From ‘urgent’ ₦30k to $50m: How Hanu Fejiro Abodje built Patricia from scratch
Before he founded Patricia, CEO Hanu Fejiro Agbodje says he tried and failed at 13 businesses, all of which, in his words, “ended in tears”.
The businesses ranged from a commercial bike business — in which his employee carted away with the bike — to a thriving fast-food joint with 3 in-campus locations that got him arrested and almost expelled from the University of Port Harcourt.
Today, his barely 4-year-old alternative payment solutions platform, Patricia employs over 300 people around the world. But Agbodje is never quick to dismiss his humble entrepreneurial beginnings.
“My failed businesses gave me so much first-hand experience that in the first two years of running Patricia, there was barely any challenge that was new to me,” he told me during a recent chat at the Patricia Universe office in Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria.
We talked about everything from his entrepreneurial journey, to how the Bible inspires him to make bold moves, to why Patricia recently moved its headquarters to Estonia, and plans for the future.
NB: Below is a paraphrased (for clarity) and summarised version of the interview. For the best experience, we recommend watching the video above.
Múyìwá Mátùlúkò of Techpoint Africa (MM): What was the inspiration for building Patricia?
(HFA): I have a journal where I write all my ideas in, no matter how stupid or dumb they seem. Patricia happened to be number 37 on that idea book. To be honest, I just wanted to make extra ₦30,000 (~$84 in 2017) a month. That was the plan; I wasn’t looking to build anything elaborate. I was just trying to survive
MM: But what gave you the conviction that Patricia was the right idea to build on?
HFA: I didn’t give it that much thought. I was only trying to avoid running out of money while staying with my brother in Lagos. I had about ₦1m (~$2800 in 2017) in my bank account and everyday, the money kept reducing. By the time it got to about ₦800,000 ( ~$2240 in 2017), I knew I had to act fast or we’d be flat broke in another 1 to 2 months.
So I picked up my idea book and of all the ideas, Patricia seemed like the only viable thing that would be low cost but guarantee me returns of at least ₦30,000 (~$84 in 2017) monthly.
MM: Why the name “Patricia” though?
HFA: When I had the idea for Patricia is 2015, I was in my grandad’s house. My grandad and my mum had something of a love hate relationship. My mum’s name was Patience but for some reason, my grandad always insisted on calling her Patricia, which would often lead to an argument.
It was on one of such days that I had my random business ideas and I was like, “Okay. Number 37 — Patricia”. I didn’t think much about it.
MM: What lessons did you learn from your 13 failed businesses before Patricia?
HFA: I think one of my most remarkable business lessons I learnt is what I call “Jungle Rules”. It’s about knowing who to trust in business. I also learnt, from other businesses, not to let shame be the reason why I don’t achieve my goals, or even try.
One time in 200 Level, I had to quit school to man my popcorn stand because the lady I employed swindled me and opened a competing shop opposite mine.
My course mates would take photos and post it on our WhatsApp group to make fun of me. But I didn’t mind because I was already familiar with the concept of no shame in business. I knew they were not going to feed me anyway and I saw it as free advertisement.
So by the time I started Patricia, I had so much first-hand experience. There was barely any challenge in the first two years that was new to me. It was like Slumdog Millionaire; I had literally gone through the motions. In fact, it’s just now that things are becoming new, because it’s a different ball game managing 300 people around the world.
Another blessing that is a stumbling block for young entrepreneurs today is the fact that there’s a tech community. So they want to operate within the laws of the tech community.
They want to go and raise funds, they want to go and seek somebody’s advice.
I did not do any of that. I didn’t even know there was a tech community for the first two years of running Patricia. That was a blessing for me because it was just idea to execution. I did not know that I could actually get money from somebody.
All I knew was this business needed a certain amount of money to execute this, and that was our next goal. And somehow we always got it with just sheer tenacity.
MM: Can you give a few practical tips on how you grew the company without raising institutional funding?
HFA: So, like I said earlier, I started the company with ₦800,000 (~$2240 in 2017) in personal savings. I rented a boy’s quarters for ₦500,000 (~$1400 in 2017), furnished it with about ₦100,000 ($280), bought a couple of second-hand laptops and ₦30,000 ($84) each. I had about ₦120,000 ($336) left which I planned to use to pay initial salaries. I called for interviews and hired two people whom I was to pay 30k each.
But one month into starting the company, we had made zero naira. I was quite frustrated but did not relent. Like I said, raising funds was not even an option I knew existed. So I had to think creatively.
Growing up, I saw the power of influencers. I remember back in school (University of Port Harcourt) when Olamide dyed his hair brown. In less than one week, half of my school had dyed their hair brown. Now, imagine if Olamide said “use Patricia”? I was pretty sure some people would because Olamide said so.
I couldn’t afford Olamide of course. But I could afford Mr. Jollof. We had a mutual friend through whom I negotiated with him to make an ad for ₦80,000 (~$224 in 2017). He made the ad, sent it to me, I hated it. He was just on his seat, relaxed and very casual.
But then he put out the ad early in the morning of the next day, without informing us. Before you know it, enquiries and transactions started trickling in. By the end of the day, we had completed about 40 to 50 transactions, excluding enquiries. I checked and saw that we had made ₦180,000 (~$504 in 2017) in one day. I took all of that money, paid him again and paid somebody else. And that was how things kicked off.
I should also add that the kind of business we are in is a fast moving business. And we were the only ones doing what we were doing in 2017, in the whole of Africa. At most, there was a Luno but that was only for a very select few. There was really nobody doing what we were doing for the masses. Patricia was many people’s first break into crypto and gift cards. So we always made money. As a matter of fact, we were making way more money that I knew what to do with.
I had also built up a savings culture from reading The Richest Man in Babylon. I put all the money we made over 14/15 months in crypto (bitcoin). One bitcoin was worth $3000 at the time, I still have bitcoin from that time. Today, bitcoin is worth over $40,000. So just imagine how much return we made from an investment we made in 2017/2018.
So we really did not need to raise funds because we never lacked funds.
MM: If offered VC money now, will you take it?
HFA: To whoever is reading this, we need $50m. I’ve crunched the numbers; for us to become a proper global company, $50m will be a very good start for a Series A.
MM: How did you discover crypto though, at that early stage? You said no one else was really doing it in Africa
HFA: It was our customers that turned us on to crypto. We started out as a gift card exchange platform.
MM: Gift cards? What’s the story here?
HFA: I asked one of my uncles, in London, for money. Instead, he sent me a gift card. I didn’t know what to do with it. I checked everywhere and found nowhere to convert the gift card to cash. Actually, I found one obscure platform but I got scammed.
It hurt me that I lost the money but it also informed me that if I got scammed, somebody somewhere too had the same problem.
MM: So you had this bright idea, what was the next step? Did you have to code up an app or something?
HFA: Nope, I have zero technical background.
I have many principles I live by and one of them is Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor basically states that sometimes, and most times (90% of the time in my experience), the best solution is usually the simplest solution. I don’t like to overthink things; the first idea that comes to my head is what I implement first. That way, I’ve saved almost 2 weeks of planning and already have a foundation to build on.
So, I had the idea in 2015. I wrote it down. In 2017, I executed. Going with my principles, we built Patricia off WhatsApp.
MM: That must have made things very difficult
HFA: Yes, it was so difficult. But it was so much fun. We didn’t even see it as stress.
MM: How did you go about employing your earliest employees?
HFA: After I rented the boy’s quarters, I reached out to my musician brother’s manager who helped me put the word out on Twitter. I honestly wasn’t expecting people to show up but they did. Five people showed up and I hired two, Chris and Beauty. Chris, who is technically employee number two and has been with the company since then, is now the COO of Patricia.
MM: What have you learnt about hiring people?
HFA: I have learnt to trust my gut. I think I have a very good gut, far more than anything.
I can tell you many stories about how I met my key executives. I met my current Chief of People, Chika Uluocha, when I went to open an account for Patricia at the bank she worked at. I entered the bank, saw this lady at the front desk and just knew she was the one I needed to speak to. So I waited for her to be free.
We spoke from 10am till about 6pm, about everything. I was so inspired and impressed that I told her I would employ her someday. She didn’t take me seriously but we kept in touch.
A few months later, we had moved from the boy’s quarters to a duplex. That’s another interesting side story.
We started in August, 2017. By December, Beauty had already left so it was just me and Chris.
But Chris had to travel home for the holidays, leaving me with so much work to handle. This was the defining moment for Patricia.
You know how obsessive entrepreneurs are portrayed in movies? That was my obsession phase. I had no Christmas or New Year holiday.
I lost track of time, as I worked almost non-stop from the 5th of December until the middle of February, when Chris returned, a month later than he was meant to.
Chris discovered that Patricia had made ₦3.5m (~$9800 in 2017) in profit over that two-month period. I had no idea!
You know what I did? I took all of that money and rented a 5-bedroom duplex as our new office. Everyone thought I was crazy. But that’s the thing about vision.
Nobody can really see things the way you do. Besides, I was certain that we’d make that money back in another one or two months.
We filled the space up with a couple more people, some of whom are still with us today. That was when Chika came in from the bank. I invited her to come see what we’d done. She was so blown away that she quit her job at the bank and joined us. She actually accepted a pay cut.
Patricia office in 2018 (the 5-bedroom duplex)
MM: A lot has changed since then. Patricia is now officially headquartered in Estonia. Tell us about that decision
HFA: The crypto ban happened but business has to go on; there are mouths to feed and I won’t just lay off my staff because the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) says that we can’t do business anymore.
So we decided we needed a crypto license to enable expansion outside the shores of Africa. At the grand scale of things, Nigeria is still a very small pie. Coinbase, the biggest crypto player in the world, worth over $80bn, does not have a footprint in Africa. This means there is more out there than there is in here.
That was why we moved to Estonia, got a license, and we now have operations in 27 EU countries, with just one move. So the CBN ban was a setback for something greater. We were going to expand at some point but just not this year. The CBN accelerated our expansion.
MM: Advice for budding entrepreneurs? Especially those still in school
HFA: Have a journal where you write your ideas down. If I never wrote Patricia down, I’d never have had something to look back to.
Read a lot of books, not just your school books. Read far and wide, whatever your interests are.
Then try a lot of things. You have all the time to fail. You know, most people don’t even try because they are afraid of failing.
I tried and failed at 13 businesses. But trust me, if I had to try 100 businesses, I would. Because I read that Thomas Edison tried the light bulb a thousand times.
I don’t even know if it’s true but if anyone can try something a thousand times, they must succeed. And if you don’t succeed, you will discover penicillin.
MM: What are the future plans for Patricia over the next 3 to 10 years?
HFA: Our plan is to make crypto easier for the entire world.
There’s a fifth revolution coming. One common trend about previous revolutions is that they don’t announce themselves.
They are usually almost over before we realise, “oh that was the nth revolution.”
Now, everything has evolved in this world, except money. But money is evolving now and that’s why there’s so much push back.
If you look at it, every pioneer of the 4th revolution is a billionaire today. Amazon, PayPal, eBay, etc. They were all made in the 1990s, at the start of the fourth revolution.
Culled from TECHPOINT