How Onyeka Akumah Built a Successful Tech Startup: The Story of Treepz

What inspired you to start Treepz and what challenges did you face in the beginning?

What inspired me to start Treepz was that in 2009 I already decided that there were three sectors that I wanted to find means of using technology to have a positive impact. One of them was Agriculture, getting people to eat on a daily basis. The second was Real Estate, so that people will be able to stay in a house and the third one is Transportation because I want people to move better.

I already had these sectors in mind and I wanted to focus on their strength, technology and marketing. I had done something in the Agriculture space In 2016 with Farmcrowdy,I had done something in the real estate space in 2018 with and I was looking at something to do in the transportation space. In January 2019 we explored the use of public transportation just to know what it looks like. People had to use public transportation in Lagos and they had to do it without technology and I felt like it was an opportunity to bring some sanity into the transportation business. There are about 9 million people that use the bus in Lagos daily and I felt like it was so much opportunity to not ignore the technology in that sector.

I worked with my team, put together a plan and after 8-9 months we launched Treepz. Initially it was called PlentyWaka. We raised money from a crowdfunding portal to buy buses, it was a major challenge. Though it did well in the first 6 months and we were able to move about 100,000 people who started paying attention to what we were doing. But Covid hit us hard and those buses were grounded because there were no activities during lock-down which led to debts. That was one of the major challenges we faced. The second one was financing the business. Initially we were doing things on our own and by ourselves; we then got to that road block where Covid hit us hard, that was also a challenge. There was also a challenge of bringing something new to the market. No one before Treepz had used technology or mobile app to get people to move from one bus stop to the other in Nigeria and West Africa.

Something that I’ve always loved doing while we are breaking new grounds  and trying to do new things  and showing people that we can provide solutions to problems they didn’t even know existed and then get addicted to using our solutions really showed that there’s  actually a major  lead for that problem. Those were the early challenges we had to face while building Treepz but we’ve grown from there and glory be to God where it is now. We have about 3 million tickets sold over the last 3 years and expanding.

This is amazing. What are those factors that contributed to the success of Treepz?

A couple of things have helped us to continue to grow and push forward. One is the experience of the team. My background helped me to build other people businesses and my own businesses. That helped significantly in knowing what to do and avoiding some things even if I cannot avoid everything. I was an early team member in Wakanow in 2010, I was one of the first employees in Jumia in 2012 when it was called Sabunta and Kasuwa, I have built and sold two of my startups before, I’ve helped people to launch their businesses  and I’ve worked in the corporate space with Deloitte, British Council and GTBank, I think the experience counted for me. My Co-founders have similar experiences. They’ve lead successful teams, they’ve build businesses and they are entrepreneurs as well. The other team members contribute and perform their magic as well.

The second thing is that we learnt from our mistakes. We’ve made many mistakes but we never repeat those mistakes. We learn very quickly and we are able to find better ways of doing things.

Three is that we take risk early so that it allows us to identify what we can scale. You can get everything right and just find yourself in the wrong time.

Excellent. It has shown that you’ve had a lot of experience and it has cumulated into the successes that you have today. Are there lessons that you’ve learnt about entrepreneurship and how are those lessons influenced your business decisions today?

I was introduced to the act of creating values at an early stage. My mum made me do this when I was 12years old, raising day old chicks into full grown chickens and selling them at Christmas to get money that you’ll use to buy whatever gifts that you’ll want to get for Christmas. At 15 I had set up a business centre in Ajah area of Lagos in 2000. I’ve always found means of using my skills to create value. There was a time I had to pay for my studies from websites I designed. That background helped in kick starting my entrepreneurship journey.  Looking ahead into doing proper business,  I had to learn the act of setting up a business and creating value, getting valued customers, getting feedback early, improving on the products, recruiting smart team members and delegating.

One key strength is that I have a background in software engineering and I’ve been able to understand technology and its implementation. I also learn how to market and sell technology. I focus on my strength and people focus on theirs to make whatever we are doing a success. These are some of the things that have helped.

How did you build a strong team and what are the qualities that you looked out for in your employees?

I call it relationship capital. I meet so many people, I’ve recruited so many people and I’ve spoken to so many people. In the process of doing this I focus on those that have similar core values and those I can work with, I also identify those that can work as co-founders with me in setting up businesses. I might find a co-founder five years before the idea and I’ll create a relationship where we can make things together in the future.

When it comes to recruiting team members, if you can get it right with the first set of people you’ll most likely get it right with the rest from there with strong core values and processes in place. In setting up my businesses, one of my early recruits is the HR Manager to set the tone for culture and people management processes. I try to set up the kind of culture we want in the organization, our core values and then we start recruiting people from there. I also focus on core value, you can have a perfect CV but if you have the wrong attitude you’ll not fit into our system.

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This is incredible. Apart from skills, the right attitude also matters. What marketing strategy did you use and how did you measure their effectiveness?

When starting a new business you just want to get your first set of customers. My first set of business marketing tools are the networking on LinkedIn and the use of email newsletters. I try to sell my products to my networks first and I see if they’ll embrace it. I use email marketing to communicate ideas and I see how people will respond to that.

We always profile our customers, we have an identity of what they’ll look like and we target people that will fit that personnel, fit into it in the future or had passed through it in the past. We always target our audience. Our business has evolved to a place where we are smarter at how we do our marketing, we now know who our target audience should be at this stage of the business. You see a lot more of us around because you may just be part of our target market.

Fantastic. What role did innovation play in the development of your business and how do you play ahead of your competition?

The application of technology always brings about innovation to businesses because it makes it smarter, more structured and it helps to form decisions especially in the system where there was no technology. From an innovative perspective, finding means of applying technology to a sector that has no technology always makes one stand out. There’s nothing I’ve done that doesn’t have an application of technology. Technology helped us to generate funds from the public. Technology is always regarded as innovative.

We respect those that like to compete against us but what we’ve noticed over time is we create what every other person wants to imitate. We are ahead of the curve and we always think of what the next thing will be. We pay attention to what competition does but  we don’t really have new things to learn so we rather focus on the opportunities ahead and create them. It starts with us and every other person comes along.

We always want to create values and we always want to make our customers happier. That pushes us to constantly innovating on things. Our attention is creating values for customers may be this makes us ahead of the rest.

Incredible. How did you raise capital and what advice do you have for entrepreneurs that are seeking investment?

Raising capital always starts from relationships, the first set of capital I’ve raised was capital from people within my network. Funds can be raised through an accelerator, through an investors or though customers. Just make sure that you keep sharing updates and your investors get constant results about your progress.

My advice to new entrepreneurs is that you should first put in your own money and that’s the biggest risk you can take. You can then start building traction and use the network you have to get new capital. You can get into accelerator programs if you can. Let investors see your progress.

During the course of your entrepreneurship journey, what are some of the biggest mistakes that you’ve made and how did you learn from them?

One mistake was when I raised money for my first start up and I decided to immediately move into a new business model. That was a very big mistake we have learned from. Today we raise money and we stay focused on what made us raise that money and make our customers happier. The second thing is just employing people for their CVs. Have people with passion on your team, have people that are driven, put people on the team based on passion and vision, people that are teachable and hungry to learn.

Another thing that I learnt is identifying the jurisdiction of the market that you’re in and something that fits your model. This will help you get your timing and environment right. Doing the right business at the wrong time will make a business fail also doing the wrong business at the right time will still make it fail, so just get the perfect timing and get it right.

This is amazing. How did you know that Treepz will not fail from the beginning?

People were already using their mobile apps to book for flight tickets and hotel tickets but not buses before we launched in 2019. I already knew that people were getting comfortable with commuting with mobile apps. There are some customers that will have the Uber apps on their phones but won’t use it because its expensive. In deciding that  it  was a right time for this, it was coming from  a place where  the technology  around booking  for your commute not new but using  that to get a bus where you will share your ride with other  people that booked on the same bus, that was new.

We spent about three months educating people on what the value was after launching in September 2019. Once one person use our service, we noticed they referred to friends and family. Word got out! It took us three months to get people to know our model and another 3 months to reach a point where we had more demand than supply to meet our customer’s need.  

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who wants to build a successful business as well?

One is getting a great network of people. Relationship capital cannot be underestimated. People focus more on financial capital, I focus more on relationship capital. You’d employ yourself when you’re building your start up; you’d employ what you were when you were working with other people. Be deliberate about your start up and be deliberate on how you help other people build their startups or businesses as well because karma is real. Be deliberate about the network you’re building around you. Give first so that people can give back to you. Always keep track of your growth from day one.

All business ideas don’t become a success, many times they become a lesson and how you can do better with the next business idea.  Get people to mentor you and don’t take all the advice, use advice to sample your business and let your gut feeling tell you what to do.  Don’t go on the journey alone, have a team around you.

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