At a rather tender age, Ademola Ibidun was already familiar with money as one of the “tellers” for his grandmother who was a major merchant in tailoring materials. At that age, he didn’t know the differences in the denominations, but he sure knew he was handling money. However, that act, besides being born into a ‘trading family”, influenced him to always, at any point in time, do something to make money. That could also suggest why he left the shores of this country to Ivory Coast to learn how to repair phones upon hearing of Nigeria’s GSM revolution, among other business escapades he engaged in that have paid off to make him today the founder and CEO of Ibidem Technologies Ltd. In this The Business Interview with Arinze Okamelu, Ibidun opens up on his business journey and more. Read excerpt below:
What would have influenced your entrepreneurial orientation
I came from a “business family”; both my paternal and maternal grandparents were big time business people. So my parents understandably had no choice than to follow suit, and they were very successful business people too. So I have always been surrounded by business people. Let me say this, from a very young age, I started counting money because I stayed with my grandmother who was a big time merchant of “tailoring materials” in Osogbo, Osun State, and day-in-day-out I was part of those that were counting her money. I was young, I really didn’t know much about denominations, but I know that all I had to do was to count each denomination from 1 to 100 and clamp the other notes with the final note, and we were counting real big money. Then during holidays, I will travel to Ibadan to meet another of my relatives who sells wares and I do a lot in the shop to make money. I made sure that from the money I was making during the holidays, I bought the things I needed for school; bags, books, sandals and so on, and I even bought for my siblings. I did a lot to make money. So I have been making money right from my childhood, and fortunately, anything I laid my hands to do, prospers. After my secondary school, I got admission for my OND at the Federal Polytechnic, Iree, Osun State. There I got a space off-campus where I built a snooker board for students and non-students to play at some costs. This is because I have always known that there is need to make extra income even as a student because there is no amount of money that your parents would give to you that would be enough. That snooker board business did not affect my studies and I made success of it. After my OND, I went to The Polytechnic, Ibadan for my HND. One thing was clear to me then, anyplace I found myself, the creative ideas to make money comes alive and I engage them, and I do the business very well and make money. At any point in time, I always found something to do to make money, because I don’t like begging and of course, I wouldn’t steal or try to cut-corners; so I try always to engage my creative energy to do anything positive for money. At The Polytechnic Ibadan, I had a relative in Lagos that owned a Dry Cleaning company. Every holiday I will come straight to Lagos to work for him and he will pay me. I was doing this till I graduated and when the GSM revolution came, knowing that Nigeria is a bigger market than most West African markets, I saw the opportunity in it, and it has paid off.
Can you tell us how Ibidem Technologies Ltd came to be
-I started by working with Slot Systems Ltd, own by Mr. Nnamdi Ezeigbo, one of Nigeria’s phone selling giants. I worked there as a Customer Care Consultant for four years. In the process, I saw the need to start a business of my own. I got shop somewhere and started selling ICT products like phones and accessories. Then around 2007, when we saw that the business has gotten some levels of success, we decided to go corporate and registered it with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) as Ibidem Technologies Ltd. I believe the name Ibidem is diveine as well as strategic though. “Ibidem” is a Latin word, meaning “in the same place” and interestingly, it also matches with some letters my name “Ibidun Ademola” “Ibid” from Ibidun and “dem” from Ademola”. And we have been living the name- A one-stop shop for all your ICT needs. Whether you want a phone, laptop, or any gadget, including fixing them, you can do all in the same place here.
How did you come in contact Slot Systems Ltd in the first place
I came into the computer village as teenager trying to survive. Then I had good knowledge of how to repair phones and we have very few people that repair phones then. I got a space where I was fixing phones; unlocking phones, putting songs and ringtones in the phones- not like these days that you can download songs from anywhere. Then we had to compose the songs and input them into the phones; that was the era of Nokia “3310”, “1100”, Trium phones etc. So when Slot Systems Ltd started selling phones, there used to be a lot of problems because there were no engineers, and because I had a shop along the road where I was repairing phones, he (Nnamdi Ezeigbo) was bringing them to me for repairs and takes them back to the customers. Remember that phones were expensive then, like N50,000, N80,000 and so on. If they (phone sellers) buy like 20 phones and one of them becomes faulty, it could be a big challenge. So they bring faulty phones to me for repairs. I repaired his phones well and he was happy with my work. He then requested that I be his in-house engineer, and we talked and agreed. That was how I started working with him, attending to customers’ phones’ challenges. And were we together for about four years.
Where and how did you get the knowledge of repairing phones that early
By the grace of God, with all sense of humility, I believe I have always been foresighted and very inquisitive. When I heard that the government would be introducing the Global System of Mobile Communication (GSM), I immediately knew that there would be need for the repairs of phones. I knew that would be a challenge. So I decided to look at West African countries where GSM was already in use to go get some training on how to repair phones. Fortunately for me, my mother was staying in Ivory Coast and they were using GSM. I decided to go there. This was after my graduation from The Polytechnic, Ibadan, Oyo State. I stayed there for one year; there I learnt a whole lot about how to fix phones. When I came back to Nigeria, GSM was still emerging, phones and “sim cards” were very expensive, and of course, it was natural for phones to develop some problems. A lot of people were buying their phones abroad, and we had to unlock for them, even the ones bought locally here, there used to be “charging-port challenge”, “screen problem”, and so on. So we had to handle them and were really making a lot of money repairing and fixing peoples phones.
Why then did you leave Slot Systems Ltd
I left Slot when I discovered that there was need for me to be more than a phone engineer; I have always liked trading and I didn’t like sitting in one place for a long time. Again, I was inspired by Mr Nnamdi Ezeigbo’s business success (Mr Ezeigbo is the founder of Slot Systems Ltd) and I said if he could make it to that level, then I can do as well, especially with my experience in customer service and my passion for sales. I believe I understood the language of phones enough, so I said if I can combine these with my passion for sales and trading, I will get somewhere, that was how I pulled out.
What was Mr Ezeigbo’s reaction
Fortunately for me, he was even the one that gave me a shop where I started from. I don’t think he was angry and if he was, he I didn’t show it. And I believe there was no need for that anyway because I reproduced over hundreds of my type before leaving. I was one of the pioneer GSM engineers in this country; mention any first generation of GSM engineers, I trained them, including friends, family members and people I didn’t even know. Some customers will bring about six phones for repairs, and while they are waiting, they would be watching what I was doing, and even be asking questions, and I was gladly explaining to them. And when they go back, they try to do the same thing in their shops; and indirectly they got the idea, and some would want to take it further and plead that I teach them, and show them the tools to get so they replicate same in their areas, and I gladly tell them, including giving them softwares and I was happy doing that.
But why were you that liberal with teaching people, some people would be very secretive with that knowledge
I really can’t tell you why I did that because the knowledge then was like a “top secret”. Some engineers you can’t even go near them as they were working. They created a very small window through which you passed your phones and they communicated with you. Some you just reach them through their receptionist or secretary who collects the phone and gives you price and when you would come to collect your phone. But I guess it’s my nature because I love seeing people around me, and I didn’t see it as a threat or disadvantage.
What was the vision when you established Ibidem Technologies Ltd
We simply wanted to be a major player in the ICT industry; a one-stop shop for all ICT solutions and that we are marching steadily towards sustaining and we will get there as an ICT company of choice in Africa.
What were your initial challenges?
It wasn’t easy like I told you. Phones were expensive then and they were times that customers phone could get missing, and because of the money involved, some customers couldn’t just take it easy with us. They involved the police at times and this made us to visit the police station often. At times it could be because of information loss from the phone; the customer would get mad at you to a destructive level. But I was lucky that I was more careful and this challenge was minimized. Also when I started Ibidem Technologies Ltd, money was not much then. We needed capital to stock some goods, and due to paucity of funds-our capacity was limited. Where you are supposed to buy 100 items, you end up buying 10 and when a customer that wants 100 pieces comes, and you go about looking for it, they just assume you are not serious and walk away, and may not come back next time. So if you have enough stock, it is always an advantage. Also if there is scarcity of a particular product, then it is in your advantage to release what you have into the market. So lack of capital, customers’ hostile behaviour, staff turnover then, and the business environment were part of the challenges.
How have you been able to withstand these challenges
Like I told you, if you are determined and persistent and you believe in yourself, there is nothing that can stop you. A lot of people have come into this market and have closed shops. But I thank God that for 8 years we are still here and doing well. Infact there’s this particular point you get to in business, you want to throw-in the towel, but seeing hope around you, you have to continue especially when you found out that you can pay bills, staff salaries, office space-if you can still do these, it encourages you more. Again, our money management strategy is helping us a lot. If you can make your money work for you, there is no way you won’t make it. We try to delay gratification in this business. I only spend 30% of our income, and that is when it is extremely necessary that I do that. The rest is ploughed back into the business. This is a daily routine with us here. We are conservative with our profit here and this has helped us to grow our business without borrowing from the bank, even when they are approaching us with tempting offers.
I thought loans are necessary for business growth, how come you haven’t considered it?
Because I haven’t seen any need for that. I believe if we need whatever amount, with our management policy here, we will get it and we usually get it. We may not get it immediately, but it doesn’t take long for us to get because if we work harder, we always do.
What training did you acquire to be able to discipline yourself this much
I told you I am from a “business family” or call it “traders’ family”. I saw raw money making and management skills early enough from my grandmother and relatives. Some formal education and trainings may have helped, but I will give it more to my family background and business upbringing. I was born to be an entrepreneur and I have no regret towing this path.
There is a lot of competition in this business, how have you been able to stay afloat
Competition has always been one of the great features of any thriving business, and they will always be there forever. There are a lot of new entrants into the market every day, and the incumbents are not ready to close shops. Our stay power is our focus to always meet our customers’ expectations. Even our campus branches are tailored to suit students’ satisfaction, not necessarily about making profit. We give the students quality products at affordable prices. A lot of people sell refurbished phones and mix them up with original; this we don’t do. Integrity is key for us. Our customers trust our products and they count on our integrity and good prices. Because of our tailor-made services for our customers, they have come to have confidence in us, and we have never disappointed them, and we will never disappoint them. If any of our customer complains, we attend to them immediately. So we don’t compromise our customer service. When you buy our phones or laptops and you complain, we take it back to the brand owners like Nokia, techno, Samsung, etc, and make sure you get back your phone, laptop or gadgets without hassles. Unlike some companies that would tell you to take it to the brand owners yourself, even when it is obvious you bought it from them; we don’t do that. We take the product from you and spend our money, time and everything to see that it is fixed and if it is the one that cannot be fixed, we change it for you, and take it to where ever the customer is. What we are interested in is making our customers happy. So for us to be running on some campus shops and have survived the exuberance associated with the youths market, means we have some expertise in excellent customer service and that has been our strength.
With your campus branches, you seem to be focused on the youth market. What informed this
It is simply a strategy to reach out to them. According to survey, 80% that comes to computer village to buy gadgets are youths. And 40-50% of these youths are students of various institutions. So we said, why don’t we take the business to them instead of them taking risks and spending extra money to come down here. So it is simply to take the business to them. A situation where a student’s laptop is faulty or phone or even charger is faulty and he or she would transport him or herself to computer village isn’t good at all. And in so doing they spend a lot of time, energy besides the risk of travelling. So we considered that not good enough and we had to take the business to them to ease these challenges. Again, apart from this, a lot of them have been our customers here, which means there is a gap to be filled there, so we had to take the business to them to serve them better.
What is your relationship with brand owners like Nokia, Techno, Samsung and the rest
The relationship is cordial and we are happy that they are now on ground unlike before when you buy a phone, when it has issues, it takes a long time for the challenge to be sorted out. Before, phones suppliers get phones from either from Dubai or America and when the phones have issues, and you meet them, they tell you that you have to wait for them to take the phones back to the manufacturers, and this takes time. Even the case of just unlocking a phone could take weeks also. You have to wait for them to send it back to Dubai or America, and your money will be tied down. Sometimes, before the phone comes back, the price in the market would have dropped and you loose a lot of money. But we are happy with the brand owners been available now. We take phones to service centres and within three days to one week you get it back. But they need to be innovative again, because if it takes getting more hands or tools so that phones could be returned immediately while the customer is waiting, it is going to be a competitive advantage to whichever company that starts that. It is actually discouraging for customers to be told to comeback for their gadgets after a long while because it is the same process that it would still take to fix the phones.
Is it true that the Lagos State Government wants to relocate this market,as an executive of Computer and Allied Products Dealers Association of Nigeria (CAPDAN), what is your take on this
That has been a rumour as far as I am concerned. There was a time we heard we will be taken to ‘Aswani’ Market. There was also a time they said we would be relocated to ‘Kantagua’ Market and so. Some said ‘Arepo’. But for me, until the day I will come to my office and can’t get in, then I will agree. But for now, I don’t see the need for relocating us. And if it is because of the argument that the market is causing a lot of traffic, I will say that it isn’t like before the advent of online marketing platforms. Then everybody has to come to computer village to get phones, laptop and other gadgets. But with online shops, about 30% of our patrons are now online. And again, a lot of offices here have opened branches everywhere, unlike five years ago when it wasn’t so. Some companies here have over 20 offices across the country and you know what that means? So the pressure isn’t much as before, so it is a situation that has taken care of itself as there is a phone shop in almost every village in Nigeria today.
With many businesses going online, what is your business doing about that
We have our presence at ibid.com.ng, and we are different in terms of quality goods and services at very good prices. The difference between our platform and others is that we know and understand the language of phones and gadget. We are experts. While others don’t even have shops, they depend on us to sell to their customers, we have the products readily available and we have good products too. Others could just get the products, and most times they source it anywhere including fake, just to deliver- this is where we are different. We deliver promptly also at no extra cost to customers. We make sure we do away with a lot of bottlenecks and bureaucracies. So our dispatch riders are well trained and they are ever ready and onground. What happen with most of these online shops is that they just advertise, when you place order, they source anything for you, repackage with their brand name, and because they don’t have expertise on the item you requested for and are not on ground, most times, the products they send to you are inferior products. But at Ibidem, you are sure of the best and at best price.
How can government support entrepreneurs
I am happy with your question because the government isn’t encouraging entrepreneurs enough. They should support entrepreneurs because they build the businesses that drive the economy. They need to create the right business environment and provide the necessary support infrastructures for businesses to grow. Any other calls at reducing unemployment without support for SMEs, is just a hoax. So the government needs to get serious with entrepreneurship.