Diminutive in stature, colossal in talents, he is an adventurer whose enterprising spirit defies fear of the unknown. A man of many firsts and not a few disappointments, he’s not one to give up easily on his dreams. After a considerable hits and misses, he caught the attention of the klieg light with the birth of Nairabet Akin Alabi, the young and suave founder of the first online sport betting portal in Nigeria, has been able to carve a niche for himself. Before breaking through, Alabi is a metaphor of many youths’ frustrating attempts at hitting the cut-off mark of the Joint Admission Matriculation Board, (JAMB) examination – for five years, he sat for the exams without hitting the mark thus missing the opportunity of getting a university degree. While university education seemed far away from his grasp, that cold reality couldn’t snuff out his entrepreneurial dream. For the thorough-bred Ibadan businessman, there is more to life than a university education. In this interview with Omolabake Fasogbon, the 39-year-old millionaire shares the narratives of a fast growing betting industry in Nigeria – its past, present and its future
The beginning“I have set up many businesses,” he said, “but they failed too soon. I am happy they didn’t stay too long before they failed as that quickly prepared me for a new chapter. My efforts to get university education failed because JAMB failed me five times. As far as that exam is concerned, I think I got what I deserved. I must have failed JAMB because I wasn’t too serious, not that I wasn’t brilliant. Of course, I’m an average student but I kept meeting myself at the point of 180 and 190. Meanwhile, I had already passed my polytechnic entrance exam and admitted in a polytechnic as I kept struggling with JAMB to see if I could make a direct switch to university. I decided to quit after making five unsuccessful attempts.”Asked how he felt for not having a university education, “I felt pretty normal because I knew I wasn’t going to make any career from either polytechnic or university certificate.”Surprisingly, business is not a trend in his clan that one could say he may be toeing an established pattern. The business mogul loves reading and in the course of that exercise, he said “I came across Success Digest, which exposed me to business ideas.” Like any other entrepreneurs, he has taken a whole lot of decisions that spelt doom in the long run especially on failed deals. However, the decision to start Nairabet is one he will ever live to celebrate.“I started as information marketer; I was basically into writing and selling of books which I could say was like selling my knowledge and experience both on online and terrestrial platforms. It pleases me to tell you that I still do that till now.”But why did he choose publishing instead of dealing in more lucrative ventures? “I realised that most businesses require capital to build, as a fresh graduate, I didn’t have the resources to set up one. I decided to go into information marketing because it requires minimum capital and to the glory of God, it went well,” he answered.Independent entrepreneur all the wayIn what can be said to be unusual, Alabi said he has never been anybody’s employee; he has always been his own boss. “Right from time, I had vowed never to work under anybody. Besides, all I have always wanted to be, right from my childhood, was to become rich but definitely not as a paid employee. I didn’t mind what manner of business I would go into as long as it is legally accepted. I just wanted to do things myself and I thank God this came to pass. Immediately after my youth service, I went straight into learning how to do ventures that will earn me money. I attended series of seminars. I also read a lot inspiring business books. The decision to be my own boss was further boosted with the discrimination against HND holders. As an HND graduate, my chances were limited in the labour market and so, I pursued the course to being a rich entrepreneur,” the Nairabet boss stated.
MentorHe is no other person than Dr. Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase, the publisher of Complete Sport and Success Digest Magazine.“He has always been a source of inspiration to me even long before I met him. While in school, I used to save money to buy his magazine so that I can read his articles. When I didn’t have money, I would join free readers association because I couldn’t afford to miss his articles. I got to know of information marketing through him and I am still earning a living from that. There was a time he put up a seminar in Lagos and I came from Ibadan to attend the seminar; that was the first time I met in person,” Alabi noted.
His childhoodAbout his growing up, he said, “I was born and bred in Ibadan, Oyo State. I came from a family of five; I am the last child. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth and we weren’t poor either. My parent could afford three square meals and they could conveniently pay for the children’s education.
Challenges of pioneering businesses in NigeriaGetting Nairabet and indeed, sport betting industry to stand firm in the country was not a child’s play. He narrated explained: “I got the idea from one of my trips to the United Kingdom. My brother introduced me to the game, I tried it and I loved it. It then occurred to me that we didn’t have such in Nigeria. I saw a prospect for the business in Nigeria considering the fact that Nigerians have penchant for football, particularly, European football, which is the bedrock of the (betting) game generally. I had the conviction that I could do it and with that spirit, I set for action. However, it didn’t come as easy as I had imagined being a new venture in the country.”Continuing, he recalled, “Before I started the business, I went online and threw the idea out, I conducted an online survey to see the reactions that will follow if the business eventually was established in the country. The feedbacks were amazing as people showed keen interest. That fuelled my confidence the more, so, I set out to work on the business idea. I tried to get information on how to go about the business, but couldn’t get any. I searched online, there was nothing inspiring. I also travelled abroad in search of help on how to get the deal done, what I got was not encouraging. I came back home and eventually came across a developer, a friend, who developed the basics for me and then I launched out. I started making my money almost immediately after I set out. In fact, the first set of customers we had were those I met online in the course of my research. They were so happy that the platform exists in the country and do not need to go through the rigorous exercise of sending money abroad to participate in the game. It is however easier to develop today because subsequent entrants now have a model to follow.”
Raising the capitalAs far as pioneering an activity may come with some uphill struggle, it has some gains as Alabi revealed: “I didn’t really spend much to get the deal on the table. I contacted a friend who helped me to develop something very basic almost for free – and with less than N200, 000, we kicked off. Getting to raise the money wasn’t difficult as I had already started saving from the proceeds I gathered from information marketing. Meanwhile, it took lesser amount to start then because it was just coming into the market.” Asked about the cost implications of establishing betting venture today, he reclined in his seat and said, “You should be talking of millions of naira. In short, let me peg it at N100 million.”
Seeing competitors as partnersThe monopoly he enjoyed as the only entrepreneur in the industry was soon broken as other businessmen came on the scene. Displeased with that? Alabi said: “Absolutely not.” For the serial entrepreneur, competition is wanted and welcome. He expressed, “I’m very excited that they are coming. I see them as my partners and not my rivals. If other portals didn’t emerge, the market would not be this developed. My brand is what it is today as a result of the exploit of those that came after us. When others came and tried to do things better than we were doing, we were forced to improve on our offerings. If we were still enjoying the monopoly, we won’t be as big as this. The good thing however is that for us in the industry, we have cordial relationships. We call one another on regular basis to keep ourselves abreast of latest happenings in the industry. We also have an association called Association of Nigerian Bookmakers.”
Nairabet’s unique selling pointAnd in the midst of many partners, the brand has continuously wormed its way into customers’ heart. How is that being achieved? “Our experience stands us out,” he confidently said. “We keep our words. If you bet with us, be assured of getting your money. Even when others came up with better products, our customers still chose us because they know we treat them right.”
Expanding the businessSpeaking on the venture’s reach, Alabi stated, “Already, we have gone national from the very first day we started business through the online platform. People can bet from anywhere in the country. For the offline stores however, we operate a franchise programme, where we give our software to any interested agent and then we split the commission. Most of the shops you see around are not directly operated by us but we allow them to run on our identity. Through this franchise, we’ve been able to spread faster than we could imagine.”
Winding down Nairabet?As he hinted about a new deal, he dropped a shocker: “I no longer run Nairabet day-to-day, as a matter of fact, I am gradually moving to the background. I’m tired of sitting down, going through files and signing documents every day. I hate routine jobs but I love the excitement of exploring new areas.” He said he has nurtured the betting company to a point where the pillar cannot be shaken, and so he needed to break record in another line. “For years, this business has been all over me to the extent that I rarely have time for other endeavours. Soonest, we are coming up with an online courier service, a kind of pickup and delivery service where you don’t have to be physically present at the courier station to wire your items, but rather apply online and get the items delivered to your doorstep.”
Why the name ‘Nairabet’?I discovered that most sport betting companies found abroad usually ends or start with bet; several names came to my mind. Names like Naija Bet, Nigeria Bet but eventually, I found Nairabet more appealing.
Betters don’t loseAbove any other reasons, betters play with the intention to win; operators are also in to make profit which wouldn’t come if there are no losers. Nobody wants to be a loser. But, would this highly expectant entrepreneur wish that his customers be at the losing end for him to make profit?“I want you to get something clear about how we do the business. You see, anytime someone loses in a bet, his or her money is taken by others that win. This is what a lot of people don’t realise. Let me give you an analogy, when 100 people bet with N1000 each, this amounts to N100, 000. Ninety-eight people may lose while two persons win. One person may win N45, 000 another wins N50, 000, totalling N95, 000. We pay these winners from the N100, 000 realised and the remaining N5, 000 comes back to us. Likewise, if 98 people win and two persons lose, it is also from this N100, 000 that we pay the 98 people, though they get a smaller portion each. From the token left with us, government gets its own percentage, other than the company tax, the technical provider also takes its own percentage. We pay our tax too, pay salaries, settle administrative bills and also make profit.“For every bet we take, over 90 per cent goes back to the winners but a lot of people don’t know this. Rather they feel Nairabet has swindled them. Coming back to the question whether he wishes betters good luck or not, he wouldn’t give a straight answer, but pointed out that “Whether they are on the winning sides or losing sides, it does not affect us, it’s pretty standard that 90 per cent of whatever realised will be paid out. So people don’t lose to us, they lose to themselves. In other words, money keeps going around betters and doesn’t stay with us. Just a little percentage of players’ money eventually comes to us.”
Benefits of betting to GovernmentA lot of the money raised in the lottery and sport betting business goes to an account called Lottery Trust Fund. It’s spent on infrastructure and citizens’ welfare. We call such money good cause .The contributions of the lottery industry to the development of the country is massive and in case you don’t know, anytime somebody places a bet, a little percentage of the person’s money is used to cater for the good of the country. Don’t be surprised that part of the money used to construct the road that leads to your house may probably be coming from the fellow that places N100 on a bet. I am very happy that I am contributing to the development of the country; that is why I don’t even mind paying more because I know and I’m convinced that the money is used for good causes and not embezzled.
Nairabet for 18 and aboveEveryone finds pleasure in football matches these day because of its entertainment value – the rich, poor, young and old. Beyond entertainment, people also bet to enlarge their monetary coast. Does that include the rich? “I know most of my customers are youths, however, I don’t profile them in terms of their financial level. Left to me, I want the excitement to cut across all the demographics. I prefer to have 100 people place N100 bet each than two people coming to place N50, 000 bet each. We have people from all walks of life that play the game, but must have reached 18 years and above because betting is an adult product just like alcohol.”
My lifestyle hasn’t changedHaving gone this far, you want to know if anything has changed about him since he hit the jackpot.“I am financially better than when I started out though I still eat Amala and Ewedu at the roadside. I patronise okada (motorcycle) and Marwa (tricycle) and I still fly economy. The fact that I’m financially OK makes no difference to me.” Asked if he moves around with escort? He said, “We have security for the company because sometimes we move money around and so their services will be needed but not specifically for me.”He wouldn’t disclose how much his company makes each month; “You don’t expect me to disclose that in public,” he retorted.When asked how the business is faring, considering present economy challenges, his crestfallen countenance speaks volume. “We make money in naira. We pay for our services in dollars and euro. The more these currencies go up, the more it bites us harder because our earnings remain the same.” Questioned on the movement of patronage considering the ‘no money’ chant in circulation, he wouldn’t want to talk about that. He jokingly said, “Since I have grown up, there has never been anytime people say they have money. The only time they say there is money is when they think about the past and when the past was happening, they still said there was no money. In 10 years’ time, if things go worse than this, Nigerians will still say things were good in 2016.”
“Left to me, I prefer the online platform. It is stress-free and saves cost. But the offline retail stores generate more money for us because many betters do not want to play online. They prefer to go to shops to unwind, argue about football matches and get latest information on sport.”
His philanthropyHe is guided by the belief that one doesn’t necessarily own the world before extending a supportive hand to the needy. Not because he was eying a political post by the way, helping others to make a living has become part and parcel of him even before he hits it big. It is based on this attitude that he established the Akin Alabi Foundation, with the motto, ‘Touching lives, one person at a time.’“The foundation is based in Ibadan. We see to the welfare of Ibadan people. We touch all spheres of life in our own little way particularly in the areas of education, health and sport.”How about people from other parts of the country? “I can’t do it all, I just want to help in the little way I can. Besides, I am an Ibadan boy. For now, the foundation can’t afford to go national, but once the resources come, we will spread the wings across the country. But that doesn’t mean we have not touched lives outside Ibadan. The young man from University of Lagos that graduated with a CGPA of 5.0 got N1m from the foundation and he is not from oyo state.”
Nigeria’s AFCON failure and betting businessA lot of people would have bet on Nigeria if we had qualified and we would have made more money. Now that Nigeria is out, people will only bet on other countries. We will feel the loss more when the game starts proper. Asked to give an estimate of how much the company would have made if Nigeria had qualified, he said, “I can’t really say because it didn’t happen.”
Childhood memoriesHe hardly recalled any event that fits in but eventually stumbled on one: “I remember my mother used to beat me because I stole meat from her pot. Funny enough, I still do that, this time around, from my wife’s pot of soup.
Political disappointmentHe recently lost in an election that would have boosted his resume. So, how is he taking it?“No one likes to lose in an election, especially having committed so much time and resources. No doubt, I was clearly the most popular candidate, but the people have elected their choice. Even if the election wasn’t fair, what has happened has happened. I felt I could use the House of Representatives platform to offer my people more beyond what I am giving them now. I am relieved now after all, at least, I’ve been able to get back to business.”
How did he receive the news of his loss at the poll?“The news came as a shocker, while waiting for the results to be announced, I was indoor having a discussion with my wife when the news broke that I’ve been defeated. Life has to continue. I only felt the loss for 10 hours; three days after the election, I threw a bash to celebrate my birthday. I didn’t allow the situation to weigh me down.”“I don’t know. For now, I need to concentrate on my businesses and other projects. But frankly speaking, I do not think I’m interested politics anymore, because despite how I demonstrated my intention to the people, they knew it and they saw it, they didn’t vote me in. As it is, I am left with no motivation. But if I consider contesting again, it definitely will still be on the PDP platform. I don’t believe in cross-carpeting. I will remain loyal to PDP.”
How does he relax?Hear him: “I don’t really take things serious, that’s why I could party three days after I lost in an election. I love hanging out with friends. I am always in the office till 11pm, but not working, most times, I am here with my friends talking and watching football. The only time I’m busy is when you see me reading and writing. I try as much as possible to read one book in a week.“I am a staunch supporter of Shooting Stars of Ibadan and, of course, Manchester United in the English premier league. I used to hate Man U because of the rowdy fans, but when the club kept winning, I became a fan.”
Low and high momentsOf all the good times he has had, he probably does not have any moment that stands out. All the exciting moments have always been wonderful, he said. Has he any low moments he will want to share? He simply said: “Everybody has his or her own share of misfortunes. All we pray for is to have more joyous events than heartbreaking ones. For me, it has always been those deals that didn’t see the light of day. I’ve laid my hands on so many businesses that failed and that sadden my heart.”
How he met his wifeWas he willing to talk about that?“You wouldn’t want to know.” After mulling over it, he quietly said, “I met her on the Internet. She was also into information marketing when I was fully in that venture. We used to exchange messages then, though on a business level. I didn’t even know she’s a lady because she goes by a male name, Damilare. I got to know she’s female the first time I spoke with her on phone and that was after we’ve done so many deals together online.“Afterwards, I developed interest in her. After sometime, I decided to see the person I’ve been chatting with for so long and we arranged a rendezvous in London.”Asked if he liked what he saw as he beheld the awaiting bride, he said, “Of course, I liked what I saw. But really, I’m not fascinated by a woman’s beauty. I go for the brain. She’s got the brain in addition to her beauty. She works with Nairabet. In fact, we run the business together.”So, how did he propose to her? “In fact, I didn’t propose to her before we got married. And she never told me ‘yes’ because I didn’t even asked if she was going to marry me in the first place. We started dating and before we knew it, we picked the wedding date,” he enthused.