It’s an exciting time for digital media in Nigeria and across Africa. Since the parent company of TechCabal and Zikoko, Big Cabal Media (BCM) announced its $2.3 million Seed round, there have been a lot of conversations about how that event would impact the African media ecosystem.
Few digital media startups have been able to raise money to scale and fund their operations in Africa. Globally, in 2021, venture capital invested $115 million in digital media, but not much came to Africa. Since 2017, only Ghana's OMG Digital and Nigeria's Stears Business have raised venture capital as media companies in Africa. Hence why Big Cabal's raise was hugely celebrated. Here is a tweet from our publisher, Benjamin Dada about the BCM raise.
However, to get under the skin and understand the thought process, operational efficiencies, and prospects of Big Cabal Media, we had a sit-in with Tomiwa Aladekomo, the CEO.
Tomiwa holds an extensive professional working experience in Technology, Media, and Marketing. He has worked with renowned companies like Atlantic Records, THISDAY, Guardian, and ChamSwitch.
Not only did Tomiwa lead Big Cabal to its landmark raise, but he has also taken the digital media firm through a transformation that's made it one of the most exciting new media companies on the continent, delivering 400% YOY revenue growth.
Editor's Note: The interview has been slightly edited for clarity
In your opinion, what are the unexplored or underserved growth areas in the African media landscape?
That will be revealing our growth plans, haha. There are a ton of underserved markets in Africa’s media. If you compare the kind of content global media brands out there are churning out, you’ll realise we are not doing anything.
You might argue that people need food before entertainment, content, educational materials, or whatever it is. Other global brands are creating content around these areas and Africans are one of the biggest consumers.
If you look at countries like Korea and look at their K-pop or K-drama series, you’ll see that these tiny islands have created media industries that are global and rich by creating their own content. K-drama has specific content about Korean culture and communities. They've exploited it to the max and built something that the whole world cares about.
When I look at the continent and think about media, there's no investment in media, given the scale of Africa, the size, and the number of our population.
People are passionate about science fiction, football, gaming, and other tons of niches. You might (or not) build a million-dollar company but if it is something you really care about, why not?
There are a ton of unexplored niches and I think it's a lack of imagination from an industrial perspective that’s holding Africa back.
What was going through your mind when you joined Big Cabal?
It was the most exciting opportunity available at the time. I saw an opportunity to build something big. I had interviews with big companies and their executives and saw an emerging trend in the tech space. To use the Jeff Bezos minimisation framework, I knew if I didn't do this, I would regret it.
My wife kept forcing me to have conversations, take interviews, and not say no without talking to people. I went into it knowing there was a good chance it could fail. But, I gave myself a year, promising to call it a quit if it was not working within a year.
But so far, it’s been exciting. The great thing is that at a certain point in your career, you know you can get a job if things don't go according to plan. That is an assurance.
Before venturing into media entrepreneurship did you have a thesis about the interplay of media and VC money—and has that changed?
Oddly enough I'd say my thesis is still the same.
The thing that changed the most is you enter and execute, but it takes longer to get results. So, we ran this company for four years, we announced a raise and everybody was shouting. I thought it would take us 18 months to get here but it took four years.
The reality of executing in Africa is harder and takes longer than you expect. It was challenging to get to this point. Although, it's still day one.
Next, for the media to work, your revenue sources must be diverse. You can't have a single-line revenue source. It was always clear to me we would need to have multiple sources of income. We always expected to take Venture Capital money.
Although, I don't believe VC money is the best for media because media takes quite a long time to build, for example, the New York Times (170+ years old). Free media brands can take decades to build. But I think the thesis remains the same. So it's about execution. Everyone has a plan until the market adjusts your plan.
What are the operational efficiencies at Big Cabal that you've been dying for people to see?
There's a clear answer to that. It's not an operational mastermind but something I will say changed dramatically.
When you see our logo line, it used to be the Big Cabal logo, TechCabal, and Zikoko. But if you look at it today, there's TechCabal, Zikoko, TC Insights, and Cabal Creative.
The fundamental thing is that those latter two units— TC Insights and Cabal Creative have become a big part of our business. From a revenue, importance, and mission perspective, they have claimed their space.
TC Insights was an idea that started with a series of reports on Healthcare. The person put in charge of the inaugural report interviewed 70 startups. It was an incredible amount of work for one person to do but it was a great report. After that, we kept churning out reports. Sometimes we sold them, other times people paid us to get them done. From a revenue perspective, it's as important as anything else in the business. In terms of the impact, we are building the most important digital consulting business at TC insights. From the outside, everybody is seeing TechCabal and Zikoko, but internally we know TC insights is doing amazing work and even paying salaries.
About Cabal Creative, they are producing TV commercials, producing digital content, and doing awesome designs. The capacity in Cabal Creative is insane. TC insights support TechCabal from the data perspective, so reports are richer. The graphics of TechCabal website is dope thanks to Cabal Creative. That may be a little bit hard to see from the outside but that's important to us.
How do you think about Talent; internal mobility and growth vs hiring specialists from outside?
When we started I said, if after three to four years we are not hiring ex-Disney people, ex-Bloomberg people then we are not doing it right. We have had some incredibly talented people come and go through TechCabal. We have some incredibly talented people still in there.
But the breadth of experience that we have doesn't compare with people who have worked with global companies for X number of years. TechCabal is giving people lots of chances, opportunities, and responsibilities to grow. We would continue to do that. But part of how we build the quality organisation and business that we want is by bringing people who have done this on a bigger scale.
For example, we hired a Visual editor recently with global media experience. We are definitely bringing in more experienced people who have done it in other markets and can bring that experience in.
But we are growing so rapidly that there are lots of opportunities for people to grow. Someone who joined as a Junior reporter is now the head of a unit. People join us as writers and move into video production, somebody joined in editorial and moved into design.
What are your thoughts on owned, paid and earned media?
Telling your own story is really important. I think the best startups are very good at that. They tell their own stories whether it's the CEO writing in a blog or using a social media platform to build an audience. The best startups are very good at telling their own stories.
Everyone is building their own Content Marketing unit. A level of expertise is needed to drive that. Some companies are excellent at it. They hire great people, they have the right vision and they drive it. It's critical for startups to estimate very carefully what their actual capabilities are. One big thing I learned first in my career is you are what you are.
You are most likely a fintech company or you are an engineering company, not a content company. Again, there are exceptions, there are people who are very good at it. There's a certain level at which you will never be able to invest as much time, energy, and resources in content as the people whose only job is content.
Nike, one of the biggest tech companies in the world still uses a ton of agencies, i.e they still do a lot of paid media. Especially when you are starting out, tell your own story as powerfully as you can. But there's a role for experts to do what they do.
How can startups leverage social media as a tool for positive corporate branding?
The first thing is it doesn't start with social media. It starts with what kind of business you are building. You will get rated on social media based on what you do. So if you are doing things you are not supposed to then you will get killed on social media. If you have the best customer service in the land and people get to talk about how amazing you are then social media will treat you favorably.
So the first job really is to build a company that you can be proud of. There's something called page one test, which is anything that you do how would you feel if it gets reported on the front page of a newspaper. The corollary is how would you feel if you are the Twitter character of the day. Everything you do reflects on you if you are the Twitter character of the day. Be the Twitter character of the day because your product is the best thing since sliced bread.
Before you start thinking of social media marketing, you want to think about what company you are building, what would your team say about you outside, customer feedback on your service, etc. The rest of it is a bit easier.
The best companies do branding in a natural manner. Apple is one of the most powerful companies and for the longest time, they haven't even touched social media. They have a Facebook channel, they have a Youtube channel but they still use it in a restrictive way. That's what makes sense for Apple.
Elon Musk uses Twitter in a different way, but it's a way that only Elon Musk can do. He has used it to build a very successful brand for Tesla. But for the most part, he uses it in a way that is natural to him.
So you are trying to use social media, you are a geeky guy that likes science fiction, figure out how to tie your topics into science fiction and build your audience.
If you are a product-led company or engineering company, start a Twitter account and let hardcore engineers engage with you and share their ideas. Use it in a way that takes advantage of your own skills as a founder and as a leader of the business. But find somebody that has the talents.
Dropbox had some incredible visual artists when they first started. They created beautiful drawings and illustrations that they added to their social, websites and emails. It became part of their marketing program. So, find the thing that's special about you and express it in a unique way.
What next for Big Cabal and for TechCabal?
Big Cabal is running as fast as we can. We got a couple of tech products to release before the year runs out. We are already talking about one of those which is the Zikoko memes which we should roll out in Q3. We got a couple of new publications we are looking to launch.
Nothing too far away from what we are doing already. Basically, it's about growing the revenue, growing the audience, and growing the business. We are very ambitious and we are hiring. The team is growing quickly. We are looking for great people so send great people our way.
For TechCabal, we've set a clear goal. We think technology is the biggest driver of development, growth, and productivity over the next decade and more. We want to be the most important publication covering that.
We want to be the most important publication tracking how technology is changing business, how technology is changing lives in Africa, and how they work. That would include growth in a number of ways.
We should have a TV show launching very shortly. We'll continue to grow our web, our newsletter, the quality of our reporting, and our talents. Again, I think we have a great team in-house but if we are going to deliver on that mission (the mission is pretty ambitious) we have a long way to go.