We got a chance to speak with Olawale Adetula, co-founder of TNC Africa and the man behind the AMVCA-nominated series, Little Black Book. He tells us how he built a business in web development as a teenager in the early 2000s and how he currently manages his life as a father, a filmmaker and as a high-level employee at a global company.
What is Wale up to at the moment?
[Pauses] At the moment? Film production. We are working on a couple of shows that are about to go into production. So, we are finalising with the writers before the casting process. We are also about to launch the second season of our biggest show so far.
Little Black Book?
Yes. That is happening alongside the others. There is also a co-production that has us in post-production. That will go to an online platform at some point this year. Alongside all of that…
Ha! You’re not finished?
[Laughs] We are building two tech products that are scheduled for release this year.
What space are the tech products targeted at?
Media. We have been looking for how to use data and machine learning to help make our stories more engaging. Now that we have figured it out, we don’t want to keep it to ourselves. It is something we can retail and share to other creators out there.
Sounds like a game-changer in both Nigerian tech and film.
Before all of this, let’s go back. What did you study and where?
I studied Systems Engineering at the University of Lagos, and I did Media and Communications at Pan Atlantic University.
How does a person go from your undergrad degree to this? Your parents are the culprits?
Not even. Left to them, I would have done something more practical like accounting or economics. I have always been a creative person through and through. Before I got into school, I had set up two different businesses and I was already into programming, so I wanted something that could challenge me when I got into university, something that wasn’t traditional.
At the time, Unilag had just launched a course called Systems Engineering. I got a chance to speak to the dean and he pretty much explained what the course was about; I also did my own research. As a systems engineer, you are trained to go anywhere there’s a system and optimise that system. It can be a bakery, a salon or a movie set. We are kind of called the engineer’s engineer.
It is. While in school, I founded a software development company called Ice Box Studios. We were building websites and creating other tech solutions. But I was a creative at heart, so when I finished school, I decided to branch out. After that, I got a job working at an agency and then got into marketing.
Hmm. What was the idea behind working for an agency when you had your own company?
Oh. At the time I was at the agency, I didn’t have my company anymore. That was in 2002.
Wait. How old were you, please?
[Laughs] A lot of people don’t know this. I’m currently 37.
So you were 17 at the time? How did a person start a tech company in Nigeria in 2002 at 17?
Just to be clear, that was my third business [Laughs]
I am creative and also entrepreneurial. First comes passion and then business: “How are we making money out of this thing?”
Tell me about your background. Because in 2002, tech wasn’t in the air like it is now.
My dad was an investment banker and my mum was in finance before she quit and started a business. They encouraged us to try different things. I discovered computers in 1995. That was when I got my first desktop. I played around with it a lot. I recall discovering PowerPoint and then Visual Basic. I started that when I was in JSS3 or SS1. I did my Microsoft certification in 2000.
Right before I got into uni, I discovered Adobe Flash. I started doing animation. I picked up Photoshop and the entire Adobe suite later. In university, I met some other guys who were also playing around with computers, and we founded Ice Box Studios. But people fell by the wayside and by 2003, it was just two of us. We decided to do web and app development. We were working with agencies that would subcontract to us. That was how we started. We grew the business to become the second largest web development company at the time. This was around 2009. We did work for Wema Bank and consulted on the Airtel website. We also raised funds for the business.
To raise funds is tricky even in 2022. How were you guys raising funds a decade ago?
[Laughs] It is always fascinating when I see those conversations now. At the time, there was a group of friends with MBAs from great schools in the UK and Europe. We had heard about the VC space in the US, but to be honest we didn’t know much at all until these guys approached us, saying they like what we are doing. They asked that we come up with a pitch deck.
At the time, they had started a business bringing broadband internet into the country, so they felt that what we were doing made perfect sense. We did a first round and it went well. After that, we got more contracts.
How much did you raise?
We raised close to $800,000.
This is such an incredible story given the time you did all of that. What happened to Ice Box?
I was feeling very restless. I was doing a lot of programming but wanted to do more creative stuff. Then I went for my masters. I think we were the first set of Media and Communications students at Pan Atlantic University, so it was quite an experience. It rekindled my creative side, so I exited the business.
Was that without acrimony?
Yes. I am still very good friends with my former partner.
For how much did you exit?
[Laughs] I can’t say. The terms were written in blood!
Ha. You break my heart.
[Laughs]. After that I worked with an ad agency, but then I got frustrated again.
You do the creative, but another team goes to do the presentation and when they come back, things have changed. Maybe the client didn’t like this. “Change this thing, change the colour.” So, I thought that maybe they weren’t presenting things well.
It made me want to be on the client side. The best way was to work in corporate marketing. There was one bank that was doing great stuff at the time, so I decided to join them but I didn’t realise that that meant going to training school.
Must have been weird.
Yeah. I didn’t want to be a banker. And I found out that it wasn’t even automatic that you got into the marketing department. Only the person who comes first gets to choose the department. But I didn’t come first. Nonetheless, I had a portfolio and was able to get an interview with the head of the department, which got me into the department. I was there for two years.
That was in 2012. I joined the parent company for Jumia and started something called The Naked Convos (TNC), which was a platform for young people to express themselves via opinion and stories. It grew out of something like a personal blog. The creativity was fantastic. Later on, I figured out a way to monetise the stories we were publishing.
Did it succeed?
It did. We built an engine that enabled people to get paid. Think of what Medium is today. The site was earning money, which we split with contributors.
What was the highest TNC paid?
About ₦400,000. It was an exception though. The post did very well because it was controversial. But I knew it wasn’t sustainable, especially when Twitter, Instagram and the rest started coming. We tried other things, including a podcast, books and some theatre. We sold out Terra Kulture for two weekends. These were fine, but it just wasn’t there yet. Until we did a web series based on a story I wrote years before. It took off.
This is how your filmmaking side and Nollywood came in?
Yeah. But there was nothing to read about the industry, nothing to help you understand how it works, so I used my connections and started going on set to learn things. That was how we started TNT Africa, which is a rebranding of TNC. We launched officially in 2021 with Little Black Book.
And that has been so popular.
Yes. We got nominations at the AMVCA.
Congratulations! Could you talk about the budget for your productions so far?
Our first production in 2017, Our Best Friend’s Wedding cost ₦20m. It seemed like we were crazy because people weren’t even spending that amount on movies. We paid some of the money and our partners did as well.
What was the profit?
You should ask whether there was profit.
LOL. Okay. Was there profit?
We didn’t make up to half of that money! But we did it for research.
Since then, how has the budget grown?
Our first production last year cost us ₦50 million, and that is minus marketing.
Oh man! What’s the business model? It can’t be just YouTube, right?
No. We are not a YouTube company. We launched there because we wanted a platform that gives us data. But we are a production company. And now that we are growing, we will have our content on different platforms. As for revenue, we licence our content, we place ads in the content ourselves and also do YouTube ads. I mentioned our tech tools earlier and we have merchandise coming. For us, IP licensing is the thing.
So there’s room for growth. Let’s go back a bit. What did you make when you were at the agency?
Must have been above ₦100k.
What about the bank?
Was that your last third-party job?
No. I’m one of the few people who have been able to combine my entrepreneurship with employment. I’ve been with Guinness for almost four years, and now I’m based in London. When I left Jumia, my remuneration was around ₦500k.
I see you are avoiding the current pay…
[Laughs] I signed a contract that I think ties my lips. But well, I can tell you that it used to be about ₦2.5m monthly when I was still the Digital Lead for Africa. I have a new role at Guinness now.
Nice! Now that you have japa-ed, what’s your day like?
I get the kids ready and then go to the office if I have to. Otherwise, I am at home working, taking calls, getting on meetings, sending emails. When that work finishes, I put on my TNC hat and have an exchange with the team. It can be intense when we are shooting but at post-production, it’s a lot less intense.
How come you are still combining your 9 to 5 and your entrepreneurship?
Two things. I think if your business grows to the extent that you have to focus on it, you will know. And it’s an investor thing. My business is in the media. It doesn’t get a lot of love from investors. All of the raises you hear about are in fintech. If not, it’s agrotech or health.
Fair point. But there was BigCabal.
It’s an exception. I’m happy for Tomiwa [Aladekomo, CEO Big Cabal] and his team. I think he himself mentioned that it was an exception.
Yeah. I told my co-founders I’d be the sacrificial lamb. I’ll stay at my job and use some of the money to support the business.
Giving all you have done, is there any advice you can share to anyone looking to follow your path
You need to be intentional about what you want for your life. Be clear upfront. You need to ask yourself, “What is good for me?” and wrap your business or employment around it. The second thing is to invest into what you want to do. In everything I do, you see the striving for greatness. It is not coincidental that I have been able to attract the jobs I have gotten in my career. You need to make sure you grow your capability as much as possible. Learn and invest in education.
The third thing is your network. You might be the best in something but you still need people to connect you to things. Invest in building your network. People who say your network is your net worth are not playing about it. They know what they are saying. And it is not just about yourself because you never know who can become what tomorrow. Any opportunity I get to meet people, I take the opportunity. A lot of times people I have met randomly have come to help me in business and in my career.
One last question: When is the new season for Little Black Book out?
[Laughs] People have been asking. It’s out on the 4th of August.