Under The Hoodie is a weekly series where we talk to people about their journey into tech. It focuses on the intersection between life and career. UTH Week 19.
In this episode of Under The Hoodie, we speak with Olabinjo Adeniran, Growth Partner at Future Africa. Olabinjo is a seasoned operator in Nigeria’s tech ecosystem who has worked with many of the top Nigerian startups including Andela, Flutterwave, Buycoins, Cowrywise and Bundle. He tells us about his experience managing growth for startups.
Your resume is impressive. How long have you been in the Nigerian tech ecosystem?
Depends on how you count it. If it’s 2011, then that’s 10 years now. But if you count from 2012, it’s 9 years.
Interesting. What happened in 2011?
I discovered the tech community in Nigeria in 2011. It was just after my A levels and I had applied for a visa to go and study in Canada but I was denied twice. So, I had to take an involuntary gap year to figure out what I wanted to do next.
Anyway, during my A-levels, I had met some other people who were into computers too. I had started blogging in high school. I owned a small blog where I wrote tech articles. It was basically a way for me to explain what I had seen on Engagdet and TechCrunch to myself.
One of my classmates found out about the blog and told another of his friends who had started a blog about tech. The blog’s name was Technesstivity. The blog owner—Farida Demola-Seriki—was in school in New York at the time and she was running the blog as a side project. She’s a Grammy-nominated pop artist today. Anyway, I texted her via Facebook to tell her I would like to work with her and we started to work together.
So, 2011 was your first encounter with tech. What made 2012 different?
In 2012, I found out about another blog—Techloy, which used to write more about the local ecosystem. It was on Techloy that I discovered CcHub. I lived in Yaba with my parents at the time, somewhere close to the hub, but the house numbers on Herbert Macauly way —where CcHub is located—were not clear so I couldn’t find it. Those were the early days of Google maps too, so I didn’t have much help.
In the summer of 2012, Farida came back from school and said we had to go to CcHub. The person who drove us somehow knew the building by just its description, so he dropped us at the exact building.
When we got in, we met two people: Adebola Adeola, who would hire me in the future, and Tunji Elesho. We went to Tunji Elesho and said we want exclusive news coming out of CcHub. Looking back, it was a silly thing to do. He told us it wouldn’t be possible but promised to keep us in the loop of things and took both our emails.
One day they invited us for a hackathon, and I showed up to cover the hackathon for the blog. It was an Edutech-focused hackathon and I joined a team at the hackathon. It was a 3-day hackathon and in the end, we had built a product. Even though I wasn’t in school then, I had a technical background. I had some knowledge of HTML and CSS, so I was pretty useful to the team.
Anyway, the product didn’t really work out, but I kept going back to CcHub. It was really close to my house, and they had this ridiculously cheap year pass. I would go there all the time and gist with people, use the internet and help people with stuff.
By late 2012, Adebola Adeola reached out to me because he had launched a new website and wanted me to do marketing. They paid me N25,000 and bought me N5,000 airtime every month. They also got me a blackberry then too. It was impressive at the time and my very first job in tech.
You got your first job before going to school? Amazing! So, what happened next?
Early 2013, I applied to study information technology at Valley view University, Ghana and I got in. I absolutely loved my schoolwork and was killing it, but that’s a story for another day.
That summer (2013), I came back from school and I didn’t know what to do. I remember meeting Bankole, co-founder of Techcabal at the time, and telling him that I didn’t know what I was going to do. He had seen one of my tweets about this and joked about me washing plates in my parents’ house, which was funny.
I had read about Mark Essien from the blogs so I followed him on Twitter. He put out an opening for a social media intern. I sent him a direct message and he invited me to an interview. I got the job on the spot because of my experience and some ideas I had for the business. That was where my marketing career really took off because Hotels.ng was in a space that was expanding. I started as a social media intern but by the end of the holiday I was responsible for blog content, had managed some ads, and redesigned the website. I was open to doing a lot of things including creating the SEO structure for the blog.
Hotels.ng was in a building called Spark, which was Jason Njoku’s Venture Capital fund. So, I met a lot of people who were starting companies and needed help with digital marketing. Working there, coupled with my frequent visits to CcHub meant that my network was expanding rapidly.
While there, Jason noticed that I was handling social media for a number of companies, so he called me aside and advised me to make it more structured and register a company. I launched a digital marketing agency for small funded startups and would charge a max of 75k/month. There were other people doing digital marketing e.g. Wild Fusion, but they were too expensive for these startups.
My team which consisted of two friends would handle the social media for up to 6/7 clients per time then from our laptops and completely remote. Most of our clients came in through referrals. It was very good money for us.
In early 2014, Jason wanted to invest in the startup we were building. It didn’t really go well because lawyers wasted too much time ironing the details. They went back and forth over mundane stuff like who should go to the other’s office and the deal dragged on until Jason’s lawyer relocated to Canada and the deal died.
After that, I continued working with startups and learning stuff. I built a website and grew it to 100,000 visits a month to perfect my SEO. I built a couple of Twitter pages using bots and kept learning.
In 2015, I went back to Hotels.ng to manage paid ads across all platforms. We explored all the platforms: YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. We also did some A/B testing at the time. I think Justin Irabor was there at the time, but I can’t really remember now. Everyone you can think of who’s a top marketing person today probably worked at Hotels.ng at some point.
I did the summers of 2015 and 2016 at Hotels.ng, and between that time, I grew my income by 4x because I was charging more every year—which I think everyone should do.
Were you still in school doing all this?
Yes, I was still in school while working. I would come back from school and get myself deeply embedded in the tech ecosystem. Then I’d go back to school and continue working.
My final school summer was in 2016. Then I met these guys who were going to launch something called DevCenter. I joined them in 2016 and was with them until 2018. I did Marketing, Comms, Social media, and every other thing that came along my path.
I remember we built an anonymous brand persona called Core. It was one of the first anonymous brand personas to be built in Nigeria. I helped grow the DevCenter community to 5000 software developers.
Because there were not a lot of companies doing marketing, I still used to get contract offers from a lot of companies. That was around the time I did some work with Buycoins. If there was anybody who launched a startup between 2013 and 2017, I probably did some level of work for them. I worked with Andela in the early days, OMGDigital, and a couple of other companies.
In 2018, I took a break from the local tech ecosystem.
What made you take a break?
I just got tired of work TBH. I felt like my life revolved around work and my self-worth was tied too much to it. So I needed to recenter my life
At the time, I was working with a VC from New Orleans who was ex-Google. He was trying to get more exposure in the African tech ecosystem at the time and I was helping him do that via social media. I just focused on that job and quit working within the local ecosystem. During that time, I took a lot of courses, read books, and just enjoyed myself in my parent’s house.
In 2019, Iyin Aboyeji reached out and told me about his fund. We had worked together during the early days of Andela, so he already knew me. He wanted to do a publication for his firm, and based on my experience, he wanted me to lead it. That was how I joined Future Africa.
I was, and still am, responsible for growing that side of the business: publications, opinion pieces, insights into industries, stuff we think technology can disrupt, how we are building, how our thesis is changing over time, etc. We also partner with people who have projects because we’ve been able to grow an audience that is bigger than any other venture capital firm in Sub-Saharan Africa. I think our audience is currently around 40,000 people with a very strong and active mailing list.
You’ve had a very storied experience in the startup scene. Have you considered writing a book?
[laughs] I always tell myself I’ll write a book later in life and title it “Startup ma pa mi nau” (startup, don’t kill me)
I’ll definitely buy a copy. What are the most important skills you would say a person should have as a growth marketer?
I’d start by saying learning. Many people focus their learning on platform-specific stuff like Facebook ads or Google ads. While those are technical skills that can help, if you don’t know how to sell things to people, it doesn’t matter what your CPC or CPA is.
If you don’t know how to sell stuff, how to get people interested in a product, how to cultivate a community, then it’s a problem. I read a lot of stuff, even if it’s not my business.
People within our ecosystem also make the mistake of comparing themselves with their counterparts in developed ecosystems. If you work for Apple or Microsoft, it’s easy to say you only want to do content. But our ecosystem needs people to know how to do multiple things i.e. the same person doing written content does social media, runs ads, etc. The upside is that it gives you the chance to bulk up your skillset.
I see job descriptions all the time and I see how the skills that employers look for overlap. For instance, if you want to join Automatic’s marketing team—they run WordPress—you have to know PHP. I guess it’s because in their process, there might be a lot of things that require PHP and nobody wants you to be waiting on an engineer when you can just write it yourself.
At DevCenter, I used to sit through design meetings because it was a very design-driven place and that is something that helps me today.
If there’s a problem that needs to be solved and I don’t have the resources to solve it, I can always learn from a couple of YouTube videos.
The second thing is Technical Skills. Many people in marketing don’t have any technical skills. HTML and CSS are really easy, and most people should learn them. If you have issues with Mailchimp, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to open the code editor and fix it yourself.
The third thing is to understand the business model. First, understand how people make money in the industry today. Then understand how your company hopes to make money in the future. Knowing the answers to these will determine how you market the product.
Fourth, when you’re learning marketing skills, it helps to drill down and go end-to-end on the platform. It helps you to learn specific things about the platform, and more importantly hone your intuition.
Fifth, you have to be good with numbers or just be analytical. It helps you to measure your marketing efforts properly and optimize your efforts.
Finally, and this is a counter to the previous skill—don’t rely on analytics too much, trust your guts. After a couple of years of working on platforms, you’re able to know what works where. You won’t always be able to experiment. In fact, as you grow in your career, companies will expect you to hit the ground running and rely on you to make fast decisions.
Growth marketing seems to be a multi-faceted job with many nested roles. Can you help with listing those roles?
Yes. I can. I like to refer to an article from Andrew Chen when talking about this. Everyone should read it.
What you do as a growth marketer depends on where you’re working, the kind of company it is, and what needs to be done. I have friends who have led growth teams that have done customer support. As a growth marketer, you can’t afford to say “I won’t do some things”. If you discover that there’s a hole through which you’re losing customers, it’s your job as the growth lead to plug that hole.
One role is Product Marketing which is deeply content but also ads across multiple platforms. There’s also SEO which is building & modifying content for search engines. There’s email marketing which is getting emails into people’s inboxes, getting them to read it, and take specific actions. There’s Product Growth which is about creating features that help the product get more customers or keep the ones it already has. There’s also storytelling, which is about telling stories that make people love the brand. There’s PR and Communications which looks to take advantage of the media and use them to grow its audience.
Awesome. Any final words of advice for people looking to do growth marketing?
Can I leave final words for both people looking to break in and employers?
For the people looking to do growth marketing, I’d say go on job sites and read the job descriptions for what you want to do. If there are any skill gaps, take a course to fill them, then experiment with the skill to consolidate it.
For employers, they have to realize that there are not a lot of experienced growth marketers today. So, they need to take a chance on younger talents like Mark Essien did with many of us years ago. There are a lot of people who are hardworking and will do good work, they may not meet those high expectations, but employers need to take a chance on them and help them grow.