Autochek CEO, Etop Ikpe is one of the most successful serial tech entrepreneurs in Nigeria and is known for his time at DealDey, Cars45, and currently, Autochek. He also had a brief stint at Zinox-owned Konga.
But before he ran these companies, Ikpe’s first official job came in 2006 when he was co-founder and director of projects for a communications company called Click Mobile Communications.
Despite not having an engineering or communications-related background, Ikpe tells us that he always loved technology. This drove him to start the company with a friend he met in school.
As many niche engineering companies focused on networking solutions, Click Mobile hoped to cater to the country’s rising need for software products.
“My partner was a software guy, and the company started because we had done some software gigs when we were in university. After school, we went to Broad Street and started pitching our solutions to companies.
“We’d speak to their operations and admin people, figure out what problems they had, try to understand where we could bring tech into it, and then build custom solutions. That’s how the company started,” he tells Techpoint Africa.
Little did Ikpe know that his experience at Click Mobile set him up for what he would do 15 years down the line — run four more tech businesses.
In this interview, Ikpe shares his journey building and running these businesses, exiting two, and what it feels like to be an entrepreneur in these parts.
After Click Mobile, you launched Tinker and Bell Media in 2008. Why did you leave Click? Did you find your work monotonous?
I think that my work with Click Mobile was super early and really, it was like a fortuitous journey. I knew I liked the idea of building great companies, but I had no idea about what a company organisation was and nothing close to what I know now. So I’d say that we built Click Mobile and it was doing quite well, but at the end of the day, I felt some fundamentals were missing for me to stay there long-term.
It also happened that there was a growing need for animation programming. Then, there were many live shows, and big companies were investing a lot in TV programming. There was also an increasing demand for animation and few studios to cater to them. Some of my friends and I had access to animation studios, and we began pitching that we could do some animation work.
So after toying with production for a while, I decided to do something with high-quality sporting programmes and documentaries because I was super fanatic about football. That’s how we started Tinker and Bell, and I’d say it was quite successful in terms of the demand. It’s something I’d like to explore again; however, it was a lot of work. I don’t think that there’s anything that has drained me the way Tinker and Bell did.
Was it the period or the business that was stressful? I ask this because you ran Three Stitches, an online fashion store during that time.
Oh, it was the business. In a creative process environment, you’d have to pass a message to your audience in a way they’d understand and appreciate so at the end of the day you’ll end up going through a lot of takes. That in itself causes stress because it takes a lot of time to perfect production. It was also incredibly demanding and took much of my mental ability.
But what happened with Three Stitches was that my co-founder was running the platform offline at first and I was in an advisory role, you know, telling her to do this and that regarding operations and expansion.
One of the pretty clear things was that we needed to invest in social media advertising and selling online even though the latter was not a popular choice. We built social media pages and a website to let people shop, that’s how we got Three Stitches up and running.
eCommerce was relatively new then; how was your experience with Three Stitches?
When we first started, we spoke to about 40 riders to convince them to join us. In the end, only one was crazy enough to join us. We had a customer base of about 10,000 people and doing like $100/month. And in two years, we were making a net profit of about $350k a year. It was very organic growth and a super exciting phase of my life.
While the production business was taking its toll on me, Three Stitches was bringing in the money, and I felt I needed to concentrate on Three Stitches. That was how I made the transition to consumer technology. It wasn’t something I did consciously. I just enjoyed doing retail, and I’d say that Three Stitches came at the right time and the market acceptance was pretty good.
But you left for DealDey a year later. Did you resign?
I wouldn’t say I resigned. What happened at DealDey was that Sim Shagaya — a great friend and mentor — had just founded the company. Being a consumer business on the Internet, Sim’s niece — coincidentally our customer — had ordered something from our store.
He was curious about us after seeing our dispatch rider, and his niece told him about us. We targeted young and trendy Nigerians, and it was modelled after ASOS. That’s what we felt was missing in the market as nobody paid attention to fashion. Sim contacted us, we got talking, became friends, and stayed in touch.
DealDey was doing well, but Sim wanted to launch and focus on Konga. So he approached us, asking if he could acquire our business and join the DealDey team. I looked at it and thought “that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
To be honest, the concept of selling a business was strange at the time as everyone expects the entrepreneur to remain for the long haul. But I saw it as an opportunity to have a nice full stop to our business instead of shutting it down one day. And because I trusted Sim, we carried on with the deal. So, I joined DealDey via the acquisition.
We all know that DealDey shut down in 2019, but some reports claim its troubles started way back in 2015. Seeing you were at the company then, can you tell us what went wrong?
In 2014/2015, if you remember, oil prices dropped, and the recession began. So there was a general dip in business activities, and FX prices changed dramatically. We were also just coming off an election where there were major changes in commodities and environment, among other things.
When I look back, I think there was general business stress across the board as we just entered our first recession in more than ten years. Before 2015, we had gone through a process where malls were springing up; cinemas were coming up, modern grocery shopping was in full force. High commodity prices drove all these things which concerned the average middle class Nigerian. So when the recession happened, it hit us bad.
We did okay, and like any other company, we wanted to raise capital. Ringier had two other deals platforms in Ghana and Kenya. There was a lot of consolidation happening there, and they created the Ringier Deals, which contained their assets profile. They were one of the people we spoke to about raising funds, but it spiralled into an acquisition process at the end of the day, and that’s how DealDey was acquired the following year.
That’s why you left for Konga?
There were a few companies in the consumer Internet space. When the acquisition happened, the space had changed rapidly, so it was different. I asked myself, “do I stay on with DealDey or move to Konga and go deeper into other sectors to check out what was happening?”
At the time, Konga was migrating, moving from a mostly retail business to a marketplace. I had a lot of experience digitising service-based businesses and products, and that was the process Konga was looking to drive in their marketplace.
As I said, I remained close to Sim, and he suggested I come help with the transitioning. But at the same time, I was also exploring various options. As I transitioned, I was in the process of thinking of the next thing to do and evaluating different business models in my spare time.
Interesting. Was that when you got the idea for Cars45?
Exactly. As I mentioned, many models in South East Asia and India seemed very interesting to me. I usually check them for some sort of market trends for what to expect in Africa, so the idea for Cars45 was more analytical than creative.
I had bought and sold cars, and also got car deals while at DealDey. So I came to understand the intricacies of buying cars. I also understood what the challenges were. And the first thing I recognised was that if I was going through these challenges, other people were; it meant there was an opportunity.
I wanted to do something that was Pan-African, and I liked the idea of big tickets because at the end of the day if you’re going to put in a lot of effort into doing something, you’ll have to make it grand. My co-founders and I began testing out things in the automotive space, and once again, we never looked back. That’s how Cars45 started.
So, I wouldn’t say I planned to spend a short time at Konga. I think things just happened in a way that it was quickly evident that there was something hot in the space, and I needed to just focus on that.
Would you say another reason for quitting Konga for Cars45 was that it allowed you to start another company, something you hadn’t done in four years?
Well, not really. Although Cars45 was the first one I started from scratch, I always felt I was running my business with the others. With DealDey, for instance, I was CEO and also had a stake in the company. I didn’t feel like I was working for someone.
So at the end of the day, it was just the opportunity not necessarily because I hadn’t founded a business in a while. It’s not a conscious effort, but when I notice what the environment and opportunity say about something and if it feels right, I go with it.
Still on Cars45, how were you able to convince investors to put in $5m, one of the largest Series A in Nigeria at the time?
We grew very quickly as the market was there. The amount of money you raise depends on what goal you have and the company’s ambition. We were trading cars, and as you know, they are large assets, and we needed a lot of cash to get started.
In raising capital, it’s really about what you want to do with the money. If you have the track record and say “okay, we’ve been able to execute so far and we need the capital to do this,” I think the next thing any investor would consider is the people behind the business.
They also ask themselves if the people will use the capital well or party with it. They’ll also look at the team to see if there’s a support base around them.
Talking about rounds, your current venture Autochek, raised the largest pre-seed round in Nigeria last year. How significant do you think that was?
This is why an ecosystem is essential. I would do something because someone has done something similar in the past, and what I’ve done will also inspire someone else to do something, and so on.
I entered into the startup space when funds were hard to find but can you imagine how different the ecosystem is from the eyes of a 16-year-old now in terms of capital raises, business model, and scale? You know they’ve seen an exit of $200m happen so think about that.
That is what I mean by ecosystem support. It’s essential that we work hard and succeed because what you do determines whether the next person will be encouraged or discouraged to participate in that space.
As a serial entrepreneur, do you see yourself staying longer than four years at Autochek, which is the most you’ve stayed at a company?
[Laughs] Honestly I never thought of anything I’m doing in a time box. For Autochek, I believe the company’s value begins to make sense ten years down the line when we’re present in 20 to 25 African countries with 10k dealerships and maybe 20k workshops. Hopefully, we have all the major banks across the continent on our platform lending to customers, among others.
So will I be the CEO of Autochek in four years? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be the Chairman or the COO or VP, Commercial. The most important thing is that I’ll always do things that overall build the value of what we’re creating.
But I want to be here. I want to be a part of it. I believe I can drive the company 10 to 15 years down the line. However, it’s the people that I work with and my board that will determine that [laughs] but I hope they keep having confidence in me and I’ll do everything I can to stay.
That is good to know. I’ve wanted to ask how you were able to run these businesses back-to-back. You hardly went on a break.
I can’t just imagine myself being idle [laughs]. Somehow I’ve been built to enjoy things like this, and I’ve been lucky to work with good people who made me appreciate what I do. So I just think like what else am I going to do if not this? I don’t need a break now, maybe in 20, 30 years, sure. I should work now and take an extended break at that time.
I didn’t consciously get up and say “oh this is how my career would be,” I just flowed with it, and here I am because if something’s in front of me, I’m gobbling it up.
What advice would you give founders and serial entrepreneurs like yourself?
There are many problems across Africa, and the reality is that things will not improve if people don’t have jobs. As an entrepreneur, if you have the opportunity to be in a place where you can build a business and grow it as much as possible, you can use it as an opportunity to empower people.
So one advice would be to think big about what you’re doing. It might seem easy, but it’s challenging because we can’t create many opportunities at the end of the day if we’re not thinking big about what we are doing.
I’m not saying I’m there yet, I’m learning too. So yeah, it’s about that and pushing yourself as hard as possible and taking advantage of opportunities; don’t be too scared and guarded about things. The resources you need are out there. The people you need are out there also. If you don’t push, you’re not going to find them.
Also, be diligent with what you’re doing and listen to your customer. When founders build their products, the market will tell them if the product is working or not. Take that essential feedback, adjust your product to suit your market, and have fun while at it.
I think we’re in the golden years of tech so I’d encourage as many people to get into the industry as possible. But like I said earlier, there’s a lot to do in supporting the ecosystem because the success of everyone who is raising and building today is what’s going to determine the future.
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