Paul Adokiye Iruene is a co-founder of Food Court, a Nigerian cloud kitchen and food delivery company selected to join the Y Combinator 2022 cohort. Since it launched, Food Court has grown and grown. Its co-founder tells us about the events in his life that led him to one of Nigerian tech’s fastest growing startups.
Tell me about growing up.
I was born in Lagos. I have a sibling. After my mum passed away in 2005, I moved to live with my uncle in Port Harcourt for a while before then living with my dad, who was an architect.
Sorry about your mum.
Were you one of those academic genius kids?
I was always in the top three in my classes. I represented my school at the Cowbellpedia competition. So maybe I was.
Bros, you definitely were. What did you want to be when you grow up?
I knew I was fascinated with computers but I wanted to study something in the medicine/psychology fields.
Was that all you or your parents?
It was all me. I was interested in psychology.
You represented your school at a math contest. Usually, math kids are fans of engineering.
I was interested in engineering and other things, too. I even liked chemistry. I liked reading chemistry textbooks.
That’s a super-nerd move.
[Laughs] I would tear pages from the textbook and sneak them into the chapel to read, while they were preaching.
I think we have just confirmed your super-nerd status! What did you finally study?
Electrical Engineering. By then, my parents were telling me that, in Nigeria, there were more career paths in engineering than in the other fields.
They were not wrong.
Well, well, well. I eventually went to UNILORIN.
You mentioned computers. How did that happen?
Yes. When we returned to live with my dad, he had married again. My step-mum used to bring home some work from the office. I’d help her type. So by JSS1, I could type fast. I later met a web developer who was using Adobe Dreamweaver. He told me to learn it. At that time, it was more GUI not code. I later went to NIIT and learned Dreamweaver and Flash. Nothing about code at the time.
Did you take these skills into UNILORIN?
Not really. I focused on school and left computers for a while.
Did you get into any entrepreneurial stuff in school?
Yes. I was fixing tablets. Formatting the device mainly. I learned it on YouTube.
Was this because there was money in it?
Yeah. I think I was charging ₦1k to ₦2k.
What kind of tabs were these?
The school gives us tabs per semester at 100 level.
A Nigerian public school giving tabs?
Yes, they did. It was because of something they started. They stopped after a while.
They started teaching us C and C++. They didn’t teach us fully. You know how public schools can be. It was mostly cramming. But I didn’t really read it. I just went into exams and did what I needed to do. That was when I knew that software may be my thigh. In 300 level, I met friends who were working on Fiverr. I wasn’t into it then, until 400 level.
That’s time for IT, right?
Yes. My dad called me and asked if I would rather do my IT in the software space or the electrical engineering space. I wasn’t really feeling the electrical engineering space because of how it was taught. Meanwhile, in my software courses, I didn’t have to cram anything. I just understood it.
What happened at the firm?
I learned PHP there because that was what the head of the firm suggested but nobody there had my time. I later switched to the hotels.ng internship. I had free time to pursue this internship. It was a competitive internship. I wasn’t sleeping; I had to sacrifice my nights to learn.
Did that change?
I noticed that people were interested in building apps, so I started learning React native.
Yes. But I went straight to React native. I made one small app and was thinking I’ll get a job. But the job market was not smiling. I needed a more solid app. So I created a project. I did the mobile and the backend. I hired a front-end developer and a designer, just to have something for my portfolio.
How were you able to pay these people?
They were paying us ₦5k per week after we had been at the internship for some days. The app took about three months to build. When we were done with most of it, I started submitting the APK to hirers. Most were shocked that that was my second app. That’s how I got my first paying job.
After the internship, we were referred. I worked there for one month but the guy didn’t pay me. The idea was to use USSD to buy fuel. I knew it wouldn’t work and it didn’t work. I then got a job to work on a streaming app but it never got launched.
Did you get paid?
Yes. It was a freelance thing and it was about three months. I then got a job for a laundry app. It was around there that I started learning node js. I did several contract jobs for quite a while.
What was the highest you earned in that period?
What was the next big thing?
I got accepted to Code Mentor. I was helping some students with their assignments. I was getting about 500 dollars each month. By the end of 2020, I had finished my NYSC.
I saw a job ad for a React native developer. And my friend and I needed to pay my rent at Ikota. We needed to move out and find another place the next month, so we were aggressively looking for jobs. I met the person who placed the ad and he saw that I was a fullstack developer, so he just asked me to be his CTO.
This is how you turned up at Food Court, right?
It’s an interesting story: first interview and you become CTO.
At the time, there was no investment and my cofounder Henry was the only one in the company.
Why did you accept his offer?
To be honest, I liked the idea but I was looking for money. It wasn’t until another founder interviewed me on Henry’s behalf that I was convinced. She spoke about the job of the CTO and got me interested in it. The idea just became serious when we spoke.
But you needed to pay rent...
True. But I got a job soon enough and that helped with rent. I think it paid about ₦200k.
What happened next?
It was very hard to raise, so we built the prototype and launched it. It was the next year we closed the round.
When did Y Combinator enter?
August 2022 is when YC came in. We had raised a little bit by then.
How was that experience like?
It was intriguing that we got selected by YC. I learned a lot from the experience.
By then were you drawing a salary?
We weren’t receiving salaries before YC. Then we started paying ourselves.
What was the figure?
Has that changed?
Na wa. How well has Food Court done since then?
I will say in a day, we do more than 1000 orders.
And you guys still aren’t on the Mainland…
We are coming very very soon.
What kind of revenues are we looking at?
How has the exchange rate affected Food Court?
It affected us significantly. Logistics and cost of supplies have changed. We have a good team so we moved fast and the operations team adjusted everything quickly. Our investors are still happy because we are still making money.
Looking forward, what’s next for Food court and you?
We are expanding to other states. I am focused on Food Court but I am still learning. I am thinking about AI a lot.
What tips can you give those looking to be like Paul?
Don’t give up. Just keep going no matter what people say. I know many people spoke to me about not earning a salary at Food Court even if I was working for a year or so. Perseverance is necessary. It is also important to avoid complacency. There is always someone better and something newer. So, you should learn more things in your field.