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Strategy How Obinwanne Okeke turned a university business into an empire worth millions of dollars

In this interview, Obinwanne tells us how he started his company, what life has been like building an empire, and the mistakes young entrepreneurs must avoid making.

  • Published:
  • Obinwanne comes from humble beginnings, the 17th child in a polygamous family, growing up in a village 790 km outside Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja

  • Now, he heads the Invictus Group, a 9-company conglomerate headquartered in Abuja, not too far away from his home village

  • In this interview, he shares with us how he started his company, what life has been like building an empire, and the mistakes young entrepreneurs must avoid making

 

In 2016, at 28, Obinwanne Okeke stood alongside Neku Atawodi on the cover of Forbes Africa, dollar bills flying around them, aptly depicting the life he has now come to know. That year, he was named one of Forbes’s most promising entrepreneurs in Africa.

What started as a service business in the university, backed up by his life savings and the support of friends, has now grown into a multi-million dollar colossus.

Obinwanne comes from humble beginnings -- the 17th child in a polygamous family, growing up in a village 790 km outside Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja. His father died when he was 16 and he had to move from the home of one relative to another. Now, he heads the Invictus Group, a 9-company conglomerate headquartered in Abuja, not too far away from his home village.

In this interview with Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa, Obinwanne tells us how he started his company, what life has been like building an empire, and the mistakes young entrepreneurs must avoid making.

Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa (BI SSA): How did you start the Invictus Group?

Obinwanne Okeke (OO): It started with a dream; I say that because I had known this from a very young age that all I needed was to dream and work towards it. Coincidentally, the dream is free.

I come from a humble and complicated polygamous home and with such a background, you know from a very young age that whatever you become in life is your own doing.

I began harnessing my entrepreneurial skill right from a very young age. But it wasn’t until I enrolled as a university student in 2008 that I thought about registering my business.

I first registered my event company with the name “Invictus”, inspired by a poem of the same name written by William Ernest Henley. It’s about the undefeated and unconquerable soul of a hard worker from an impoverished background, a soul that will not give up in spite of the obstacles before and around him. The poem resonates with my story.

 

My seed capital for my other ventures was my life savings. Nobody can lay claim to ever giving me a loan from day one till date. I managed to raise capital for my company because I had first started with a service-oriented business, and from then one, I made sure to save and subsequently investing in other business ventures. I still have mind-blowing ideas in my head which require much more capital than I can afford to fund personally now, but with time I will execute them.

BI SSA: What were the early days like and how do you determine who to hire?

OO: I have always believed in passion for the job before the pay. My very first set of employees or would I call them “volunteers” were my friends at the university. They believed in what I was trying to create with my events company and were passionate about the dream, so it was easy for me to recruit them.

 

As the business has expanded and diverged into several portfolios, I have realised that the importance of setting sentiments aside when hiring employees. So, I outsource some of my recruitment but I sit in interviews because I have an eye for passionate individuals. Passion is the priority for me before qualification.

BI SSA: How did you feel when you made your first million? What came to your mind after?

OO: I felt like everything I was doing, all my investments were finally making sense. For a second, I thought about taking a trip to Vegas. (Laughs) Who wouldn’t? But on the flip side, I knew that the milestone meant more responsibilities were on the way and that I needed to set bigger goals. So, I re-invested all of it into the business and kept on going.

BI SSA: What have your biggest challenges been since you started running Invictus?

OO: The two biggest challenges so far are navigating finances and doing business in different countries. Capital is the most essential part of any startup. I had this and still have wonderful and mind-blowing business ideas in my head, but execution became a problem because I needed more capital to fund those other ideas.

What I did was to prioritise my dreams and aspirations. For example, I started off with an event and entertainment company purely providing these services to university students, this didn’t need much capital, but you’ll be amazed by the returns. Next, I began investing in my student shuttle/taxi business and then I went off to Australia where I did all kinds of jobs just to survive and I saved up, came home and invested all my life savings in real estate. The rest, they say, is now history.

Tackling the second problem of doing business across different borders in Africa; prior to setting up my businesses, I have been and still am intrigued by African politics and history. This had helped me break the border lines which the Europeans had put in place.

Secondly, I got to attend the most diverse university on the continent for my undergraduate degree. These events helped me a lot in setting up my companies in several countries across the continents and building a friendship and business relations around Africa without regard for nationality. I see opportunities, not borders.

BI SSA: Tell me about your happiest moments in the company?

OO: My happiest moment till date will be getting recognition from a Forbes feature. After that, I would get letters from young entrepreneurs scattered all over Africa telling me how I have inspired them in one way or the other, whether it is to start something or revive one that was already failing.

BI SSA: What would you say is the biggest mistake you've made as an entrepreneur?

OO: My failures are part of my growth. I have learned and grown with every mistake; hiring the wrong people, making the wrong calls and taking for granted the importance of keeping a good financial record for the business. I have made some bad calls in these areas but they have all helped shape me and my business.

BI SSA: What would you advise young entrepreneurs aspiring to be like you to watch out for?

OO: Start that business now. Do it now. Don’t wait for tomorrow. Start as many as possible and never be afraid of failing, it is part of growth.

I will also advise that you get an accountant and keep a financial record of all your dealings. This will come in handy when its time to scale and your investors need to see your history. This is one aspect we always take for granted and it comes to haunt us later.

 

BI SSA: What do you do to cool off and relax after long days/weeks at work?

OO: Travelling frees my mind from all the stress that comes from running a business, so I take time out to travel and see other parts of the world, more importantly, Africa. I just returned from Mombasa, which was an eye-opener for me as I never knew it could give such a relaxing vibe for vacationing.

I read a lot too, and this helps my mind travel places where I can’t reach physically.

 

BI SSA: What will the next 5 years be like for Invictus Group?

OO: Growth across Africa, more business ventures in more African economies. The goal is to grow the Invictus’ “African Dream Empire” which will grow into a continent-wide conglomerate that will provide jobs for the workforce on our continent.

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