Hi Damola, what’s your background, and what are you currently working on?
My name is Adewale Adedamola.
I don’t like to call myself a founder. I understand that I’m someone that has started something. I’ve started a lot of things actually. There are some that are still running, and there are some that have stopped.
The main one is Aorthar which is a design agency and it’s comprised of a team of brilliant individuals.
So what happened is that in the course of my experience and exposure, I get people that have the potential; I discuss with some of my friends and some come to discuss with me about joining me and all that.
I gathered these guys and orient them a bit and we start taking jobs together and sharing the money.
It’s not really a founder thing, because we would have been talking about salary and startup.
In the context, it’s a business that’s registered; then a lot of training, a lot of HR stuff, a lot of official stuff, meetings, etc. So that’s the vibe of the business.
Maybe it’s okay to call it something that I founded but naturally, we don’t really operate like that. Right now, I call it a group of people, a team. And I call myself a team lead.
We’ve done so many amazing things together. We’ve done projects for ourselves, like personal projects. We’ve done some for clients also and then we also have representatives, like we get clients on behalf of Aorthar, and then we have someone that’s running the operational dealings of that company.
Sometimes, we get contracts, sometimes we do trainings.
What motivated you to get started with Aorthar?
When I started it initially, I wanted it to be like a hub for training the next generation of designers. I had the model of Andela. Andela used to be like a software talent developer. They have this 6-months internship, they train young talents and then they ship them out to any company that’s in need of developers.
It’s just like a school; the fact that you learned with Andela, you are going to be worth a lot of experience and value.
So I think the business model is that the company gets paid on their behalf, I’m not really sure of the deal, but whatever it was, I kind of wanted to do something like that for designers, because we don’t really have a design school.
So basically, I wanted to create a hub that trains designers; that was the initial plan. Those days in school that I do little trainings, and I see the way people respond to it. I realized that I’m ready to teach properly and people really grabbed what I taught them and they become professionals.
My first set of students are all designers to date. Compared to when I learned design, the teacher taught about 10 of us and I think I’m still the only person using this design to eat; every other person has kind of given up.
I wanted to make something out of it then and that was when the whole idea came up. So I started writing a lot of strategies. I had like 2 people then; a developer and a content writer. We also launched our website then.
Let’s talk about how we offer design services.
The model was to, first of all, offer the service so that we can have enough cash to build the hub we were planning to build. Since we already had the talent of people who can design and develop apps and websites; I can design, my CTO can develop and my content writer can write, let’s offer our services and make cash because the whole idea of starting things up is that the team members will give up along the way. That was the model.
So the strategy I had in mind was to first offer some design services for a while, then after, if I get a lot of profit, I’ll venture into teaching people. That was initially the plan.
That was what motivated me.
How did you move from design to marketing and why did you have to move to marketing?
It’s not marketing per se, it’s just your task to sell because you want to survive; you need to make money and you have to learn it. So marketing just comes in naturally, because the only way you can make money is to get yourself out there and the only way you can get yourself out there is to market yourself.
So, I’m a designer. Just imagine entrepreneurs come to ask me that “Damola, can you design a flyer for me because I want to host an event and in that event, I want to sell my book” or people saying “I want to launch a project or product and I need designs”.
So definitely, design solves people’s problems, so why shouldn’t I use it to solve my own problem. That makes a lot of sense and that’s the reason why I have to start engaging with what design does for entrepreneurs.
It’s not like I went to do marketing; this is me using what I know to actually get cash and the term now becomes sales and marketing whereby you design a flyer of what you do, then you ship it out to people, then people will inquire and they’ll do business with you.
Apart from that, for people, if they want to use my product or my service to do marketing, so they’ll be telling me a lot of specifications, so I learned from them indirectly.
In fact, every CEO has to be a good marketer, because if you are a CEO and not a marketer or a salesperson, there’s a big chance that your business will fail.
There are 2 different kinds of people that start a business; there are products people and what they are interested in is offering services and there are business people and what they are interested in is selling something. These 2 sets of people do things differently.
A business person is always looking for ways to get money and sell back money like they use money to get money basically; they hire people, they pay for things.
What the products or service people do is that they use their skills to get money.
Definitely, one is going to have a marketing ability than the other; the one that will have the marketing ability is the one that does everything in his power to make money and that’s the business people, they need money, they are looking for investors, they are looking for cash, they don’t mind selling their houses to get money.
Let me give an example, if a CTO, or a coder, or a programmer decides to start running a business, he’s most likely not going to spend anything. All he has to do is to sit with his system and then be coding, so if he fails, it doesn’t really hurt him a bit. But compared to a businessman, if he fails, he’s going to go broke and he doesn’t want that to happen so, the energy is different.
This set of people are the people I mostly dealt with in my early stages and they taught me a lot, so being a product person, I started learning marketing that way. I now became a businessman that has that skill set.
I’m now combining those 2 energies. I don’t have to spend to hire people to do my work for me; still, I’m able to generate money for myself.
So that’s how everything synced together.
How do you think designers can learn how to market their products?
There are 2 ways to do this.
You might naturally be someone that doesn’t want to be seen which is fine, so one of the things I’ll advise is that you should get somebody that doesn’t mind being seen as your assistant or your co-founder. A lot of people do this a lot.
Go and check all the histories of every businessman that you see, maybe Jeff Bezos for example; there’s a big chance that his co-founder is going to be a developer or product designer or product developer because these two have to sync. One has to build amazing products, and one has to sell to the biggest bidders or to get a lot of people to buy. That’s how business works.
If you know that you are not the kind of person that’s good in marketing, maybe because of the way you grew up or you are an introvert, the best thing is to actually find someone loud that can sell for you. That’s number one.
Secondly, you can learn it. There’s another thing I use to tell people to do in the aspect of learning. I use to feel like the beginning of our lives is very important, maybe that’s one of the mistakes I made.
I use to tell people that the experience I have today was paid for by my blood. I used my time to buy it.
Some people buy courses these days to learn marketing, how to run ads. But for me, it’s possible that I’ve spent millions of time trying to get it right and I keep failing and the day I get it right, I’ll never get it wrong again.
You don’t need to start up something immediately after school or the first ideation. I rather advise people to do internships. You learning under someone who’s good at selling will help you sell better when it’s time for you to do that.
The time I was building Aorthar, I was working under others, so some things they did towards marketing that they made mistakes and I felt that I won’t do something like that and there are some things that they did which clicked and I was like “oh, this is what I’ll do”.
So, it now becomes you knowing how to do these things with somebody else’s sweat. It’s not that you are not using your sweat, but people that teach all these things as a course must have passed through those things with experience and they decided to sell it to you, then you use money to pay for it.
So another way you can learn some of these things is probably go through apprenticeship; just serve under someone that’s good. Most of these CEOs already have someone they claimed to be their mentor, they’ve served before, someone who was their boss in their early days and learned so much under. That’s how it works basically.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
This is both personal and it’s sort of my own standard. The only marketing style that I use to retain people is excellence; just make sure that you are doing a good job.
There are people that have worked with me for 5 years. From the onset of learning design, there are people still patronizing me. Some have left though. But most of those that have left were because of change of rates; maybe they could not afford it any longer.
Sometimes, you can also sack some clients; you know when it gets to a period of time and then like I can’t work with you anymore, because you are too toxic or you don’t value me, things like that.
As a product person, there’s a big chance of going faster than a business person. I’m a designer at level 1, and within 6 months, I can be at level 5, but for a business person, it might not take 6 months before they finally get that inch of wealth. No matter how much you dedicate yourself, you won’t scale that fast compared to if you have a skill you want to scale.
The way I retain customers is excellence, and then the way I acquire customers is referral. Those are the 2 basic methods that I use. I don’t think ads, promos really work for me. I’ve tried most of them.
What were the biggest challenges you faced and the obstacles you overcame?
I think the first challenge we mostly faced was capital. Capital was one of my challenges then but maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place because I don’t really see excuses for that because I was making money, although it was not enough but the idea I had, it was something we could start without money but when I started growing it, I realized that money is important.
Another thing is human resources. I feel like in my small circle, a lot of people regard me as someone they would love to work with so I didn’t really have a problem with pitching to people to come and join me.
If I put it out there that I’m looking for a designer to join me at Aorthar, people will send applications, but the problem is how to now pay them because the way running business works is that, before you get to the peak it’s going to be difficult and a lot of people cannot wait that far for you or with you.
You are the owner of the business, there’s a big chance that no matter the sufferness, you’ll stick with it to the end but nobody will stay till the end for you so human resources can be a very big problem; people to scale alongside you.
The money that you might use to sustain them, might not be easy. There are days whereby nobody patronized us for like 6 months and then you need to start paying people and you realize that you are finished because all your money has finished and you are even going into more debts and then you are lonely as the CEO/Founder because if you go o Twitter now, you’ll see a lot of people dragging their CEOs that he has not paid for 5 years and then nobody is actually empathetic about how they make money.
And then there are days whereby you guys are not really hitting the jackpot, not really getting customers. There are times whereby in a year, I’ve noticed around January to March, nobody patronizes during those times. A lot of people are still trying to come up from the festive period, nobody wants to spend, and everybody is on a low budget, but your business still has to run, people need to be paid salary, then things start getting really messy, you’ll now see CEOs going to collect loans just to keep “business running”.
What this “business running” means is that you still have to keep paying those bills, you still have to keep paying salaries and at the end of the day, it will not be enough and then the people you don’t want them leaving will still eventually leave.
So human resource is a problem because you can’t do everything alone obviously. You might need more people, but as you are thinking of bringing more people onboard, also be thinking of paying them and that’s when it becomes difficult and you get scared, then you don’t want to bring people, you want to keep running it yourself and maybe you get exhausted and maybe you have to close down.
Those are the problems.
You see some founders, and the first breakdown they ever had with their trusted co-founders is mostly a capital problem.
The people I started with gave up and then others started leaving. As a business person, you don’t mind, you can go through that desert but people are not ready to go with you and you can’t blame them, they want to eat obviously.
Sometimes, some people will rather just go for like invest your cash, get those pressures from investors because they too are like business owners and they understand the journey of trying to build until you get to that peak. So they might give you the money or borrow you, or invest in you and then you have like maybe a full year to reach your highest potential because the salary is somewhere that has been saved, people just have to keep working and you are not scared of sacking people and bringing in a better person and paying the person. You are not scared because you have the money on ground.
So, capital and human resources work hand in hand.
Then there is also government policy as an obstacle. I believe that during my time, the best gigs I usually have are usually from the crypto industry and the early customers I had were all crypto guys, they were builders; they built apps so they need my services but suddenly government says that we cannot operate crypto in this country and then the business will start running down.
You will now be looking for ways to enter a new market and then the market is already filled up because 3-5 years ago, people were picking their niche and you decided to build apps and websites and now, that niche has now crashed and now you want to enter a saturated niche, and it becomes really tough.
How do you get motivated?
First of all, you need alternatives; as you are making plan A, there should be a plan B. That’s the first thing you should do as a person.
As I’m running businesses, I have other things I do. Apart from the fact I freelance, I also work in a place that gives me salary. All I have to do is just split my time into 2; morning sessions, I’ll resume at work, while night sessions, I’ll freelance.
The best way to run a business is to have a cash flow, so salary is a very effective way to have a cash flow. For instance, if you have one sum that’s coming into your account every month, and your business is crashing, there’s a big chance that it’s going to survive because you can use your salary to settle outstanding bills and keep your business afloat.
If you already have a problem which is capital; how do you solve it? You need to make money.
How do you make money? You need to become a human resource yourself. You also have to go out there and work for people. You cannot say you are a CEO, then you just stick that title on your head, it doesn’t make any sense; it makes a lot of sense that you offer to work for people. You need to network; you need to put yourself out there in terms of work, time, meeting people, learning, going for more trainings, attending classes, attending webinars, etc.
Personally, I have goals, and one way or the other, those goals are making me survive. The hunger to get better makes your business or whatever you set your hands upon to survive.
Sometimes, when a business can affect your lifestyle because you want your business to grow, you have to grow. So the pressure of your business is making you actually find more ways to survive.
For Aorthar to grow, I have to grow personally. I have to grow in income, skills. This is not a motivation, it’s like poverty is what’s motivating me, the fear of failing is what’s motivating me.
I just have to do the right things to stay on my feet, I have to watch more courses, learn more things. Before, I just used to be a regular designer; now I went from regular design to graphics design to UI/UX design to product design to product management all in the space of 2 years.
And then you keep wondering why I’m going this far and what the speed is about. Some of my friends are just designers but I’ve learned a lot of things just to make my business survive. I’ve learned how to write content, how to run social media, how to run ads, and how to design, and probably still going to learn coding, project management, team management, and some other soft skills.
And then if I ever want to apply for jobs, it’s going to be at the executive or lead roles, I can’t be working under a HOD and it helps me to get a fatter salary. So I keep getting value because of that pressure of businesses that I have, so you have to keep that status quo.
It’s just like let’s say you rent a 5-bedroom flat, you’ll want to do everything to maintain that status quo, you don’t want to go back to a one-room apartment.
So these things help me to stay more motivated.
What are some sources of learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
I learned from a lot of teachers like Jack Ma, Dan Lok, Gary Vee, etc. It just depends on what I want to learn at that point.
If I’m feeling down, and I need to stay motivated, I’ll listen to Gary Vee.
Maybe I want to sell products, I’ll go and listen to Dan Lok.
We have teachers in different niches, and there will be a time in your life where you’ll need to listen to one of them. You’ll need to listen to a mentor, or even a colleague because mentors can be overrated sometimes because they speak and you’ll want to fit into their story because you can relate to it, and sometimes your story is completely new to your generation, maybe a relationship issue.
I’ve never heard most CEOs say that their businesses crashed because of a relationship and maybe the reason your business is on the line is because of a relationship, so at that point in time you might not have anybody to discuss it with except probably with a friend, then the person will tell you what to do.
So, it’s you being able to notice or detect your problem, be honest about it, and find a solution.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First of all:
You need plan A, you need plan B, you need plan C.
You need to be very innovative.
I think when I started boot camp, people that come to my house to learn, I use to sell like 10 slots at #50k each which is #500k a week, so everyone is usually wowed that I made 500k in a week, but I’m sacrificing a lot of things. I’m sacrificing my time, my strength. Everyone is just interested in the figure.
The first time I launched it, about 4 people paid, it was discouraging because #200k was little. So what I did was that I did 2 styles of teaching. A lot of feedbacks were that they can’t travel down, COVID-19, etc, so I recorded those sessions that I taught in the boot camp and I sold it at maybe a lesser price and I made like x3. It was very crazy.
This is where your creativity comes in; you don’t sell with one channel or one style. If you sell with one style and you realize you are not making money, you can rebrand it and sell it another way. If you’ve been targeting business owners and you are not selling, maybe you could target students or somewhere else. It doesn’t mean your product is bad, it means the people you are selling to are not buying or your target is wrong, so you need to innovate and be creative.
Another piece of advice I’ll give is that:
You need to keep learning. Learn from people that have failed, not people that have succeeded.
Most of the time, unconsciously, people like Elon Musk talk about their failures, but then they’ve succeeded. So what you should pay attention to is what Elon Musk did that made him fail, not how he eventually made the billions of dollars he’s now making, because you can’t be selling Tesla cars but you can stay up at night to learn to code.
Be courageous; don’t give up; fail; enjoy the chaos.
There are so many times Aorthar wants to sell branding; we want to be one of the best brand agencies in Nigeria, it crashed, then I went into UI/UX, it crashed, then I’m considering going into like boot camps and education, that one too might crash and I’ll try another thing.
It’s just making me smile because the more these things crash, the more I learn.
I have a website called Motivv, the intention is that anytime I train students, I want to connect them to clients. A lot of clients used to come and meet me to give them designers because they can’t afford me, because of the plenty of requests, I decided to create a platform where they can get and pay. It’s just like LinkedIn, but for design niche.
Everyone registered on that Motivv will get the email notification of the job posting. You can apply directly or just reply to the email because the email you’ll be replying to is the email the poster puts there.
It didn’t really generate a lot of traction from the clients’ side; people will still rather post on WhatsApp status, but a lot of designers came in.
So let’s try another thing, we introduced Motivv Challenge. That’s like a daily task that we can be sending to designers every time to do. A lot of people did that also and a lot of clients were looking for the best student.
I’ve tried everything that I can try and each feature or project that I release is an episode of a lot of lessons and new skills.
Apart from the fact that I’m learning all these for my business, now imagine working for like 2 more people; just imagine how much I consume daily.
Something happened recently in where I work, they’ve not made sales for about 2 months, even the marketing guy was complaining about the ads not converting; I just told them just one thing that I’ve done and they were wowed and it was something that’s basic for me.
Before, I was an employee, now they are looking at me as an asset, and maybe before you know it, the CEO will start asking me for opinions.
Don’t be afraid at all, just enjoy the process, you are still very young.
Don’t waste your time; time is very valuable. This is not time to party, this is the time to learn.
I spend 100% of my time on my computers. I actually lack social skills, but there’s time for everything. I feel like maybe my 26, 27, 28 years, I’m going to probably get better. There is actually time to consume a lot of knowledge and I used my early 20s to do that.