In a recent interview with the Founder and CEO of MallforAfrica, Chris Folayan shares his views on entrepreneur-ship, his motivation, and his plan to use MallforAfrica to catalyse two-way, cross-border trade within Africa and with the rest of the world. He spoke with Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria.
Jide Akintunde: Your childhood effort at running your own business raises the question about whether entrepreneurship is part of your DNA; and, more generally, whether entrepreneurship is a talent or it is by nurture, or both. Where does your experience place you in these pigeonholes I have laboured to construct?
Chris Folayan: I feel entrepreneurs are people with a key talent. Entrepreneurs see problems and are willing to take on the challenges of solving them. Knowing they may fail or succeed doesn’t hinder them from the challenge. It’s the challenge itself. So to answer your question I don’t think it’s in my DNA. I have always come across problems and built various companies to solve the problems. I try to do that profitably, learn from mistakes or pivot when required.
In my experience and from others I know, I have found that it’s not in one’s DNA but in one’s desire to create, build and solve a problem. I have been fortunate enough to be in a family filled with entrepreneurs and have learnt a great deal about how to start and build a company from a very young age. This has helped in getting me to understand how businesses are built and what it takes to build a company. But ultimately it’s a personal choice one must make to be an entrepreneur. It’s not an easy glamorous job. It’s a high impact mega training boot camp of experiences, choices, lessons, struggles, and successes.
JA: What became of that first business you started, and did it have any lasting impact on your worldview of entrepreneurship?
CF: The first company I started was when I was a kid at 7 years of age and that is long gone. I learnt about territorial distribution of labour and labour forces. While I was still in college I co-founded a company in the Silicon Valley. It was the world’s first online independent music label. There, I learnt all about licensing, contracts, patents, global negotiations and startups. I was hooked from then on and was 100% sure I wanted to be an entrepreneur. It had a huge impact on my life moving forward. I have always pulled from my experience from building that company. From the art of negotiations to selling a product and your idea to other people so they too can see your vision. The life of an entrepreneur is also about selling your idea to others so people see your vision and understand the need you are filling in the market.
JA: Moving on from that childhood effort, you had to acquire college education. Later, you managed to pin down a few jobs – the longest being for 5 years, and you launched a few startups before MallforAfrica. What self-awareness do you have from these activities?
CF: I have learnt that it takes the following attributes to be a good entrepreneur.
1. Willingness to listen: Being willing to know that your concept may be sound but with help from smart people you surround yourself with, it could be even smarter.
2. Willingness to pivot: When you start a company you may feel it’s meant for one market but you never know if other markets need your same idea. Being willing to pivot and change directions is key for multi-phased successful entrepreneurs.
3. Challenging the norm: I have found that I am always challenging the norm for ideas, processes, and concepts, as well as wanting to improve them. This has led me to starting and selling some interesting companies.
4. No fear of failures: Being an entrepreneur is an act of faith. I have had many successful companies and have been part of building many successful companies. All done without the fear of failure because we are in a constant state of learning. If you think about it, the best lessons in life have come from some significant failures and choices made. When you keep that in mind you will always be willing to learn from the positives because there will be no negatives – only life changing lessons.
JA: MallforAfrica is disruptive; it is a great idea about serving people’s needs more efficiently. What is the story about your starting it?
CF: My parents still live in Nigeria and I kept traveling back and forth to Nigeria to meet with friends and family. Each time I got a longer list from people I knew and people who claimed they knew me. At one point I had 10 suitcases packed with 95% requests from people. I wanted to check-in to my flight but was told I had too much luggage. That day I decided that I needed to turn this into a business.
I had firsthand experience of the need and could see the problem. People in Nigeria wanting items from the US and UK but being unable to buy the products directly for so many reasons. So I just had to figure out how to develop a business around solving the problem, to fill the need.
MallforAfrica was born out of solving that problem and filling that need. I enlisted my brother Tope to help me test an app I had built, since he was one of the many people who always asked me to bring items back to Nigeria. He tested the app and the rest is history. Now we serve hundreds of thousands of people and have shipped millions of products.
JA: Ecommerce is one of the fastest-growing sectors in Nigeria and many other African countries, and MallforAfrica is part of that story. What differentiates your model, and how impactful is that for gaining market share?
CF: Unlike many others, we give customers direct access to merchants. So we don’t have a warehouse filled with items we hope you want. We let our customers go directly to the sites they love and brands they love and buy directly from the site but with our platform and app. Think of it this way, we are the enablers that allow people to shop the stores they want and not worry about shipping, foreign exchange, clearing, etc. We take care of it all. You shop direct and get the original product and items you want using our app, and we handle the rest. You will never have to worry about customs holding your product, or the item not being shipped to you because you have a Nigerian credit card or live in Nigeria. All those issues are a thing of the past. Plus, we have local customer service and pickup locations across Nigeria. So you can come in and place your order from hundreds of stores or have your items delivered to our pickup locations and pick them up when you are ready.
With others you have no idea what you are getting. (“Is that shirt original or fake?”) With us you know it’s original; you are buying the item directly from the US or UK merchant. Plus, you gain access to products as they are released and enjoy promotions and deals.
You have full access to the entire catalog and inventory of the merchant. Many competitors have products in warehouses and limited quantity and styles. With us you shop directly on the US or UK site with our app and have full access to inventory, catalogues, quantities, styles etc. So if you want a pink and blue size XXXL shirt with a green pocket and that is available, guess what, you got it! This has allowed us to give our customers access to billions of items while our competitors only a few hundred thousand. This means you don’t have to limit yourself to the limited selections the store feels you want.
JA: For now, it would appear your model is promoting one-way trade flow; from some developed markets to Africa. But Africa is aiming to gain more share of global trade to boost economic growth and alleviate poverty. So, how relevant can existing ecommerce platforms – including MallforAfrica – prove in promoting two-way trade flows, either intra-Africa or Africa and the rest of the world?
CF: You have to start one way before you can go the other way. Step one with MallforAfrica is to prove to the western world that Africa is open for business and ready to buy. We have done that very well over the past few years with amazing growth. Now merchants are saying let us use your platform to gain access to products. And recently we have announced a partnership with eBay and hope to expand not only the inflow of products from eBay into Africa but also out of Africa, utilizing our platform in the future.
So the seeds have been planted and we are working hard to increase our service line and expand our product offering to help people sell cross-border within Africa and outside Africa.
JA: What is your idea of the progress Nigeria is making and the challenges that the country faces with regard to promoting inward investment and improving its non-oil external trade?
CF: As a Nigerian, I am proud of our country and heritage. We have had many tough times but have always leaned on God, religion, and ingenuity of our people. Companies like MallforAfrica are a testament to the fact that Nigeria is an investable nation. We have grown significantly year after year and we keep showing investors globally how valuable our economy is, no matter the issues.
With the future plans of MallforAfrica to help increase cross-border trade, we will develop the partnerships and momentum necessary to help increase and improve intra-Africa trade and Africa’s trade with the rest of the world. We have built relationships with merchants. Now we need to utilize those relationships to help sell our products and open up the doors for Nigerians to sell into big retail stores in the US and UK.
Nigeria is a great nation, filled with amazing talented people. Each of us have to play our part and role to ensure Nigeria remains the great nation it is.