“Hire a good accountant”, Drinks.ng founder, Lanre Akinlagun, on the challenges of running a startup in Nigeria

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On January 4, 2015, Lanre Akinlagun, the head honcho at Drinks.ng posted this to his Facebook account,

Setting up a business anywhere is extremely challenging but the biggest lesson I learnt last year was, the most important hire is an ACCOUNTANT! Don’t mess with these people, anyone else is irrelevant compared to these guys. No matter what business you are in, they are the heartbeat of your organisation and they will keep your business alive. I am not saying you don’t need a sales force but without these guys you’re dead in the water….

Interesting, right? So, we caught up with the experienced marketing expert (and now startup founder) to get further insight.

Lanre: “Accountants are the lifeblood of business. People focus on marketing, sales, getting more business in and all, but if you don’t have an accountant, you won’t know the numbers of your business. And here’s the thing – good accountants are hard to find here.

We spent a lot of money building our sales team, but kind of didn’t focus on how good or bad our accountant was; we just kind of took his word for it. We learnt the lesson the hard way.

How do you know or define a good accountant? How can one tell the difference?

Lanre: I’ll tell you another lesson I learned – if you’re not an accountant or have accounting skills or experience, you’re not the person to define who’s a good or bad one. That was the mistake that we made. If you don’t know the job and it’s a skilled job, don’t be the guy to hire for it. Let me ask you, can you tell the difference between a good and bad accountant? I don’t think so. I thought I could, and I thought I did, and I tried to do it myself. Lesson learned.

I realised it’s stupid. Trying to hire a skilled person in a role you don’t know or understand is suicide. For another example, if you’re trying to hire a computer engineer, I wouldn’t know how to decide. If he shows me his code, I wouldn’t understand it. That’s why I call Mark Essien of Hotels.ng whenever I want to hire any tech people.

I’m good at sales and marketing, so I can decipher a good or bad sales person. But when it’s outside your circle, get someone who can do help you do the assessment. It may cost you money and time, but it’s better to get it right the first time otherwise, it will cost you more money in the long run.

Apart from hiring a good accountant, what other challenges have you had running Drinks.ng?

Getting good employees. Talent. There’s very little talent in Nigeria, from my observation. And there’s very little loyalty. So, my answer would be getting really good and loyal talent is very hard. You learn from all these things. It’s the biggest challenge we’ve had. Finding talent.

Okay, Is the problem the fact that they aren’t skilled enough or they overcharge?

Lanre: Even trying to get mediocrely skilled people is a challenge because even they charge high, despite their mediocre skills. A lot graphic designers think because they can pull a few graphics together, they can charge anything they want. I keep wondering, What makes you think you can charge this kind of money? Just because you can open Photoshop doesn’t make you skilled.

It seems the focus of most people is money, and not necessarily improving their skills and becoming better. I think they’re hurting themselves.

When I was a kid, Nigeria was full of old white men who came to get oil deals and things like that. Nigeria today, is a very different landscape. There are expatriates everywhere, even foreigners who lived and grew up and were bred here. Nigeria is different. Immediately we solve the terrorism problem, and maybe electricity, more people will feel comfortable coming into Nigeria. And when that happens, there’ll be less jobs for Nigerians. And that’s because we’re not developing our skills. A lot of guys are just looking for money.

I asked a Nigerian guy to develop an animation for me. He charged me NGN400,000! I said, this is ridiculous. I went online, to Fiverr and got the job done for $10.

Nigeria is no different from Dubai. The only difference is bad leadership. We have great weather, great environment, Lagos is right in front of a beach, we have business opportunities. Check out all the well established companies all their senior management are white or british schooled. Dangote, all his senior management are foreign. Check out Hard Rock Cafe, which has just arrived in Nigeria: the waitresses are from South Africa, their barmen are from England and South Africa. They have very few Nigerians working there. The only reason they have Nigerians working there are because of labor laws. But I spoke to the owner and he said he has a brand to uphold and he’d rather not hire them. That’s how it’s going to continue. So, unless we develop our skills and stop charging exuberant prices, the less opportunities we’ll have in the long run. And it’s happening already.

Everyone says the government is bad, they don’t have plans but we as individuals are are no different. Over here, I don’t allow anybody to lambast the government because I ask, How are you different? If you check the startups, all their senior managers, immediately the company gets any money, the first strategy is, “Don’t employ any Nigerians.” Konga for example. Their CTO and CMO is british educated, Jumia, most of their senior and middle management are foreign. Iroko, most of their senior management and middle management are foreign.


Do you think the education system is the problem?

No. The world is so digital now that, if you wanted to learn something, there are enough tools online to do so. As a journalist, you could focus on improving your craft, taking online courses, collaborating with other seasoned journalists across the world to improve yourself, all without stepping into a school environment. That’s the world we live in now. These guys in the labourforce don’t have that drive or the interest to improve their skills. What they want, “Is let me just learn how to use this, after that, let me exploit people for money.” So it’s the mentality, which is no different from the government. How do you justify someone charging me N400,000 for animation and another guy is charging me $10 in Uzbekistan. A graphic designer would be charging me N300,000 for what? They’re not as good yet they are expensive. It doesn’t go for everyone though. There are talented people who deserve the pay they command. But it’s a small minority.

So, how is Drinks.ng is doing at the moment?

Drinks.ng is doing fine. We’re working on a few things but we’re keeping everything under wraps at the moment. But, we’re fine. We have no problems. We get orders from everywhere, we just got one all the way from Jos. Outside the three big cities, Lagos, PH and Abuja, it’s difficult to get unique drinks. So there’s a huge market there.

How do you do your marketing? Are you pan Nigerian?

Yes. But I also think we’ve been very smart with our marketing. If you noticed online, a lot of companies have reduced their marketing. It’s not because they don’t have the money, but they’re not seeing the ROI. Put your ad on Linda Ikeji and watch what happens. Your traffic spikes one day, and flatlines the next. That doesn’t make any sense. So, we’ve had to be smart with our marketing.


I'm 3 parts geek, 1 part funny man, and the last part is between me and my shrink. Technology Editor at Enterprise54. I write about (obsess over) gadgets, tech and startups. Send me stuff.

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