When Olumide Soyombo was just 12 years old, amidst the peak of the dot-com era, he seized upon an innovative idea to capitalize on the technological boom and initiated his inaugural venture. This pioneering endeavor centered on the registration of email addresses, which were subsequently sold to customers.
Fast forward to the age of 24, Olumide secured a significant $40,000 business investment from his father, laying the foundation for Bluechip Technologies. In a landscape where many individuals might have frittered away similar parental investments, Olumide’s trajectory is a testament to a distinct and inspirational narrative. Over 16 years, that initial seed investment burgeoned manifold, transforming into a multimillion-dollar enterprise of considerable growth and influence.
At the youthful age of 40, Olumide has not only stepped out of his father’s shadow but has also emerged as a prominent figure and investor in the thriving African technology sector having invested in some of our favorite African companies such as Piggyvest, Paystack, and Moniepoint.
In this exclusive interview with Lehlé Baldé, Olumide discusses his new book, his vantage point, investments in the African technology sector, and the profound business and life lessons he learned on his journey.
At what point did you know you wanted to write your book, Vantage?
I had always harbored the idea of penning down my experiences. My foray into Blue Chip Technologies commenced at a tender age, embarking on my entrepreneurial journey at 24. Consequently, by the time I reached 30, I believed I had accumulated a wealth of experiences worth sharing.
The initial blueprint for my book began to take shape when I was 29, on the cusp of my 30s. In hindsight, I ponder what compelled me to presume that I had amassed adequate material to craft a book by the age of 30.
In retrospect, I’m grateful that I refrained from composing the book during that period. Interestingly, even as I embark on this writing journey now, I can discern the wisdom behind the decision to undertake it at this juncture in my life.
Had I postponed it until my 50s or 70s, a phase when many choose to chronicle their life lessons, I can envision the formidable challenges I would have encountered. Even presently, recollecting events from a mere decade ago proves to be a formidable task.
Do you keep a diary?
No, I don’t write in a diary. But I do document many aspects of my life, through emails or other means. And so, I found myself going back to certain people to ask them, ‘Okay, this is how I remember it, is this really how it happened?’ It helped me a lot when I was writing this book.
So, I imagine if I had written it at 70, it would have been much more challenging. The book is essentially three books in one. It is my life starting in start-ups, how I grew up, and the influence of my father.
You initially wanted to become a medical doctor, and then your dad gave you access to a computer and that’s how you got into tech. Your father also invested 5 million Naira ($40,000 at the time) into Bluechip Technologies. What kind of influence has your dad had on you?
The word ‘dad’ makes a remarkable 196 appearances within the pages of my book. This profound connection to my father is, in many ways, the genesis of the concept of ‘vantage’ that pervades my life. I was fortunate to have grown up under the influence of an entrepreneurial dad who had embarked on numerous business ventures.
This afforded me unique privileges, symbolized by the computer that resided in my father’s room. I spent countless hours in that room, engrossed in the world of technology. In those days, we relied on Nitel landlines to connect to the modem. Once you ventured into the realm of the internet, the phone line remained occupied.
My father generously granted me access to this resource, enabling me to be online all day, juggling both internet activities and phone calls, much to the chagrin of anyone attempting to reach us.
This formative experience profoundly shaped my character. My father placed a paramount emphasis on education. He provided us with a plethora of books to read and perpetually instilled in us the drive to strive for more.
I vividly recall a particular anecdote from my book. My brother had pursued his higher education in the United States, and initially, I assumed I would follow suit. I had no reason to believe that I would remain in Nigeria, and consequently, I paid scant attention to the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examinations. In my mind, the path ahead led to the U.S., where I would undertake the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
The year was 1999, and Nigeria was experiencing a transition to civilian rule, accompanied by economic adjustments, currency devaluation, and other transformative events. Like many business owners, my father faced financial challenges due to an import business venture that encountered difficulties.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my father informed me that I would be enrolling at the University of Lagos. The cost of a diploma program at that time amounted to 150,000 naira, a substantial sum in 1999.
Upon gaining admission to UniLag, I felt the need for a car. I had been driving for family errands back home, and my father graciously arranged for a car to be sent to me. However, using the car for commuting to school was against the rules.
My father questioned, ‘Why should I provide this young man with a car? What has he done to merit it?’ This prompted me to employ a clever ruse. After returning home from school, I would disembark from public transportation near our house, pretending to have fallen from the bus. I would dishevel myself and exclaim, ‘Look what happened, I fell from the bus!’ I repeated this charade on several occasions. My mother, understandably concerned, relayed the situation to my father, albeit without realizing the slight deception involved.
Eventually, my father relented and reluctantly permitted me to use the car. His parting words were profound: ‘I’m entrusting you with this car. People will perceive you as a successful individual who has made it. Consequently, they will redouble their efforts. Your very presence will serve as a source of motivation to them.’ This encapsulates my father’s ethos. He hailed from humble beginnings, with his father being a modest trader. His intellect and resourcefulness were his saving grace, opening doors to opportunities.
My father possessed a unique perspective on life. He would observe individuals with notable achievements, influence, or even those with motorbikes, and he would resolve to ‘work twice as hard.’ He firmly believed that if you possessed any form of advantage or convenience, it was your duty to exert double the effort to maintain an edge. He championed the philosophy of maximizing the advantages and access at one’s disposal.
During my university years, I achieved a multitude of professional certifications typically pursued by individuals who were already seasoned professionals in their respective fields. This relentless pursuit of knowledge and skill development mirrored the ethos of my father. He consistently urged us to push our boundaries and strive for excellence, reinforcing his guidance with his unwavering support. His message was clear: “If you choose to embark on a path, you must excel in it beyond anyone else.”
My father served not only as a parent but also as a mentor. It’s widely known that my father invested in Bluechip Technologies. While he could have easily gifted it to me or invited me to join one of his existing enterprises, he remained steadfast in his insistence that I should forge my path. It was this initial investment that catalyzed the work I am engaged in today.
Even as I built my company and achieved a level of independence, my father remained committed to instilling values and principles in us. One of these core values was our faith, and he had unwavering rules regarding our religious practices. Every Sunday, without exception, my brothers and I were required to attend church, irrespective of our achievements or independence. My father’s guidance was marked by an absence of direct commands but was nonetheless profoundly influential, providing a strong and constructive framework for our lives.
What role did your mother play in your life?
My mother held a special place in my heart. She was not only my mother but also my confidante and collaborator. Whenever we needed something from our dad, she was the one who mediated for us. In the book, I delve into the topic of grief, a profound experience we had to endure as a family. My mother fell ill with a terminal illness at the age of 50, and we walked alongside her on this challenging journey for 14 years.
My father made a remarkable transformation in his life during this period. He shifted his focus to become her primary caregiver, even relocating his office to our home to ensure she received the best care possible. I share a poignant story in the book about Arthur Ashe, the Olympic champion who battled HIV.
Someone once asked him why God had allowed him to become sick, to which he replied, “What do you mean? What do you mean, why did God allow this to happen to me? When there were 5 million children who started playing tennis in the streets, I went from being one of 5 million children playing tennis to being the only black person to win the U.S. Open. I didn’t ask God why me then…” This response taught me the importance of accepting both adversity and prosperity with open arms. I learned that we must receive difficult moments in life just as we embrace the good ones. My father shared this story with us, and it’s a message I convey in the book — the art of coping with grief and developing resilience.
My mother was an extraordinary human being, a source of endless love and support. She had finer cars than any of us, yet she often allowed me to drive them. I have a vivid memory of a time when I drove three different cars to school, simply for the sheer joy of it. My mother’s greatest wish was for her children to find happiness, and she did everything in her power to make that a reality.
Have you always been focused?
Certainly. During my upbringing, people often referred to me as “Omo Igbo” because Igbo people in Nigeria have a well-known reputation for their industriousness and strong work ethic. Even in my secondary school years when I attended the Air Force School in Ibadan, I would put on my school uniform at home and inform my friends that they would need to pay me if they wanted to enter my “territory.” My entrepreneurial spirit and focus on financial opportunities were evident even then.
One of my early ventures involved registering email addresses using people’s names, essentially reserving these addresses for them. I would then leverage this service to charge them 150 Naira for their email addresses. Additionally, I discovered a company called Dialpad that provided a platform for making international calls. Seizing this opportunity, I started offering my neighbors the chance to make international calls through my services, charging them for this convenient access.
What is the inception story of Bluechip Technologies?
Upon completing my master’s degree in business and IT in the United Kingdom, I encountered challenges securing employment due to visa constraints. Consequently, I returned to Nigeria and began exploring opportunities in the emerging fields of analytics and data warehousing, which were relatively novel at the time. There was only one company operating in this space, Tavia Technologies, owned by Ayoola Shegbu. While Ayoola had secured a contract with Access Bank, he lacked the necessary resources to fully capitalize on the opportunity.
In this context, Ayoola brought me on board as a junior analyst, and I worked alongside a talented individual named Kazeem Tewegbade, who would later become my business partner. As we delved into our roles, Kazeem and I recognized the potential for scaling our operations beyond just serving Access Bank. We realized that we could offer these services to other banks and had the right connections to do so effectively.
With a solid business plan in hand, we approached my father seeking an investment to kickstart our venture. That’s how he decided to invest $40,000 in our business. However, he didn’t merely provide the funding; he added pressure on us to repay the investment and took equity in the company, creating a clear incentive for us to succeed and grow.
What does turning 40 feel like? Are you surprised at the things you have been able to achieve?
During the process of writing, I had the opportunity to reflect deeply on some of the things I have been able to achieve. I think of a company like PiggyVest, or MoniePoint. I think to myself “If I had not backed this company, it may not exist”. That is a sobering thought for me. The value some of these companies have been able to achieve is unbelievable. The book is not a step-by-step guide to investing, I do not pretend to have all the answers. I simply share stories and tell the reader what happened.
How did you come up with the title Vantage?
During my formative years, I frequently encountered naysayers who attributed my successes solely to my father’s support and influence. However, when I embarked on my journey with Bluechip Technologies, I was driving an e360 coupe and had invested in a $400,000 house by the age of 29. This significant milestone of homeownership wasn’t merely a personal choice; it was also influenced by my father, albeit in a light-hearted manner.
My father humorously but kindly hinted that the CEO of a company with just eight employees had no business residing in the chalet of his father’s house. This gentle push encouraged me to take more ownership of my life and make independent decisions.
For me, “vantage” represents an acknowledgment of privilege. I don’t shy away from recognizing the advantages I’ve had in life. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned along the way, it’s encapsulated in the phrase, “If it’s easy, go do it.” I honestly don’t let criticisms about my privilege bother me. In truth, everyone possesses some form of advantage that they can leverage, and acknowledging and using that advantage is simply a part of the journey.
What are examples of non-monetary vantage points?
Talent, and grit to outwork or outsmart everybody. We all have something that we can leverage to differentiate ourselves and get work done.
Talk to me about investing in Start-Ups- Do you invest in people or business ideas? What is your investment philosophy?
I prioritize investing in people above all else. As a pre-seed investor, I firmly believe that the true essence of a startup goes beyond the numbers found in Excel sheets and pitch decks. My approach centers on evaluating the founder, considering the risks they’ve undertaken personally, and assessing their past accomplishments. I’m skeptical about relying solely on five-year projections as the key to determining success. In my view, the best way to gauge potential is by observing action and execution. Asking for a five-year projection is not the best way to ascertain success. The best way to know is to do it.
Throughout my journey as an angel investor, I’ve contributed to nearly 40 startups, and through my fund, Voltron Fund, I’ve supported an additional 60, bringing the total to 100 investments.
Tell me more about your fund.
The reason I started my fund is because many of my mentors saw the success and wanted to get in on the momentum and gains. That is what success does. It made startups as an asset class, more interesting. We have now proved that African startups are viable. Investment from local players is not undermined.
What do you hope the book brings to the next generation?
This book is dynamic and offers something for everyone. It holds valuable insights for parents who are raising children with entrepreneurial inclinations, even if they are not entrepreneurs. Drawing from my own experiences and relationship with my parents, it provides practical guidance for both parents and children alike.
Some readers may find the utility of the book in this aspect. Others may be drawn to the story of our startup journey, particularly how we embarked on the Bluechip venture. Within its pages, I chronicle the challenges we faced in securing our first customer, and there are even some humorous anecdotes to be found along the way.
What don’t we know about you that your book will tell us?
My faith. My relationship with God has gotten me through some hard times. My love for hymns. I highlight some of my favorite hymns in the book.
Is it true that you name founders who did not do right by your investment in the book?
I’ve experienced financial losses in the past, and I hold the belief that you can lose money only once, but you have the potential to make money a thousand times. One of the reasons why certain negative behaviors persist in the startup world is that when founders misuse investor funds or fail to act responsibly, it often goes unaddressed. That’s why I felt it was essential to bring attention to founders who have misappropriated funds in my discussions.
In the book, I also touch on issues related to behavior and instances where startups have indulged in reckless spending of investor capital without having a product to show for it. While some companies fail due to circumstances beyond their control, others fail because of the actions of individuals within the company. In Nigeria, there is a need for a shift towards conducting post-mortems on business failures. Often, we hear about a company’s failure, but there’s little discussion about why it happened. This is a practice that needs to change.
As an investor, I typically consider a company to have failed when I stop receiving updates. Startup founders must understand the significance of providing updates, both during prosperous times and when facing challenges. Transparency and communication are key factors in building trust with investors and ensuring that they are informed throughout the journey.
If there was one thing, could you change about the startup culture in Nigeria, what would you change?
Nigerians possess a significant entrepreneurial drive, and we are known for our determination to accomplish tasks. However, startup owners must prioritize building resilient businesses rather than fixating solely on fundraising. In our markets, resilience and thoughtful growth are paramount, especially because our middle class is shrinking.
A valuable lesson can be drawn from the early days of Konga and Jumia, where substantial sums were spent on advertising. If these funds had been directed toward building the core business, they might be in a stronger position today. This underscores the importance of tailoring your business strategy to suit your own market’s unique dynamics and needs. Building for the local market and understanding its intricacies can lead to more sustainable success.
What advice do you have for people who want to start investing in start-ups?
It all starts with backing one company. Investors get exposed to more deals when they do more deals. The reason why I see more deals is that I invested in founders, and I have a large founder network that exposes me to new deals. Building relationships with founders, and other investors has been key in my journey.
What can we expect from you in the next ten years?
The next decade promises to be a fascinating period for Africa’s growth and development. When we look at the trajectories of regions like Latin America and Southeast Asia today, we can envision a similar path for Africa in ten years. India, for instance, attracted a staggering $25 billion in investments in 2022 alone, dwarfing the figures for Nigeria. This discrepancy underscores the need for Africa to seize the moment and position itself strategically.
Consider that I first used the internet when I was 12 or 13, and today’s twenty-year-olds are digital natives by birth. Their inherent advantage lies in this digital fluency. Over the next decade, we can anticipate a shift toward an increasingly online world. Moreover, by 2050, Nigeria is projected to become the second most populous country globally. This demographic shift presents enormous opportunities for wealth creation, but the challenge lies in how we harness these prospects.
Reflecting on companies like Paystack, we see the transformative impact they have had on Nigeria’s online payment landscape. There’s a clear need for certain companies to exist in every market, and I eagerly anticipate the chance to invest in such ventures moving forward.
Quick 7 With Olumide Soyombo
What is your favorite holiday destination:
Miami, Miami, Miami ☺
What is your definition of work hard play hard?
That is my motto in life. Work hard play hard. I work so I can enjoy my play.
What music will you be playing on your birthday?
Hymms or Yoruba music.
How do you balance work and family?
I read a lot. One of the books that was profound for me was How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen. My daughter was born on March 21, 2022, and her birth has given me a new outlook on life. I try to balance and prioritize family, while still building.
What do you do for fun?
I am the secretary of the Polo Club, so I spend a lot of time there. I love traveling. I used to own a club. It was called 57, it was on Awolowo Road.
I invest in media. I invested in BrotherHood, The Black Book, The Smart Money Woman, Inc. Blot. If I had time, I would create a film fund. I also recently invested in a film studio. I am keenly interested in the content creation space.
What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?
You will be okay. Life is about pain management and dealing with good and bad. Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people. No matter what you face you will be fine.
Leave us with some words of wisdom
People say that business is not personal, and I do not agree with this notion. Businesses strive on relationships, and the best relationships are personal. Empathy goes a long way. Build meaningful relationships, you will never regret it.
You can pick up a copy of Vantage nationwide or wherever you buy books online.