By Bianca Iboma
MD/CEO, Slot Systems Limited, Nnamdi Ezeigbo, is a symbol of the indomitable Nigerian spirit. The Umuahia, Abia State-born entrepreneur who founded the technology company that sells original phones and mobile devices in 1999, has since become the clear leader in the sector.
He started from the scratch with no job for two years after his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), unknown to him that fate had other plans for his future. Equipped with degrees in Computer, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, he got tired of roaming the streets. Armed with a six-month Computer Engineering apprenticeship, he took his destiny in his own hand. For him, the emergence of GSM was a turning point; from computers he diversified to phone accessories.
He started small but today, he has over 700 employees and runs the Tecno and Infinix phone brands. In this interview with Daily Sun, he shared his entrepreneurial journey, years of struggle and what government can do to improve budding talents in Nigeria.
Interest in engineering
I guess it was basically because I was doing well in the sciences, especially in mathematics and physics. I was good at sciences, but did not have any idea about what engineering entails. What prompted my interest, I didn’t know. What I noticed as a child was that once you are good in a particular subject you would be encouraged to do something you have interest on but today, what is seen is when someone is good in a particular subject like literature, English language the Arts, you would be encouraged to take courses like Mass Communication or Law. That was my case, I did not like Medicine. The whole essence of opting for engineering was to go to school and get a good job in an oil servicing company like Chevron or Mobil. It was my dream as a young man.
The birth of Slot Systems Limited
What actually propelled my interest to set up my own business was born out of necessity. You go into business when you don’t have what to do. I never planned to do business but necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. I ventured into business due to the need I had because after my service I wanted a job in an oil company but after several months I had to think of something else to do. I remembered then that while I served as a corps member with the Nigerian Breweries in Lagos, there were a number of young guys I met there who read Computer Science, and I became interested in it.
At that time, computer repairs was not popular though and because I had searched for a job for two years to no avail, I was ready to become an entrepreneur after I met with my friend who runs a computer outfit. I had the knowledge about these guys who earned a lot money in few minutes they spent with the company at that time after doing some installations compared to what I was earning then. One of them became my friend and since I knew his name, I was able to get his contact. I could not find a white collar job and I needed to do something to keep myself busy.
Shortly afterwards, I had a meeting with him and made an arrangement to be an apprentice under him. I spent six months as an apprentice without an income doing repairs. After acquiring the skills, I had to set up my own business but I was not having cash. I would have stayed with my friend but because as an apprentice under him, I was beginning to gain popularity because I added some excellent touch to what I was doing and people preferred that I handle their jobs when they brought them. This became an issue because he felt I was robbing him of sales and he sent me out of his business place and I had no choice than to leave, without cash to rent a shop, nothing to start up with but I didn’t give up.
After separating from my friend, I thought of what to do. While I was managing under him I was able to build relationship with customers that came for repairs. What I did then was that when people brought jobs to me, I told them the price of whatever was bad and equally charged a service fee. I would return whatever was taken out and replaced it with the new one I bought and the customer would take it away and dispose of it himself. I was able to establish trust between my customers and I.
Business innovations that grew the firm
Customers started demanding for phones and requesting for other branches of Slot nearer to them. I saw it as an opportunity. More so with the increasing challenge of phones with poor network coverage at that time and the challenge with poor network coverage. I approached Nokia with the intention of convincing them to manufacture dual sim phones, a proposal that was rejected by Nokia company. They believed it would slow down the sale of their single sim phones, which were in vogue at that time. I was not discouraged.
I went to China where I met a guy who worked with a company called Bird. Bird was into phones but they got choked and lost market share. I met with the guy and asked him to let us do something. I came with that name and I registered it here and brought the guy to Nigeria. And that was the high point of our business. We came together and I designed the first Tecno phone, Tecno T101. We started it but the market did not accept it and we also had problem with the dual SIM not working together and we had to make corrections and came with Tecno 201 and that was a bit accepted by the market.
But we were virtually giving marketers on credit to sell the phones and then pay us later and I was funding it all alone. We were finding it difficult to get the right quantity to sell until the market started accepting us. What I now did was to make them pay in advance; I mean the dealers. So we started using their money to order the products. This was around 2007.
The introduction of Tecno brand was the turning point of our business. Like I said, Tecno is my baby and we kept improving. I knew a day would come when the middle class would accept Tecno. Initially, it was a phone for low income people but based on improvement and upping our game, the middle class had to accept it and when the economy went down in 2008 that helped Tecno to move to the top. Since purchasing power had dropped, they had to go for something that has same capabilities but cheaper. So with N15,000, you could buy a Smartphone and thank God for 3G network. The advent of 3G network actually helped Tecno to move up. So students who could not afford to buy phones in the range of N30,000 could buy one for N15,000 and enjoy features of Smartphone like facebook, twitter, whatsap and so on.
Tecno now gave birth to Infinix. It is the same company. You can see how the brand has evolved. So looking at the Nigerian people, you would see that a phone like Tecno will get to a point when premium customers will like to use it.
It gets to a stage when you say, I have acquired so much and what can I give back to the society and the community? And that was what gave birth to the two foundations I have. One is in memory of my father because he believed so much in education. His name was Anthony Chubuike Ezeigbo. It is for undergraduate students. We have about 25 students enjoying that right now. You go to school and your internship or youth service can be done with us. The other one, the Slot Foundation, came on the need to impact on the youths. Helping them to be employable and to develop those skills that will enable them to become CEOs and entrepreneurs. The Slot Academy also came as a result of this. To acquire the training, you need about N150,000 but this is being subsidised by the Slot Foundation.
The Slot Foundation came about because I was in a conversation with some youths a couple of years back. In the course of the conversation, I asked them to give me five names of people that inspired them. I was shocked that they mentioned names of a musician, an actor, footballer and a politician. I asked for another five and when they named another musician, I asked them who would produce the goods and services? The musician is just making people happy and making money for himself. That is not what the society needs. There and then, I felt I needed to do something. We can train you in three months and you become a phone engineer and if you like, we absorb you and for those who want to run on their own, they will be allowed to set up their own businesses. Every year, we will train 1,000 young people in this area.
Getting to limelight
I served as a corps member with the Nigerian Breweries, Ikeja. While I was serving, I met a number of young guys who where into Computer Engineering service. They would be done in few minutes and leave the company with smiling faces because they were paid handsomely. As a young man, there was nothing more arousing than being the best in everything. It became my driving force as a child; aspiring to be the best in everything. An instruction I got from my father made to always want to come first in all of life’s activities that I engage in whether sports or academic work.
When a customer brought any job, I would give you the faulty components so you could go out there yourself and verify how much they cost. I was actually building trust, so at a time, I was able to build relationship with customers. They had no choice but to come back to me any time they had issues and that was what helped my popularity.
Obviously, there was maligning and violence, so I couldn’t stay there but thanks to my friend and other people who helped me acquire that training, I had to leave there.
By the time I left, I had no money but it was not for the money like I said. This was a young man who was very competent, who had trust but did not have money. I had to look for somewhere to squat because I couldn’t afford to rent an office space. Luckily for me, there on the same street was a bookshop. I used to go there to buy books, so I went to the owner and told him I had been asked to leave my place and I wanted to know if I could share his bookshop with him. He said it was no problem and asked me to pay N25,000 per annum for half of the space because his rent was N50,000. That was how we started.