The world is in an uncertain time. Lives have been upended, and the financial future is uncertain. This feels like a really wrong time to write on entrepreneurship and starting a business. Yet, I take this path. This is because – at the risk of sounding cliched –  I believe in the strength and resilience of the human spirit. In all the crises that have rocked humanity, the belief of a better future has always been an anchor, providing a reason to ride out the storm.

Just like after every major crisis, normalcy will return, new businesses will spring forth and life will slowly return to normal.

I am writing for this future.

1. Look for opportunities even in things that you are not passionate about

Almost all start-up stories are a passion tale: Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to organize the world’s information system and Steve Wozniak to democratize access to personal computers. When you consider how successful these ventures are, you conclude that you should aspire to a lofty vision before starting out.

While this is true for some, it isn’t always that simple. In Carl Newport’s book, “So good they can’t ignore you”, he wrote of how Steve Jobs started Apple. you’d think that Jobs was bursting with passion, excited at the thought of revolutionizing computer use. Contrary to that, Jobs wasn’t an electronic whiz. In Newport’s words, “Jobs wasn’t particularly interested in either business or electronics as a student. He instead studied Western history and dance, and dabbled in Eastern mysticism”. The much-revered Apple wasn’t born out of a fevered wish to take over the electronics world. Rather, it was a product of seizing an opportunity. This opportunity came first as the excitement of model-kit computers rose and secondly, as an offer to make fully assembled computers at a higher price. What if Jobs had hesitated because he wasn’t cut out for business or even wasn’t a technology enthusiast?

When we started Interswitch, I had just fully ‘transformed’ from being a software engineer to being a technology consultant with no immediate plan of starting a business. After I helped develop Interswitch’s business plan, I was called to join the team. At first, I was reluctant to join the pioneer management team. Once I made up my mind to join, I didn’t balk, I seized every opportunity to contribute to building Interswitch, and later on, Quickteller and Verve.

When Richard Branson started Virgin Atlantic, he wasn’t passionate about air travel. He held no grand dreams to change the aviation industry. A delayed flight gave him an idea, more like an opportunity to see the lapse in aviation and he acted on it.

So, don’t allow the lack of passion or the absence of a grand dream prevent you from seizing an opportunity head-on. Once you set out, passion naturally follows.

2. Work with others but make time to think alone

The popular culture emphasizes the need to work with others. Organizations spend money on activities that promote team bonding. This is commendable; working with others, striving towards a shared vision, building a business with others. One of the best times in my life has been the times I spent with friends brainstorming on strategies and next steps. The best results I’ve had in my professional life was achieved in tandem with others.

Yet, I emphasize finding time to spend alone. I am not promoting in any way, the lone eagle type nor the hermit who detests collaboration. Rather, what I mean is finding time, after teamwork, and after meetings, to be by yourself. The finest ideas are sometimes born at this time.

I got the idea to start Quickteller, Interswitch’s multi-channel value-added services platform while waiting for a connecting flight in Paris. I documented my thoughts, and then called a friend. Together, we brainstormed the idea over the phone.  I eventually recruited my friend to drive the Quickteller project within Interswitch and then built a team around him.

In my current company, eBanqo Inc, I spend a lot of time discussing with friends, colleagues, and potential customers about our core products and roadmap, but I still spend a lot of time in solitude to think through the strategy and execution plan. Think of the balance between spending time with others and being alone as this: Ideas birthed while alone fuels all group/team activities. Without this fuel, all team activities grind to a halt. Ideas borne out of solitude gives rise to the need for teams and collaboration. Without them- the ideas – teams are useless.

3. Keep your ears and eyes open. Be nimble

To succeed and remain in business, you have to be nimble. You have to continuously look for new trends and technologies and be quick to diversify. Your first business doesn’t necessarily have to be your only business.

When Interswitch started, we only wanted to build an infrastructure that connects all 89 banks in Nigeria at that time. We had no plans of going into corporate or consumer payment services.  When banks needed to recapitalize in 2005-2006, connecting to a payment infrastructure was no longer their top priority.  In order to survive, products like WebPay, PAYDirect, and Autopay were born.  For Interswitch and the other players in the fintech space, that period was quite akin to the slow-down during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I love this quote from the late Andy Grove, Former CEO of Intel:’Only the paranoid survive’. You have to be on your toes, constantly watching for new trends and even emerging markets. The advantage of this is that you will be the first to cash on, grabbing a large market share before other entrants. In Nigeria today, Quickteller is the category-king in the consumer bill payment, airtime purchase, and funds transfer space on the online and ATM channel.

There will certainly be life during and after an uncertain time. Businesses will slowly reopen. The future will seem bleak at first. Then gradually, everything will accelerate, and countless opportunities will exist again. Once you are presented with an opportunity, seize it even during uncertain times. Make out time to be by yourself, to reexamine your goals, to come up with ideas and directions that will fuel your teamwork. Then be nimble. Never rest on your oars. Apple, for instance, started with a vision to make personal computers available to everyone. Now, they don’t make only PCs, they make phones, they make tablets. They make Airpods. You too can be the Apple of your time.

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