Couple of years ago, precisely in year 2007, Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard founded the APO Group, a media relations’ consulting firm and press release distribution service in Africa and the Middle East, in his living room.
At the time, he was a journalist for Gabonews, an online Gabonese publication, and Deputy-President of the Pan-African Press Organization in France (APPA – Association de la Presse Panafricaine).
APO Group now has almost 80 employees in its offices in Senegal, Dubai, Switzerland, and Hong Kong, and makes profits worth millions of dollars.
Recently, Nicolas stepped down from the role, handing over to Lionel Reina, former Vice President and General Manager of the Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa region at Orange Business Services (OBS), the B2B division of French telecoms company Orange.
Nicolas is one of the few journalists on the continent who have been able to transition from writing and reporting to building their own media businesses.
Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard, Founder & Chairman APO Group
In this interview with Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa, he takes us back to the beginning, sharing his journey as a journalist and businessman and giving us insight on the inner workings of the business of media and journalism in Africa.
Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa (BI SSA): Take us back to the beginning. What inspired the idea for APO Group?
Nicolas Pompigne-Mognard: I was a European correspondent for an African news website, and I found it very difficult to get hold of Africa-related press releases. As I struggled, I realised that it was extremely problematic for any journalist to get hold of Africa-related content – and that had some very bad consequences.
Firstly, the inability of African journalists to access this information was reinforcing their dependence on Western media and press agencies. Secondly, most of the press releases issued by African governments and African institutions never reached the international media community at all. Many even failed to reach the African media community.
I knew I had to do something about it. But what really triggered my decision to act was a series of discussions I had with the President of the African Development Bank at the time, Donald Kaberuka, who explained to me how crucial the dissemination of news about Africa’s economy was to the development of the continent. That’s how it all started.
APO Group’s team members after a working meeting in Portugal
BI SSA: How did you put together initial capital and what were some of the challenges you faced starting out?
Nicolas: I started from my living room – literally – using my 10,000 Euros of savings. The challenges were many, believe me.
Starting from scratch on your own means starting with no clients, no service or product offering, no staff, no secretary, no HR, no PR, no IT – nothing but a computer and an internet connection. I had no investors and no money to hire any staff, so I had to learn how to do everything on my own: How to do my own accounts; how to fix my computer; how to put together a proposal; how to sell.
In the early years, a company is usually very fragile, and one bad decision can lead to bankruptcy. The problem is you have to make 30 decisions a day. My most rookie errors in the beginning were hiring misjudgments. I made poor choices with the first three people I brought on board. I never made that mistake again.
BI SSA: In your experience, how has the relationship between PR and journalism changed over time, especially with new media publishers having to battle with companies having their own platforms and being able to tell their own stories on social media?
Nicolas: In 2019, I do not think a corporation can communicate using only their own social media channels. They need to do much more than that if they want their voice to be heard. In that regard, the media does still have a very important role to play.
In Africa, the main threat to media houses is not coming from companies having their own social media platform. After all, Facebook itself distributes a lot of press releases via APO Group. Companies still need that balance between their own promotion and coverage in credible, trusted news media.
African Journalists at the Dubai Airshow 2017
BI SSA: What would your advice be to a 20-year-old who’s fresh out of school and wants to become a journalist and maybe build a media company in the future?
Nicolas: First, you need to understand that you too can create a business and that journalism is one of the most advantageous professions for someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. Because you can ask questions to E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y and they will answer to you.
Whenever you get the opportunity to travel or meet new people, you need to take it. You might gain different perspectives, learn new skills or meet somebody that can help with your development.
You need to work harder than the rest and be ready to sacrifice a few years of your life. That means working at least 12 hours a day, including weekends, having a healthy lifestyle and committing yourself to your goals.
You need to go big or go home. Africa is 54 countries, but with just two languages (English and French) you can cover most of the markets. Do not hesitate to take on bigger, well-established companies. 1% of the African toilet paper market is good enough for you make a lot of money.
If you can do it alone, then do it alone. Avoid creating with co-founders, investors and so on. Why would you allow anybody to get involved who might slow you down, contest, or even block your decisions?
Reinvest all the money you earn in the early years. Your objective is not to buy a Ferrari the moment you can afford it, and then see your company slowly disappear because of a lack of investment. You are building something for the long run. Focus all your efforts on increasing the value of your company. That requires investment and time.
Never recruit friends or family. Hire talents. Surround yourself with people who are better than you are at what they do.
Learn to pass on your knowledge and to delegate. A good entrepreneur is the one who can die today without jeopardizing the future of his company. You need to work very hard on making yourself obsolete.
Understand that the true wealth of your company is your employees. Without them you are nothing.
Always pay your employees on time, even if there is nothing left for you.
Be flexible, do not hesitate to change the model of your company along the way.
Do not disperse. Focus on what works – even if it’s not exactly what you planned at the beginning.
Create an ecosystem of partners and suppliers around your company that will help to reinforce your culture and your message.
Do not fall in love with your service or product. Even if it is not perfectly ready to go to market, launch it now, before a competitor does. You will have the time to refine later. Don’t forget you are here to sell, make money, and change the world.