Salem King, the charismatic content creator, recently spoke to us about his career so far. Among other things, he told us the origins of his online business, his revenue streams and that one time he had to say no to working with a brand.
What did you study?
Hahaha. Why “unfortunately,” and which school?
Madonna University. I went to school at 15, when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. My dad sold me this dream of becoming an investment banker. His dream sounded better than anything else at the time.
How soon did that change?
I still think his dream was nice; it just wasn’t for me. I think I was in year three and we had to do econometrics. That was when I realised this was a terrible idea.
You entered one chance!
But in true African child fashion, I still finished. I did NYSC and got a real estate job. I was in sales and marketing, talking big money — ₦154m, ₦260m — with clients. I learned to interact with wealthy people and understand how they think. Then I began playing around with Instagram.
Do you remember why?
I have always been a curious person, so I guess I needed to escape from my corporate job. I remember that I would walk around taking pictures after work. That sort of graduated into wanting to share. And I read a lot of books from my father’s library growing up. I knew I wanted to teach, but when you are 21, who do you want to teach? I thought no one would want to listen, but I found that people were listening when I posted things online.
Do you remember your first video?
I have no recollection of that, but I made a decision in 2018 to put out a video every day for 30 days. I didn’t even know what personal branding or content creation was. But I wanted to put my thoughts out into the world. That’s how I accidentally became a social media creator.
Did you just put a camera in your face and begin to talk?
I tried that, but it didn’t work. So I’d write a script and record each line separately. Then I’d use an editing app on my phone to join them.
Wait. That sounds incredibly hard.
Sometimes it would take me four hours to make a one-minute video. Getting 30 to 40 clips together. I just wanted to make it work.
And this was a one-man team?
Yes. Except for my younger sister who would sometimes add her own silly ideas to my scripts. I did it when I closed from work. I lived in Abuja, where if you close at 5PM you are home by 6PM.
Ouch. Stray bullet for Lagos!
[Laughs] I am now in Lagos, though. I moved in February.
Interesting. Any reason in particular for your move?
Yeah. One of the reasons I moved was that some people would call and ask if I was in Lagos, that they needed me to do something.
These were physical stuff you couldn’t do online?
Yeah. Like attending an event.
Is this paid? What do you charge?
It depends. I can attend an event because I have done something for a brand and that is part of the package if I am available. Sometimes it is different and I have received about ₦400k.
Cool. Back to your 30-day plan for videos on Instagram. What was the initial reaction? Did your followers increase?
Yes. I had about 1,500 followers before I did that, and I thought it would go up to 2,000 and I would have blown. But it went up to 5.000 followers.
Wow! Did you end up making 30 videos?
No. But that was because of the rapid change. I went from nobody on Instagram to somebody who had 100 comments on a post.. I started releasing videos every two days and had 21 videos at the end of the month.
Had you left your job this time?
What were you earning?
Hmm. Why did you leave your job?
I was experiencing a dissonance. I was living two lives and the one where I didn’t wear a suit but put on a black t-shirt for a black and white video felt like my real self. Like I was Batman without the money. And I wanted to be Batman all the time with the money.
You killed Bruce Wayne.
I guess. I got so many questions and couldn’t answer everything, so I did a free class and it validated my idea. I saw that this thing that I knew so well was valuable.
What was this thing? What was your subject?
It was motivational but not from the perspective of someone who knew everything. Just someone who was working it out with a bit of knowledge. The initial class was free because I was scared. I thought that even if people weren’t satisfied, they would not drag me. After all, it was free.
A few weeks later, I did a paid class that cost ₦5,000 and about 100 people paid to attend. I made about ₦500k within 24 hours. That was like four months of my salary.
Omo! Have you figured out why you were successful so quickly?
I think it’s luck mostly. Pure serendipity. Then, everything I was speaking about was stuff I had been preparing for for years. The life and home I had was preparing me for teaching. As a teenager, I read so much John C. Maxwell. I didn’t understand it at the time, but years later I understood.
I had a perspective on life that many young people didn’t have. I would make content and people would say they really needed to hear what I said in the video, but I would also be a little confused: How come you don’t already know this?
We are not exactly big readers in this country. But tell me: How long did it take to leave your job after this success?
I think it happened in July 2019, and I quit around September the same year. Before then, I got a business manager. You know what they say: If you don’t believe in yourself, find somebody who does. He helped me stop thinking of Salem King as a creator but as a business.
The Monday after I left my job, I had jobs waiting for me. I jumped into my business head-on. They always say you should have six months of living expenses stashed away but sometimes you just have to leave. It is not financial advice, but sometimes you take risks that you cannot recommend.
I understand that.
Thankfully, it worked out well. The year after I quit, 2020, was a great year for me. It was the best year. My career took off. I had a Ted Talk and I got a Future Award nomination.
What was the first big thing?
I don’t really think in terms of milestones. I think the best thing that happened was that I became intentional about building a community. One day I put up a question, “What’s bothering you?” and people started answering.
I freaked out at the number of responses and fled Instagram. I returned later and saw that people were answering each other, which made me realise that what I was doing was beyond just me. I did some research and wrote an e-book titled CommYOUnity.
How much did you sell it for?
₦3,000, and we have sold more than 800 copies.
Salem, you are the king.
So, when was the first time you worked with a brand?
I can’t remember exactly. But I remember when I still had my former job, a brand reached out and offered ₦20,000 for a series of things I needed to do. I was excited and reached out to a friend who knew more about stuff like this. And she composed an email for me asking for a higher fee.
How did that end?
They didn’t come back. [Laughs]
Na wa. What are your revenue streams now?
Content creation; content strategy for brands; affiliate marketing, which gives me a percentage of sales; influencer partnerships; digital products; and coaching.
What’s the most lucrative?
That should be influencer partnerships. The least lucrative is digital products — the unit price of a product is usually around ₦3,500.
If I came to you for a post on your feed, what might be the damage?
Minimum for my feed is ₦300k. There’s no maximum. For stories, the minimum is ₦150k. But I have to use the product first before recommending it.
Does this mean you do refunds if it doesn’t work out?
Not really. I use the product first before we decide. The brands and businesses do research before engaging someone, so, it makes sense for me to do that as well. There is this idea that influencers are available to the highest bidder, and I am uncomfortable with that.
Have you had to not do something after a sorta agreement?
Yeah. And it can pain!
I can imagine!
There was something that happened one time. A brand said one thing on a call and then sent a different brief. The invoice had already gone out, but I told my manager that I wasn’t comfortable. We didn’t go ahead.
Props for that. What advice would you give people looking to make it online?
This might be oversimplifying things, but here it goes: Determine your audience and learn as much as you can about their problems. Then provide solutions to those problems. People often feel that they need to be influencers to make money on social media, but you don’t have to. There are people with fewer followers than I have that make more money than I do.