[00:00:00] Gerald: One of the fastest ways people learn is learning from watching others do. But when you're in an environment where you never watched others do, the best forms of learning will be going for some form of coaching, training and all of that.
But earlier on in my entrepreneurial career, it wasn't something I was opportuned to do, and I must say I got my fingers burnt a lot of times. So the very early days, I made a lot of mistakes. And I learned from those mistakes. The first lesson for me would be grow as asset-light as possible and make sure all your internal processes are locked down before you think of scaling. And then I also learnt that you should seek out knowledge.
[00:00:47] Oluwanifemi: Hello, everyone. It's Oluwanifemi again. Welcome to another episode of Expert and African. Every other week I bring to you stories of exceptional talent in the African tech space, where they share their journeys from newbie to expert. Today we have Gerald Okonkwo, popularly known as Gerald Black, who is a two-time founder and currently a sales executive at a FinTech startup.
Jared shares his lesson from the entrepreneurship years and how he has been able to apply them to his current job.
So let's get into the conversation.
Why Gerald Black?
[00:01:24] Gerald: Identity is very important. I mean, you need to build the brand for yourself and your brand has to be something people can remember. Your brand has to be something people can tie you with. Your brand has to be something that just sticks and you can connect.
So basically for me, I love wearing black and very early on, my friends would call me Gerald Black. So that's how the name came to be. And at the point where, I chose to make my brand a national or global sensation, I decided to go with that name Gerald Black.
I'm more of on the business end of things. My strength would be in business development, sales go-to Strategy and all of that. So I'm more on the business end of things. I'm not technical.
[00:02:08] Oluwanifemi: Can you take us through the process of building two startups and scaling them up to the point of acquisition?
[00:02:15] Gerald: .My first startup was iFix. iFix was more of a platform for artisans, plumbers, electricians, carrying out maintenance in the house, like a marketplace for artisans. And then in 2018 I pivoted to PartkIt. So it was more like identifying an opportunity and latching on to the opportunity to solve a problem in that space.
Fun fact, my middle name, which is Dozie in Ibo translates direct translation is "Repair". Dozie, fix, repair. Sometimes, when people say entrepreneurs are born, I kind of subscribe to that school of thought. Because I can't ever remember consciously sitting down and, wanting to become an entrepreneur. You just feel the fire and then you are always having an eyes for identifying problems.
So right from my first company, which was way back, in school in 2012 it was always about seeing a problem and wanting to fill in that gap. There's always a void, and then there's always the need to fill in that gap. And as an entrepreneur with an entrepreneurial mindset, you feel like the honour is on you to come and solve that problem. I never consciously wanted to just do things on my own and not work for someone. It was just there.
At the time when I started ParkIt, it was a fun project. At the time ,I was looking for a very convenient place where I could get professional services at affordable rates, in a conducive environment. I couldn't find much of that.
This was way back in 2018. And then I, was like, okay, if I'm having this problem, other people are also having these challenges. And I decided to come in and just try to solve that problem, which was the problem of getting professional autocare outlets, or being able to pre-book ahead of time, pay, just a very seamless process, end-to-end.
At that point, the vision was just to solve that problem for myself, , so we started with one outlet, and then before you knew what was going on, other people began to grow interests. We had other people wanting to, jump in on what we were doing.
And we built this franchise model where, we had the tech for running the operations from checking-in cars, payment, the end to end. And then people wanted to also build that kind of experience. So we built a franchise-like model, having a retail chain of vehicle care outlets powered by tech across various locations.
And at that point, This thing was beginning to grow beyond me. The vision was to build a Pan-African brand. Because a lot of these things exist in Western communities, but we don't have that much around here.
So the plan was to actually build an African phenomenon that people can point to and say, oh, these are the guys that are disrupting things in this industry in Africa. But somewhere down the line, a lot of things disrupted the flow. So there was COVID. COVID disrupted our business in 2020.
We survived that. We just got out of Covid and we raised some angel capital from a couple of investors, building the tech, expanding and all of that. And then, in 2021, Fixit45, which is a spinoff of Cars45, had similar vision. So their plan was to build an Autotech brand that solves all the problems across all verticales in Autocare.
And we, at that time, we were just a piece of the puzzle. So they had more money, they had more experienced team. They approached us and it was a very big opportunity and we're like, you know what? Instead of us trying to struggle, because none of us had any experience in auto care or auto tech or any of that, but here you have the Fixit45 team, they've been in existence for four years plus, and it made sense to just try and fit into what they were doing and absorb ourselves into the bigger, community of what they were trying to achieve across the continent. And that was basically what happened. So the offer was good. It was a good opportunity, an opportunity to work with a more experienced team. We took on the offer.
I wouldn't call it a smooth ride. I don't think anyone ever has a smooth ride. We had our good days, we had our bad days.
I worked with the team for a while. And at that point I wanted to experience something different, in another sector entirely, because from my very first startup, which was iFix, all the way down to Parkit and Fixit45, it's always been fixing, so I just wanted an entirely different experience. So I pivoted to something else.
[00:06:42] Oluwanifemi: What lessons did you learn running these startups?
[00:06:46] Gerald: Top of my mind which I will take into any other venture I might do into in future, if you're building a tech startup, try to be as asset-light as possible. Because it slows down your ability to scale. When I see people doing very operationally intense startups or companies with a lot of assets, properties and all of that, I wonder how they do it because it's a whole lot when you have a lot of overheads, you have a lot of people working with you, you have a lot of locations, managing all of this is an entire completely different demon. The first lesson for me would be grow as asset-light as possible and make sure all your internal processes are locked down before you think of scaling.
You have it all figured out, you have all your processes figured out, you have it documented. You have a structure and then you scale with that structure. I think one of the mistakes we made earlier on was expanding much faster. Because there was demand. What we were doing was exceptional, we were different.
We had three locations in less than eight months. Who does that? Imagine trying to figure out how to solve these problems across all the many locations. So this was one of the challenges we faced, and this was a very big lesson for us. So, grow at your pace, figure things out before scaling, and try to be as asset-light as possible.
One of the lucks I had was the fact that I started really early. At the time when I started my first company, I was still in school.
And you know how it is. You are in school, you get pocket money from parents, so I was able to leverage that and before I was done with my university, I already had a company that was fully operational, could take care of yourself, could fund operational expenses, could fund some of my expenses and all of that.
So scaling that or growing from that was way easier as opposed to starting from nothing. But then we had our own fair share of struggles. We had our own fair share challenges and all.
For iFix, I think we were way ahead of our time, we're trying to build a platform where people can seamlessly get artisans on-demand, but then Nigeria is still very much driven by community. At the very center of our culture is community. So people would, preferably pick up their phone and ask their friends, " hi, I'm looking for a painter, can you refer one to me?" All of those things. So at the time when we started, platform wasn't the first place when you're looking for a carpenter, you wouldn't think about, oh, let me go online. The first thing you'd think about would be who can I call? Which friend do I have? So we were way ahead of our time, because timing is a very important factor in your success. It was a brilliant idea. It'll work at some point, and as at when we were trying to do that, it was too early and people weren't ready for that.
That's why we didn't spend too much time trying to build that. I think I spent about one year and when I realized, the adoption was slow, we quickly pivoted to Parkit, which we now did for about four years. Parkit was a massive success from month 1, it went beyond anything that we had projected.
It blew us off our mind. And from month one, we knew it was going to be successful.
I think the biggest pointer should be data. Be very data-driven. Don't build on hypes, don't build on conviction. Build on data because data is king. At the end of the day, look out for feedback. If it's something that is needed, you will know because month or month, your customer base is supposed to organically without you even trying to do anything, it grows. But the minute you find out that you're struggling around that adoption is really low. You should probably start questioning and asking yourself, especially when you've done everything required to drive adoption and to drive penetration into the market.
And if after that, you're still struggling to make good numbers out of what you're doing, then you should probably begin to question yourself because some ideas are way ahead of their time. And if you have that kind of money to keep building, keep iterating, keep pushing out, well, then if you can afford to do that, that's fine.
But if you don't have that kind of money, you must not necessarily kill it. You can pause an idea with the plans to come back to it much later when you feel all the things that are required to make it successful are lined up in your favor. I think that's how I like to approach things.
[00:11:28] Oluwanifemi: Can you tell us about the other jobs you currently do?
[00:11:31] Gerald: One of them is a community, which is Black Ops. It's a lifestyle. Black Ops is a community for operators across venture-backed startups in Africa. Everything we do at Black Ops is towards ensuring that we're better operators at the end of the day.
All the pillars of Black Ops, which are learning, the resources, peer-to-peer interactions and all of that are things that will actually help you become better at what you do. Today I'm a community manager at Black Ops responsible for curating the experience and all of that.
So it's a lifestyle. I don't see it as a job. But my day-to-day right now is in Fintech at a company called Anchor. And did I plan to actually stand up and go look for something to do? The short answer would be "No", but the founder of Anchor is someone I've always been inspired by right from the early days when his company, Amplify Pay, got acquired by Carbon back then in 2016 or 2017. And don't forget, I earlier mentioned that I was at a point where I was looking to iterate from what I was doing at that moment to doing something else.
And Anchor is banking-as-a-service. So we provide APIs for institutions, for companies to roll out banking and financial products. And banking and financial products in future, it's going to be very decentralised. Distribution will be bigger, because banking, as we know it today, will no longer be the same in a couple of years. Everybody will have one form of banking. Basically how they put it is every company will eventually become a fintech because you'll have one touchpoint for either banking or financial products.
So these were the things that actually made me very interested in joining the Anchor team. Currently I head Go-To Market at Anchor.
[00:13:24] Oluwanifemi: What lessons and skills did you bring from your time in entrepreneurship to leading a team at Anchor? Do
[00:13:31] Gerald: Number one is taking ownership. Nobody wants a liability. Nobody wants dependency. If you are being brought in to come handle something, you need to take ownership. I had some experiences then where you have to micromanage people. You bring in somebody and then they're asking you what to do.
Because I've been there, I know what it means to manage people and to handle investors and to run day-to-day at a company. You don't want to start dealing with having to tell somebody what to do, how to take initiative, how to be responsible for your role. So that's the first thing that I have brought into my new roles, which is taking initiative, taking responsibility.
[00:14:14] Oluwanifemi: Do you have plans to go back to being a founder?
[00:14:17] Gerald: Once you're an entrepreneur, you are always an entrepreneur. You'll always have that interest in solving a problem. You always find an opportunity. But not now, not anytime soon. Building is intense. Building is hard. Being a founder is very different. You have a lot of things to deal with. Everybody is looking up to you or looking at you, so it is really different and it is not something I look forward to anytime soon.
Having built for about 10 years now, I think at some point you want to take a break and recoup all your lost energy because it really takes a lot to keep building. Probably somewhere down the line, I'll get back to it.
[00:14:58] Oluwanifemi: What did you have to do to get better at what you do?
[00:15:01] Gerald: It never comes to you naturally. I mean, one of the fastest ways people learn is learning from watching others do. But when you're in an environment where you never watched others do, the best forms of learning will be going for some form of coaching, training and all of that. But earlier on in my entrepreneurial career, it wasn't something I was opportuned to do, and I must say I got my fingers burnt a lot of times. So the very early days, I made a lot of mistakes. And I learned from those mistakes. And then I also learnt that you should seek out knowledge.
So don't just dwell on what you think you know. There's a lot that you don't know, so you have to be very proactive in seeking out knowledge. Join communities. Join communities like Black Ops where we help you become a better version of yourself. Basically it's very important to seek out knowledge.
[00:15:58] Oluwanifemi: Thank you for listening to Expert and African. Don't forget to share and subscribe. See you in the next one. Bye.