Here on Whoot Africa, we not only showcase brands, but we also talk to the people behind those brands and have them share with us their back stories as well as give tips on how to successfully start and run a business.
Welcome to Whoot Africa’s – 15 Questions with the CEO.
1. Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Jovago as a brand you represent?
My name is Marek Zmyslowski; I‘m Polish and I’m 27 years old. I love sports, and could easily pass for a geek. An enthusiastic entrepreneur, I have co-founded and sold two online businesses. Until now, I have lived my entire life in Europe but some point I needed a new challenge — exciting and adventurous. At the same time, Africa’s start-up scene was burgeoning and I just could not miss out. I moved to Nigeria and started Jovago.com, an online hotel-booking portal. At Jovago.com, our vision is to create the best travel booking experience ever. Wherever you go in Africa, you can find your best hotel and book it in just few clicks.
2. How did you get started in business and what did it take you to get to where you are today? Did you know you were going to be an Entrepreneur all along, or did it happen by chance?
My so-called “professional career” started in Finance. I also spent three (3) years in doing sales. Sometimes in the early 2000s, start-ups in Poland were in their nascent stage and that got my attention. At that point, I realized I wanted to build companies. I decided to focus on the Internet because of its immense power to change the world. I figured out it would be easier to do business in a fresh, growing online market than starting from scratch in offline markets with established leaders.
3. What do you love most about your life as an entrepreneur?
The building part! I love to execute. Starting from scratch, building the product, team, and then, building the whole company. Seeing it work in real life after it was only an idea in your head is simply magical. That’s a great feeling indeed!
4 Tell us about your experience with the African business scene, do you have any regrets, funny stories, lessons and experiences you would like to share?
It’s really hard to find a nation as entrepreneurial as Nigerians, and I love it. Personally I think they are the best salesmen in the world. However, sometimes they try to overdo stuff. I remember when I wanted to rent an apartment; I was shocked when the landlord asked me to pay a two-year rent upfront. In many different transactions, you are asked to pay upfront, mostly because of the lack of trust unlike in Europe or USA. Let me share this hilarious one, it took me quite some time and ‘stress’ to understand the real meaning of “I’m coming”
5. The hospitality industry is a bit complex, with major players such as hotels.ng (Nigeria) whose reach has “locally outgrown international brands such as Expedia and Bookings.com” how do you intend to stay relevant in the Nigerian hospitality industry, and what is it you have to offer that makes you different?
The way we do business in Nigeria is slightly different from what the local, as well as international players do. No one should be underestimated. Time will tell who has the upper hand. There is a difference between listing the highest number of hotels and actually doing real business with them. As it has always been the case in business, competition can help you create the market, when it is still at its early stage. Our competition isn’t directly hotels.ng or Expedia; we all compete with people’s habits to book hotels via offline travel agents or just walking into a hotel straight from the street.
I strongly believe that it is good to have competition. It makes you think and work harder. My sports coach was always telling me, that runners break world records when they have opponents at their back, not when they finish alone.
6. From my survey, many customers are not keen on patronizing business ventures backed by the Rocket Internet Company besides Jumia for obvious reasons, as they are deemed a clone factory that drives small businesses out of market with their huge financial prowess. Has this affected your business in any way?
Not at all! Hotels are happy to have their rooms occupied regardless of whose channel they come from while customers are happy to find another place with better rates and customer service.
But I need to admit, I’m still surprised by that negative opinion sometimes.
I was once invited to Mo Abudu’s show on Ebony Live TV, where I talked about my first experiences in Nigeria. After the show, some individuals accused Mo on Twitter of promoting people and companies “bad for Nigeria”, I found this quite unfair. I have read hundreds of books about Africa and Nigeria, I have travelled the continent. My knowledge of Africa is quite extensive than any typical expat, and sometimes I even more knowledgeable than an average Nigerian. It seems like everyone’s missing a point here. If it was really only about the “cloning” part, those people would also dislike Chicken Republic for copying KFC, Konga for copying Amazon and almost every Chinese product for copying almost everything. Could you imagine Tantalizers patenting the right to be the only restaurant in Nigeria?
First of all, we need to realize that just having a business idea doesn’t give you much, advantage really. There were thousands of video sharing websites before Youtube, and many social networking platforms before Facebook. Everyone has the right to replicate a business model used elsewhere because you cannot really patent it. Just like you can‘t patent fragrances. However, what matters is the ability to execute the business and build the best products. And many “small” businesses are successful at competing with big companies. Take a look at how Dropbox has grown, even though it has the worst enemies you can ever imagine (Apple‘s iCloud, Microsoft‘s SkyDrive and Google Drive), it is still thriving. What we should keep in mind is that local companies also know their market better and this is a huge advantage, even as important as funding.
Second, we have the “Nigerian company” vs “Foreign capital” issue. The irony lies in the fact that many companies considered as “local” are in fact partially owned by foreign stakeholders, who at one point decided to invest in them. And that is good! What significantly drives economic growth in almost every country of the world, are the huge inflow of foreign investments spent on infrastructure, hiring people, contracts with local partners etc. And if you must compare Spark and Hotels.ng to Rocket and Jovago.com, not in terms of size but percentage of local employees and foreign investors, there isn’t really that much difference?… And I believe we all contribute to the growth of local start-up scene by showing good examples, motivating, bringing know-how and educating co-workers.
Third, is the case of small local players “struggling” with big well-funded companies. That happened in Poland in the 90’s when number of supermarkets and shopping malls skyrocketed which resulted in the closing of many small street shops, which were obviously protesting for being “unfairly treated”. What we’re missing is that the customers made that choice, because they wanted to buy stuff cheaper and more conveniently. Situation, where only local products are available is bad for all of us. Lack of competition gives you a bad service for an unfair price. What I think really is the case, is that basically if you are too big and too successful, people don’t like you anymore. It’s very easy to observe it, when you read press sentiment towards Facebook, Apple or Google; how it has changed over the years.
This David vs Goliath is a quite a romantic approach and people tend to cheer for the “David”. To give an example: Amazon in the early days against Barns&Noble, Ellon Musks’s Tesla among whole automotive fuel-oriented sector. And the “David” like to use it for their purposes. Mark Essien has just wrote on his blog how he founded and developed Hotels.ng. I really enjoyed that story and I have much respect for him. I just wonder why the only thing he got right about Jovago was that we launched 6months ago (smile).
Every entrepreneur and every investor plays the same game called business.
We may have different strengths, but we have similar chances to succeed if we’re smart enough. So don’t blame anyone who wants to join and play.
7. What do you think are the most important personal skills someone must have to be successful in business?
Hard work, more hard work and more and more hard work!! You need to work hard. Also, you must be able to make people trust you and follow you and your vision. All of them, co-workers, business partners, customers.
8. What are some of the obstacles you have encountered in your business journey and how did you overcome them?
Finding the right people has been a herculean task. I learned the hard way having to realize how crucial this is for the performance of the company. You need to constantly have interviews and always look for talents.
9. How do you describe your leadership style? And how do you keep the Jovago team motivated?
I think I’m quite demanding in terms of results. If the numbers are great, I give more independence. If they’re not, I will micromanage to find out the real nature of the problem. I also try to share a lot of knowledge and develop teammate’s skills.
10. Do you think the current league of entrepreneurs in Africa are pushing the boundaries enough or is there way too much emphasis on being entrepreneurs that people are rarely getting enough experience to sustain business growth in Africa?
There is no right answer for that. There are successful entrepreneurs without any previous experience, but most of us should work in a company first. It’s hard to succeed without knowing how to deal with real business problems, without getting to know the right people, etc.
11. Who was the most influential person or mentor in your life?
I had two of them actually. Filip, my first boss and Marcin, my first angel investor, both are very different, wise, great role models.
12. What was the biggest risk you have ever taken, any regrets?
I think it was using my final savings to keep one of my projects alive. That paid off, I survived and was able to find investor. Without taking that risk there would be no company to invest in anymore.
13. What do you think about college education? Should kids go to college now or get into business if they feel it’s a better choice? Considering some of the world’s greatest never had college education, your thoughts?
The educational system was invented in times without internet and e-books, basically without any easy access to the plethora of information we have today. Nowadays, if you know what you want to do in life (like running a business), and you are disciplined and hungry for knowledge, you don’t need to go to the university. In most cases however, people do go to university to sharpen their minds, clarify their goals, make friends and learn the methodology of making mistakes to get better. Good universities and professors can show you that.
14. How do you envision Africa’s growth in the next decade? What do you think about the e-commerce movement in Africa?
It’s going to be simply amazing; what we have now is a tip of the iceberg. There are however a couple of factors that needs to be urgent actions for this potential to become a reality. The two main ones are improving infrastructure (electricity and internet access) and growing a middle class with a higher purchasing power.
If you need a real boom, you need a start-up ecosystem. That means entrepreneurs with vision but also with first experiences and a sense of reality. You also need way more flexible funding in the market, active investors willing to take risks to invest in early stage projects. Banks and Private Equity won’t do that part of the job.
15. What would be the most important piece of advice you could give to young entrepreneurs and why?
“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that’s why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
If you missed the previous parts of the 15 Questions with the CEO series, please click here .