In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.”
Today’s Inspiration Africa focuses on serial entrepreneur Audu Maikori, CEO of Chocolate City Group. A businessman per excellence, Audu Maikori is an echoing voice to the next generation of young entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. In an interview at his Victoria Island office, he speaks to Whoot Africa’s Olushola Pacheco about running one of the biggest entertainment business networks in Africa, the benefits of mentorship, diversifying his business reach, and what success really means to him.
Outside of the press articles detailing your work and achievements, who is Audu Maikori?
I am a lawyer who was born to a father who is a lawyer. My mother was a teacher who decided after a while to be a stay-at-home mum to take care of the kids. She was quite entrepreneurial herself, from supplies of general products to sale of wrappers and gold. I have four siblings. I am the lost guy- smack in the middle; I have a brother and a sister and then a sister and a brother in that sequence. I am right in the middle. I grew up partly in Kaduna, some parts of Abuja and then mostly in Lagos. So, if you ask me who I am? I am just this Nigeria born, schooled, and bred young man who is very passionate about how the opportunities that come to us can impact the world and the communities that we live in, grow up in or find ourselves located in for the greater good. I am very passionate about what I believe and stand for what I believe in.
What fuels your passion as a youth development advocate?
I think that young people are the greatest promise and/or the greatest assets that Nigeria has. I think that for a long time over the past 30 years they have been relegated, such that those youths that would have been very instrumental to the growth and development of Nigeria lost it because the same people who have been in power for the past 40 years are the same people who are in power today. I find that the great thing about being young is the fact that the world is really your oyster; you are bold, you are daring, you are passionate and you are ready to take risks. However, I also understand that our youth are disillusioned; they are disillusioned because I think that for a long time they have stopped believing that they have any real value or impact, up until maybe five years ago when the internet empowered them to have a voice to be able to express themselves.
I have always been involved with mentoring young people in one way or the other because I am also a beneficiary of mentoring too. A good example is Chocolate City Group. We currently employ over 50 staff members, and thinking that we started in a small office with just 2 staff and 3 directors, is really awesome when I look back. To also see people who have come from the Chocolate City Group system starting their own companies and doing their own thing is inspiring. One of the first interns we had, recently started a full-fledged production company in Kaduna and he is employing people. And even more interesting was getting a call from a cousin of mine who wanted to intern somewhere and he ended up interning at his company! which shows you that investment in people is the best investment.
I read a quote somewhere that said “Our youth do not need charity, they need inspiration.” If you can stimulate their minds and if they can begin to think ahead and begin to envision something, then you will see that there’s a total change in their approach to things.
You were also very active in supporting youth development during the last administration with both the SURE-P and Graduate Internship Scheme. Now that the last political dispensation has moved on, what are your plans to help young graduates who are undecided about the way forward right now?
I got some good news last week that it is likely this administration will keep the Graduate Internship Scheme. I was told they like the program and might likely continue which is absolutely fantastic. I have been quietly working on a project called “MAD” (Making a Difference). I will be working on its execution for 2016 as a personal project. The idea is basically to see how we can get companies and individuals to make a difference in their communities and how business can also be used for good. Many young people want an opportunity to intern and also learn some more skills which is a bit more difficult right now because under the Graduate Internship Scheme the government paid a stipend which enabled companies to take on more graduate interns. This made it almost cheap or free for organisations to take them on which was the distinguishing factor about the program. However, in this case, we don’t have the money to pay the interns, so we will be pleading with companies to take these graduates as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility and just develop them; pay them a token and give them a chance to learn. Chocolate City Group alone has taken in about 20 plus interns in the last ten years. Some have even come from outside the country to intern with us, and that’s because we believe that we need to stop talking about it and do something about helping to empower young people.
What drives a man like Audu Maikori?
My motive is very selfish: I can’t stand to see people going through rough times and if I can help I will. Money is a tool and its effect depends on how and what we apply it on. If I don’t like a situation I don’t stay stuck on complaining about it, I would rather to do something about it. So, I am inspired by the need to change things, which are within my reach, and power and I think that it is very important that we stop complaining and start doing something about solving the problems. That’s my message to young people; stop complaining when there’s something wrong, just start no matter how small, just do it. I try to demonstrate this by setting an example myself. When I started my company, the vision was to create a platform that would help manage and project Nigerian entertainment to the world, but everyone said it wouldn’t work or happen; they kept referencing the fact that I lived in Abuja and how entertainment management in Abuja wouldn’t work out. I had my legal career and I was doing quite well. I was tired of being told you had to be in Lagos to make the entertainment business work for you. Even though I had no doubts I could do it, all the artistes were coming from Lagos and I said to my co-founders, let’s set up from Abuja and promote around Nigeria and make it one of the top five entertainment companies in the next five years and then we can propel ourselves to the pan African level considering the fact that anything that is big in Nigeria is big in Africa. This was 10-11 years ago.
I am very restless; I find it hard to sit still doing one thing. I have always done several things, I have always been involved in different things, so in as much as most people know me in entertainment, I am first of all a lawyer and it is the law that exposed me to so many aspects of the phases of life; to understand human rights, what the constitution says about fundamental human rights, about people being free to associate, freedom of expression, etc. It is that legal foundation that gave me a better perspective on how the entertainment business can be structured properly to run like a real business and not the way it has been run over the years. What is my inspiration? My inspiration is the belief that we are on this earth to make a change wherever we find ourselves, to stop talking about change and start being that change. If I can make that happen in my lifetime, to influence people and help them live better and be impactful, then I am the most successful man in the world.
You founded Chocolate City Group in 2005, alongside two co-founders. Considering your degree in law and practice as a lawyer, what led to your decision to become a music entrepreneur especially with the complexity involved in the music business?
Well, we didn’t look at music specifically, we looked at entertainment generally and the creative industries, but music was just the fastest and the easiest thing to start off with compared to other things. Prior to that we had done a lot of research about the cinema culture, doing things in movies and when we did our research we travelled to find out where the old cinemas were, we thought about revamping them, getting distribution deals with MGM and reviving the movie culture. The outlook was huge, so music was just the easiest and fastest route and then it was more accessible somehow.
The story of me getting into the music business started way before all of this. It started from the age of 4 or 5. Many people don’t know that I am a painter. I (used to) paint really well, in fact I have paintings in my house and in my office. While I was in secondary school I studied fine arts and in the exams and assessment I was either first or second in art class. I was quite good and excelled at that. That creative part was always part of me. Both my parents were active in the choir, so music was part of our lives; everybody in my family loves music. Without exaggerating I’m probably the least fanatical about music in my family. My father had a collection worth 3000 cassettes, he travelled quite widely and whenever he travelled he always came back with radio recordings of famous artistes and current popular songs, and so music was really part of us, it was a seed planted long before I ever thought about Chocolate City. One thing I still remain thankful to my dad for was the fact that he really encouraged our creative side. When you think about it, some parents don’t. Most parents would rather have their children focused on their books in line with certain career prospects; my dad was very liberal, you were allowed to do what you wanted to do. Ever since I was 4 or 5, I told my dad I wanted to become a judge- so my path was quite clear- law was my passion. It wavered a bit when I found out I could paint. So at a time I considered switching to study architecture instead of law, but law won because that was what I was most passionate about.
When I got into the University of Jos, I would get involved in gigs and shows because promoters discovered that I was good with graphic arts and most times they would ask me to create posters for their shows, which I did. I got involved in that whole community even though they weren’t paying me for it. I mostly got free tickets, but it was fun, and I loved the experience. By my 3rd or 4th year, a group of friends and I said we wanted to do our own thing in school. I mostly did the advisory aspect of it. We were bouncing ideas back and forth and trying to decide on a name, and that’s how Chocolate City came about.
You stepped down in June 2015 as the CEO of Chocolate City Music in order to strengthen the company and allow the injection of new ideas into the system. This move solidified your position as a music leader who is not just about the position, but also about growing the music business. Why did you decide MI was the man for the job and how has it been so far?
It wasn’t a spontaneous decision. Before stepping down in June 2015 it had been something I had been thinking about for a while, but what was clear was I wouldn’t be the CEO of a music label forever. I started when I was 28 plus, and 10 years later I didn’t want to be the CEO for life. I realise that is one of the things that has held us back as a nation; people hold on to power and don’t want to relinquish it because they feel that nobody can do it better than them and that’s not true. As true leaders, sometimes our role is to set the agenda and move out of the way for someone else to execute and deliver the vision; so from 4 years or so before then we decided to begin to groom a successor. There were three other people aside from MI who could have taken my place as the CEO of Chocolate City Music.
It wasn’t a decision I could have taken in one day. We have a board and our directors have invested their time and energy in helping to grow the brand. Chocolate City Music is a serious company so a decision like that is not taken lightly. In essence, MI had been appointed a director with Chocolate City Music since 2010, he was made VP music in 2011/12, so the grooming process had already started and he was already part of the decision making process for the music label, so he had been groomed alongside other people for the possibility of being part of the leadership system. When it came time to hand over, I felt he was ready to be able to take on that responsibility because he was already working quite closely with us. Most interestingly, within the first 5-6 months when we signed him in 2006, it was clear that he wasn’t going to be just an artiste because he sat down and re-wrote an email articulating how he wanted to contribute and what his vision was being a part of Chocolate City, and it was clear that he was ready to also take the position.
However, I feel like sometimes you also need to be realistic about business and more importantly too, there was a need to diversify and grow the other business units of the company. Remember Chocolate City Group is a group of companies; we have a movie company, media and also a distribution company and what we have been doing over the past two and half years was constituting those companies. The distribution company now has a joint venture with three or four other labels. We created something called Five Music; Five Music is an aggregator platform that basically deals with music from across Nigeria and a nationwide catalogue, so it is open. We currently act as content partners to Cloud 9 an online music platform. We have also done some direct to phone deals where we supply ringtones to phone companies. With Chocolate City Media for example, there’s quite a lot developing, one of which is the Music Week Africa.
How has it been since then?
Last year was interesting. In terms of our revenue profile we did about the same or marginally better than we did in the preceding year and that’s amazing because last year I knew it was going to be a very tough year. The dollar was down, people weren’t putting money in the industry as they did previously and it affected the shows and the events that were stimulating a lot of things. So we knew it was going to be quite difficult but more importantly it was a transition year and we were merging two companies — Chocolate City and Loopy Music which was MI’s music label, and the artistes over there, hence giving us a bigger roster of artistes to work with. If you understand the music business especially the recording aspect of it, you spend at least 18 months on artiste development and investing in an artiste as most artistes don’t bring in any revenue for at least 18-24 months.
Under your leadership, Chocolate City Group was named at the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship in 2011 in Nairobi Kenya beating 3,300 plus African applicants from 48 countries. When you look at all the achievements, awards and accolades, what comes to mind as an inspirational businessperson?
That everything is possible if you believe, if you work hard and if you are persistent.
“Nigeria music industry is not the next oil; it is the oil.” This was a statement from your acceptance speech as the chairman of COSON. Despite the growth of the music industry, the quality of music has fallen with the quantity being churned out every day. How do we stop this trend? Plus, the concept of music writing isn’t as rewarded in this part of the world like it is in most developed nations. What are your thoughts on how to improve this?
Music is driven by pop culture, and what is pop? Popular… That’s what it means, so Pop music is music that is widely accepted. So in the mainstream music circles pop music is the function of what everyone is listening to. So the recommendation syndrome kicks in: “Oh have you heard this and that artiste?” You hear it a few times and it becomes your tune, you hear it in the club 14 times and you like the song, after a while you become a fan of the artiste and that’s how it works. Are you going to be able to do anything to control it? I don’t know; I don’t really think so. I think that pop is pop. I think even if you go to the US, you still hear crappy music being popular too. Sometimes you can’t even string the lyrics together to form a sentence but people are happy with feel good music. Remember also that African music has traditionally been led by drums. We have always been a drum culture people, we are always about the beat and not necessarily about the content; but that doesn’t take away the fact that music like jazz, soul, neo-soul and the derivatives of that were influenced by black people. There are two parts of a black man, the very “dancey” and the very spiritual, and if you can address those two parts, you are okay. Change comes from pivotal artistes. Why does Bob Marley resonate? Why does Fela Kuti resonate? They were their own people and it showed, and that’s why their music had longevity, because they were original. Not many artistes want to end up doing crappy music; many start out great with fantastic lyrics until the pressures of being bankable sets in, making back what their labels and investors put in. It often pushes an artiste to sell what people want to hear, so it’s a creative dilemma whereby you are trying to balance creativity with originality and with commercialism. All we can do is to ensure that we educate musicians as to the need to create music that is from the heart and that resonates.
What’s one myth about your industry you’d like to see exploded?
That we are not really human beings; that because we are people who appear on TV, Online or on magazines, that the conception is that we have no problems, we are always happy, we take all our calls with smiles, we love taking “selfies” everywhere we go to, we have a bucket of money that never dries up and we are almost superhuman. People need to know these perceptions are not true.
You were a judge at the just concluded “The Venture” hosted by Chivas Regal that saw agripreneur, Angel Adelaja become winner of the competition. In your opinion, what set apart the winning entrepreneurs from the rest?
The idea behind the venture is looking for entrepreneurs whose businesses have a strong social value and impact. What we were looking for was really someone who has a story and is working on a project that had the capacity to influence and to impact the community. To be honest with you it was tough for the panels, from the selection process from thousands of applications, down to 15 and then to 5. We had a lot of arguments about who qualified, why and what their strong points were from the context that this was an international competition, and the winner was to face a bigger panel and stiffer competition and an international panel of judges who would not be swayed by fancy stories, but depth and long term impact. So for Angel Adelaja, one of the things we liked about her story was the angle with which she told it. Her business helps to encourage hydroponics which is basically an old school system that is not popular, a system that makes use of fresh water in growing vegetables and fresh fruits in your house or green area. In terms of space, you can grow cabbages and lettuce and all sorts of food on a good wall. She won us by using the Niger Delta area as main focus. Think of the oil pollution in the Niger Delta where it is almost impossible to grow anything; her business idea would create a massive impact and help reduce the cost of farming. We thought that was interesting and then we looked at the strength of her presentation. Was she convincing? Was she passionate about what she was doing? And we felt that she best met the criteria for what we were looking at. We had a lot of contestants with some very good ideas too, but overall and we have no regrets picking Angel Adelaja as the winner.
If you had a room full of aspiring young business people, what are those things you would like them to know about succeeding in the business world today from your experience?
I am a big advocate for partnerships; I think that people use the word entrepreneur to the detriment of their growth. You can be in a partnership and still be entrepreneurial. Many people think I am an entrepreneur so that means I did it by myself, and that’s not true. In the course of my being in business and having sat on several panels, both locally and internationally, I find that the perception of what the entrepreneur was 20-30 years ago has shifted a lot. An entrepreneur now is a person who invests his resources, time, effort, experience, cash and contacts to develop and to grow a business whether new or existing; you can show your entrepreneurial side by how innovative you are in creating new stuff. For instance, a company has been there for 100 years and they have an IT division, you come in and you are an employee who thinks they can create an interactive department and the company can generate more revenue from this; even though you are a staff member, you are an entrepreneur. Enterprise is about business and not the company itself or the structure. It is about value to the business. When you form a partnership, you are both entrepreneurs, you have both brought something new, and you have both created a new enterprise.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t end with the word, it ends with the results our creativity put together can achieve and most people think that it’s just about the title and owning everything. Many people are losing out on the motivational aspect of more people working together in partnerships and collaboration all in the name of being CEOs and owning it all. Think about the pooling of resources, think about the fact that someone always has what you need, like a business person who has ideas and is paying massive rental cost and another who isn’t so creative yet has excess office space, both can collaborate to enjoy the creativity and also reduce office costs.
One of the most important lessons I learnt recently, was better amplified in 2014. I am a fellow of the Nigerian Leadership Institute and as part of my induction course we were sent to Yale University to do a leadership training for about a week; a very intensive course. It was a partnership between NLI and Yale University. There was a particular class where we were taught about the “pie”. It was one of those practical classes that helps you shape your thinking about a leadership in business challenges. They said most businesses think about the pie or how much of a pie that they have but they don’t think about the size of the pie. Most CEOs would rather have a 100% of a tiny pie to live up the CEO name than 5% of a bigger and more rewarding pie. Partnering and working together creates a competitive advantage which is worth more, and a lesson most people in businesses need to learn. Partnerships, collaboration and strategic alliances are the key to surviving in this business world; we are better off together.
Unlike what we are used to in the entertainment industry out here, how have you managed to keep your business journey scandal free considering most entertainers think all publicity good or bad is publicity? Do you have a special business model you follow?
It is clearly the grace of God. Everyone is vulnerable and when you think about social media today, anyone can concoct a story about you, and unfortunately the damage is usually done before people even care to know the truth. My policy is, try and be as straightforward as you can be, be as real as you can be and do not expose yourself unnecessarily to people in the name of popularity. If you can do that, you can only pray and hope that God would protect you from issues that may arise every day in the course of business.
What would you say to upcoming entertainers who are looking to going into the business? How do I get an Audu Maikori to notice my work enough to sign me?
Audu Maikori doesn’t sign people anymore to Chocolate City Music, but I can recommend to my team. Personally, I think you need to be outstanding and you need to be different. There is so much of the same sound out there today that you have no choice than to push for originality in order to be noticed. You just have to be that fresh breath of air, but you also have to prove yourself; that you are dynamic, versatile and you are ready to grow and adapt, and that you have a big vision and you are ready to fight for that.
What is the best advice you have ever received and how has this impacted your business journey so far?
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received came from my mentor and the chairman of my company, Hakeem Belo-Osagie. I had gone to hang out with him alongside Jude Abaga (MI) and at some point MI jokingly asked for a few wisdom nuggets he could walk away with on our way out. He said – “Never give up, be persistent” and then he went on to tell us the story of how Etisalat got its licence. They applied the first time, second, third and the answers were no, no no! The fourth time they applied, he was almost certain the answer would be another no and that was when they actually got the licence to operate what we now know as Etisalat. Another interesting story is President Buhari. I look at how many times he contested for office before he finally became the president of Nigeria and I ask myself, how many things have I tried at least three times before giving up? So I decided from this point, I would have to get at least four noes before I quit anything I try to do.
Lastly, 30 years from now, what would you want the world to remember about you when the name Audu Maikori is mentioned around the business world?
I want to be remembered as a person who not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk. I am in this life’s journey for greatness, for development, for empowerment and for making a difference in the world.