My First Million: Ayeni Adekunle

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I remember the first time I was cognizant of who Ayeni Adekunle was. As a teenager with an interest in media and the music industry, his columns in Punch and Thisday captured my interest and offered something to aspire to. Years later, I would make his acquaintance on Twitter, and he would prove a passive supporter. It could be the odd DM when Culture Custodian was in its foundational stages to say he liked our work or requests to republish a piece of work he liked. His evolution from that journalist I fell in love with to becoming the most in-demand publicist in the Nigerian music industry and then spreading his PR practice to servicing Nigeria’s most profitable companies is one which I believe we should all learn from.

Ayeni Adekunle is an understated giant of our age and this is his story.

Did you always think you would get to where you are? 

Yes and No. 

Yes, on the one hand, I always used to think that I had acquired some talent and skill that could lead me somewhere from when I was in secondary school.

No, because I was not a candidate based on my background and circumstances. The ambition was there based on my awareness of what I knew, what I had learned, my writing, my curiosity, and all of that. But knowing, I mean I was a terrible stammerer. I grew up in Okokomaiko so it didn’t seem like it could happen. Even right now, where I think I’m going to, it’s still a yes and no. I know I have acquired what I need to take me there but I know nobody like me- I’m a young black Nigerian and I don’t think either is good or bad. I like that conflict and I like that balance. 

There’s something I’m taking away from what you said. You said you came from a humble background. You also said you were a terrible stammerer. How did you overcome those things? 

I was just in an interview where one of the applicants said she read about me and her son also stammers. And I was telling her that my parents understood it was a challenge so they supported me from when I was 5/6- all the tricks in the book. The most important thing I realized was that communication was something I could not do away with. You HAVE to communicate. Verbal communication is so essential to how you are perceived, how you get into rooms, and all of that. When I left secondary school, I made a conscious decision to work on my speech so it’s personal. When you study they’ll tell you to pick your words and I was so intentional knowing that if I cannot express myself it further reduces my chances of achieving what you want to achieve. I’m happy I was able to achieve that because today my work requires pitching to executives, advising CEO’s. I sit in meetings from morning to day. I’m speaking all over the world- my work requires me to speak so when I open sessions and I tell the audience I’m a stammerer, they say they can’t believe it and I say “That’s the point!” 

Talking about coming from a humble background and how I was able to navigate that. Often, poor people don’t know they’re poor. It’s a good and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because you see them happy and you’re wondering “look at this guy in rags why’s he so happy?” It’s your problem. He knows no better life. So they’re able to live and live well. It’s a bad thing because until you become dissatisfied with your situation, you may not be able to rally all the things you might need. In my own case, I started reading very early so reading opened my mind to what was possible. I read everything. I was so aware of the world out there, so that’s number one. Number two, I found writing. Reading must have led me to writing. Once I found writing, it became my escape. I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I thought I would be a full-time writer all my life. I would live and die in the newsroom. I thought I would be an author but Nigeria does something to you. Having come from the background I come from, I realized I was on my own so you have to consider the economic perspective and ask “do I want to be the brilliant writer who everybody likes and respects but who still lives struggling?” or “do I want to just do things I might not enjoy that much but they are legitimate and they can help me live?” So by the time I left university, I knew I had to apply my writing skill in a business that would help me live well and that’s what I’ve done. 

I’m guessing your first job was working as a writer. 

Yes, my first and only job ever. 

That makes sense ‘cos Punch and Thisday were columns so I’m guessing you were freelancing. Clearly, there was some intentionality behind that. You talk about realizing you wanted to be a writer but that was your gateway. What was your plan? Were you trying to write and become popular? I know the formula- You used it, you became a publicist to the stars and started a PR business and used that to start NET and everything that has stemmed from that. Did you know that then when you were starting? 

Nope. I’ll tell you a story. I started a business before I went to university. I was very restless. My parents raised us to stay home but I was restless. I had read too much. I had too much information. I wanted to do. I met friends in the area who were artists. Some of them became big later. One of them, Father U-Turn, God rest his soul, he became a national star. I was managing him when we were 15/16. Before I went to university I had met Ayo Animashaun. How did I meet Ayo Animashaun? I used to do events in Okokomaiko. All the other boys would get in trouble but I was using my time to create things. There was a hotel next to us- the GM took us on like his kid brothers. I would organize beauty pageants and concerts- I was promoting Adewale Ayuba and Baba Fryo in 1996/1997. We were bringing these guys to come and perform in Okokomaiko. All flops, all disasters! The Ayuba show wasn’t attended by anybody. It was just us and the owner of the hotel. There was a cult clash in LASU that weekend and they closed down the school. In fairness to Ayuba, he performed for us like he had a thousand people in the audience. All the events I was doing were all flops but I didn’t know that I was learning. By 1998, I had launched a project Youth Awards For Excellence in Music (YAFEM). I’m not even sure I was up to 20 years old but it happened in Ikeja. It was massive. Pasuma, Daddy Showkey, Sunny Nneji, Alariwo, Zakki. Tee-A was the MC. It was big. How did that happen? From my events in Okokomaiko, I had followed U-Turn to AIT. I had started writing for some of their shows. I had made friends with all the AIT guys so I got publicity on AIT Jamz which at the time was massive nationwide. But I had to go to university. 

If my parents were more liberal, I’d have gone to a film school or media school or something along those lines. But every Nigerian parent wants you to get a B.Sc. That event happened in 1998 and I had almost 10 people working with me. We raised sponsorships and I paid everyone and went to University the next year. I went to university grudgingly. I felt I was doing it for my parents so I was in Lagos every weekend. I was writing for Hip Hop World magazine. I would come and stay in Ayo Animashaun’s house. That was the first place I ever saw a computer. That was where I made friends with all the guys that would come to occupy the music space then. (Bayo Omisore, Efe Omorogbe, Sammy Hassan) He was broke too but we knew that once we saw one of his Egbons, often Dele Momodu we would get something. We would trap him and he’d give Ayo some money and something would filter down to me and I would find my way and go back to school. By the time I left school in 2004, the natural thing was I would come back finally to what I left. I left school with a 3rd class because I didn’t care. I was in the library every day reading art, music, and history. I wasn’t studying for my exams. By the time I left university, I had two things: experience from all the years of doing it and information. When I spoke about music, they would look at me like “this guy is an authority”. I knew people. 2 Face and co. were all upcoming stars then. I met them through Ayo Animashaun. I knew everybody that mattered. Then, I had knowledge. Not only could I tell you about what was happening, but I could also tell you what happened in the 50s and 60s. I wanted to work in a media organization that was mainstream for what you said. I wanted to be known. I wanted to work in a media organization where I would learn how to run a media organization ‘cos I had decided when I was in school that I was going to create my own media organization. I had a choice between Channels, Encomium, and Ovation. I didn’t pick Channels ‘cos it won’t have let me write much- it’s broadcast media. I didn’t pick Ovation because it came out six times in a year. Encomium was once every week and I was like, this would keep me really busy. It took me almost a year to convince Encomium to give me a chance. I was going there all the time. These were not the days of computers so I would write one long read and give it to them. I’ll come back the next week and they’ll tell me “Oh boy! We’ve lost that thing. Go and write another one”. Eventually, they gave me a chance. By the time I did Encomium for two years the whole country knew me. It was not a well-paying job but with the exposure, it gave me I should still be paying royalties by now. Artists now started asking me to help them write profiles. Keke Ogungbe of Kennis Music was the one who said to me- I thought I could do artist management part-time because before going to school that’s what I was doing. I picked Sound Sultan and Baba Dee who were my very good friends and Keke said no, with the way you write you should go and be a publicist. I had never heard of the word publicist before but I went to read about it and thought to myself “This guy is right. This is what I’m doing in Encomium that they don’t even pay me now.” He said if I wanted to do it, he would give me my first brief. He gave us our first brief and a few months later, I knew this was what I wanted to do. All the artists started coming- 2 Face Idibia, Lagbaja. For all the clients we got, there was no one I had to go and pitch for because I had built a reputation from Encomium and since then, I’ve focused on my business. To keep that interest alive, because I liked journalism and entertainment, I wrote for Thisday, and then eventually I went to write for Punch. After a while, I thought let me just focus but because of my view about how entertainment should be covered, we set up The Net NG. That’s the journey really. I can’t say I knew for sure, those doubts were there. I had no idea what would work or would not work but I had the vision and friends and family who were very supportive. My friends would encourage and tell me to just do it and that’s where I am now. I’m at that point again now where the projects I’m working on, the things I’m trying to build it’s almost like I’m back at that place in 2006. 

Basically, the feeling never leaves. 

Never. Even if you’re Dangote. Dangote is working on the most ambitious project of his career now. 

When did you make your first million? 

I would be lying if I said I remember but I’m sure I made it from PR. In ‘98 when we did YAFEM, we raised some good money but I’m not sure it was up to a million. As a Journalist, my monthly salary was N11,000 and I took a loan to rent a flat in Akute so my take-home was about N5,000 so I couldn’t have made that type of money. When we signed 2Face, the value of our annual retainer was N250,000. 2Face would not owe you and he always paid in cash. He’d pick you up, go to the bank, withdraw the money, give it to you and offer to tip you on top of it. I’m sure it happened when I became a publicist so it’ll be between 2006 and 2007. It’ll have been from one of our clients at that time either Dare Art Alade, 2 Face, or Kennis Music but I can’t pinpoint ‘cos it was such a long time ago. 

I noticed when I was planning a recent interview with Dare that you were copied in the mails. That means you’ve been working with him for over 10 years. That suggests you place some value on relationships. How did you learn how to sustain relationships like that? 

I have a rule: be kind and be patient because you don’t know what people are going through. 

My second rule is that once you find a good human being, understand that they won’t be perfect so even when they do things that you don’t expect them to do, balance it off with their good parts. 

The third one is that you shouldn’t expect to maintain relationships at the same velocity all the time. There will be people that you might not speak with them for six months but when you catch up with them again the quality of the conversation is great. That pressure is not there to perform. Don’t perform relationships. I believe in friendship. I believe in sacrifice. I believe the value of friendships is not just when it’s convenient for you. I believe that not everybody will be your friend all the time. There are people that I’m close to now that I wasn’t close to 10 years ago. There are people that I met as employees that are my friends now. There are people that I looked up to as egbon like Ayo Animashaun, he’s my friend now. I used to squat in his house and wash his car. The first day I met Steve Babaeko, I couldn’t talk ‘cos I was too shy. I went to ask him for a favor, he became a client and now he’s one of my best friends. My thing is regardless of how smart or clever you are, it’s human beings that will open doors for you. People are going to pitch for you when you’re not in the room so my principle is that just be a good person and at the end of the day you will look back and see the value you have added to those relationships and what they have added to you. 

Editor’s Note: Ayo Animashaun founded Hip Hop World magazine and is behind Hip TV and the Headies.

When you made your first million how did you feel?

There’s a feeling that comes with seeing something that is almost intangible, that is a skill that you have that people are willing to pay for it, that’s the most important thing. You’re a painter, you stayed up all night and painted something. You think it’s nice. Somebody works into your exhibition and is happy to pay 1 million naira for it. I remember the first cheque I got for writing a profile for a record label in 2004 and they paid maybe 10 or 20k. They were grateful. From my first million to each time somebody commits to paying for our services the feeling it gets me is that I changed my life. I intentionally spent time from when I was a teenager studying the things that I’m using to change my life. It’s not microbiology, it’s not the degree. I benefited from going to university, I learned a lot of things but not the academic stuff. Each time I speak to my financial advisor, I’m like “Wow so people are committing these resources.” It almost tells me that anybody can change their lives except you are bound by sickness. Anybody can change their life and that feeling never stops exciting me. You start a new business, you start a new project, you pitch to people and you can show value.

What would you say is the secret of your success?

I wish I knew. I don’t consider myself successful and that’s not me trying to be humble. The bar is very high when it comes to career success so I don’t consider myself a success. As a personal success, I  consider myself a success because I’m a much better person than I was 3-5 years ago. My personal ambition is to die the best version of me so I do all I can to learn and improve by the day. On a personal level, I think I’m very happy with the progress I have made with the type of human being I’m trying to be. From a career perspective, we’re trying to build the first global communications company from Nigeria. There’s none right now. We’re trying to take our company all over the world. We’re trying to launch in the US and the UK so it looks like we’re just doing the R & D to start that but the secret to us getting here is hard work. It’s understanding the job to be done and rolling up your sleeves to do it. I think I said this answering the last question but people. We work for about 4 multinationals now. I don’t have so many friends, I don’t have highly placed friends. I don’t have chairmen and mentors, godfathers but when you work so hard people will notice. If you are a decent human being, people will respect your work. They may not even like you that much but they will choose to work with you because of how good you are. In a market like Nigeria where a lot of things are very informal it also helps to network on your own terms. Some people go to parties a lot, they make friends and contacts and it works for them. I don’t like going to parties. Some people like to go to the club, they go and play golf but that’s not my cup of tea. I like to be indoors and network on my own terms. I use social media in an interesting way and from when I was young I’ve always been able to cultivate relationships without going out of my way. So I think looking at where you work and saying this is who I am, this is my style and this is how I’m going to make it work. You cannot get awareness or patronage or growth if people are not aware of your existence. Social media makes it easy now. You should build your personal brand in such a way that you will cultivate an audience that will then queue to get your product. Social media democratizes that whole space but a lot of people get carried away by fame. For me, fame is nothing without conversion. The artists do it well, the essence of all the numbers that they try to get is so that they can convert them to their music. 

What’s your best preparation for business?

I will say putting a structure in place. I believe in structures. I think the best CEOs are those who wake up in the morning and ask themselves “so what are we doing today?” because you’ve put a system in place. Whether you are starting a business, running a business, or trying to win business my formula will be to understand what structure works and put that structure in place. It may cost you but I’d rather move around in an uber and have the resources to drive my business than drive a G wagon and be struggling. We have invested wisely in structures and processes and governance. You may not instantly see the tangible results but when you look back, it’ll explain why what happened happened. 

What experiences would you say have shaped your financial attitude?

Poverty. I know the feeling of going to bed hungry. If I close my eyes I can still see it. I know the feeling of standing on the road and begging people for bus fare. I know the feeling of leaving school and your mates going to the park to come to Lagos, or your mate’s parents send an SUV to come and pick them and you have to trek almost 1 hour to find a cheap bus. I know all those feelings. I know the feeling of riding okada from Ogba to Akute. When you look at that you really don’t want to go back to where you are coming from. I am very simple I try not to major in the minors and minor in the majors. I have not bought a car for myself in ten years, so the older I get, the more I just say what are the important things to do? I’m trying to make sure even if I end up back where I’m coming from which is not impossible, it won’t be my fault it will be due to circumstances beyond my control.

Do you have time for personal financial planning?

I don’t have the kind of funds that requires that kind of planning. What is required is what I will call life planning. My wife is doing a Ph.D. in the UK and my 2 daughters are in school there. The kind of decisions I have made are around life planning, not financial planning. I don’t make any money but in terms of what are the things to make sure that if I die today my family never suffers, I advise people to take life insurance. There are a lot of things you need to make sure that your life is not a mess but in terms of financial planning for the company, absolutely Nigeria and abroad. I still met with my accountant in the UK today because the growth plans we have requires careful financial planning but for me as Ayeni, I’m an employee. I work with BHM like I’m an employee. I am a CEO but if I were to go and get a job I have an idea of what they will be paying me so I’m with you guys now pay me the market rate. I can tell you how much I earn, it’s peanuts but make sure I can live comfortably and the things I need are guaranteed. Healthcare and all that. If I was an employee and I was earning good money like 15 million Naira per month yes we could talk about financial planning because I could lose my job tomorrow. My biggest investment is in my companies: BHM, Plaqad, and ID Africa. The financial planning we do for them, the governance that we do, these companies are some of the best-run companies in our industry. In an industry where we’re not regulated, you can almost cook your books and nobody will care. As long as I make sure the companies continue to grow. I own 69% of BHM and we have never raised money so I think the biggest financial planning an entrepreneur can do is to put your company at such an advantage that it can pay you off. The alternative is to get rich off the back of that company. That’s what most entrepreneurs do and I don’t blame them out of the fear of what if the company dies. As a friend of mine and I like to say, just don’t touch my brain because if you drop me today anywhere in the world with nothing, give me 5 years.

What is your basic business philosophy?

People before profit.

What was the most challenging period of your career?

I will say it’s now. I have never had this much headache. The company has grown. I have never had to manage this many people and now we’re setting up across the world and it is tough. I will say this is a challenge I am not looking forward to. As I told you earlier it looks like I am back to 2002/2003 again. 

In a year of the pandemic, we are launching a new product and new company.  It’s extremely tough. So not when I was a journalist. I had fun when I didn’t have money. I had more disposable income when I did not have BHM ‘cos I didn’t have that much responsibility. 

We are about to launch something I believe is impossible. There is no way it’s going to work but guess what, when I started BHM in 2006, it was also impossible. I had never worked in PR before. I had no idea what a PR agency looked like but today we are top 3 in Nigeria regardless of the indices you look at. Across Africa, we are top 10. I didn’t have investments, business education, or know what PR was. I just had vision and commitment. I feel I’m back there now and I think what excites me about this particular challenge is what is the worst that can happen? 

How do you build a media business that scales in Nigeria?

I think you should choose what kind of media you want to do. Are you trying to build a pay-TV platform like DSTV? Are you trying to build a web publishing business like Big Cabal? Are you trying to build a newspaper like Punch and Vanguard or broadcast like HipTV and Arise? You must identify what niche you want to play in. They are all endangered and troubled. But if you can understand that niche, you can answer the question “what are they doing that can be done differently?” That is what BHM did. The PR industry wasn’t growing when we entered. It wasn’t like we knew there was money there and said “let’s go and make money” but the advantage was I didn’t know how PR is done so I did it my way and my way appeared to be nice. We are the entire opposite of how a PR company should run. People look at it now and think of it as the ideal operation but it’s not like we knew. We did it blindly. Same with web publishing, same with pay-TV.  If I was to launch a new web publishing company today, I am not going to give out my content for free. I’m going to ask myself “Facebook created a media company and put an advertising engine on it. Google did the same. Google is the biggest advertising company in the world. They put AdSense and AdWords on it. Where is my money going to come from?” 

What opportunities are there in that space that you tap into or you think can scale either across regions or verticals and all of that? The challenge I find is that often, people in media build expertise around the media part of the work, not around the business part. It is why some of the best journalists in Nigeria keep starting media houses that do not succeed. It’s not that they are bad businesses. You require the media experience and knowledge whether you are an editor, writer, or photographer to be able to innovate in the space. You require the business knowledge either through you or you acquire it by hiring people who do. A business is not going to run by how many stories you have published. The problem often is that the Nigerian environment does not provide that kind of guidance and support the entrepreneur needs. I won’t blame the entrepreneur. We are about to launch BHM in the UK and we are already being asked whether we need support from the government for grants or things like that. I’ve seen such amazing media platforms and I’m like why would this not be seen by every Nigerian because the guys are great at what they do. Business is how you raise funds. What should your business model be?  We follow passion and it’s not just this generation. Most of the guys we worked for in the 2000s, the companies are dead. The old traditional newspapers that you all know are all struggling. It’s why the banks have all taken off with media and lifestyle offshoots. So when we were busy writing better stories doing groundbreaking work, they were understudying what was needed for it to work. My proposal which I have often shared is that and I’m part of those that should be responsible for that is that we need to provide a path for what a media business of today should look like. Google opened up a new ecosystem. Facebook did too. I think someone needs to create something that can then create an industry. The banking we do today, someone created it. 

The media model of today is broken because the business behind it does not support the content that we are pushing. For instance, this morning I went on your site. I paid the guys who give me data to go on your site. I paid for the electricity which I could use to access it. I paid Apple for the computer which I accessed it via. If I drank water, I paid for it. Who’s paying for what I read? You have to rely on advertising which you can’t control. It doesn’t make any sense and that is on the web publishing side. I can tell you about PR: you work for Glenfiddich, you can’t work for any other whiskey company in the world. How do you scale? 

This is why I like what Stears Business is doing. They have a technology and product mindset. They are not thinking like a media company. Facebook and co are media companies that think like tech companies.

Do you believe in retirement?

Yes, please. My plan was to retire before my 40th so I’m looking forward to my retirement. Not retirement to end up not doing anything. I want to go and do what I think the world needs me to go and do: to write and teach. 

What would post-retirement life be like for you? 

My kids are growing fast so I want to spend more time with them. I want to spend more time with my wife. I want to write. I want to teach. I like coaching. I feel like when you have acquired so much knowledge and experience you have a chance to help people by sharing it.

Do you believe in giving back to the community?

People before profits. Those people are not just employees. That summarises my view about life. You have five hundred thousand Naira and you want to save towards holiday in the Bahamas. But someone needs twenty-five thousand Naira for school fees. What you want actually costs 2.5million Naira. My rule is that we need to put people first. Anything that won’t kill you if you can use it as a service to mankind

What is your attitude towards succession? Are you the type to leave everything to your kids?

It’s a very interesting topic. I hold a principle that people should do what they think would work for them and we are different so if I look at myself, I like how I was raised. And I think my father gave me more than any money any parents could have given their kids because my father was intellectual and the type of curiosity that I have is what changed my life. There are not any one of my friends who were rich kids when we were growing up that I would meet now and feel inferior. I believe in education and I believe that if you can train your kids to shun drugs, violence, and crime and you can give them the best of education in the world, you’ve given them all the money you need to give them. Any other thing you decide to give them, it’s just a bonus. You are better off having only one house in Nigeria and your kids are going to the best schools in the UK and US and by the time they are 30 they are solid. They can do anything that they want to do. When you don’t have money, you think money solves all the problems in the world. I think what I would like in terms of succession is that for my kids to be able to learn a couple of things from me that they can then apply for themselves. We are not building our company to be inherited by any child. That is not the structure that we have. I was CEO of ID Africa, I’m going to stop being CEO of BHM very soon. I can’t wait. I’m not going to wait for my kids to grow up and take over the business. I want to be in a position where my kids don’t start as low as I started. The fact that they can even get a better education than I could have already put them at a certain advantage.

 What is your favored form of investment?

Entrepreneurship. Investment in my company. My time, my resources, my brain. I have friends that buy shares but I’m like why am I buying shares. Come and buy shares in my own company. When I begin to earn dividends from BHM, part of the investment I will do is invest in startups or shares. We are 15 next year and the dream is that the company should be in a place to pay us very good quarterly or annual dividends. That dividend is MY money. I can then decide I want to invest in Twitter or Apple or the next Paystack. My dream actually, a friend of mine and I have started a business and the ambition is to invest in companies like yours. We have some little money, we have some influence with people who have some little money, and from next year, we plan to announce that companies trying to do great things in media, advertising, PR can have access to investment, mentorship and accelerating.

Do you indulge yourself?
Yes, whiskey and cognac. I’m learning how to smoke cigars now. I have not mastered that.

What one thing would you say you spend on the most? 

Food and drinks. I don’t compromise on what I eat and drink. You can’t tell me it’s too expensive. I don’t believe in acquiring so I can walk out of this house and never come back here. I don’t care about those things. 

 What is your most prudent investment?

That is my business we registered the business with 15000 Naira that we had to pay over three times and it’s grown into such a promising enterprise. It was partly my wife’s money. This was in 2006 and this is 2020 so the reason why I’m even able to buy books and elevate myself is that I have that business that’s running.

Who are the five people you love to see answer these questions
Steve Babaeko. Ebuka Obi Uchendu. Ayo Animashaun. Uche Pedro. Stephanie Busari.