IROKOtv's Jason Njoku: 'I feel no connection with Nigeria'

IROKOtv co-founder, Jason Njoku, discusses his business and Nigerian roots.

Jason Njoku is CEO and co-founder of IROKOtv and ROK (Medium.com)

Njoku is a British-Nigerian entrepreneur, film magnate and African start-up investor.

He is the co-founder and CEO of iROKOtv, one of the early video-on-demand movie platforms for Nigerian movies.

In this no-holds-barred session with Pulse, Njoku speaks on why his business has been so successful thus far, what drives him, his Nigerian roots, how he got this far in a minefield where many have failed and why some of his employees consider him such a slave driver….

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So, how was starting up for you?

What we did was quite early. If you go back to 2011, N5,000 which was at the time $30, could get you a couple of gigabytes worth of data. Data was expensive, people didn’t have smart phones...it was just a very difficult time to start a business.

We’ve just been surviving for the past 7 or 8 years as people get more and more comfortable using their mobile phones, buying data and as more people get comfortable consuming video content.

It took 10 years for people to get comfortable with that basic reality of having to get them to pay or charging them. So, it’s been very very difficult.

How has it been like procuring content?

Buying content is easy as long as you have money. People who have content want to sell it. As long as you come with money, buying content has never been a problem.

However, buying good quality content becomes the problem, becomes the filter, because there’s so much content out there. What’s good, what’s average, why is it good, what kind of scalable framework are you using to say what’s good? That becomes a big problem.

I think we’ve been really, really strong at curation versus everything that was there. We rejected like 92 percent of the content we saw at the beginning. We ended up buying 8 percent of the content.

There’s so much content in Nollywood that is rubbish. We just didn’t want it. In terms of storyline, in terms of plot.

And this is a problem that a lot of people in Nollywood have. It’s not about the production. Production means nothing. Like, I have seen $100 million blockbuster US movies completely just destroyed because the stories don’t make sense.

People go to movies for a story, right? The CGI and the rest of that stuff makes storytelling lazy. The core of the movie is about the story. If the story makes sense and it resonates with people, it will be fantastic.

Some of the best stories told recently have no CGI in them at all. It’s always about the storytelling. People watch movies for the storytelling.

So, your focus remains Nollywood?

Today, our focus is on Nollywood. We’ve been super focused on Nollywood for the best part of the last 8 years, but now we are going to go beyond Nollywood.

Hollywood now perhaps?

Hollywood is not the most popular content in Africa in any way, shape or form. Don’t believe what people tell you.

Do you watch Game Of Thrones (GOT)?

Yes I do

Did you pay for it? No, probably downloaded it like everyone else, yeah?

Errr...

Only about 50,000 households in Nigeria watched the final season of GOT.

But can you imagine how much they paid for GOT? So, Multichoice wanted to do a marketing campaign on GOT, in the end no one watches it because no one cares.

And this is not about the money. You are in Dubai so you have the money, but for some reason, you decided to go and get it for free. That is the challenge that a lot of people have in this market.

The people who have the money to pay, are not paying. That is the big challenge for PayTV.

Again, if I focus my entire business based on people like you, I’d be dead. Because you’d be like: 'I want this, I want that,' but in the end, you won’t pay.'

In fairness to me, I am an iROKOtv subscriber...

IROKO is N3,000 a year. Thank you. It’s not burning a hole in your pocket, so yeah, thank you!

What I am saying is that if I listen to feedback from people, people in a certain class especially in the tech community, I would have died a long time ago. So, it’s not that you couldn’t get GOT online.

As someone who is trying to build a content platform, you now want to narrow who you think I should speak to.

For example, we are just not good enough on social media. Is it the guys on twitter who are angry, unfortunately, about everything, who will buy iROKOtv? No.

It’s mummy, it’s white collar office workers, it’s someone who already has PayTV that would now pay for PayTV.

If someone is a GoTV or DSTV subscriber, there’s a 90% chance that iROKOtv subscriber base would go up. Because if you are paying for TV, you would pay for TV again. It’s these market facts that, you can’t express an opinion, you have to let the market lead you.

A lot of people who have tried to do this business have failed because they have tried to let their own personal experience guide them.

What has been your own staying power?

Rude honesty and reality. I see the world as it is and I build my company around that reality. I don’t wanna win an Oscar, I don’t give a sh*t. I don’t whip myself into a frenzy.

Nollywood seems to be obsessed with international recognition. People always ask me, why are we not doing Nollywood cinema films? In excess of 90 percent of the Nollywood films that go into the market don’t make money for the people who funded them.

A lot of producers, not the directors...the investors, don’t make money off Nollywood films.

So, with that in mind, is it because of vanity that I would now go there and start doing big cinema movies? 100 million at the box office..I don’t care about that stuff.

How did you feel about Lionheart not getting nominated for the Oscars?

It’s completely irrelevant. Oscars have their rules. You can go online and read those rules. Why was Lionheart there in the first place?

Lionheart is a good..feel good, Nollywood movie, don’t get me wrong. But was it ever going to win an Academy Award like for real? Seriously, let’s be real. When people try to engage me on this, I’m like who cares? It’s looking for international recognition that got us here, like I said before.

And that’s the great thing I love about Bollywood.

Bollywood? They don’t care about anybody. They are making their movies for their people.

But if you go and look at the cinema statistics in Nigeria, Hollywood is still destroying Nollywood in terms of market share. If you go to India, it’s the exact opposite. Has Bollywood ever won the Oscars? Do they even give a sh*t?

Bollywood built their industry the hard way. The biggest channels and distributors are their own. They focus on themselves. For me, I think Nollywood is weirdly Nigerian where people don’t really care about the commercial aspects, don’t really care about the longevity of the industry and we whip ourselves into conversations about things that don’t really matter.

People are obsessed about Netflix. Netflix doesn’t even have a Nigerian Instagram account. A lot of the promotions you see from Netflix, it’s not Netflix that’s doing it. It’s Nigerian producers using it to try to get ego and vanity.

In South Africa, they have a Netflix Instagram account. In Nigeria, they do not have an Instagram account.

And you now tell me they spend millions and millions of dollars on Nollywood movies. And they don’t even have a free Instagram account. That's 'anyhowness.' That’s like I really don’t care. That’s the fact.

So, when you see that ‘movie is on Netflix, ‘this movie is on Netflix’, these guys don’t even have a Nigerian Instagram account.

How should the authorities encourage young entrepreneurs like you?

I don’t think you need to encourage young entrepreneurs. They should encourage themselves. If you gonna be an entrepreneur, you gonna be an entrepreneur. Don’t encourage them.

If someone sees a problem and they need to fix it, then they will basically go ahead and fix it and then they would become the definition of an entrepreneur. I didn’t sit down one day to say I’m going to be an entrepreneur.

I studied Chemistry. I was like, if this thing needs to get fixed then I should fix it.

Go back 10 years ago. Think of the kind of person you were 10 years ago. If you imagined 10 years ago where we are now, nothing would have made sense. Now look 10 years into the future.

How should the government encourage innovation hubs?

The government should stay out of innovation hubs. The people in government are not smart enough to understand today, they can barely understand yesterday and it’s happened, they definitely can’t understand the future.

They should just leave it alone.

The Nigerian government should have nothing to do with innovation whatsoever. An entrepreneur would always find their way.

What of those who have ideas like you but require funding or some kind of financial support?

I started a company. How much of my own money did I put into the company? None. How much did my mum put in? None. But when people see you working...when my family saw me working...I never used to leave my house in a week because I was working. People used to get scared for my sanity because I was always working.

If you see that, you would give that person money.

If I see someone working hard, I know they will make it. It’s just a question of time. You don’t need to encourage them. Luck is always there.

But is luck a substitute for hard work? No. Is it a substitute for having a core understanding of how to build something? No. It’s about latching onto opportunities when they come.

10 years ago, Nollywood had this entire system. I walked into Nollywood and took control of it. Think about that for a second. In 10 years!! How the f** is that possible? Because the people there had no ambition. Why is there only one iROKO? Why is there only one ROK?

They don’t exist. It’s not like the money wasn’t invested. They have been encouraging people to be creative. Has that worked? It hasn’t really worked.

Which language formats do people consume more on iROKO?

English

Not Igbo?

No, not Igbo.

I live in Ghana. On GoTV, ROK2 is the number one channel in Ghana... in English. When I am in Zambia, 42% of people who watch TV watch ROK. In London, they watch ROK on Sky. That language, being English, means that in South Africa, it’s big. In Cape Town, in Johannesburg, it’s big. In Lusaka, it’s big. In Nairobi, it’s big. In Dar es Salaam, it’s big. It’s big everywhere because of the language.

Imagine I say I’m going to do just Yoruba. Africa Magic Yoruba is the number one channel in Nigeria. But go to Ghana, no one’s watching it. Go to Kenya, no one’s watching it. Go to Zambia, no one’s watching it. That language barrier is a problem.

So, we dub that content into French. Go to French speaking African countries and ask about iROKO, they know what it is. I was in Dakar last week, and people were like 'Oh my God...iROKO..iROKO.'

Why do they know us there? Because we’ve been dubbing for the last 5 years--about 500 hours a year--into French. So when we go to French speaking Africa, we are massive there already.

Whereas people in Nigeria aren’t even thinking of French speaking Africa.

Are you saying your business has been successful in all of this?

ROKtv was a fantastic business. Very viable business. We are talking millions and millions of dollars that it was acquired for.

IROKO is still in the development stage but by next year, we are going to go for an IPO in a $120million to $150 million tag valuation in 2021. We’d do that. But it’s taken us 10 years to do that.

Again, the people I met in this industry 10 years ago, where are they now? They are in the east, maybe with one or two hotels to their names. No vision. No ambition. Just to make money and build houses.

I bought my first house this week in Accra. After doing this business for a decade. My first house…

Why not Nigeria? Why Accra?

Because Accra is where I live. I bought land in Lagos, I lost money because of Naira devaluation. Why would I do that again? I won’t do that again. I don’t live in Nigeria, I live in Ghana.

But you grew up in Nigeria?

No, I didn’t.

Started up in Nigeria?

No. My first time in Lagos, I was 29, in 2009. There is no connection for me with Nigeria at all.

So you are not a Nigerian?

I am a Nigerian, but I am also a British citizen. And depending on how the situation is, I would take this one, I would take that one.

But my affinity for Nigeria isn’t like...I didn’t grow up there. My brothers are not there, my sisters are not there. My entire family is in London.

If you see a young man who wants to be like you…

In terms of the business? If it’s in terms of the business, I would crush him. That goes without saying.

Why?

He can’t be like me. I can’t have...this is my business. This is how I am feeding my children. We’d fight to the death. You’d die. I’d be cool with you, but I’d try and ‘kill’ you. No problem.

If you want to do something else, ehen, then I can give you some mentorship, I can be supportive.

Do you sometimes sponsor some of these...

In 2013, I invested $2.5 million into a Nigerian company. I am one of the biggest philanthropic investors in Nigeria. So, I do these things.

And in terms of profit?

Nah. It’s philanthropy so far. Just nice to do.

I have spoken with some of your staff who say you drive them crazy at work

Yes.

One stopped short of calling you a slave driver…Is that something you want to like..speak about? How is the work environment at ROK or iROKO?

IROKO has always been a brutal place to work. I have never shied away from that. I drive people...from the CFO to the most junior person, I drive you. One hundred percent.

You think we survive by accident? You think we won by accident? Of course we didn’t.

As an employer, my job is not to be your friend. It’s not to make you happy. There is a social contract: here is the job, here is the pay. If you don’t want to do the job, resign.

But if you use words like slave driver, but you know you can leave right? Am I forcing you to work? No. If you don’t like it, go and stay at home.

But that work I am paying you for, you would do. That work, you would do it. No, you would do it.

So, from the CFO to the CTO, on to like the most junior person, that work I’m paying you for, you’d do it. Even if it’s cleaner I am paying you for, that work, you would do.

Because at the end of the month when I am paying salaries...because the biggest lesson in life is at the end of the month when you have to pay salaries, I am sad. Because you look at all the nonsense people are doing and you are still paying them salaries.

So, do I push people? I have always pushed people incredibly hard. I will always push people incredibly hard because that work, you don’t want to do it. Only lazy people are like 'you are working me too hard.' Then leave now, sit at home.

But what I know is that if you work incredibly hard, would you be rewarded? Yes.

For entry level, we don’t ask for any qualifications, entry level pay, we do incredibly well. We re-feed our most junior employees. We do all these things. I mean, it still costs me money.

So, am I a slave driver? No. Because you don’t have to work for me. It’s not by force.

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