Walter Emiedafe: the spirit of entrepreneurship
Walter Emiedafe, the CEO of Sapient Vendors Ltd is both a big dreamer and a big doer. In this interview with Tito Philips Jnr, you will meet an unusual guy who; has failed over 6 times in different business ventures and yet never gave up; was forced into entrepreneurship earlier than he would have wanted to because of family responsibilities; has undertaken projects with zero capital and succeeded; attended an entrepreneurship training program on scholarship because he didn’t allow his lack of personal funding to deter him; has implemented every advice ever given to him by his mentors without fail and understands the immense value of teamwork and the profound competitive advantage it brings to a startup.
Can you please tell us a little about yourself and your business? What do you do, how do you do it, why do you do it and who do you do it for?
MY name is Walter Emiedafe and I am the CEO of Sapient Vendors Ltd. – a Construction based firm I started with two other partners Olalekan, Ajani a builder and Adebisi Adewuyi, a Quantity surveyor. I had to mention them in that order because that was the sequence of their entry into the partnership, during the evolution of the brand. I studied statistics from the premier university (University of Ibadan). Our entrance into the construction business was inspired by a growing shortage of quality construction service in the country, especially from indigenous contractors. We noticed that the construction challenges clients were facing with indigenous contractors encompass poor project management (which results in project abandonment, time & cost overrun), unprofessionalism, undercapitalization, poor communication skills and budgetary limitation.
How would you describe your entrepreneurial journey into the world of business?
The journey started 15years ago in my Father’s tailoring outfit (Vikky Creations Ltd) the go to shop for your tailoring need based in Lebanon Street, Ibadan, due to the quality of stitches you get. I spent four years there, managing all business operations, marketing, customer relationship, procurement of fabrics and other related input that goes into getting a finished fabric, personnel management, general finishes except tailoring itself. All these were against my will, so I can say that was a reason I never got involved in the daunting exercise of peddling the machine. My Dad and I had diverging management approach to business, so we had a lot of arguments. It was a practical business school experience, I learnt a lot from same experience, especially reputation management, being true to your words, team management, how to calm an angry customer and make him your friend. Unfortunately for my Dad, who had no plan B for my exit, I still feel bad I left his business the way I left, and it was because I was not seeing a future within that space. The next phase was my foray into international business, internet marketing of gemstones. I and a few friends Tope Dixon and Musiliu Akanni without capital invited two Indians into Nigeria to buy Gemstones in the likes of Tourmaline, Garnet, Topaz, and Quartz. The venture failed, because we didn’t put in the right legal framework for their market entry, and the sly Indians capitalized on our liberality. Then, I started using my internet skills to sell industrial minerals and Gemstones for Jimmy International Merchants Ltd, but was never encouraged by the way I was priced, because I wasn’t the custodian of the minerals, so had to make do with the paltry sum handed over to me. But I learnt a lot from the industry, and also noticed the industry was too informal and unorganized. Hence, I knew I had to acquire a new skill (administrative skill). I met Mr. Adebayo Olaniyan of Tons Development Ltd; he imparted so much in my life. His organization was the second real life business school I attended. I was exposed to a lot of things from procurement to building a relationship with your bankers, and business development. During the first year of working with him, I registered ARQUS Ventures with two partners, we closed a few deals. But my engagement at Tons Development Ltd, which was becoming promising never allowed me to project the ARQUS brand, and since it was my first time working within an organized environment, I had to let go of other ambition. So, I got so involved in the organization, that I was perceived a Director in the organization. I spent six years there, before our values and needs shifted. If there was something I wish I could undo, it’s how to mend our broken relationship because of our divergent views, and also because he groomed me to be a better entrepreneur. A lot of things would have been vague to me, without being under his tutelage, as a mentee and employee. But, what I learnt was to be constantly open to ideas from your employees, never be too far from them. While I was gainfully employed at Tons Development Ltd, I registered Sapient Vendors Ltd in 2010. I worked for two additional years before stepping out into the fierce business environment. By October, 2015 it would have been three years full time dedication to Sapient Vendors Ltd.
Where there any key incidents or life changing events that inspired your decision to become an entrepreneur?
My experience at Vikky Creations Ltd inspired my decision. A secondary school leaver with no management experience being handed the responsibility to run a family business that feeds a family of six, pay its bills and all other sorts. And interestingly I survived. Interestingly, I was able to capture a niche of clients for myself, when my Dad and I had divergent views on pricing. We had a few clients who couldn’t afford to pay the company’s standard pricing, I could profitably render same service to these cadres of client but he couldn’t. So, I started selling same service to them, and would say I made good cash back then, it was fun and fulfilling.
Secondly, while working at Tons Development Ltd, I enrolled for entrepreneurship training at Fate Foundation (2007). Then, I couldn’t afford to pay the fees (N50, 000). I was sincere with the admission personnel, so she invited me to pitch my business idea. I quickly went to a Cybercafe, penned, printed and submitted my idea. After review, I was a lucky recipient of Citi Bank sponsored scholarship. So I had my firsthand entrepreneurship training from Fate Foundation. The concepts taught were easy to grasp, because I could easily relate what I was being taught with my experience at my workplace.
What is your take on the general notion that entrepreneurs should build a business around what they naturally love to do?
It is important to build a business around what you naturally love to do. Your business is like your spouse, if you are not passionate about her, the whole relationship would crumble, same with business. I always had passion for engineering, in fact I wanted to study Mechanical Engineering, but JAMB frustrated me, and really it wasn’t the fault of JAMB. I had to manage Vikky Creations and study at the same time, and if you were ever close to a successful Tailor back in the days, am sure you would understand how time was never enough to attend to personal issues. I had to bring that up because, somehow the winds of destiny swept me to the shores of my desires (Engineering).
What is your personal life mission as an entrepreneur? That is; what contributions do you want to make with your life or what would you like to be remembered for as an entrepreneur through the businesses you create when you die?
At a point in this journey, we would start some CSR initiative targeted towards Primary, and Secondary school leavers who were handed responsibilities they never bargained for (especially hawking). We would empower them, because they are having firsthand enterprising experience, but are not aware of its potential and if not well empowered they get sucked into the black hole of street urchins.
How do you identify business opportunities and what metrics do you use to measure their viability? I do these through networking, reading of business journals and market research reports and a combination of experience and intuition. And do note that intuition is a catalogue of experience stored in your subconscious mind. Risk analysis (How would you get paid, who is responsible to pay for your service, is the client willing to sign a contract of engagement? If not flee. The last point is a warning sign that you would work for God! Lol!)
Do you have mentors, business coach or external consultants that you work closely with to grow yourself and your business? If yes, to what extent would you describe their impact on your business? If no, are there any particular reasons?
The first entrepreneur mentor I had was Mr. Ademola Agboola of Fast Pace Limited through Fate Foundation. He taught me that perception was key; so the journey to re-package our corporate profile commenced from that point and so we engaged an external consultant.
My other mentor, Alibaba – the Godfather of Nigerian Stand-Up comedy, thought me how to appreciate my clients after patronage. Gave me a better idea on how my logo and call cards should feel to a prospect, and encouraged the use of social media for promoting the brand.
My third mentor, Ononuju Irukwu opened my eyes to accountability, as it would improve our corporate governance when we finally plan to raise equity. Hence we partnered with Xero. Now we can have our audited account in lesser time. She also encouraged board restructuring, the engagement of a Legal practitioner to vet all contracts and emphasized the importance of Insurance.
Many entrepreneurs complain about not succeeding in business due to lack of adequate funding, what is your take on this matter and how do you cope with funding issues in your business? Lack of funding is never the problem; the problem is lack of passion, resilience and lack of value created. Wealth and money flows in the direction of value, and the quality of value you create is a function of the quality of your mind. We have funded project with next to zero account balance (this is in comparison to the capital required to execute a project). And also to expatiate on value, banks are not the only source of funding, your friends and partners are other sources. How are you communicating the value of their input to them, is it a me thing or our thing (teamwork)? Lastly, lack of integrity would repel funding.
Integrity is another source of capital; can you be trusted with money? Can your suppliers and workers trust that when you get their goods and services on credit you would pay them their bits when you are liquid? When you borrow, do you have the desire to pay back? Or rather prefer to default because you are smart? Fix the above and capital would come running at you!
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