Tunde Akin-Moses, CEO of Sycamore.ng on his journey through entrepreneurship.
A brief introduction about yourself, who you are, and what you do.
My name is Babatunde Akin-Moses, I am currently the CEO of Sycamore.ng. Sycamore.ng is a peer-to-peer lending platform that connects lenders to borrowers, that’s my full-time job. When I’m not doing that I write for my online channels across Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I also like spending time with young people, offering whatever sort of assistance I can to ensure that they are on the right track. It’s not as if I’m not a young person myself, I’m still quite young too, but at least, it’s been slightly over a decade since I left the University; so I think I can help people who are at the end of university or people who are just out of the university with whatever sort of guidance they might need.
Can you talk about Sycamore and how it came about?
I used to work at PWC. PWC is a consulting and professional services firm and It’s always been my plan to go into entrepreneurship at some point soI took a break from PWC to go to Lagos Business school in 2017. The idea was just to figure out the next step while learning. Before then, I’ve actually been interested in the people-credit and lending business in Nigeria. It was starting to come up and I just saw how things were going. I found it quite fascinating and I just admired it. At Lagos Business School, we had a case study where we were examining a particular lending business in Ghana. They were giving out loans to SMEs, we thought the case was interesting and we tried to find out about the companies that were doing something similar in Nigeria; and interestingly, there was really not a lot of them. What we found out was that only a few SMEs had access to loans. My co-founders, Onye and Mayowa, and I did something about it. We found a model peer-to-peerRR structure that gets lenders to access borrowers.
What challenges did you face while starting Sycamore?
Getting the initial funding to start and agreeing on the terms of the funding was quite tough. That’s on one hand. Another challenge was logistics. The business started remotely because I was doing an exchange program in Spain at the time. This was the last 5 months, we went for different exchange programs at the same time. I was in Spain, my cofounder Onye was in France and Mayowa was in Nigeria. We were in three different places and we were still working on this stuff. I mean, we were in those places when we disbursed our first loan because everything was online. But when we all came back to Nigeria and we wanted to really kick things off properly, just getting a space to work from was actually interesting and tough to an extent. We did so many experiments. So we started working at Lagos Business school, they have these rooms called syndicate rooms, so we went there and were working from there. But the classes were always coming to have meetings, people wanted to have meetings, and even the distance was quite far for some people; Lagos Business school is past Ajah. After that, we tried working in coworking spaces and the cost started piling up, so we left that. We ended up in my house. So we worked in my house for almost a year before we finally got an angel investor. So that office space was an issue. And I think the last issue we also had was trust. A lot of people didn’t trust us in business. Borrowers, lenders, especially when you don't have a fancy office or you’re not well known in the market. People are a bit skeptical to do business with you, so we had to spend time getting off the dark thrust, and you know time is not something you can buy no matter how much you have. So we just needed to be patient with ourselves. That was also a challenge at first but you know, we saw through it and surmounted it.
Was Sycamore your first shot at Entrepreneurship?
No, it’s not. I’ve tried many other businesses. Right from secondary school, I had always been experimenting with other businesses. I think the first was when I and two of my friends designed drawing books and we tried to sell them to neighborhood kiosks. Thinking about it now, because we didn’t even bind them, we just used paper and staplers. For some reason, we thought that the designs in front were going to be attractive enough to get people to buy. I think we were able to sell two out of about ten or twenty. The second time was probably JSS2 or 3 when we were buying noodles to sell in school. We actually did make some good money that time because we were buying in bulk from the market and selling at 50 to 100% markup. People were so eager to buy it in school then. That was a very good business at the time but we eventually stopped. Between then and Sycamore, I tried so many other things, some of which I don't even want to talk about. The last serious one I tried was a drycleaning business that actually pulled some kind of money, it is actually still in existence today. I went into partnership with my local Washman, we tried to brand it, in fact at the time I think we were the first online laundry service in Nigeria, at least that I could find anywhere. You could go online, order how many clothes you want to get washed and someone will come to pick it for you. One of the major problems of all these businesses is that I was never fully committed. Before Sycamore, everything I had done was either in school or while I was working in the laundry business, so most of my customers were either my colleagues at work or classmates. So sycamore is the first full-time business that I’m doing. I think that’s why we really struggled with some of those other businesses. The laundry business is still in existence today. I never fully committed to the other businesses, unlike Sycamore where I’m waking up to work and this is what I’m doing.
When I look at the experience I had with trying to do business and side-gigs and what I’m doing now, I really struggle to see how anyone can build a business on the side, I think it will be tough. You can do one-off jobs, maybe if you have a skill, it is possible. But if you're actually going to build a business with a brand, sometimes, you feel like 24 hours a day is not even enough because it requires so much commitment. I’m not saying that I did anything fantastic or special like that but it just requires a lot of time and attention that most people can give to a side gig, That’s what I think.
What motivated you to be a start-up founder?
I think for me, I derive a lot of internal satisfaction from getting things done and seeing the output of my creativity come to life or giving expression to my creativity. That was a part of paid employment that I always struggled with because I felt I had a lot of good ideas that never got an outlet to give expression to. That way I felt a bit shackled because I couldn’t always get things done because I had a lot of factors to consider, approvals and all. What I'm even learning now is that I still have to work within a lot of constraints because l try to have a structured business.
What’s your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur?
Two major challenges; one is really around attracting and retaining the right talent as talent is very key to just getting a business right. And the second thing is that because of the space we are working in which is fintech, we are also having to try to work within the habit of what the regulation says we can do. So Internally, talent is the biggest challenge and externally I would say regulation because CBN is doing a lot these days and SEC is also doing a lot in addition to all the other regular government agencies and parastatals, so those are what I think are the biggest challenges. Finance anywhere in the world is a heavily regulated sector, so it’s tough to run a fintech company.
What’s something you wish you knew before starting Sycamore?
I wish I knew more about investing in startups. I think that would have helped in terms of knowing how to manage things at the start from the point of attracting more investors in the early days, and more understanding of the regulatory space. I did understand it, but it wasn’t enough. Generally, a better understanding of how startup investing works and the regulatory space.
What advice would you like to give to anyone going into entrepreneurship?
It’s very important that whatever space anyone is going into, it is good to get some experience before starting. Some sort of experience helps because there are so many things to managing a business and people that you can learn from working with people. Because it might be tough to start learning on your own. Another way to hack that is to have accessible mentors that can tell you around. Have mentors. The whole mentor-mentee relationship is necessarily a formal arrangement. It’s a very organic relationship like a friendship with someone that is senior to you. You can check on the person, contribute positively to them and in between those exchanges, it’s possible to get any advice you want. A lot of very accomplished people close to retirement are usually on the lookout for people to mentor. To be honest, sycamore will not be here without mentors because everybody on my board is a mentor to me. Besides giving a lot of guidance, they’ve also invested money in the business. I also have several mentees. Also understand the external factors involved in what you want to do, speaking about government policies, community politics, and associations that can affect your business. It’s not just about your own skills, you should also consider factors that are not internal. Experience, mentorship, and external factors are the things that people should consider before starting a business.