If you watch a lot of Nigerian movies, or follow the Nigerian internet startup scene, chances are either iROKO or Jason Njoku need no introduction.
In 2010, Jason Njoku founded iROKO — an online platform that offers its worldwide audience subscription-based access to stream Nollywood movies (primarily) — with the help of his friend and business partner, Bastian Gotter.
7 years on, iROKO has grown to become possibly the biggest online repertoire of African movies. The company has gone through a lot of drastic changes in the past year – shutting down its London HQ, shifting focus to a premium-only business model, expanding to East Africa, cutting bundled internet deals with local telcos, and just recently, enabling offline viewing – all in a bid to reposition itself as the market leader.
Techpoint spent an afternoon chatting with Jason Njoku at the iROKO headquarters in Lagos.
Muyiwa Matuluko of Techpoint: For those who may not know who you are, could you give us a little background on yourself ?
Jason Njoku of iROKO: They exist? [Laughs]. Ad nauseum, I was born and bred in London, UK. I studied Chemistry at the University of Manchester. In 2004, I started trying to build startups — mostly offline traditional kind of startups. In 2009/2010, I founded iROKO, which was just to connect Africans with content that they love.
MM: It appears that you never for a single day had a regular job. Have you always been an entrepreneur right from day one?
JN: I had jobs but I was always fired from them. I’ve never really had a job more than 3/4 months maximum.
MM: Interesting. Some claim people are born to be entrepreneurs. Would you agree with them?
JN: I’m probably just incredibly difficult in employment. I think that’s just from my very nature. I think most people can be entrepreneurs, I just think that some personality traits enable some people deal better with the entrepreneurial aspects of the life that we have to live.
I am a workaholic so I have no problem working a 100 hours a week. I also have a huge tolerance for pain and risk — which is what entrepreneurship is all about — and I’m just a terrible employee. So all those things together make me think I was always going to be an entrepreneur. Whether I was going to be a successful one or not would have been the difference.
MM: You founded many failed startups before iROKO. What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
JN: My biggest failure definitely was Brash, a magazine which I founded straight out of university in 2005. I ran it for 3 years — it literally took over my life for 3 years.
All of my experiences with all the other startups combined where compressed into that 3-year period. From raising or inability to raise money, to the challenge of building a team, losing a team, running out of money, missing payroll, all of these things combined have basically taught me the harder lessons of startup life.
MM: We couldn’t help noticing you pronounce iROKO as “i-row-ko” rather than “e-row-ko”, as we Nigerians know it. What inspired the name?
JN: When I’m in the West and I call it “e-row-ko”, they start to spell with an “e” and it’s a pretty difficult thing to spell. But when I say “i-row-ko”, it’s obvious where the “i” is. So I know it’s “e-row-ko” like everyone else in Nigeria but outside of Nigeria, I call it “i-row-ko”.
As for the inspiration for the name, it was a mistake actually. My maternal home back in the East (of Nigeria), Imo state precisely, backed unto a bush and there was this massive tree that was just always there. I was thinking of a name that was quite earthy and African, kinda Nigerian. I was searching online and I came across the Iroko tree which I thought looked like the tree at the back of our house. But it’s actually not an Iroko tree. It’s an Udala tree. So the company literally would have been called Udala if I had found the original name, or asked somebody.
MM: iROKO has grown a lot over the 5 years. The company has gone through a lot of changes in the past year and you recently hit over a billion views on the YouTube Mutli Channel Network alone. What’s the big picture for iROKO in the coming years?
JN: Our goal is really simple — to get to a million paid subscribers. We’re trying to connect a million people to content that they love. That’s basically it.
MM: You probably are the most vocal CEO in the Nigerian internet startup scene. Some are of the opinion that a person in your position shouldn’t be blogging so much about your company. Why do you blog?
JN: I started in 2004. By 2010, I had gone through 6 years of doing entrepreneurial things. I read a book a week, I read all of the tech blogs, all of the different stories of people who are trying to do things. They inspire me, they help me understand things. They’ve helped me become a better person and a better business person, if you will.
But they are always perspectives of non-black people. I’m black, these are my experiences. Where were the people I was supposed to look to to help me understand how to run a startup in an environment where essentially all the participants are black? There was no perspective on that.
I think building a business is hard enough with no information. So I think if there’s any information out there it’s great. I enjoy reading and writing but at the same time I think every single internet company in Nigeria is going through the exact same big internal changes as iROKO is. I’m just public with mine and I’m comfortable with that.
So I know everything behind the scenes, from the people running the companies. But I’m the only person who tries to put it out. I think any consistence cannot be built unless more and more people share information. People talk about Silicon Valley; Silicon Valley exists because people share information.
So for example, in 2010 I just came into Nigeria, not really knowing who I was. When Tiger Global reached out for funding, they mentioned they’d invested in Jobberman. So I reached out to Deji to say I didn’t know anything about Venture Capital. I went to Jobberman’s former Lekki office — this was when it was just me and a few people in my room in FESTAC – and Chika (of 440NG)and Deji spent 2 hours with me and Bastian. They told us how the game works. Now, he could have not done that and I could have been what I am today. But we wouldn’t have the relationship. Now, I will always have to acknowledge and appreciate the little help he gave me in 2011, before there was money or anything.
I think that’s why when possible, I will help people out. I am very accessible. If someone wants to meet me and I think I can help them, somehow I will definitely try to help them out. That’s how ecosystems are built. I often talk about the mentors that I have in the West who have built huge video companies and sold them for over a hundred million dollars. They gave me the benefit of the doubt, they gave me time. I respect that and I think if people have helped me and I can’t pass that on to other people, then that’s not how you build an ecosystem. I would hope that my blogging is more a net positive to the ecosystem than not.
MM: Speaking about building the ecosystem, you and Bastian made a foray into Angel Investing with Spark. Could you tell us a little more about that? How and why Spark was started and how many startups you have invested in so far
JN: Obviously, Bastian and I believe in wealth creation from the internet because that is where a lot of our wealth has come from. How it started was really simple. One of our Angel Investors invested $80,000 in iROKO in January 2011. By January 2013, one of our other investors wanted to buy them out for a couple of million dollars so we thought that’s quite an interesting business to be in. If we can enable the next wave of internet companies being built, or at least create a fertile environment for people to get funding and to move on, then we can participate in wealth creation.
The fact that we’re sitting here in Nigeria means we can always just have more impact. We were fortunate to know some wealthy people who gave us two and a half million dollars. We deployed all of that money very quickly. I believe we invested in like 9 or 10 companies in the beginning. We made every single mistake that every incubator or Angel Investors would make in Nigeria, going forward. But we are fortunate to have 3 or 4 companies which we see as big potential companies, in terms of growing into iROKO-sized opportunities.
Hotels.ng for example will be a big business. So will ToLet.com.ng and Drinks.ng. Foto.com.ng is another company I’m really excited about. The other ones, for whatever reason, they haven’t worked out quite as well as we would have preferred them to do. We have to be quite narrow in our ability to keep on supporting companies which don’t really work any more.
MM: Considering your vast experience in the internet startup scene, and speaking from the hindsight, what would you say most young entrepreneurs aren’t doing well enough?
JN: I think there needs to be more patience. Patience is probably one of the most underrated virtues. iROKO was not a success straightaway. I spent 18 months and about $150,000 of Bastian’s money before I figured it out. Then it took another 6 months to determine “now it’s ripe”.
Obviously we’ve kicked on from there but I think sometimes you literally can spend 2 years doing something that doesn’t appear like it makes sense. It’s just about you getting an understanding of what direction to go. For me entrepreneurship is like me standing here and I need to get to Yaba. If I don’t know Lagos, how would I know how to get to Yaba? What’s the first thing you would do? You should ask people and spend some time trying to figure stuff out. But that could take like 2 years.
I have always had a propensity to not kill companies fast enough. Most smart people told me to kill iROKO a long time ago. If I had listened to them, I wouldn’t be here today. Most people abandon ideas too early. I think that’s a very dangerous thing. It’s all about patience. These things take time. The worst entrepreneurs I hear of are people who say, “I’m going to try this thing for 6 months, if doesn’t work, I’ll do something else”.
I’ve been doing this since 2004 and it never occurred to me to quit. Unless when I literally couldn’t eat and I told myself, “let me go get a job for 3 months” and then I’d leave after. Otherwise, that’s the only way it’s always worked for me.
MM: One last thing. What’s your biggest fear for iROKO?
JN: Biggest fear is that Nollywood becomes less popular. I know that’s not happening at all, which is great. I think competition is competition; it will always be there. You just have to have a very strong perspective or vision. We have a very long term perspective, which gives our investors confidence, which gives us confidence.
So when someone pops up, no matter how sexy or nice they sound, we just keep on plugging away. Because, if we find it hard — and we genuinely find this stuff hard — other people I would hope, because we are not idiots here, would find it hard as well. That’s the hope.
Nigerian startups raised a total funding of $9.2 million in Q1 2018. Download our report to find out more.