Nigeria’s television industry is still analogue and struggling to join the rest of the world on the digital platform, after missing many deadlines. Cost is a big issue in business, and even more so in the television, as you must have either of two things – money or experience, or even both. But Jason Njoku had neither. All he had was a vision to succeed in an enterprise, and after many failed attempts, he founded iROKOtv, the home of Nollywood content. As the Chief Executive Officer, CEO, the self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur, finnaly got it right with iROKOtv after the 11th attempt at starting a business. He came up with the idea of launching a new distribution platform for Nollywood whilst living at home with his mum, and thus pioneered the African digital content market by bringing Nollywood to a global audience. Nothing good comes easy, yes; but Jason’s venture because of its immense prospects quickly attracted investment from the international space, including Tiger Global, Kinnevik, RISE Capital and Canal+. Launched in 2010, Iroko has aggregated the world’s largest online Nollywood content catalogue and is one of Africa’s largest internet TV providers, with a dedicated mobile app, iRokotv, as well as ROK TV channels on Sky in the United Kingdom, U.K. and DStv across Africa. Jason, a Chemist-turned-TV- magnate in this online interview with Roseline Okere, said the key to success in any business enterprise is identifying and satisfying customers’ need.
Who is the man ‘Jason Njoku’? Tell us about your educational background, upbringing and your early childhood.
I’m the founder and Chief Executive Officer of iROKOtv. I’m married to Mary Njoku, Nollywood actress, producer and Chief Executive Officer of ROK TV, and together, we have two beautiful children, with another one on the way.
In terms of my upbringing, I was brought up in the U.K. in a single parent household, and my mum worked extremely hard to provide for me and my four brothers and sisters. I believe I learned my work ethic from her. In terms of education, I schooled in London, apart from a couple of years in my early teens when I was sent to Nigeria to learn some discipline. When I returned to the U.K., and after I finished school in London, I went to the University of Manchester, where I gained a degree in Chemistry.
Did you always have plans to be an entrepreneur right from college? What informed the need to be self-employed?
I’m basically a terrible employee. In my mind, I always know best. I’m intense, emotional and very direct. In the past, I struggled with authority, process and structure with my employers, and therefore found it easier, and more personally gratifying, to go it alone. I’ve always had a side hustle or found a means to generate additional income from childhood – so I would say that the groundwork for my entrepreneurial life was laid down from a very early age. My first real business was post-University. It was a magazine in Manchester, targeted at students. It consumed three years of my life and was, ultimately, a failure. I was left flat broke and broken, personally. But it was an amazing education in the school of entrepreneurship. It laid bare the brutalities of starting a business and making money. It removed any notion of glamour in business and made me realise what I would have to do in the future to succeed.
Give us a brief history of iROKOtv. When was the idea conceived and when did it actually take off?
iROKOtv came about when I was living at home with my mum, aged 30, in London, and she asked me to get her some Nollywood DVDs. Being a child of the Internet, I went online to source them and when I couldn’t find any, either to buy in DVD format or to stream online, my interest was piqued. I suppose my first thought was – how can this super popular content that my mum, sisters and aunts watch all the time, not be online? I bought as many films as I could find, watched them and did some more research into the industry and realised there was an opportunity to reorganise the informal distribution structure that, at the time, it had.
Originally, I tried to set up the business from London, but the company couldn’t really take off there, as all the action – all the deals – were in Lagos. So I moved here in 2010, thanks to some seed investment from my friend, Bastian Gotter, and the business really began then.
How did you raise the initial capital? Who are iROKOtv’s investors and how did you convince them to be part of the business?
Ok, so our investment ‘story’ is a little different to most others. We didn’t have a pitch deck. In fact, we’ve never approached anyone for investment – our capital raises have all been inbound. So it’s never been a case of convincing anyone to be part of the business. Our investors saw a business opportunity and deals were done.
Even in the very early days, we weren’t approaching investors or applying to incubators or pitching in any way. In fact, we were just ticking along nicely as a YouTube platform, producing great numbers and turning a profit. In 2010, there was an article about Nollywood and what we were doing that featured in the United States, US-based tech publication, TechCrunch. It was picked up by a US-based VC called Tiger Global, who contacted me, and, to cut a long story short, invested $3million in our company, so that we could move off YouTube and build our own dedicated platform. We have since brought on other investors, including Kinnevik, RISE capital and Canal+.
Is Nigeria’s infrastructure-bandwidth good for iROKOtv?
Absolutely not – Nigeria’s poor Internet infrastructure is essentially one of the main reasons why we had to de-emphasise our streaming platform that we had spent years developing, and build a mobile app – iROKOtv. The cost of data in Nigeria especially, is a huge burden – almost like a tax. So to combat this, last year, we launched the iROKOtv kiosks in key areas of Lagos. The kiosks help take our customers through the process of signing up, they facilitate offline payments through the purchase of subscription vouchers, and they also provide free data downloads – this is an area where our customers had really been quite vocal – essentially, it was issues around data that was their barrier to subscribing to iROKOtv. So we took that on board, and came up with the kiosk solution.
However, this is just a micro-solution, for the much wider issue of data in Nigeria; we need to see reliability improve and costs to fall significantly, for us to really become an Internet-enabled culture.
What would you like to see happen in the technology space in Nigeria and Africa in general?
We need to see improvements in access to data, although I should say that quality and costs vary drastically across the continent. We need to see a ten-fold increase in young people having access to the right education and tools, so we can build the next generation of highly skilled, technically capable engineers, who can build for Nigeria. And, we need to make a connection between local investors and the tech community. African investors are still primarily focused on the traditional industries – oil, gas and agriculture, so the tech guys see very little money from their own countrymen and women. Therefore, they have to look internationally for investment. I’d like to see more African entrepreneurs and business people investing in the tech ecosystem here on the continent.
How many countries can we find iROKOtv? What are your plans for expansion or divestment?
We are absolutely everywhere – our content isn’t geo-targeted. If you have a mobile phone, you can subscribe to and watch iROKOtv anywhere in the world. We have movie fans subscribing from every corner of the earth – across Africa, but also from the U.K., U.S., Europe, Australia, South America and more.
In terms of expansion, our core focus is really on building our fan base in Africa. We want to bring millions more Africans on our journey, so we’re constantly looking at ways of making our platform and content as accessible as possible. Even if you don’t have the Internet, you can watch our movies and original series on TV. Last year, we launched ROK on DStv Channel 168 and, in the U.K., ROK on Sky Channel 155. We also have two channels on StarTimes – iroko1 and iroko 2.
Are you involved with any other projects besides iROKOtv?
Through Spark, a seed investment company, I’ve invested in Hotels.ng, Drinks.ng, ToLet.com.ng, Paystack and OgaVenue. All the companies are similar in that they have super-focused, smart entrepreneurs who are building long-term companies for the Nigerian tech space. I buy local, I support local, I invest in local. In fact, with Paystack, we were so impressed with the company that not only did we invest in them; we also used them to help take online payments on iROKOtv.
What is your advice to young people who want to venture into a business like iROKOtv?
The Internet entertainment space in Africa is super-expensive to enter. For someone starting from scratch, and wanting to build a company that makes a big impact and generates revenue, I would hazard a guess that you would need around $50 million. That’s because content and the engineering behind the platform are extremely costly.
However, my advice to anyone wanting to start their own company is to focus on the customer – build for the customer. Understand the market. Build your audience, your numbers and generate some revenue – then you will start to attract the interest of potential investors, if that is your end goal.
I meet so many people who are focused solely on their pitch deck and not on their product – I don’t believe this is the right way to go. Last year, through Spark, I invested in an amazing events booking platform called OgaVenue. They didn’t have a 90-page pitch deck or shiny offices in Lekki. But they had really encouraging revenues and could demonstrate massive growth after just a few short months of operation, working on a very scaled down team. That, for me, is a great formula to start your own business.