Bisi Kuku, chief executive officer, Cornet Solutions Limited, has taken his business from its humble university hostel beginnings into different markets across Africa,
How did it all start?
I started by making microphones while studying at University of Benin with a friend. We would go to the market in search of somebody who would build the wooden casing for the microphones so that all we had to do was build the circuit. We had to travel to Lagos to sell them though. I would walk every single day from Ajao to Orile Iganmu in Lagos just to sell what we produced because if I didn’t sell, we would stay hungry in school. After I graduated I started making and designing more things such as loud speakers, amplifiers, etc.
Then the Chinese invaded the market and started bringing in cheap speakers and I had no business anymore. Clients didn’t want to wait for two months for me to build when they could just enter the market and buy Chinese products. I couldn’t keep up. Then I got into IT and would go to the computer village, buy computer parts, put them together and sell them as second hand computers. I grew from there and moved to telecommunications, information technology and telecom convergence. Then we started producing routers, switches, etc.
When I just started, I was working 23 hours a day, because if you don’t want to be a mediocre like everyone else in the field, you have to work 24 hours to get it right when others are too lazy to do their job excellently. This is normal because when you just start to build, you are afraid it’s going to fail. Obviously, if somebody doesn’t pay, you will not have food on your table. So even when you are sleeping, you are dreaming of work. Now I’m a bit more settled. For the past eight months I’ve worked for two hours a day. Although there are some weeks I need to put in many hours and days non-stop. But after that, I’m usually just coasting.
Was it what you studied at the University that you built on?
I studied electrical electronics engineering. Truth is what I studied absolutely had nothing to do with what I started to do. Unfortunately, our educational system doesn’t train people to do anything but look for a job after school. I had only five per cent of lecture hours at the university, so I don’t think anything I’m doing today has any correlation with what I studied. I taught myself everything because I was too afraid of hunger and failing. I didn’t want to work for anyone and never completed my national youth service. I felt it was a total waste of my time. During my service year all I did was go to the village every single day and I thought I’ll lose my mind doing that. So at some point I just stopped going there since I was so sure I’ll never have to use the certificate because I wasn’t planning on working for anyone.
What inspired the move to start off on your own and not looking for a job like others?
It is difficult to say it’s one particular thing, but one thing that stood out would be my fear of poverty because I come from a very poor home. Things where very difficult and I wasn’t sure I had the skill set to do anything else. If you combine the fear of poverty and my limitation as a person, I think those two things inspired me.
When you started how tough was the path you chose to thread?
It seemed impossible and like nothing was ever going to work. That failure was always going to stare me in the face and since I didn’t have any incentives at all, didn’t have any mentor or anybody that I could say inspired me, plus the fact that the country was a lot worse than it is now, it was impossible to see a way through. But waking up every single day and having the overriding confidence and knowing that God had something in stock for me and that my job is to discover it encouraged me. I was not a lazy person so I worked hard. So it is not just about praying and believing God for something, it is about, what God gives you and how you deal with it. Are you committed to it? So it is a combination of both because you need something to encourage you. When people say they don’t believe in God, I honestly wonder how they get through the day without stealing or doing funny things. Except of course you get a good job and that would make you one of the very few. I stayed encouraged and worked at every little thing I got I have always wanted to make things. I have always believed that it is important to be in the value chain and not the consumer chain. I’ve always had a passion for building things while watching the process from beginning to the end. That way, I am injected into the process and value chain and I can reproduce it all the time. I am not one of those people who like to import things into the country. It upsets me because if we engage ourselves more as Nigerians, we can do more with the amount of information available today, we can achieve just about anything.
What were some of the sacrifices you made to get to where you are today?
First, I never sacrificed my integrity. I’m one of the few business men who never gave or took a bribe. A major sacrifice I made was getting married late largely due to the fact that I had to build everything from the scratch. At the time I started, all my staff numbering about 15 lived with me and I was almost totally responsible for their needs. It also took some time to build the business to an appreciable level. Hence, I didn’t start my life on time. But now I wish my kids were older and I didn’t have to be doing school runs. When you care about something it takes time from you.
Were there points where you encountered failure and what did you learn?
Honestly, I failed in every single one of the projects I did. But cumulatively, I haven’t failed. Doing business is tough because you are in a country that does not provide support you in anyway. You usually don’t have any bank support and individuals are not always willing to assist. Sometimes you go bid for a job, design a platform and the guys will simply take your design and give it to the person that is willing to bribe. So you have spent time and resources building up to that point and everything is gone. Yes, failure is what I have to battle with every single time I start a new venture but ultimately when you put it all together, I have succeeded since I have been able to put food on the table, roof over my family’s head and all the other bits.
What is the most satisfying moment in what you do?
It is seeing clients love the product and solutions I provide since they could have gone with well established companies. It is absolutely gratifying when I build something and it works and then people go wild and say they didn’t think this was possible and I go yes! It is. It is quite satisfying when clients love what you do and they are willing to pay you for it. It is the most amazing bit of it.
Is a job really what everyone needs to succeed?
We are kind of programmed to think you go to school, then you come out and get a job. We lose the moment and the opportunity where you sit down and do a self-audit to examine your strengths and weaknesses and how you can bring both together to point you in the right direction. I think it is a travesty to have so much gift in you and you lock it into a 9 -5 job. I think it is unfair to yourself. Nevertheless, we need 9-5 folks to keep the country going because my firm will not stand without the 9 -5 folks. I tell them that what they are doing now is not their last stop but a means to an end. To teach people that going to school and afterwards getting a job to slave at for the rest of their days is rather a silly way to go. When I was about 12-years-old, I read a newspaper article written by one professor and it totally changed the course of my life beginning with changing my plans of studying medicine to electrical engineering instead. From the moment I read that piece, I realised that there is a lot in me than what my dad had always told me about getting a degree and getting a job in Nigerian breweries. I was fortunate to see that there is a lot more for me than a 9 -5 job.
I’m only hard working at the things I love to do. For example, I love to build things and I can stay up all day and night without moving from one spot and still be happy.
The important thing is that often, we need to find that thing that we enjoy doing and are passionate about. I need to also state that there are times when we have to do things that we don’t like just to get by and be able to take care of the bills. But you have to keep your eyes