“A Global Mindset: How 7 Standout Startups Navigate International Opportunity,” is our new blog series documenting the journeys of 7 entrepreneurs who leveraged their experiences with other cultures to reshape their thinking. Sometimes their most surprising encounters, like not being allowed to board an airplane, have led to their most rewarding ideas.
This week we had the opportunity of speaking with Olu Okunsanya, co-founder of Brakes & Shocks, an auto parts company located in Lagos, Nigeria. We delve into Olu’s entrepreneurial journey as he speaks on his experiences in America and how he was able to apply lessons from Western culture to his business back in West Africa.
Discover how a business opportunity brought on by chance, as well as the need for quality auto parts, drove Olu to leave America and transform the automotive industry in his home of Lagos, Nigeria.
This is part 3 of 7 of our “A Global Mindset: How 7 Standout Startups Navigate International Opportunity” series. Tune in each [placeholder] for a new installment. Check out part 2 with Vikram Deswal of UnDosTres.
What is Brakes & Shocks?
We are an on-demand mobile mechanic booking site. We solve the problem of having a lack of access to quality and competent mechanics in Nigeria. You can think of us as an Uber for mechanics.
Tell us about your global experience?
I went to graduate school in the U.S. and got my MBA from Louisiana Tech. I worked a little bit and was a Big Four auditor. After that, I worked in a variety of financial roles until 2011 when I moved back to Nigeria to start a business in the auto parts space.
How did this idea come about, and at what point did you realize it was more than just an idea and had the potential for something greater?
The thing that convinced me to move back to Nigeria was my time in Houston. Whenever I left Houston to visit Nigeria, friends and family would always ask me to bring back auto parts. I’d head down to AutoZone, pick up those parts and bring them back on the way to Nigeria. It started out as a favor for my friends, but the requests kept coming. The moment of truth was during one trip back to Nigeria. I had two bags filled with these parts, but the airline didn’t let me board because they felt the items were not appropriate to fly with. Long story short I missed my flight that day, but it was at this point that I realized that this was a business opportunity.
I started doing my research, went to Nigeria, found a partner and moved back to Nigeria to start the business which eventually transformed into Partboyz. The Nigerian automotive industry is a huge industry worth about 4 billion dollars. Unlike the United States, we face a lot of problems when it comes to finding quality parts. There are a lot of low quality and fake parts in the system, so people prefer getting parts from overseas and that was the opportunity we saw for business.
How did you discover MassChallenge and what pushed you to apply to their Austin program?
I was in Texas and used to visit Stations Houston, an incubator program out there. Whenever I was in Houston and needed a place to hang out with other tech founders or do some work, I’d visit Station Houston. It was there that the MassChallenge team came to pitch the program. They talked about the program, letting us know they were the first cohort in Texas and they were accepting applications.
We sent in an application not expecting it to go anywhere and were really surprised to get invited to an interview. I later learned they received close to 700 applications and settled on 70-100. We were then invited to an interview in Austin. I went to the interview myself and gave a presentation to the judges. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we were selected for the program.
Since participating MassChallenge, how has your business changed or developed?
We actually started the company during MassChallenge Texas. Prior to that, we entered MassChallenge with our preexisting company called Partboyz AutoParts. Partboyz is an auto parts retail company; we basically tried to become eBay meets Autozone. We were doing this for the last three years, and while we were in MassChallenge got the idea to add this new product and service.
The experience was amazing. MassChallenge was the most productive period in our company’s history. We were around other great founders from all over the world. It was an experience being around them and sharing ideas. I still stay in touch with the people I met during the program so it was awesome in that regard.
But the true reward was the mentorship that we received. Having access to such experienced people that have been there and built big businesses and other people that are good at marketing, raising funds, and technology. That was the highlight of MassChallenge.
Since graduating, and emerging as one of their top startups, it’s given us a lot of exposure. The exposure and the prestige is something we’ve enjoyed since leaving MassChallenge. Being someone who went through the program differentiates you as a world-class startup. It’s given us a sense of credibility.
Do you think your Nigerian identity/heritage has impacted your business in any way?
Absolutely. Because I grew up in Nigeria and went to college here, I really know the culture. What has helped me in my entrepreneurial journey is having that background, and spending time in the United States. Being in the States I was able to see how things work in the West and bring it back to Nigeria.
It’s really interesting when you have the experience of living in a country like the US and then the background of a different culture. You’re able to combine your international experience with the local culture to create a better experience, and better ways to solve the problems in that country.
Is there a large entrepreneur community in Lagos, Nigeria?
Oh yes! The ecosystem in Lagos, Nigeria is really active. There are lots of tech founders and lots of people starting companies. To give you an idea, every cohort of YCombinator since 2014 has at least two Nigerian startups.
Lagos is a city of about 20 million people so its growing in leaps and bounds. Everyone that works has a side hustle that they’re doing. You can pretty much say every Nigerian is an entrepreneur because even if they are working for someone else they have a gig on the side.
Africa is currently at the forefront of mass innovation, do you have any advice for African entrepreneurs looking to jumpstart their personal ventures?
My main piece of advice is that we need to solve problems that exist in Africa. We need to work in our own environment and in our community. There are problems that need innovative and technology solutions. Look around you and just pick one problem that’s a need and go after it.
For myself, everyone knows there’s a huge need for auto parts in Nigeria. I also know that Nigeria is different from the US in terms of buying power. You need to tailor your product to the needs of the people and what they can afford. Also, think globally and act locally. We should be applying global standards to the problems that we’re trying to solve and the startups that we want to build. We in Africa need to be as good as China, the U.S. and our counterparts.
Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs who aren’t from Nigeria or Africa, but are looking to open or expand their business to these areas?
Yes. The first thing you need to understand is there are 54 countries in Africa and we’re not all the same culturally and historically. If you’re bringing your product to Africa or Nigeria, you need to realize it’s not a homogenous continent in terms of language and culture. We are all different. West Africa is vastly different from East Africa so you need to grasp that.
Realize that Africa is growing fast, but the things that work in other areas may not work here. You’ll need to fit your business to fit your audience. African consumers are more price-conscious so your business will have to fit the buying power here. Also, understand that Africa is a long-term game, there are no quick waves. You have to be patient and play the long game. Nothing is short-term here.
Lastly, mobile is big here. Most people interact with the internet through their phones in Africa, so consider that.
Be sure to check out our other 6 interview in our series “A Global Mindset: How 7 Standout Startups Navigate International Opportunity”.
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