay still, I realised that I end up being the worst enemy of my company by staying too long in the business.

Right now, I have set up three businesses in the last four months, and people that are going to succeed me are already in place. The first year is always when I am at my optimum best in any business. In the second year I try to manage the business, giving it 95% to 100% concentration. By the third year, boredom starts stepping in. Presently in my law firms, my lawyers are the ones managing me. The head of the chamber is in charge; I don’t go to court expect they want me to come along. I am more like an employee to them because they manage me.

The same process we have here is what is we are using in the US where our law firm is bigger. My partner is the one in charge. I made him a partner because he is a sharp guy and he is hungry for success. The same principle is what I apply in Stingomania, my entertainment company. Last year I appointed a general manager to run the business. I only go when they need me to be there. I am no longer interested in the day-to-day management. That is me and there is no need to apologise to anybody. There are many people out there that the world has labelled failure because of the way they do things.

I just started a company few weeks ago called ‘Talking Millionaires,’ a network marketing company. It is a business where you make money for using your phone, rather than spending money on calls. My job is to think. I am a solution provider. That is why I set up businesses in different industries. At the core of all my companies, we solve problems. And immediately the problems are solved, I step out for others to continue the business.

I believe what you are saying is that it is essential to discover one’s talent before venturing into business?
Yes, that is exactly the way forward before starting a business. For example, my purpose in life, which I have reconciled myself to, is to help people get started in business. In fact, I am in contest with myself now on how many businesses I should start in a year, not how many businesses I should get myself to run.

The Internet Millionaires Workshop is an empowerment programme I organise free of charge to educate people on how to make legitimate money online. It’s mainly a public service where I teach people, especially young people who need direction in their lives, the 12 different ways of make money on the Internet. Out of the 12 ways, each person can then pick which one he or she wants to specialise on.

Teaching people free of charge on how to start business is one of the things that excite me because at least one or two of such people will pick the idea and succeed with it.

How would you compare doing business in Nigeria to other countries?
Doing business in Nigeria is not comparable to other countries because the legislative environment to help you do business well in those countries is there. In Nigeria, we do a lot of price-cap regulations. Somebody in Abuja can just wake up and decide to pass a rule that will affect your business plan.

A good example is the recent regulation for GSM service providers on Short Message Service (SMS) charges. Even though government’s intention (advocating for the common man) is good, but the approach was wrong. You don’t just wake up and say we reduce SMS charges to ₦4, neglecting the fact that the companies involved would have made their budget for the year at the old rate. Governments in developed world don’t interfere with business like that. Government in those business environments give companies sufficient time to plan for any change in regulations.

In Nigeria also, we have situation where infrastructure is not stable, and this affects business performance and productivity. For instance, in managing the poor power supply and internet services, businesses now have to buy more than one generating set, as well as engage more than one internet service providers. That is part of life in Nigeria, and it is stunting our economic growth.

Another point is the mentality of the officials in those other countries. Over there, their mentality is to help you succeed in business, not to be a cog in your wheel. Most of the officials we have in Nigeria are actually a cog in the wheel of businesses, rather than helping them. They won’t do the right thing because they are expecting that you will come and bribe them to do the right thing. Whenever I am doing business in the US, the way I think is different from when I am doing business in Nigeria.

How profitable has it been running several businesses at the same time?
Proven global statistic shows that only 10% of new businesses survive. So, despite all care and planning only one out of ten businesses make it. Essentially, if you are a serial entrepreneur like me you will experience a lot of failures; no matter how hard you try or how stable you think you are.

I call it a mistake-driven life, just like the purpose-driven life. You make a mistake, you correct it; make another one, you correct it until you get better. But you never get perfect. I still have businesses that are struggling; although that doesn’t mean that it won’t work. Some ideas look great in your head, some look great on paper, but you can never tell of its success until you hit the market place.

Could you share some of the lessons you have learnt running businesses
I once started a company called “Dial a Plumber”. The concept was one of the best business ideas I ever conceived. But it was a spectacular failure simply because it was an idea that was ahead of its time. The idea was a very simple concept. I ‘funkified’ (modified) plumbing work.  I was the first in Nigeria to have customers dial a number whenever they need any plumbing service. I hired some plumbers, kitted them up with overall and gave them working tools. It was an excellent idea in 1987, but the idea was not successful because only the rich could afford to own telephones then.

The morale of it was that one of the plumbers that used to work with us started that same business in 2003. He called his own company, “Plumber on Call” and he has made success out of it. The man saw me at the airport sometimes ago and I could not recognise him. He is now a big man. He operates the business in Kano; not even in Lagos. He had to reintroduce himself to me as one of our old plumbers. He is successful in that business today because millions of people now own mobile phones. The prayer I always pray now is that: may you not have ‘dial a plumber’ syndrome. If you bring any business to me now, and I see that the idea is too advanced for its time, I will advise you to slow it down. You can’t force a market; you can only tap into a market. You don’t try to create a market, what you do is explore a market that is already in existence. That is a lesson I have also learnt in business. So, if you are coming with an idea that is too advanced, you will only be creating a market for those coming after you to ride on. The perfect storm for business is where the market and the idea both come together at the right time. Business is part and parcel of my life, and we can never stop learning about business because something new will always come up.

You once opened a Fanbook website for celebrities, what motivated that idea?
Fanbook was a concept to allow entertainers maximise their stardom. I came up with the idea of Fanbook based on the Facebook concept. In Nigeria, we have a lot of celebrities that are not making any money with their stardom beyond performing and getting paid. But there are many ways they can make money. The Fanbook concept was like the Facebook kind of website where your fans can actually build their own page.

With Fanbook, the celebrity becomes the main page which allows fans to have their own pages. On the site, fans are able to do a group chat. I opened the first Fanbook for Genevieve Nnaji, and within six months we had about 150,000 subscribers; not followers. I mean people going to the site to register their details. The idea was that with the fan base, a celebrity can market different companies’ products while he or she gets paid a commission. Also, companies can pay the star huge amount of money to have their products advertised on the site; just like Bella Naija and Linda Ikeji are presently enjoying the blog platform. What advertisers are looking for is viewership; how many eyes will see our product. So, if our stars take stardom seriously, they can earn millions of naira monthly just owing a Fanbook site. I opened Fanbook sites free of charge for some artistes but they don’t even understand or appreciate the concept.

Having learnt better, would you re-establish some of your failed businesses?
Since people now have access to mobile phones, I might revisit the ‘Dial a Plumber’ idea later this year just like I am repositioning my record label. This time around I don’t want to promote the record label off line anymore because it cost way too much. Stingomania Records is not making money, so I had to sit down and re-strategise. Promoting music online is the new trend.

Right now, artistes get about ₦5 royalty per album. If you are very popular maybe you get ₦10. It means you (artistes) have to sell over 200,000 copies to earn ₦1 million. How many artistes sell close to that? But if you sell your music online, you would spend less and earn more because you don’t need money to replicate the album. A track online is sold for $0.99. So, if you have a ten-track album you would be making about $10 (₦1,500) with no cost of printing. All you need to know is how to use internet to market.

Before the Central Bank sacked some erring bank managers, you once predicted it. What signs did you see on the wall then?
Some people say my pronouncement was prophetic, but I don’t think so even though I am a pastor. I didn’t know the CBN was going to remove the bank MDs. When you read the terrain then, you could predict what was going to happen. A lot of people owed money; the way the banks ran margin loan business then in Nigeria was crazy. I only studied the trend before making that prediction. And that statement later fetched me big income. The event where I made that prediction was a free seminar, and I must say here that all the big income I have ever made in my life came from rendering free services. That is how I make my money in Nigeria. It is a lesson we all need to learn in business. The money is in giving people value. If you don’t worry about the money bag and you continue to give value, money will come.

Nobody paid for that seminar. It was a seminar that Femi Awoyemi of Proshare Nigeria organised. I was only a guest speaker with no fee attached. But after I made my presentation, a lot of people that were at the seminar were those who have margin loan issues. When the CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido, turned around to remove those bank managers, my office was full of people with margin loan cases, and I was charging ₦5 million per case to render legal services for them. I had over 10 cases calling for my service. The money came just because I spoke free of charge at a seminar. There is a way God balances things in life. When you give free value, it gives you credibility. If Proshare had asked people to pay for the seminar, a lot of people would not have come. Perhaps some of the people you really need to hear you speak may not have come.

With so many businesses to attend to, how do you relax?
Business is my relaxation. Researching and talking about business and its opportunities is how I relax. I am also a movie addict; I watch movies all the time. I am totally indiscriminate; I watch any movie that is good.