INTERVIEW (Walter Emiedafe, CEO, Sapient Vendors)
Mentorship & Entrepreneurship Success: Deconstucting The Nexus
The Fidelity SME Forum is a weekly radio programme organized by Fidelity Bank Plc to educate, inform, advise and inspire budding entrepreneurs in Nigeria with knowledge and expertise that will enable them build sustainable and successful businesses. The interactive radio programme features subject matter experts and model entrepreneurs as guests on a weekly basis to share their insight and unique success stories. In this interview, Walter Emiedafe, CEO, Micromedia Marketing Limited gives valuable insights on “Mentorship & Entrepreneurship Success: Deconstucting The Nexus”.
Q: TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR ENTREPRENEURSHIP JOURNEY?
Walter: My entrepreneurship journey started while I was with TONNES Development Limited. My boss actually gave me the opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship at FATE Foundation – a scholarship type opportunity which I am grateful for because not every boss would encourage their employee to go or allow for such an opportunity. The journey also started while I was with my dad because after secondary, my dad threw me into the business of his fashion outfit of which I managed from end to end for about 4 years. The journey started and has been growing since when I was about 18 years old.
Q: WHAT DOES SAPIENT VENDORS ACTUALLY DO?
Walter: We are a value-driven, sustainable construction company that renders engineering services to a diverse set of industries – like MTN, UCH, JNCI International and a myriad of other clients we render services to.
Q: THE CONSTRUCTUCTION SECTOR IS SO WIDE, SO WHAT EXACT VALUE SERVICES DO YOU BRING TO THE TABLE?
Walter: For now, we have been focusing more on renovation and remodeling of buildings and also construction of buildings as it were with a couple of other civil engineering related services depending on what the client wants – we work on a need-to-need basis.
Q: HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE NAME SAPIENT VENDORS?
Walter: When I was about forming my company, I did a little research using the encyclopedia. One thing I knew about my team and I who were forming the company is that we are actually very intelligent – like the Homo Sapiens, the human race that has evolved over time, we knew that we will evolve over time as we grew in businesses due to technological advancement. In order to apply this advanced technology and also evolve with growing times, one has to be intelligent; hence the name, Sapient Vendors.
Q: YOU STARTED IN 2010, RIGHT? WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR START-UP CAPITAL?
Walter: Yes we started in 2010, but there was no start-up capital. We started with 3 directors: Adebisi Adewoyi, Olalekan Ajani, and myself and we just pooled our little resources and started. The others were in paid-employment, but only I was able to go full swing at the business. The first business we had as a service provider was funded by the client, mutual benefits, and the rest is history. The unique thing about the construction industry is that, one can actually get advanced payment for some of the work to be carried out. However the game is changing because procurement professionals have actually changed the goal- post and depending on the spectrum you are trying to work with, you fund the project from beginning to end and then wait for your payment after about 30 – 45 working day.
Q: SO HOW DO YOU MANGE THE CASHFLOW IN THIS CONTEXT?
Walter: I would say grit (perseverance), family and friends and most recently commercial banks, as we never used to have access to commercial bank loans before.
Q: MENTORSHIP MUST HAVE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN YOUR ENTREPRENEURSHIP JOURNEY TO BE ABLE TO HAVE GROWN FROM A START-UP AND RECORD THE SUCCESS YOU HAVE HAD ESPECIALLY AS A NIGERIAN COMPANY IN ONLY 9 YEARS; HOW DID YOU CULTIVATE MENTORS?
Walter: Mentorship has been very instrumental from the time we began to when we started getting customers to figure out how to get things done. After our training, we went to FATE foundation and we were connected to Mr. Wale Agboola of Fastpace who was very instrumental in guiding us, especially me who was very ambitious in getting many bigger deals. He advised me to take everything easier and start smaller. This helped me so as not to get discouraged and we were able to start small and so far we have seen ourselves grow consistently, year on year.
Q: WHAT MAKES A GOOD MENTOR AND HOW CAN A YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR ACCESS ONE?
Walter: An entrepreneur has to look at the horizon to figure out where they want to go and when they figure out the avenue for which they want to receive mentoring, they have to figure out how to access available mentor, in my case, I remember I was connected to Ali Baba the ace comedian, who was actually instrumental in how Sapient Vendors is portrayed. Another mentor Mrs. Onaneju, was instrumental in how we handled our finances, because of the advises given, we formed a partnership with Sage and from the onset, started keeping out book properly. Those key points we implemented from their advices, was what attracted the recognition we got last year from London Stock Exchange and Business Day.
Q: WHAT WAS THE RECOGNITION, TELL US?
Walter: We were recognized by the London Stock Exchange as one of the 360 companies to inspire Africa and by the Business Day as one of the Top 100 fastest growing SMEs in Nigeria.
Q: ARE THERE OTHER WAYS TO BE MATCHED TO MENTORS?
Walter: First look locally as there are a number of organizations that offer mentoring services – many of which are quite visible, that is, one does not need a lot of human interaction before they can be connected to these mentoring services: The Tony Elumelu Foundation, Sky is the Limit by FATE Foundation. When I first started, I went online and found an e-mentor, which I believe is a good way to start. There is also MicroMentors which when you sign up, you are mentored for free. The only challenge is that you see mainly mentors from outside the country. It then depends on you the entrepreneur on how you want to structure yourself and what mentoring you want to receive.
Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RED FLAGS IN MENTORING AND HOW HAVE YOU OVERCOME THEM?
Walter: I have been a mentee and now I also mentor, so for me the first thing look out for is the sincerity in the person. Some people just want to seek mentorship to grab as much as they can from the mentor either because of connection or financial needs. A saying goes when a student wants to learn, the teacher will appear, that is a sincere mentee will always find willing mentors to coach them. The FATE Foundation taught us that mentorship is not to seek financial help from your mentor – they actually taught us never to ask for money from your mentor.
Q: WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT: MENTOR OR MONEY?
Walter: For a budding entrepreneur, I would advise that you seek the mentor as one may have cash and blow it all away. Prior to Sapient Vendors, I tried my hands at an export venture whereby I used all my savings. Because we did not have any expertise or even mentorship on how to go about the business, it was as if all the money we had filtered away. So pick a good mentor over money because you could blow all the money away when you do not have the right advice, insights, and directions.
Q: ARE YOU ADVISING THAT A FULL TIME EMPLOYEE WHO WANTS TO START AN ENTERPRISE, SHOULD SEEK MENTORING FIRST?
Walter: That would actually be helpful because a mentor who has ventured down the same path will help you see all the booby-traps becoming an entrepreneur may present. You may be advised to make the enterprise a side-hustle while also being gainfully employed which is the same for my case. My boss was gracious enough to allow and encourage me continue working for about 2 years before the workload became too much and I had to focus solely on my business. Mentoring will guide you definitely to avoid any setbacks.
Q: WHAT IS THE PROCESS I HAVE TO TAKE AS A STARTER IN EXPORT BUSINESS?
Walter: I am actually not into exports again, but I know Fidelity Bank has a good Export Management Programme and you can reach out to them. It is a fantastic programme that was borne on this Fidelity SME Radio Forum. Write to @fidelitysmes and all the information pertaining to the next class will be sent to you. Also seek a good mentor in the Export business space who can guide you through the process.
Q: WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES SAPIENT VENDORS FACED AS A START-UP AND WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES THEY ARE FACING NOW?
Walter: Our major challenge when we first started was getting customers, that is why it is necessary to do a lot of market research and figure out where the opportunities for your business lays. As we grew, finance became a problem of how to fund your projects. We work with multinationals and we have to fund the projects from beginning to end, before we are paid back. We previously could fund through friends and family, but thankfully our scope is getting bigger, and friends and family do not have enough to fund such bigger projects. We started approaching banks and because of or records and strategic relationships we have with some organizations; the banks are able to fund the projects. One key challenge most face is lack of collateral, which is why records-keeping is very important. Banks are able to trust you with their money when they see a track record of your financial conducted business. However, if you run your business like your personal funds, no one will be able to give you money when the time comes.
Q: WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MENTORSHIP AND LEADERSHIP AND IN MENTORING, WHAT LEADERSHIP STYLE IS BEST USED?
Walter: Before you become a mentor, you have to be a leader; they are intertwined. Leadership is diverse and one can become a leader in any field. So once it is identified on which sector you want to become a leader, you have to personally improve yourself. You need to develop your capacity and personally improve yourself as you cannot lead or mentor in area where you are lacking. Once you are able to build that capacity, you can become a good mentor.
Q: HOW DID YOU SHOW GRATITUDE TO YOUR MENTORS?
Walter: In 2016 & 2017, I bought hampers and delivered it to all my mentors just to show appreciation. Also as much as possible, whenever I get a recognition or an opportunity to be interviewed, I always mention their names as influencers of me receiving whatever recognition. Without beneficiaries showing appreciation for their mentors, people would not see the value of mentoring and mentorship.
Q: SO WHAT MENTORSHIP PROGRAMME DO YOU RECOMMEND?
Walter: There are actually a couple of good ones: Sky is the limit by Fate Foundation, The Tony Elumelu Foundation Mentoring Programme, A.Y.E, and you can also go online and type e-mentoring, and a myriad of options will appear. Also are WIMBIZ, WISCA, Apostles in the Market Place, etc. Everywhere you look in Nigeria, there are opportunities for young entrepreneurs to access great mentoring.
Q: WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR INTERNAL DRIVE FOR SUCCESS CONSIDERING THAT MENTORSHIP ALSO NEEDS INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL DRIVE TO THRIVE?
Walter: What actually happened to me is that I remember when I needed a mentor and found one and it spoke to my inner person, that for someone to sacrifice his time to give me much needed insights, I should apply that wisdom to succeed. Sometimes, the mentor may fail to understand what the mentee needs, so it is crucial for a mentor to have empathy, patience and communicate well. I once had a mentee who could not apply the advice he was being given because that was not what he desired. When I listened to him, I figured out his focus and was able to mentor accordingly. As mentors, you just don’t box people up in the same space.
Q: ONE FINAL WORD ON MENTORING AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP?
Walter: You need to have grit (perseverance) to be an entrepreneur. If you do not have grit, you will burnout quickly as an entrepreneur.