Olisa Umerah is founder and chief executive of Xymbolic Development Limited. In this interview with Josephine Okojie, he spoke about the real estate industry and his momentous journey so far.
Who is Olisa Umerah?
Olisa Omera is a real estate entrepreneur, a developer, a trainer and an investor. I do all these because I am passionate about driving innovative properties that add value to people’s lives.
I hold an official position as the CEO of two real estate companies – Xymbolic and Land & Houses. These are technologically driven providers of real estate solutions in Nigeria with services ranging from advisory, consultancy, investment, and sales. Prior to that, I have my first degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Port-Harcourt.
Your career has witnessed some interesting changes, what prompted the switch from engineering into the real estate?
I got interested in real estate while I was at university. In 2014, as an undergraduate with high prospects of graduating with a first-class, I knew I did not want a nine to five hours job, rather I desired to be an entrepreneur. I had sold petroleum products such as kerosene, which was funded with the money I got from scholarships and even taught of having a laundry business at some point. To my mother and friends, it just didn’t make sense that a brilliant student would want to pursue a career in business rather than a well-paying corporate job.
One day, I stumbled on a book title ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ by Robert Kiyosaki and that created a paradigm shift in my mind on business and financial independence. Three years later, I met a real estate baron, Tony Aspire who introduced me to the real estate business and that was how I started.
At what point in your life did you feel it was time to launch Xymbolic and Land & Houses?
Immediately I graduated from the university. I have never applied for a job before. My sister and mother got worried at some point that I was going past the required age of employment in Nigeria.
Prior to diving headfirst into real estate, I sold petroleum products for an American company. It was a networking company, but I had a different idea of how the business could add more value to clients. I wanted to sell innovative petroleum products and build a team to do the same. So, I quitted and started investing all my funds into real estate. I invested all my earning as a corps member in knowledge acquisition on how to run the business.
At first, I started with my first company called Land & Houses and I was running the operations with two employees from the comfort of my small living room which was converted into an office then. Soon, the returns started coming in triples. It was at that moment I got the inspiration to launch Xymbolic Development Limited in 2016.
From the inception, I started a live video channel with my phone on Facebook titled ‘Real Estate live with Olisa. The first video was with a lawyer and I remembered being scared that no one would watch it. 15 minutes into the video, we had no presence online. In the end, we had 37 people watch that video that day. Finally, we moved it from Facebook to Youtube just like Land& houses.
What projects are you currently working towards with the company and what is your vision for these projects?
Our first project is the Enclave. Our new project set to be launched in February is called “The Nook”. It’s going to be exceptional because we are not just providing housing solutions; we are also solving the problem of epileptic power supply by providing solar energy as an alternative. It is going to be a noiseless community.
How did Xymbolic kick off from what it was then to the big enterprise it is now?
I started with a million naira I had set aside. A lady invested two million naira and we gave her equity. It wasn’t enough though but we had to strategically manage what we had.
What were the challenges you faced starting as an amateur in a highly competitive business landscape?
Allow me to preface my answer by saying when your eyes are on the prize, challenges are just stepping stones to your final destination. The prize for me was never the money but being able to add value to my clients and become a disruptive force in the real estate world.
The first challenge was money. I started with little or no capital. There were days of hunger strike because I was investing all I had on knowledge acquisition. I always felt the need to start my business when I have the money for it until I met Tony Aspire on Facebook. I reached out to him and he convinced me to attend his seminar on real estate business. That event reignited my fire to start Xymbolic. Then, there was the issue of paying salaries at the initial stage and financing other expenses. I had to make more sales to pay my employees to a point I forgot to pay myself.
Secondly, the issue of trust became a challenge. The real estate business in Nigeria is finally gaining momentum and individuals are comfortable entrusting developers with their money. I had to show I was capable of selling first as a relator, before moving on to becoming a real estate developer.
What inspired the name of your real estate company “Xymbolic”?
The word ‘symbol’ stands for anything identifiable. However, replace the ‘S’ with ‘X’ and it means we stand for something, not just anything. We are the X-factor of the Nigerian real estate business. We aspire to create innovative solutions to properties. Creating value propositions for our clients is of paramount importance. We want to change the notion that the aim of real estate is to become a landlord. There are more dimensions to it. We want young people to understand that they can have full ownership, as well as invest without owning brick and mortar.
On the issue of investing in real estate, what is your take on Nigerians in diaspora investing in real estate back home?
The idea is to own a landmark in your country. Beyond that, real estate investment in Nigeria is a lucrative one because regardless of the economic fluctuations, the land keeps appreciating as opposed to other parts in the world. A million naira on Nigerian soil today will not be the same in the next 2 years. For example, a plot of land in Mona Field, Sangotedo, Lagos State was selling for 8 million in 2017, Shoprite was built there and sales went up to 12 million naira. It is always a wise decision to invest in real estate here because the marker doesn’t control the price, the demand does.
What differentiates xymbolic from other real estate companies in Nigeria today?
We are empathetic and passionate about our client’s needs. We offer real estate services beyond the functionalities. Being customer-centric drives the business. Our clients are our number 1 priority. We listen to them, their complaints and suggestions, and we refine our processes based on the feedback we get from them.
With your experience in the real estate industry, what is the future of real estate in Nigeria?
The future of real estate is technology. We are now in the digitalization era – a world for data science. That is why Xymbolic is looking forward to launching a digital network investment solution, where people can invest anywhere in the word without any physical ownership. We want to provide a virtual ownership platform that enables them to liquidate anytime, and this will be backed up by real properties.
From your experience of building a real estate empire from nothing, what would be your advice to young emerging real estate realtors and developers?
Go for it! Failure doesn’t happen when you start something and it didn’t yield the expected outcome. Failure happens when you don’t try at all. I had so many ideas like the laundry and petroleum business that I could have thrived in, but I killed the ideas because I allowed other people to project their fear onto me. So, learn to keep quiet about your goals. Start something first, and when you are halfway in it, you can talk about it to others.
Success is like a marathon. The guy with a billion naira feels he is not successful because he wants more. Success is a feeling. Like when I acquire a property, allocate it, knowing people can trust me and I can deliver is fulfilling. Success is a journey; it is not a destination for me.
What is the future of real estate in Nigeria?
This market will continue to grow with continued innovative solutions to real estate. Currently, Nigeria has a total population of about one hundred and ninety million, and the housing deficit is still at two million. According to the chief economist of PWC, from 2018 to 2050, and by 2050, Nigeria’s population will increase by an extra two million. The housing deficit will be at twenty-two million. What happens to the housing deficit then? How would we solve that housing problems? Therefore, it’s either we have new real estate developers emerging in the future, or the Government swing into action to bridge the gap, or a partnership with the Government and private sector happens to solve these housing problems. However, for Xymbolic, we are invested in growing the industry with the innovation of disruptive technology to advance client’s needs in real estate and help the younger generation investment in real estate, for liquidation anytime they want.