Eben Joels is the co-founder of Stransact LLP, a professional services firm. The Chartered Accountant and Chartered Management Accountant recently founded Boston Knowledge Company (BKC) LLC, a specialised strategy firm in US. BKC specialises on visioning and business mapping services, as well as specialist knowledge brokerage for growing businesses.
Eben, a member of the National Association of Distinguished Professionals of the United States, has led several teams to provide strategic tax and transactions advisory services to various companies undergoing major business restructuring in Nigeria. He previously worked with Andersen, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. His experience in management consulting is diversified.
Eben seats on the Boards of both Stransact LLP and the Friends of Business in Africa Cooperative Society Ltd. He also founded the Organisation for Truthful Rebirth a non-for-profit organisation, committed to using its profits to improve the society where the funds arose.
FinIntell caught up with Eben recently, during his visit to Nigeria, and was asked to share some of his secrets to business success, as well as his opinions on several business related issues.
You have come such a long way in business, in a short time; particularly, in a country with harsh business climate. What is your story?
I am just a person whose ‘risk appetite’ is higher than most people. Although, I don’t think I am a ‘model’ entrepreneur, but I would say, I am more of a unique entrepreneur.
I am quick on the mark. I also spread myself thin to achieve my goals; but you must know that it is not every time you spread yourself thin that you achieve those goals. In high risk situations, you have to think on your feet. You have to square up and make tough decisions.
For instance, when we ventured into media and we saw a surprising staff turnover, huge spending and slow income, we had tough decisions to make. We even faced a ‘sink it or save it’ situation at some point. A high ‘risk appetite’ requires tough guts. But then again, running any business requires you to make tough decisions anyway.
Secondly, I don’t allow the environment to limit me. We constantly adapt our business to the changes in the business environment. For instance, when the accounting firm started out, there was room in the market for skill acquisition for fellow accountants. There were training institutions around, but there was no accounting firm that had dedicated training services for professionals. We went into it.
Naturally, several others joined in and then, the scavengers followed them; then policies changed and the environment changed. It was time to move on to a new turf and we did. Stransact moved up to play in the realm of knowledge; using knowledge to create value for specific clients. Knowledge is embedded in the possessor of knowledge; and since everyone’s knowledge is different and expressed differently, there can be no duplicates. So, it is a rise above the competition.
We understand from the book, ‘The Blue Ocean Strategy,’ that the best strategy one can create is to operate an ‘empty space’ right now, and that is why we tell entrepreneurs to find their own empty space.
You make a lot of tough decisions. Which would you say was the toughest you made?
That would be the decision to ease-off from directly running the accounting firm. It was time to delegate key roles and focus on the Boston Knowledge Company. Letting go can be tough. In addition, several people did not want the change, so they held on tight. A few even made attempts to ‘break’ my resolve. All that made it a tough decision because we were moving up to becoming a global firm and we were adopting global standards. So, I simply had to take up that mantle.
Before relocating to the US to run BKC, you were the managing partner of Stransact. What was the playing field in services industry really like, especially in the early days of Stransact, standing toe-to-toe with the ‘Big 4’?
Good quality services stay true, irrespective of the size of the service provider. Nonetheless, a larger company has a bigger budget to propel their brand. But I tell you that I have never lost a job to the ‘Big 4’ in all the times I was invited to bid along with them.
Smaller firms can get as much pay as the ‘Big 4,’ and Stransact did. The truth is that, every one of us was simply playing within its own niche; they play in theirs and we play in ours. Once upon a time, today’s ‘Big 4’ used to be small, but they worked hard to grow big. So, if everyone does the same, we will all grow big too. I mind my business by sticking to my formula which is; Stick to what is in your own plate and don’t go looking at another person’s plate. This is also my motto.
What would be your advice to a budding entrepreneur?
So many people start businesses because they are hungry. The only motivation for them for starting the business is money. But if the only motivation for your business is money, then you will fail. The motivation for business has to be passion. You would have to cope with a lot of things, people, attitudes, and hurdles. It is passion that gets you through. Passion comes first. That is the rule. Go find out about the most successful people, and you would find out that they were people of passion. Passion drives you to build yourself, skill and knowledge. Passion drives you to develop. Some of my passions include advising and growing businesses.
However, passion alone is not enough. Passion would take you far, but it would not lead you home and dry. Passion must be accompanied with preparation. With preparation also comes training. That is why a new author would seek to be adopted by a mentor; an artiste would need a manager; and a footballer would need a trainer. We are going into that through an organisation called, Friends of Business in Africa (FOBA). We would roll out our plans and schedules, in due time. One of the goals of FOBA is to provide training for upcoming entrepreneurs.
Another rule for budding entrepreneurs to note is never to underestimate; whether it is a prospect, a customer, a deal, a market, or anything whatsoever.
One of the major challenges prospective entrepreneurs have is that of raising capital. How would you advise they go about it?
The traditional ways to raise capital are in form of venture capital, where you raise money from your friends and ‘angel investors.’ You seek out people with extra money on their hands to invest in a profitable business. For instance, retirees with savings can be ‘angel investors.’ Other method are by saving up your own capital, getting a loan, selling off physical property, intellectual or digital property, or any other store of value one owns.
How badly would you say corruption affects entrepreneurs?
Gone are the days when we say that it is the government that is corrupt. Today, it is the society. Corruption has permeated into the society core because it is condoned. A friend of mine was at her toddler’s school and witnessed a six-year old kid bribe another kid with cash to make that kid do something he did not initially want to do. Corruption makes it tough for honest people to live in a place. It makes it tough for honest businesspeople to run honest businesses. We, as a society, have to take it head-on. One of the options is to empower people. We are looking at doing that and we’ve made plans in that aspect as well.
Another thing to do about corruption is to be the good example. With every business we set up, we keep that in focus. I believe in doing something rather than complaining and waiting for manna.
So far, you have offices in the UK and in the US, which other locations are you looking at?
Our goal for the accounting firm is to have a presence in every country that Nigeria does significant business with.
We have a broad horizon and we have our blue print. Funding is a matter we always take-on in business, and we are positioning ourselves to take it on again. Money is only useful to the extent that you put it to use. And the Bible makes that clear with the parable of the talents where a master gave his three servants talents to put in use till he return back from a trip.
It is about doing your homework and investing correctly for good and honest profit; not burying the money and hoping it would multiply. Investing money in the right place would yield bountifully, just like in the parable. We are also going to invest in many sectors, and people’s investments into our ventures will surely yield a harvest.
You are always exploding with new ideas, where does your inspiration come from?
It boils down to what you are driven by. Is it passion or your devotion to satisfy your belly? If you are driven by the service to humanity, you would be inspired by that. And if you are also driven by the service of your own belly, then you will be inspired in that line.