Ayo Stuffman’s dream of becoming a medical doctor was cut short when his then physics department at the University of Ibadan refused to release him after he had spent a year in the medical school of the same University. Out of anger Ayo abandoned his degree programme to go into the “unknown”.
An unpopular decision as it looked, but not for Ayo who has never seen any challenge as an obstacle. He however went into the street for survival. He found himself with his uncle under whose trade he learnt about transportation/logistics. He tried his hands in the transport and logistics business but later dropped it to try the university again; he enrolled to study computer science in the University of Lagos and thereafter his journey into the world of ICT began. Today he is the founder and CEO of one of the country’s leading mobile value added services providers, VAS2Nets Group, with presence in eight countries.
In this THE BUSINESS INTERVIEW, Ayo Stuffman, a Nigerian born in Ghana, shares with Arinze Okamelu his business story among other industry concerns. Read excerpt below:
You left University of Ibadan in anger because they didn’t release you to study medicine. Why then did you apply to study computer science, and not medicine?
That’s a good question. My dad (resting in the bosom of our Lord Jesus Christ) was a very good father who besides instilling discipline in us while we were growing up was able to monitor us closely. I was very good with gadgets and I was good with mathematics. So while I was trying to write my second JAMB he said “Young man, I found out that you are very good with things that has to do with computers; why not pursue this as a career, it will help you a lot”, and I said “let me give it a try” because I know he can’t deceive me as a father. So I went ahead with it, did JAMB again and I passed well and I got the admission. That was how this journey began
Tell us some of your business exploits while in school and after school before VAS2Nets?
While in Unilag (University of Lagos) I engaged with petty business with my sister. I did that to encourage her also. We were selling a drink called “zobo’ in those days. I had to approach the student union for a space which I was given and there she sells the “zobo”. Then before I gained admission into Unilag, I got an opportunity to get into oil and gas business. I don’t know if you remember the ‘green and white’ tankers of those days that the federal government was giving out through the Nigerian Navy. I heard of it and I approached them with my business plan and was able to convince them.
- (Cut in) How old were you then?
I was about twenty something years then. I was able to convince them that I could manage the tankers. I was the youngest applicant, but based on my passion and the business skills I presented, they said, “let’s encourage this boy”. That was how I got involved.
- Who packaged your business plan for you and what gave you the courage at your age that you could manage such business?
I packaged it myself and I believed in myself, and I had passion and the drive that it is something I can do and based on the experience I had garnered because I used to work for my brother in-law as part of efforts to survive after leaving the University of Ibadan. We used to load slippers into trucks at ‘Odogunyan’ at Ikorodu area of Lagos. That was where I gathered experience in transportation and logistics business. I mingled with the “area boys” and was able to tap from their knowledge; but still my education stood me out, and when I approached the naval personnel, they saw that I was different in knowledge and presentation, and they gave it to me. I had to get an elderly man to drive the truck and I pay him.
- So why didn’t you go ahead with that line of business?
I had some challenges along the way which is normal to every business. You know the trucks were brand new and I paid royalty every week to the naval personnel. But something happened- my neighbours in the estate where I was staying then started complaining that my truck was blocking their entrance, as a result, I didn’t want to disturb them and we had to be parking the truck outside the estate after each day’s work. That was where they stole the tyres and they were expensive then. I had to replace these tyres but then besides the agreed royalty that I paid to the navy, they were still demanding some unofficial “settlements” and the money wasn’t coming in like that and they didn’t care. So the pressure became too much, and since I have saved enough money to further my studies, I had to return the truck.
- But the deal between you and the navy ended peacefully?
Not exactly. That is a big story altogether, and I hope sometime in life I will write a book about that experience. I can’t cover it in one interview.
- You continued with business while in school. At that point, business wasn’t necessarily what’s on the mind of youths of your age. What motivated you to go through that route?
I knew where I was coming from and I knew what I wanted in life. I couldn’t afford to do what every other person was doing. I knew the family I was from. I couldn’t compare myself with others. Everybody that wears shoes knows where it pinches. I just wanted to be myself.
- What would you say that influenced your sense of enterprise? Could it be money, passion or your background?
Majorly my background. I just knew I will work for a while and be on my own because things weren’t that fantastic. I am from a family of three children; two boys and a girl. One of us is late now remaining two of us. I am the last born. So I felt the only thing that could make our situation change was to do something for myself and thank God, he was on my side. But I must say that what really helped me to be successful while I was in school was that I was able to move very close to God.
- How sir?
It made me to do things differently. I didn’t club and party, which was the reigning thing for youths; I did not try to “belong” as it were. So it made me focused; it made me have a vision and a sense of direction and a purpose. I was able to move with “born again” Christians while I was in school. I was able to minister (go out for evangelism) during weekends, because I had this vision that “things will be good, that I shouldn’t just look at today or my education, that he (God) has better plans for me” and that was through dream, and most times when I dream, it always come to pass. And I said “fine, let me just give my best to God”. Fortunately when I finished, it was a different ball game as if God had prepared a path for me.
- Give us the story of VAS2Nets?
After school, I went for my NYSC in Kano State. While in Kano, I got some job offers that were good because I did some job tests while at NYSC (orientation camp) and I came out tops. One of the jobs I was offered was with the aviation industry, but what really discouraged me was the distance from home and the weather. Despite the encouragement to stay by friends, I had to come back to Lagos. While in Lagos, I worked with an international ICT/software development company, X-Platform, their headquarter was in USA. That was where I cut my career teeth. You know in school we really didn’t do much of practicals but theories. But at X-Platform I was able to develop myself in software development. I worked there for almost two years. From there I got a job with one of the pioneers of mobile value added services providers (MVASP) in Nigeria- MTECH. That was when GSM started in Nigeria. I was with MTECH for about five years, but it got to a point that I wasn’t challenged enough. I had to pull out. It was a difficult decision but I had to do it to start VAS2Nets TECHNOLOGIES LTD, Nigeria. Today we have about 45 staff and we are present in 8 countries including UK, Ghana, Cameroun, Zambia, Uganda, The Gambia and South Africa.
- You must have saved a lot of money to set up VAS2Nets?
To be honest, I didn’t have any money saved anywhere. But based on my relationship and interaction with TELCOS (Telecommunication companies) over the years, I leveraged on it because I was so passionate to get things done. So with the trust they had in me and seeing that I am credible, when they heard that I have left MTECH, they asked “what happened?” and from there I got their support.
- Weren’t you concerned you were going into the unknown?
The fact that one does not have money to start should not be the issue. For me, just know the business first. I know the business, though I didn’t have money but I was determined to make a difference. If you have the skills, and the wealth of experience and you are discipline to succeed and are passionate about it-that was what sustained me. Even the computer (laptop) that I had at that time, was very small and rickety. I bought it for about one thousand five hundred naira then and I believed in it. With it I got a job to do “BULK SMS” for an airline company, that was what started it.
- But then you have not registered VAS2Nets?
Yes, I had registered a company called “Stuffman Services” immediately I finished my NYSC. So when I left MTECH, I changed the name to VAS2Nets because I wanted to give the company a name that is related to what we do.
What was the next step?
Well the next step was that I knew I can’t do it all alone. So through a friend who saw that I was going through a lot, said “come to my office” and he gave me a space with a table and a chair; that was where I started from. I had to get two youth corp members then that I trained. Fortunately they were passionate and smart. Though things weren’t there, but they believed in my vision. I was just paying them stipends.
- When did you have you major break?
It was actually gradual; it didn’t just come like that. From that one table and chair with the small laptop, I was able to buy a “coupled desktop computer set” and I gave them (the corpers) the small laptop. Infact to show you how passionate they were, they even brought their computer from home to join me. So it was God that sent them to me. After sometime that I have saved enough, I got a bigger space. So from two staff we grew up to five and so on. I think it was MTN that referred the airline company to me. I got the job based on recommendation. Infact on seeing my proposal the airline offered to give me an office space in their office with an offer to so deduct the cost from my charge. That was a good offer then and it was because they saw something in me. But I wasn’t too comfortable with the offer. I said “these white men, there must be something behind this offer”. So I declined. I said I want the money because I have a vision and a plan. After that first Job, which I did very well, my clients were happy and they paid, I was fulfilled.
- What is VAS2Nets into and what is the vision?
From the acronyms “VAS2Nets” which means value added services to networks, our aim is to help people all over the world realize their creative desires and provide services beyond their expectation. This we can achieve by we providing value added services to networks, like TELCOS, and other sectors of the economy using technology as an enabler in achieving this, and the vision of VAS2Nets is to build a world class institution to be a role model for others to follow.
- When you say you are adding value to business with technology as an enabler, to someone that is not technology savvy, can you break it down?
Yes please, from the angle of mobile operators, TELCOS, their major starting point was basically on voice; just to make sure that people communicate from one person to the other. So I knew with time there will be need to do more than just making calls. So these value added services have to do with any other service apart from calls, like using SMS as premium services to mobile phone users to get valuable information on their finger tips such services includes but not limited to entertainment, sports, chat service. Also, for enterprise target market using bulk SMS, call centres, mobile banking, developing mobile apps on different devices- be it “i-phone or android”. I thought about this a long time ago. And this mobile value added services cut across different sectors of the economy like the agriculture, education, health, banking, transportation and so many inclusions in the economy. That is what mobile value added services is all about.
- Now VAS2Nets is not the only company in this industry, how competitive is this industry?
We are not. The industry is competitive. Like any other thriving industry, international operators and investors are coming in because Nigeria is an emerging market and there are a lot of potentials in this country. So they see it as a business where they can make good returns on investment. It is competitive enough, just that the regulations are not too suitable for a fair play for us all.
- Regulations? How and from which end?
From the government and regulatory body- the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) and the government as a whole.
- You talked on regulation. What aren’t government or the regulatory agency doing right? How well would they have done things?
The government needs to understand the sector in terms of “aggregatorship” for the CPs and the MVASPs. CPs simply means the “Content Providers” and MVASPs meaning “Mobile Value Added Services Providers”. The regulatory authorities need to understand the dynamics and mechanics of each sector because that is when they will be able to come up with a frame work to protect all the stakeholders. Different regions across the world have different business environments. So they need to factor our business environment in Nigeria to know which frame work suits the players in the industry. This seems to be lacking. A situation where the TELCOS take the larger share of the revenue is not fair at all. For instance, if company “A” develops a solution in the health industry like M-health (Mobile Health Services),the company will be engaging different players in the field to achieve this- the doctors who would provide their expertise, then the company does the marketing, deploys its intellectual property at different stages including developing solutions. At the end of the day, the profit tilts to the end of the TELCOS. So considering that the company developed the concept, pay the doctors, did the marketing and all that, the CPs and MVASPs should be protected to enhance creativity and innovations. Also, the government should focus more on e-governance. I advise the new government to tilt towards this direction because e-governance is a huge industry to tap into. Besides the huge income it would generate for the country, it will create jobs. Interestingly we have crop of young Nigerians that are good software developers that can do the jobs, and I humbly say I am one of them. Our developers can compete with developers anywhere in the world if well groomed and well exposed. I have mingled with people outside this country and they are amazed at our ingenuity and capacities as developers. So the government should harness this to invest in e-governance.
Don’t you have association? If you do, what are they doing to protect members’ cause?
Yes we have a group- Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association of Nigeria (WASPAN) and we have tried many times in the past to make sure things are done right, and .the Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) saw our pains and we are still giving them time to make sure they do the right thing. The question is, how come they’re able to regulate interconnectivity fees among mobile operators without meddling into commercial discussion? We gave them several reasons why they should get involved because that is when they will understand the industry and protect it; this is how it is done in other climes. But I believe it is a gradual thing and we will get there.
- You have presence in 8 countries including Nigeria, how were you able to break into these markets considering that VAS2Nets is just 8 years?
That’s a good question. You see, when you leave good track records with your partners like TELCOS and clients, and they believe in your products and services, it opens doors of opportunities. So it will be like “you are doing this well here, can you come to this country and replicate this”. It was basically through our TELCO partners and supportive clients. We even have invitations to other countries as we speak, but we are taking our time.
- How do you coordinate these branches from your office here?
It is very simple. By putting structures in place such that the country managers don’t really have to take all instructions from me to run their operations. We brought in people who are credible enough in these countries that we could partner with as co-investors, and they have a stake in the business.
How do you help (SMEs) small and medium scale businesses that may need your services? Or is your concentration on big clients only?
We have open doors for different sectors and different business including the SMEs. We are here for business and we are open to all. Once we believe that you have credible and good proposal that is in sync with our core values, we bring in our professional advice and work with you from start to finish. We also assist upcoming business owners that have genuine ideas with no financial engine to bring the product to live i.e. we develop the solution with no cost of development and share revenues as the business grows. We provide VAS managed services platform for SMEs, like those that sell Bulk SMS, we create a reseller account on our platform among others.
How have you been able to manage your private life, your family along your business?
Based on the structure and succession planning we have put in place, is easy. Since two years ago, I know that if we’re scaling up, we need to put structures on ground so that the system can run on auto pilot and I will have time to concentrate on the management of the business and generating creative and innovative ideas. So having done this, I take a day off weekly and spend quality time to refresh myself and my family. I go on vacation with my family twice a year and the business goes on.
What’s your typical work-day like?
I wake up in the morning and I pray together with my family. Thereafter, I go to the gym, at least I do that four times a week. After that when I get to work, I have my “Top-Five Priorities” each day that I must achieve. My rhythm at workplace; I put them in different boxes under the following headings as you can see (pointing to a sample sketch in his office) “Continue, Start, Stop” and this guides me every-day, every week to help my effectiveness and productivity and after the day’s work, I go straight home.
- How have you been able to develop yourself when you started and now?
Like I told you, when I started there was no money. So I did a lot of research through the internet especially with the Google search engine; there were a lot of open materials to research on. So as the business grows, I had to apply for a lot of trainings, courses, workshops, seminars etc, which exposed me to international platforms. Thereafter I joined the Entrepreneur Organisation (EO) about three and half years ago, where we have pool of entrepreneurs that share ideas on “work-life experiences”. That is “you have similar issues, how did you solve it” and so on. This is worth more than paying for a training or workshop in Harvard Business School, as you network and tap from the experience of a pool of over 10,000 business owners and investors all over the world who have made success of their businesses, and you build yourself as a result. In fact, there is this programme called EMP (Entrepreneur Management Programme), it is strictly for entrepreneurs in conjunction with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, USA, through EO. It comes with some criteria and thousands of entrepreneurs world-wide apply, and if you are qualified and meet the criteria, you will be called up for the programme. Fortunately, I am one of the only two Nigerians that qualified for the programme with Mr Akin Olawore. In the first batch last three years, were Mr. Anthony Okoye and Funmi Bamigton-Ashaye and they were the first two Nigerians that attended the programme.
- Where do you see VAS2Nets in the next 10 years?
VAS2Nets hopes to be a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) in any of our country of operations. That is we hope to handle sub-businesses for the TELCOS. Just like Virgin in UK; people think they are Mobile Network Operators (TELCO), they are not. They are (MVNO). That is where I see us in future, I pray Nigerian regulatory bodies or government set the pace by encouraging a proudly Nigerian company like VAS2Nets to tap into that opportunity.
- What are some of the challenges in this business and how have you been able to surmount them?
Of course alot of challenges. Our challenge has to do with infrastructures. Do we have good penetration of internet and power? First if you have the best of technology and you don’t have power, then it is not complete. Also the cost of internet in this country is huge, and again getting the right manpower-employees. Also the regulatory agency that I mentioned. But like every other challenge, we have devised means to surmount them and we have. Like we engaged what we call cloud technology which has helped us with stable power and internet services. Also we make sure that we provide products and/or solutions that are backed with quality to meet and surpass our customers’ expectations- this brings about word of mouth referrals, of course this is the best form of advertisement. We are so much concerned about the quality we push out, and this is consistent with the mission of our company which is to help people all over the world realize their creative desires and provide services beyond their’ expectations.VAS2Nets has been able to weather the storms and has built a strong brand to withstand all the challenges, to stand out.