Lessons from the life of the founder of Nairabet, Nigeria’s foremost sports betting company – Akin Alabi
If stature were truly a reflection of the size of the mind, Akin Alabi, founder of Nairabet, Nigeria’s foremost sports betting company, would not be counted among successful people. For, he is as diminutive as they come. But success is not about physique. It’s about ability not just to conceive lofty ideas but, most importantly, to turn them into reality. It’s about ability to challenge the status quo – the willingness to ignore the norm and also rise above adverse circumstances.
Alabi’s life is replete with lessons that are worth learning, for anybody that wants to succeed in life, especially those that have a mistaken view of what is required to attain success. His story makes you come to the conclusion that many to whom success has remained a mirage find themselves in their situation not because they do not have what it takes to succeed in life, but because they spend valuable time looking in the wrong direction, following tradition.
Some of the actions he took, as well as inactions, stand out as major lessons that teach the aspiring entrepreneur, especially now that the country is deep in a recession and paid employment is a scarce commodity, how to navigate the unfriendly economic weather that shows no sign of passing away.
- Don’t be afraid of pioneer status. A lot of people have had their lofty ideas buried in their heads forever, due mainly to the fear of starting what nobody has done before. They dismiss the feasibility of an idea because nobody has had such in the past, and therefore the chance of it becoming a reality is suspect.
The world is what it is today because the great inventors of the past dared the unknown. We can fiddle with buttons on an electronic toy and hold conversations from different parts of the world because Graham Bell did not dismiss the idea of inventing a devise that could enable two people to talk to each other without having to be in the same location.
As frustrating as it was, Thomas Edison did not give up on the idea of inventing a device that could illuminate better than lantern, even after more than 900 failures.
The challenge of pioneering a business in a difficult investment environment like Nigeria did not discourage Alabi. The idea to start a betting business in Nigeria first occurred to him during one of his trips to the United Kingdom, when his brother introduced him to the game. After trying his hands on, and falling in love with it, it occurred to him that he could introduce the business in Nigeria. What made the idea all the more attractive was his understanding of the passion Nigerians have for European football, which has made betting a thriving business.
“Before I started the business, I went online and threw the idea out”, he recalls how he tested the waters before berthing the business in Nigeria. “I conducted an online survey to see the reactions that will follow if the business eventually was established in Nigeria. The feedbacks were amazing as people showed keen interest. That fuelled my confidence the more, so I set out to work on the business idea”.
If Alabi had dismissed the idea of a sport betting business in Nigeria because it was novel, he would today be treading, with regret, a bush path that somebody else opened, probably not where he is today.
- There’s something in a name. The name of brand goes a long way in driving the brand, as Alabi has demonstrated. In choosing a name for a business, it pays to adopt a name that easily captures the nature of the business
Alabi noticed that most sport betting companies around the world have the three letters, ‘bet’, as part of their names, which easily identifies the nature of the business those companies are involved in. He first toyed with, Naija Bet and Nigeria Bet, before settling for Nairabet.
- Start small. The tendency to believe that money has to be “enough” to start a business has held back potential entrepreneurs from turning ideas into reality. The common advice from successful people in the business world is to start small, which means starting with the little one can gather.
Alabi hit the iron when it was red-hot, when the idea was still fresh in his mind, not minding that he did not have what could be considered enough capital. He didn’t require much to get the idea out of his mind. What’s more, it was a novel business, which accounted for the relatively low budget with which he started.
“I didn’t really spend much to get the idea on the table”, he recalls. He reached out to a friend who helped him to develop something free of charge. And with as little as N200, 000, he was good to go. “Meanwhile, it took lesser amount to start then because it was just coming into the market”. He puts the cost of starting the business today at roughly N100 million.
- Certificate does not equal success. The high emphasis on paper qualification in Nigeria has created a society where the common belief is that university education is the only guarantee of a good job, good life and, ultimately, secure future. This mistaken notion is encouraged by none other than the government itself, which unofficially created a dichotomy between polytechnic and university graduates, making the former inferior to the latter.
The establishment of polytechnics across the country was meant to encourage production of middle-level technical manpower that was expected to drive an industrialized economy. But government’s preference for university degrees knocked the bottom off the lofty policy, forcing the country’s youths to chase university education, since nobody wants to be discriminated against after spending five years to obtain the ordinary and higher national diplomas.
It is the reason examination malpractices have remained astronomically on the increase, with students, teachers and parents working in a synergy to build a society of what may be described as educated illiterates.
After obtaining the higher national diploma, Alabi discovered to his chagrin that he could not secure a job unless he had the ultimate in tertiary education in Nigeria – a university degree. For five years, he sat for the University and Tertiary Matriculation Examinations (UTME) of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB), and for five years, he failed to meet the cut-off mark required for admission. It can only be imagined what h could have achieved in those five years if he had not wasted them chasing university education. But he refused to be discouraged. If he could not succeed in realizing his dream of university education, he could fall back on his brain for an even brighter future.
In every failure lies an opportunity. Alabi had always dreamt of being rich through self employment in any field of endeavour, as long as it is legitimate. With the failure to go the university, he launched into entrepreneurship.
Nigeria’s pioneer sports better has proved the growing belief that certificates do not equal ideas. His soaring success is practical proof the fact that in the world of today, ideas, not certificates, drive success, as successful people around the world, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc, have shown.
- Don’t quit. The popular axiom says winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win. Jimmy Cliff, the reggae music legend of the 1970s, sang thus in the lyrics of one of his popular songs: You can get it if you really want; but you must try, try and try; you’ll succeed at last.
Alabi has tried his hands on many businesses that failed as soon as they started. But because success is not for the fainthearted, he moved on to the next business as soon as one failed. “I have set up many businesses, but they failed too soon”, he says, amused at the many failures he recorded before he achieved a breakthrough. “I am happy they didn’t stay too long, but they failed, as that quickly prepared me for a new chapter”.
The failure to gain admission into the university mean that education wasn’t going to be his pathway to success. For him, therefore, no other option existed except entrepreneurship.
- Competition is good for business. Monopoly is sweet music to the ears of a sole provider of goods and services. That is why organizations and individuals that enjoy any form of monopoly do anything to protect their territory. It could involve doing anything, moral or otherwise, legal or illegal, orthodox or unorthodox, to keep potential competitors out. It may even involve murder, to ensure there’s only one cock to crow on the roof top.
Not so for Alabi, who believes in the dictum that says the more the merrier. Before competitors emerged on the scene, he had enjoyed some monopoly, being the only operator of a business that was hitherto heard and read about in other parts of the world, especially Europe, where it is a multimillion dollar business. It helped him, also, that the business attracted many patrons in no time after he introduced it in this part of the world.
Many in his shoes would have thought about keeping competitors out. But he wouldn’t do any such thing. Rather than see later entrants as competitors, he saw them as partners for progress. Competition has kept him on his toes, forcing him to constantly think of ways to innovate in order to be abreast of developments in the industry.
“I am very excited that they are coming”, he says. “I see them as my partners, and not my rivals. If others didn’t emerge, the market would not be this developed. My brand is what it is today as a result of the exploits of those that came after us. When others came and tried to do better than we were doing, we were forced to improve on our offerings”.
He admits that Nairabet would not be where it is today if it was still enjoying monopoly. Apart from the fact that competition has enabled the company to grow, it has engendered cordial relationship among operators. “We call one another on regular basis to keep ourselves abreast of the latest happenings in the industry”, he says. “We also have an association called Association of Nigerian Bookmakers”.
- Unique selling point. In the face of competition, it is important to have something that stands you out from the rest.
Alabi has demonstrated that competition brings out the best in him. While competitors were busy churning out what they considered to be better products, he stuck to Nairabet’s unique selling point of keeping to its promise to pay customers what is due to them when they win bets. “We keep our words”, he assures. “If you bet with us, be assured of getting your money. Even when others came up with better products, our customers will choose us because they know we treat them right”.
- Role model. Every successful person in the world has had someone or some people from whom they derived inspiration. Alabi is no exception.
Alabi’s role model, who is also his mentor, is Dr. Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase, popular motivational speaker, entrepreneur and publisher of Success Digest magazine and Complete Sports newspaper.
“He has always been a source of inspiration to me, even long before I met him”, he says. He made it a habit to save money to buy the magazine while in school, and joined what is commonly known as free readers association when he couldn’t afford to buy. “I couldn’t afford to miss his articles. I got to know about information marketing through him and I am still earning a living from that”.
Alabi comes from a family of five, in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, and is the last child. He wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, and wasn’t poor, either. “My parents could afford three square meals a day and they could conveniently pay for the children’s education”, he says.
He has a fond memory of his childhood. But the one he cannot forget, because he has continued till date, was his penchant to steal meat from his mother’s pot of soup, an indulgence that naturally earned him severe beatings from his mother. “Funny enough, I still do that, this time around, from my wife’s pot of soup”.
You would expect the lifestyle of a man that is financially well off to change significantly from what it was before he assumed his present status. Not for Alabi.
“I am financially better than when I started out, though I still eat, amala and ewedu at the roadside”, he says, to underscore his humility. “I patronize Okada (commercial motorcycle) and Marwa (tricycle), and I still fly economy. The fact that I’m financially okay makes no difference to me”.
The sports betting business is not immune to the challenges occasioned by the high rate of foreign exchange in the country, and this impacts negatively on the business, with implications on the bottom-line.
“We make money in naira. We pay for our services in dollars and euro. The more these currencies go up, the more it bites us harder, because our earnings remain the same”, Alabi explains.
Interestingly, the harsh economic climate in the country does not seem to discourage people from putting their money in sports betting. If anything, it provides an alternative source of earning some income. Alabi does not share the popular view that there is no money in the country.
“Since I have grown up, there has never been anytime people said they have money”, he says. “The only time they say there is money is when they think about the past, and when the past was happening, they still said there was no money. In 10 years’ time, if things go worse than this, Nigerians will say things were good in 2016”.
Misconception about sports betting
There is a lot of misconception among people who see sports betting as a channel through which promoters defraud unsuspecting betters. Alibi says nothing could be farther from the truth.
“I want you to get something clear about how we do the business”, he says. “You see, anytime someone loses in a bet, his or her money is taken by others to win. That is what a lot people don’t realize”.
For analogy, he explains thus: “When 100 people bet with N1000 each, this amounts to N100, 000. Ninety-eight people lose, while two persons win. One person may win N45, 000, while another wins N50, 000, totaling N95, 000. We pay these two winners from the N100, 000 realized, and the remaining N5, 000 comes back to us. Likewise, if 98 people win and two persons lose, it is also from this N100, 000 we pay the 98 people, though they get a smaller portion each. From the token left with us, government gets its own percentage, other than the company tax; the technical provider takes its own percentage. We pay our tax too, pay salaries, settle administrative bills and also make profit. For every bet we take, over 90 per cent goes back to the winners, but a lot of people don’t know this”.
Sojourn in politics
An important lesson that life teaches is that you cannot achieve success in everything you lay your hands on. Life is a question of winning some and losing some. Perhaps Alabi was not conscious of this truism when he thought he could replicate his success in the business world in politics.
He had thought about using membership of the House of Representatives to offer his people more than what he is offering now, and took the practical step of contesting election on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party. But to his utter shock, the people he thought had bought into his mission to represent them rejected him at the polls.
“No one likes to lose an election, especially having committed so much time and resources”, he says, with a deep sense of loss. “No doubt, I was clearly the most popular candidate, but the people have elected their choice. Even if the election wasn’t fair, what has happened has happened”.
Not one to allow failures to weigh him down, Alabi mourned his election defeat for about 10 hours and, three days later, he threw a big party to celebrate his birthday. “Life has to continue. I didn’t allow the situation to weigh me down”.
For now, his main preoccupation is his business, not politics. “But frankly speaking, I do not think I’m interested in politics anymore, because despite how I demonstrated my intention to the people, they knew it and they saw it, they didn’t vote me in. As it is, I am left with no motivation”. If in the future he has a rethink about politics, he will still contest on the platform of PDP, a party to which he pledges unalloyed loyalty.
Meeting wife on internet
For Alabi, the benefits of the internet have been immeasurable. He carried out feasibility studies for his business on the internet. He also met his wife on the internet. They met as friends doing the same business of information marketing. He didn’t even know his internet friend was a woman, since she bears a masculine name – Damilare. He got the sock of his life the first day he spoke with her on phone. His first meeting with her in London turned out to be the game changer for the two internet friends. As the cliché goes, one thing led to the other, and today, they are husband and wife, running the same business.
Involvement in philanthropy
Alabi does not believe that one has to own the entire world to be able to lend a helping hand to the needy. He set up the Akin Alabi Foundation, with the motto, “Touching lives, one person at a time”, to assist people in all areas of life, particularly education, health and sports. For now, the foundation’s activities are concentrated in Ibadan, with plans to go national as its finances improve. It is worth mentioning, however, that the first class graduate who broke the record at the University of Lagos with a CGPA of 5.0 received one million from the foundation, even though he is not from Oyo State.