Nigerian entrepreneur Dayo Elegbe was feeling good. He’d worked with big names in the UK and his latest idea to give away a car on a Nigerian game show looked like a money spinner. Little did he know that he was one move away from losing thousands of dollars.
“I couldn’t sleep for three years. I had crazy insomnia,” says Elegbe, recalling his biggest failure in business, at a Fuckup Nights event held at the Canterbury Club in Cape Town last night.
The monthly event, in which entrepreneurs detail their biggest failures, was hosted by co-working space Cape Town Office.
Elegbe, founder of mobile digital marketing agency Sponge Africa, thought he knew it all, after nearly 15 years working in the advertising industry in the UK.
Fresh in from the UK, he hit on an idea to run a television show using audience polls. He approached the concessionaire of the country’s state lottery with the idea of getting funding for the project, while the concessionaire could use the show to run their own live lottery.
“I was so chummy with the chairman at the time, who is a billionaire, that he used to call me up and just say ‘how are things going?’,” said Elegbe.
The idea was to run an SMS poll to give way a Toyota Corolla every week. After a successful initial test, the poll went live.
Dayo Elegbe thought nothing would go wrong by giving a car away every week
“So we said, ‘you know what, we’re going to go out and we’re going to launch this campaign’, full blown. We’d bought all the cars, paid the expense of licenses and done everything. And I was so confident that I felt nothing could go wrong. Until it did…”
On the first day of the campaign he called one of the developers, who told him 100 000 people had already taken part. “And at this point I was counting the money already, so I was like take a scene from Hangover 3. I was out with my mates, we were popping bottles, we were like ‘I am going to make so much money’ it’s quite ridiculous.”
The next morning after a long night of partying, he got back to the office. “I get back into the office and he (the developer) said he made a mistake… he said actually it’s not 100 000, it’s less than a thousand. At this point I had been on the phone to the chairman saying ‘we’re fucking hammering it’, and he’d transferred all the money to the game show like that, straight away.”
He began wondering what could have gone wrong. “It was simple. In my pride I just didn’t do enough research.” MTN had been giving away a house. “So my promotion went head to head with someone giving away a house.”
He then held an emergency meeting with the chairman where he explained the problem. “I really should’ve said ‘just kill me now’, but instead I said we’ll turn this around and we will make your money back.”
The poll began picking up, from under 1000 respondents a day, it climbed to under 4000. “And then the government decides to ban all lotteries. It was like a film… and then we literally had to stop.”
Elegbe says for three years it was “like living a nightmare” as he tried to pay back the debt he had accumulated. “It dented my confidence for a long time.”
The experience he says taught him an important lesson of restraint and humility. “I had close to 15 years of digital experience, I’ve run these campaigns. One of the first mobile campaigns in the UK. And yet I didn’t know shit, when the biggest operator on the freaking African continent (MTN) decides to come up against you.”
Failure however is ever present in business, he says. “You don’t stop fucking up, you just get better at spotting things,” he adds.
But he said things are now turning around. “About two months ago the chairman calls. At this point we’d gone quite far in developing the concept of a TV show. He calls me up and says ‘I hear you’re doing quite well with the TV show. When am I going to see the pilot so I can flight it?”
Featured image: Dayo Elegbe, founder Sponge Africa (David Peter Harris)