From fun to millions: How Seun Osewa built a multi-million dollar online venture with Nairaland

Mark Zuckerberg? Yes, that’s the boy that started Facebook. What started as a tool to share pictures and poke fun at chics by some students on Harvard campus is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise. With a networth estimated to be $19 billion, Mark, who will be 30 in May, is the richest under-30 in the world. He became a billionaire at 23 years.

Now, Facebook, you know very well; Google, you visit everyday even to search for answers to JAMB questions; Youtube, you watch; Yahoo, you have an email account with; but have you ever given thought to one website that recurringly turns up anytime you search for anything Nigerian? Does Nairaland ring a bell?

nairaland 5

If you’re an active internet user, or you consult that machine to search for stuff, chances are you would have come across Nairaland. Well, Nairaland is Nigeria’s biggest indigenous website and only Facebook, Yahoo, Google and blogspot are more viewed than it. Put better, it commands more visits than Twitter and Wikipedia in Nigeria. It also bests sites like Punch, Vanguard, Guardian etc. It is the seventh most visited website in Nigeria and among the top 1000 most viewed sites in the world. Nairaland records more than one million views everyday.

But behind this hugely successful online site is one young man called Seun Osewa.

Who is Seun Osewa?

  • Seun was born some 32 years ago.
  • He  is an indigene of Ogun state (this state has more firsts than any other state in Nigeria: Abiola, Obasanjo, Awolowo, Soyinka, wetin sef?).
  • He lives in Ogun state and has refused to move to Lagos, the “happening capital” of Nigeria.

Another drop-out?

  • Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to pursue their interests (Facebook and Microsoft), Seun also enrolled as a student of Obafemi Awolowo University (oops, Great Ife, we rule!) to study electrical engineering  in 1998, but he did not finish. No, he wasn’t rusticated. Too brilliant to be. But an account has it he left to do the “Bill Gates” thing.

The beginning was not rosy

seun osewa 1Small boy just playing on the internet in 2003…no, he actually started with all seriousness

In this 2006 interview, he narrated how all his businesses before Nairaland failed

” All my business projects before Nairaland were failures, except the one that became Nairaland. My web hosting business failed after just 3 months because I ran out of money, while I couldn’t execute many other projects I researched due to shyness and lack of capital. My blogs and the mobile phone forum that preceded Nairaland were successful but not profitable. However, it was on that foundation that Nairaland was built.”

So how did he hit the Nairaland jackpot?

How did this young man, who was just around 22-23 years then, think of starting a forum that will later become Africa’s numero uno? Let’s hear from the horse’s mouth:

“About 2 years earlier (2003) I had attempted to start a web hosting business, but after 3 months I could only boast of one customer, so I ran out of capital and the business died.  It would probably have succeeded if I had managed my capital more wisely or raised more money as I got many hosting requests I couldn’t satisfy later that year.

After that first failure, I was encouraged to get certifications and a regular job, but I couldn’t go back to that kind of path after tasting creative freedom, so I kept researching business ideas and presenting them to friends and family, but no capital was forthcoming to carry any of them out.  I did this for less than 2 years.  (The last idea was a site for sending SMS messages. I picked up Python to implement it.)

Eventually, I decided to start a web forum, because it was the only idea that required no additional capital:  I already had Internet access and a $15 per month VPS graciously paid for by a family friend.  I created 3 forums in November 2003 (one for higher institution students,  one for IT discussions, and one to cover the emerging GSM industry; the Mobile Nigeria Forum at MobileNigeria.com).

The Mobile Nigeria Forum took off, so I relaunched it in February 2005 with the assistance of Mr. John Sagai Adams, who posted a link to the forum on his mailing list and participated enthusiastically in those early days.  Other mobile enthusiasts like Mr. Yomi Adegboye pitched in to make the site a success.  In a month or so, the forum had about 300 members, but the growth potential didn’t satisfy me.

I decided to start Nairaland when I noticed two odd things about MobileNigeria:

(1) Despite its narrow focus, it was the only Nigerian community that gave a voice to Nigerians at home.  Most other Nigerian sites were owned and dominated by Nigerians in the US or UK.  They covered only issues of interests to Nigerians abroad.

(2) The off topic section of the forum, covering topics outside telecoms, like romance and jokes, was becoming more vibrant than the Mobile Nigeria Forum itself, suggesting the need for a more general-purpose Nigerian forum.

This gave me the confidence to take forums like Naijaryders and Talknaija head on by starting a general purpose discussion forum with a strong bias towards issues of interest to Nigerians at home.  I felt that such a site could attract enough traffic to make enough money from Google adverts.  That’s why I started the Nairaland Forum.” (CP-AFRICA.COM)

2005: What’s with that year?

Did I just see Seun say he started Nairaland in 2005? I am still searching for answer to why the most successful online ventures around today started between 2004-2006. Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Mashable, Techcrunch, Linda Ikeji, Bella Naija, and other Kings and Queens of the Social Media space started during this period. Why? Okay, Jarushub, the heir apparent, started in 2013.

seun osewa3Highly reclusive Seun will rather be found in his buba and fila than trendy jeans in Social events

Seun the contrarian celebrity

Fame, power, money we all love and seek to have. But as someone that knows Seun quite well -even if not physically yet, and may never – the guy just doesn’t appear to like the celebrity status. Some people use money to buy fame, Seun uses money to run away from it! I know people that will pay to meet Seun Osewa in person, but he has refused to show himself. With the largest African online forum under his control, more than half a million people that depend on his online website to make their day,  Seun can easily wield power. But all those appear not to be his style. A case in point: when he was listed by the organizers of The Future Awards in the controversial “Nigeria’s  100 Best” list, which presented him with an opportunity to dine with the celebrities in Aso Rock (what some people will pay millions to get), it didn’t even freak the Ota-based geek. Rather, he sarcastically commented on my Facebook wall when I raised a criticism of the TFA list that, “oh, it’s a good list because I saw my name there”. Oh, he only saw his name there, he didn’t partake in anything – a free ticket to visit Aso rock. Such is Seun’s abhorrence for fame. Close as I am to him, he has postponed my interview request for more than five times since May 2013. He is still on my radar, whether he likes it or not (lol). So anti-social is Seun that the car he drives is not even in public domain, while some small bloggers and online entrepreneurs flaunt their cars and house around.

seun osewa 4Chop ma money…a happy Seun probably after viewing his monthly bank statement and the millions

Recent trends on Nairaland

  • Seun, couple of years ago, dumped google adsense and other third party adverts for direct advert on his website and I sense his income must have tripled, given the gale of customers he has.
  • Seun also recently opened physical office for Nairaland, predictably, in his Ota enclave
  • Seun’s Nairaland is now an employer of labour, with at least 3 people on his payroll. I think he should have more.

Top brands that advertise on Nairaland

  • Blackberry official
  • First City Monument Bank (FCMB)
  • Jobberman
  • Grace Schools
  • Alomo Bitters

Seun’s Management style

  • I volunteered as a moderator for Seun’s Nairaland for more than three years. I moderated the Muslim section for three years and politics section for two and half years, so I have a fair idea of Seun’s management style.
  • Seun started as an autocratic leader, especially when he was still naive in the early days of Nairaland, but later outgrew this naivety and democratized his management style to a reasonable extent
  • I still think he has more to do on the management of this forum that is the most successful online forum in Nigeria. Nairaland needs more formalization.
  • With the setting up of a physical office, I think he is already thinking along this line, but he needs to do fast.

Seun’s philanthropy

He may not be a billionaire yet, and can’t afford to give much to charity like the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of this world, but he does appear to recognize empowerment. He has organized some entrepreneurship competitions on Nairaland, and given out more than N500,000 in prizes to winners. He has also promoted and given exposure to some upcoming Nigerian internet entrepreneurs and designers. 

What you can learn from Seun’s story

  • Persistence – Seun laid his hands on several online endeavours but were not successful, but he continued trying many things until Nairaland became a success.
  • Promote others – I recently started a discussion on Nairaland on online ventures that were started on Nairaland or which Nairaland contributed to their success. Even this Jarushub is a product of Nairaland as the brand Jarus started from Nairaland.  He has also promoted some budding web designers that advertisers patronize for banner production.
  • Learn from others: Seun’s Nairaland has been Nigeria’s biggest forum for many years but he caught the bug of direct advertisement late, when some even less visited blogs have started raking in millions from direct ad sales. Well, Seun came to the game late, but he is assuming market leadership even in this opportunity now.

seun osewa 2

Seun the geek…Lagos my foot, making money under the tree in Ota

Where Seun needs to work more?

  • Social face – Well, I’m not too sure this is exactly a negative, because I don’t think we are all cut out for socializing. But I observe that even less successful Nigerian internet entrepreneurs get all the accolades. Well, while some others are busy flaunting their cars, Seun is busy counting his millions in Ota. However, I think showing up in such events once in while – even if it’s just once or twice a year – is not out of place. Someone even recommended me, as one of the most popular faces of Nairaland, to him (without my knowledge until much later)  to represent him in public events. I guess the person is familiar with the rising Jarus brand (I once attended an event and camera-phone paparazzi were following me around, and attendees wanting to snap pictures with the “Great Jarus of Nairaland”..lol. Imagine if it was Seun).
  • Corporate face – While I reason with Seun that attending social events and announcing his arrival in the big boys club is a distraction, I think a corporate face is a necessity. Forget about the fact that not having one already, he still makes millions per month and who cares if he needs one, but the truth is, if not for anything, formalization connotes more seriousness. It also promotes personal branding. This is why I respect the Jobberman guys, with their branded cars and all that. I think Nairaland needs a well-known office, better organizational set-up with Managers, and an official account, not Seun Osewa’s account. It is an investment worth trying.

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