The road to perdition — Nigerian business edition

Art by Justin Irabor (Twitter @TheVunderkind)

The business journey of most young Nigerians often begins with them tired of being broke, hungry, and a disgrace to their family. To alleviate the situation, they decide to do something.

Now, “something” here is to be taken exactly at face value. If you’ve ever met a young Nigerian who has been looking for a job for 3 years after graduating from university or college, you would probably hear phrases along the lines of “I just need something to do. Anything.”

This is the kind of something that comes to mind when the young person decides to start the small something. It could be anything. Human hair, point and kill, makeup, fabric sales, pure water etc. For the sake of this post, I’m going to go with web design, since this is the one I know well.

So our friend, let’s call him Akpos, has decided to start a web design business because, ahn ahn, this hunger is too much. Also because he ran into his old schoolmate, Bayo, the other day and felt so ashamed. Bayo looked very clean, coming out of his original Tokunbo Toyota Highlander (TTH). He even had a small accent.

Bayo that used to wear those silly striped shirts with a worn out belt back in university, was now wearing a well-starched white kaftan with an Apple Watch, balling like Bolanle (no relation of Bayo’s).

Whatever Bayo was doing to blow, he will try it too. That’s how he decided to start web design.

It begins.

Web design is not very hard to learn. Akpos spent the next few days in an internet cafe, learned the basics of HTML. Then he learned the other one, CSS, before trying out javascript. This one was a little hard, but the effects you could do with it na die. As soon as he could use javascript to make letters jump on the web page, he knew he was ready.

He went home and proudly told his mother “Mummy, I am now an entrepreneur”. To show how serious he was, Akpos took his transparent “job application file” and pushed it under the bed. Never again!

The next day, Akpos started looking for someone who was willing to pay for web design. He tried the big hotels, then the big schools, but no one wanted to give him business. Dejected, hungry, he walked back home. His mother had warned him about this entrepreneur business, but he wouldn’t hear. But one month of entrepreneurship, it turned out, was as hard as job search. It’s kuku the same thing.

A month to the day after he started his entrepreneurial journey, Akpos reached under his bed and retrieved his old transparent folder.

On the way out to nowhere, Akpos decided to stop by Prophet Akpan Power’s Ministry, so Prophet Akpan Power (PAP) could pray on his folder. The prophet had previously prayed on the folder, but a month under the bed probably weakened the efficacy of the old prayer, so Akpos needed reinforcement.

Outside PAP’s church building, there was a sign announcing yet another 3-day power packed crusade, titled “We Will Win By Force” AKA “WWW By Force”. Just the kind of encouragement Akpos needed. By force work. By force business. WWW By Force…

That was when it hit him. He ran into the church. PAP was kneeling at the alter, praying. Akpos ran up to him, almost out of breath, shouting “Sir, PAP, let me build ya website”

Two weeks later, Akpos launched the website www.prophetakpanpowerministries.com in front of the PAP congregation. The website was really nice. It had a really fine picture of the prophet with his hands pointing to heaven. At the tip of his pointing finger, Akpos used javascript to put a flame of blue fire to show that this man of God was powerful. Everyone loved it. (If you actually clicked on the PAP website link, LOL).

PAP was so happy, he paid him N10,000 more than the N20,000 they had agreed. He also prayed an extra prayer for Akpos’s transparent folder, but Akpos knew the time for the folder was gone. He spent N10,000 of his new stash on new clothes — new shirt, new second hand suit and a nice pair of original fake Italian shoes. He was an entrepreneur now, he had to represent.

Two weeks after launching the website, PAP called Akpos. A brother-in-ministry also wanted a website. He gave Akpos the fellow prophet’s number. Just before Akpos left, PAP warned him, “Do a good job for my brother, but don’t put fire on his finger. His anointing is great, but it is not on the same level as my own”.

An entrepreneur is born.

A year after learning web design, Akpos was going places. Like he really was going to different places to build websites, including those places that didn’t want to talk to him before. All e had to do was show that PAP site — everyone loved the fire thing.

He started buying foodstuff for his mother on his way from business, so his mother respected him now. Once a week, he would buy fuel for the gen.

Three months after is first website job, he bought himself a laptop with a nice black Targus bag to go with it. He joined twitter and wrote a small article about javascript and the tech cool kids all over twitter were replying him . Life suddenly wasn’t so bad.

He stopped calling himself a web designer. He was an entrepreneur now.

The only downside to his new life was the constant arrest by police, who called him a Yahoo boy. Every time he got arrested, he would pay a little something before he got released — the police said if he really has a job like he said “where your ID card”.

That’s why Akpos decided to start a company — MegaKP Technology Company. He printed an ID card, business card and letterheads. The next time the police stopped him, he proudly showed is ID card. When they asked him what he did at the company, he proudly smiled, “Managing Director”.

The next time he passed the police post, they didn’t stop him. He was driving his new Toyota Corolla. So police can have respect, he thought. “Their collective fathers”.

+1

Hiring is not easy. Every new entrepreneur struggles with that moment where there is too much work to do, but there is worry that there isn’t enough money coming in to support hiring.

Akpos realized however, that writing code takes so much time, it was hard to chase for new business. He started looking for someone just like him — designer, coder, business maven. He couldn’t find someone. The young people these days don’t work hard to gain multiple skills, yet ask for N100k a month. He settled for a guy who had decent web design skills and could use photoshop, but wasn’t too greedy — N50k.

No brothers in business

That week after he hired his first staff, Bayo called him. A bank he worked for had given him a couple of jobs and he could not deliver all of them. He needed someone he could trust. The deal was simple — Akpos would attend the bank meetings with Bayo, deliver on his part of the business and get paid 50% of what Bayo gets when the bank pays.

Agreed.

On Tuesday, the day of the meeting, Akpos was in front of the bank an hour ahead of the meeting, wearing a new suit. Bayo didn’t show up until 5 minutes to the meeting, wearing a well starched white kaftan. Akpos was more than a little impressed. Only people who hcaave arrived wear kaftans to business meetings.

The meeting went well. Akpos helped Bayo answer some questions and the client was happy. One of the men in the room, the bank’s head of technology — Mr Smith, was so impressed with Akpos, he gave him his business card.

It took Akpos one week of sleepless nights to deliver the project. His new staff grumbled a lot, but stayed with him and they delivered right on schedule. Bayo called to say the client was very happy. They will pay in two weeks.

Two weeks came and passed, Bayo did not call. Akpos called, but Bayo didn’t pick up. The third week came and went. Frustrated, he called that man at the bank who had given him his business card. The man was happy Akpos called. He was surprised that Bayo’s employee would call, but confirmed their company had been paid weeks back. When Akpos honestly explained that he was not Bayo’s employee, Mr Smith understood, and asked Akpos to meet him the next day.

At that meeting, Mr Smith, told Akpos he liked how his mind worked, and would like to work with him on another project. He asked Akpos to forward his company details to him. Akpos left the bank, happy, but in two minds. He wanted this new business, but he didn’t want to offend Bayo. He tried calling Bayo again, to tell him about the new bank project, and also to offer him a cut from the new business. Bayo did not pick up.

Akpos went about his business that day. He also put together a very nice profile and sent to Mr Smith. That evening, Bayo called. He abused Akpos for cutting him to get business from his client. Akpos tried to explain, but Bayo wouldn’t listen. Bayo told him to never ever call his phone again, then hung up.

Akpos didn’t call Mr Smith for two weeks. Then Mr Smith called. He listened to Akpos, then told him “Life happens. Send me your CAC documents so we can list you as a vendor”. Akpos confessed that his company was only in name, he was not registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission. Mr Smith gave him a lawyer’s number.

“Call him, he can get you registered in 2 days. Send me the documents immediately they arrive”.

Baller.

Akpos’s story was a miracle. He told this story to every employee he hired. With every telling, the story got sweeter, and by the 20th telling, Akpos himself had come to believe the newer, sweeter version, which deleted Bayo and replaced Mr. Smith with the CEO of the Bank.

He was traveling abroad on vacation and generally enjoying life.

Everyone loved Akpos. And his story. Three years down the road, he was running one of the biggest software businesses in the city, attended TED Talks and had a regular blog. People read his blogs about how to build successful businesses, and asked him to come and talk to their teams.

One of his readers worked at the Federal Internal Revenue & Extortion Service, FIR(E)S.

A week later, Akpos received a letter saying he owed the government N35 million in taxes.

“WHAT?”

Akpos called his friend, Ray, a lawyer.

“So have you been remitting taxes?”

“No”.

“But you have been putting tax in your invoices to clients?”

“Yes now. But everybody does it just to increase how much the client pays”

“Ah, this is serious o, because every business you do, every payment that you client makes to your bank account registers with FIR(E)S.”

“So what do we do?”

First contact with the devil

The first visit by the FIRS was very formal. They gave Akpos a deadline, after which he would be shut down. Akpos didn’t have that kind of money. He had been generous with his profits. He paid his staff well, gave to church, took care of family, enjoyed life and bought a house.

When Akpos started the business, he knew nobody to open doors for him. He got lucky when he met a few a man who introduced him to the big ogas, and took a percentage of his contract fees. Unknown to him, those kickbacks were leaving him with huge tax liabilities. Of course he couldn’t call Alhaji Jamil to please send back the tax on that N5 million he got as “marketing commission”.

He called his mother to talk and she took him to PAP for prayers. As PAP was prophesying, Akpos was seeing himself in chains, being led to jail. He was in soup.

The next morning, he got a Whatsapp call from the tax man. He said there is a way out. They needed to meet in person. At the meeting, no words were spoken — the tax man would write a number of the paper, hand it to Akpos, Akpos would shake his head, write on the paper and pass it back. After a short while, a compromise was set — the penalty was reduced by over 80%, but he would pay 10% of the original obligation to a private account. The paper notes were burned.

Akpos was relieved. He was a good guy, but the trouble he was in could ruin the entire business. So he hustled some funds and did as he was told.

More letters

The FIR(E)S problem was gone and he had received his first ever tax clearance. But that was the same week he got a call from the Pension Commission. An old staff had reported his business to the commission for failing to remit pensions. He had also made a similar report to the State Internal Revenue Shakedown.

All of a sudden, Akpos was in trouble. There were troubles as far as he could see. For the first time, he missed pay day, and a few more staff were threatening to leave if he didn’t pay on time. He was being featured on blogs after the State IRS had arrested him. Nobody knew that the SIRS had offered the same deal as the FIR(E)S, but because he didn’t have money, the state people arrested him to teach a lesson.

Akpos had been having headaches off and on since his troubles started. He took pain medications, but the headaches always did not go away. He finally went to see a doctor, who ordered tests.

The doctor asked how old he was, then shook his head. Akpos had developed high blood pressure.

Three years after his life had turned around for good, Akpos didn’t want to be an entrepreneur anymore.

There are many Akpos stories

There are so many stories like those of our friend, Akpos. People who just wanted to hustle, but business happened to them along the way. People who weren’t trained about taxes, pensions and other deductibles. People who set staff salaries, trying to pay decently so bigger companies would not steal their best staff, only to realize that they are building up a backlog of back taxes on account of that.

Too many entrepreneurs have unknowingly entered the Fowler’s net, while trying to hustle. Some found themselves heavily indebted to staff because their clients owe them. Some are in trouble because they rushed to buy that TTH to show they have arrived, then business stopped flowing.

It’s hard out there. Really hard.

This story has no happy ending.

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