Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Mark makes a mark with Hotels.ng




Mark Essien is CEO and founder of Hotels.ng; one of the fastest growing start ups in Nigeria. He recently raised a 1 million dollar investment for his company. In an interview with him, he tells us about the challenges, breakthroughs and the vision for Hotels.ng.

On why he set up his company, Mark says money was never the motivation. He wanted to create something and watch it flourish.  ‘I wanted to build things more than I wanted to be an entrepreneur.’
Mark worked for a few years before he got into university. Those years laid the foundation for what he would eventually become. ‘When I got into university, I supported myself throughout by selling software.’

Hotels.ng is not Essien’s first project. I've tried many things and failed many times, I know it’s such a clich├ęd statement, but if at first you don’t succeed, you try again.’ Mark kept at it till Hotels.ng was birthed. Each failed project was a learning path that eventually led me to where I am today, he says.
‘We started out with research; what was missing in the technology space, and how big was the market? ‘ I believe that the market mostly drives businesses. The online hotel segment was not being addressed so I thought I can fill this space and I did.’

Mark started out in Calabar but has since relocated to Lagos where he says there’s a bigger pool of talent, investors and other tech entrepreneurs whom you can learn from.  His first investor- spark.ng- was based in Lagos and it was important to be close to them. ‘Spark.ng has made a big difference to us and has been one of the key drivers of our success.’

Unlike most Nigerian entrpreneurs, Mark is not reluctant to talk about failure. Buttering his earlier statement, he reinstates that each of his previously failed project contributed to the knowledge he now has which has allowed him to make something successful. ‘ Even with hotels.ng, it was tough at the beginning. I spent the first year just finding lists of hotels online. It took really long before it slowly started picking up. Most businesses are birthed in the minds of founders for a long time before they slowly become a reality.’

For advice, Mark has this to say to young entrepreneurs:  ‘I think that whatever one does, one must do something that challenges and forces one to learn about a lot of things. Building a business requires a broad range of information, and the more you know, the better prepared you will be for the things that will come your way.’

With 250 million naira safely deposited in the bank, Essien is ecstatic. ‘Now we know that for the next two years we can focus on growing the business without worrying about fluctuations in income. We’ve worked really hard but we also got lucky, we met someone who knew someone, who knew someone who was looking to invest in Nigeria. Introductions were made, due process followed- a lengthy one- our business fundamentals were examined before we eventually reached a deal.’  
Essien plans to go international soon but isn't willing to say much about that yet.

Seeing that humans are obsessed with relationships, and maybe rightfully so. I had to ask Essien if there’s a  woman somewhere in the picture or if I could take home the good News to the ladies in waiting.


‘ I am not married but in a serious relationship, so the line is already filled up :-)’ This is his answer.  Sorry ladies, better luck next time. 

PS. Mark grew up in Ikot Ekpene. I told you there's something great about us small town folks. Hehehehe. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Young Shall Grow.



I like the way Igbo people don't pretend. How they don't give their businesses fancy names for better acceptance. The Young Shall Grow. I have always loved that name. Do you want to travel or not? I once worked at a place called; Turn by Turn. Many many years ago. We sold cell phones.  My recent favourite is Ebeano. Now that's an authentic name. Ebeano is one of the fastest growing retail chains in the country. Hopefully I'll feature him here soon. 

Today is International Youths Day. 

I like young people. The vibrancy, positive spirit and so much more. They're the ones who'll take Nigeria to the next level and already they have started. There are so many young entrepreneurs doing amazing things in Nigeria and the world over. Zuckerberg would always be a reference. One hopes that one day soon, a Nigerian would be celebrated for an idea that changed the world. I hear some start up ideas and I go, wow. How did she conceive that? Is she not eating the same Eba I'm eating?

Sometimes I'm angry, people don't seem as hungry for success anymore. But for every unhungry person, there's a hungry one. So I've chosen today to celebrate those ones. 

May you succeed. May the works of your hands be blessed and may you find help at the time of need. 

Happy International Youths Day. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Emem Isong’s rise and rise in Nollywood.


So I promised to bring you interviews of successful entrepreneurs to inspire you.  It shouldn't surprise you that I’m starting with Emem Isong. In case you didn't know, the most famous Nigerian filmmaker is my sister. Yes, we played ten-ten together, pillow-fought late into the night, ate from the same plate and debated the best romantic heroes from the novels we read. Who is famous in your own family eh?
I know several people try to fight the attachment to a popular sibling or parent. Not me. I lap it up, put it to good use, leverage on it, milk it for its worth.
STRANGER:        Hi, I’m Antebullum.
UDUAK:              Uduak. Uduak Isong.
STRANGER:       Isong, like in Emem Isong, the producer? Any relation to her?
UDUAK:             Yep, precisely like Emem Isong, the producer.
STRANGER:      Any relation to her?
UDUAK:            Yep, she’s my  sister.  We all write in the family.
STRANGER:      Wow, that’s awesome.
UDUAK:            I know.
And Antebellum proceeds to buy all my movies because people think my work will be good simply because Emem’s is. They’re often right *snigger*.
So here’s putting my relationship with her to good use. No one’s been able to get her to talk about her marriage. Guess who succeeded?

Entry into Nollywood.
Best known for her romantic comedies, Christian dramas and Ibibio/Efik thrillers, Emem’s been in the industry almost from the very beginning. She wrote and co-produced an Igbo movie titled Jezebel in 1995.
It wasn’t an easy task. This was a largely Igbo and male dominated industry. Movies were made in Igbo and here was I, a young girl who recently quit her banking job, trying to stake a claim where I didn’t belong. But I was determined. I liked what was happening. They were telling powerful stories. I knew it was a movement I wanted to be a part of so I hung on, eventually earning myself the nickname Nwanne Calabar, Emem says. 

The movie, Jezebel, got her noticed but producers weren’t running after her for scripts as she thought they would.  It was a long and quiet year before she produced her first movie, Breaking Point, which was Stella Damasus’ break-out role. Her mother, anxious to see her daughter earn income, loaned her  N50,000.
“It was the break I needed.  A cousin of mine was visiting at the time. Together, we went to Mile 12 market to buy food for set welfare, borrowed clothes from friends and family for costume, and Tunde Kelani of Mainframe Studios – God bless his kind heart - was gracious enough to lend me his equipment at little or no cost. We paid for what we could, and owed the rest”.

You’d think it’d be smooth sailing henceforth but it seemed her troubles had only just begun.  Breaking Point was a beautiful film. At least, so she thought, so, why weren’t marketers offering good money for it? She got offers that didn’t cover the capital, creditors started visiting to her flat. Fortunately, there were no phones so it was a lot easier to hide.  But Emem was determined, so off she went to AIT seeking partnership deals.  After several rides on Molues every other day of the week, a deal eventually came through. Not as good as she would  have liked but a deal was better than none, so she took it. She didn’t make any profit but she made a name. It was a start.

Emem made a few more films - A Minute to Midnight, Untouchable, Ekaette, Hit and Run, et al.
She barely made profit. It was just enough to get by and make the next film but she kept at it and slowly gained people’s attention. One of them was Remmy Jes, a successful film marketer.  He bought the rights to two films she’d just made, Silent tears and Play Boy. Both films starring Dakore, a young girl Emem met at a company, asked her if she’d like to act and a few years later, went to find her and featured her.

Emem’s stories, casting and production values continued to raise her profile but it was Emotional Crack, her first collaboration with Remmy Jes,  that would skyrocket her career.
Emotional Crack told the story of a young woman being battered by her husband. The husband had a mistress on the side, whom  he’d never laid a hand on, but eventually broke up with. The embittered Mistress sought revenge by befriending his wife and an affair ensued – between the two women!

It was taboo. This was 10 years ago. Lesbianism was only mentioned in hushed tones if at all and here was Ms Isong, daring to make a film on the topic. The press loved it, the International world noticed and Emem was invited for her first film screening outside Nigeria. Along with her lead acts, Dakore Akande, Stephanie Linus and Ramsey Noah,  Emem flew to New York where Emotional Crack was screened to a multiracial audience.

We got a standing ovation. It was surreal.  Just as the Bible promised, my work had made room for me, Emem remarks with a nostalgic smile.

Emem’s collaboration with Remmy Jes thrived. They churned out several blockbusters. If you saw her name on a movie jacket, it was a keep.  Games Women Play, Games Men Play, Behind Closed Doors, Private Sin, Girls in the Hood, Promise Me Forever, Shattered Illusions, Traumatised, Men Do Cry, Enslaved, A piece of Flesh, Unfinished Business etc.

“People say I make too many films. My response is often with a question - are they good films? This should be people’s concern. Enid Blyton wrote over 700 books and I think that excludes the ones under the Pollock pseudonym.  Some people are able to combine quantity and quality and I think I may be one of the lucky few.” Her business relationship with Remmy eventually ended but the two have remained friends. ‘He taught me many things, helped plant my foot firmly in the industry and till now, still remains a mentor. I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me.

“It wasn’t just time to be independent, I felt it was time to give back so I founded Royal Arts Academy where young actors and writers are trained.”

Reloaded was my first movie under the aegis of Royal Arts Academy. It was in conjunction with Desmond Elliott. It was very important for it to succeed and I’m grateful that it did. Royal Arts Academy is also a film distributing company and has several  hit movies under its label. Some of which include Champagne, Kiss and Tell, Memories of My Heart, Bursting Out, I’ll Take My Chances and more.”.

This year alone, Emem has produced three TV series: Losing Control and Lagos Cougars for IrokoTV and Weekend Getaway for CoteQuest.  She’s also produced SpotLight, a film project for the students of her academy and Code of Silence a collaboration with Nollywood Workshops, an NGO.  Code of silence challenges the silence expected from rape victims, the fear of embarrassment to the family while the victim is often ignored.

“I make mostly love stories. If you pitch me a story that has no romance in it, I’m unlikely to be interested. But I’m aware that as an African filmmaker, there are expectations beyond taking people to cloud 9. As well, Nollywood is a huge and powerful tool; there’s so much we can do with it. It’s also given me a voice and I’m trying in return to give people a voice.  It’s on that basis that I produced Code of Silence.’ Code of Silence premieres this Friday, the 7th of August and will screen in cinemas nationwide.

Emem doesn’t write so much anymore. She sits in on writing conferences. Her role has become majorly supervisory. I think it’s just natural; I’ve come a long way. I work with a team of writers, directors and producers.  Some of them might even be better than me but that gives me great pride. To have imparted knowledge and empowered even if a few, I believe this is the real success.

ON MARRIAGE.
‘I created so many Prince charmings, I think it was inevitable that I would one day find mine.’


No matter how hard I try, this is all Emem is willing to say publicly about her marriage. Sorry guys, I tried. 

Monday, 3 August 2015

Poor or not so poor?

I grew up in Ikot Ekpene. Please don’t ask me where that is. That’s how a popular Nigerian writer, acclaimed gan, asked me where Uyo is.  I told him Gombe state. Hiss. Only Nigerians wear ignorance like an expensive club badge.  Hiss again.

Yes, I know I've told you before that I grew up in Ikot Ekpene but I’m going somewhere.  We were fairly comfortable but at some point , things got rough and we had to ration meals but I have never felt poor.  If anything we joked about it, my mother would ask us to decide if we wanted 101 or 110 or 011. 0 meaning no meal.  But the tough times never lasted as tough times often don’t and we would go back to the luxury of two slices of bread, a tiny spread of butter, half an egg each and what my uncle described as coloured water. It wasn’t a function of wealth, at this time we could afford more but children just didn’t eat full eggs less they steal. The first time I saw someone eat two boiled eggs, I was shocked. Two boiled eggs. That’s gluttony abeg.

My parents were farmers among other things. On many Saturday mornings , we’d gather to peel cassava and in the evenings to separate the weed from the water leaves. It was work but it was also family time.  I had cousins who traveled abroad often but nobody threw their wealth in anybody’s face.  I did not feel like anything was missing in my life. My brother and I were happy to play Names, places and things during holidays. Who remembers the game? That’s how you know you’re old.

Secondary school was different. There was the poor, the rich, the fake rich etc.  We had the Namibean presidents kids in my school, even though thinking about it now, those girls might have been lying. We chopped many lies in secondary school sha.  Despite the many different ‘types’ of people in secondary school, we did not know class. We played together, studied together and chopped cane together irrespective of who our parents were.  So when did things change?
When did Nigeria become so class conscious? Or has it always been this way in the West? When did a child born abroad or one who spends all his holidays abroad become more important than the brilliant and well behaved child? I know families that struggle to pay rent and school fees but don’t miss holidays in Europe or the States.

I believe in travel, I think it’s one of the best things you can give your child but it doesn't have to cost money if you can’t afford it.  Before I visited the States, I knew it.  Same way that I know Australia and Canada even though I've never been there. From books. Most M and Bs were set there and boy, I read those things.  What are young girls reading these days by the way?

My brother and I, we read. We went through so many books in the Ikot Ekpene library. My brother visited the library lately and guess what? The librarian offered to sell him as many books as he wanted at a low price. A librarian, selling off library books!


When did we become like this? It seems as if the second coming has happened in Nigeria but this time, our god became money. Can we fix us?

PS. I wrote this sometime ago, after the your passport is better than mine conversation when I was feeling quite patriotic.