How they did it- Abbey Dabiri, Founder, Essential Software company

How they did it- Abbey Dabiri, Founder, Essential Software company
Abbey Dabiri

This week, seasoned Technologist Abbey Dabiri, Founder Essential Software company narrates his journey through technology and provides sound advice on building and sustaining a successful startup in Nigeria.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Abiodun Tajudin Dabiri. I am the founder of the Essential Software Company. I founded my company in 2008. For me, a startup is a long-term game. I’ve been playing the startup game for a long time.

How I got into tech is interesting. I got into tech at about 13 or 14 years old. In my school at the time, Kings’ College, Lagos, I was in SS1, SS2 when a couple of our seniors had gone to UNIBEN. They graduated and they came back and they said “guys we’ve gone to the university and we are scared for our future because it’s like we have no real skills’. So they decided to go and study at NIIT.I was on the assembly line when I picked that feedback and I was like wow, If I go to university, I might end up with nothing. Why don’t I focus on what I love most, which was tinkering with computers, that was how I got into technology.

In 2004, I studied at NIIT (National Institute of Information Technology in Lagos). I was in their third or fourth set and I was very good. From there a lot of people started calling me “Server” because I had a lot of answers to some of their questions.

My career started in 2005 at an IT faculty in NIIT and APTECH Calabar where I taught students how to write HTML, CSS, XML, Javascript, and how to do SQL databases with Microsoft SQL Server. Over the years, I moved from being a teacher to being a junior programmer to being an intermediate programmer and becoming an enterprise developer so I started my software company in 2008 and it was started because the CBN motivated local companies to provide software services to community banks so there was this requirement that community banks needed to recapitalize and become microfinance banks and the only person that could affect that change was the CBN because they had the mandate. 

So they said that let the community banks patronise local software vendors so they don’t complain about acquisition cost of Finacle, FlexCube accounting, or banking software so companies like myself could be incorporated and we could build software for us to tackle the market and interestingly that’s how it started. From Essential Software Company, I would also contract myself out to other companies as an individual so what that meant was that even though I was a software company founder, I never addressed myself as a company founder on my CV, rather I was always an employee in that company and that has helped me to fill in the gaps over the years. 

If you were to speak to founders of software engineering companies or startups. What would be the most important advice you would give them?

The most important advice I would give to anyone that is starting a software business or going into the software business is competency. You must be competent yourself. You can’t rest on hired hands because you see, the hired hands market is very tricky and that is because human beings are insatiable, we always want more. So, if you hire people that want more and you cannot do the things that you are hiring them to do, you will keep burning a lot of money. So one of the best things is that you [yourself] must be competent in at least one or two fields, then you can find complimentary people that will complement your skillset. 

Competency to me is the most important thing in the software business, not money. If you cannot be competent, you will just waste money and burn it, so learn something. Learn product management, for instance, learn UI/UX, graphic design for instance or learn software development. If you have one core skill set, you can leverage on the rest because whoever you hire will have respect for you knowing fully well that you are not just going to expect magic from them without understanding the complexity that it takes to deliver such magic.

What startup finance advice would you give founders in the ecosystem?

Okay so, what I can say is how have I managed to sustain myself and the business over the last few years. It’s not because we’ve got large projects or large amounts of money or funding, no, but we’ve avoided raising money for very personal reasons. The very best way to do it is to remember that if you are not competent, you cannot attract talent that will respect and want to invest with you. If you’re competent, you can rely on what they call knowledge sharing. For Instance, I can teach someone DevOps, I know there are over 10 to 100 people out there looking for every skill or a new skill set. I can take them on a paid internship. If you do that with me over six months, three months, one year, you will acquire enough skill sets for me to hand over to you and let you continue with that. So, how software owners can manage finances and resources is to look inward and look at mentorship, internship, and motivating a lot of the younger talent.

And importantly, people skills. How you treat people, how you relate with people is very very important. So motivating people, relating with them in a good manner, and also understanding that yes you cannot pay the true market value of this person’s time and attention but because you are also offering them opportunities, skills, and interesting things to work with, they might take it on and work with you. 

Okay, so do you work with a co-founder?

Umm yeah, I work with a co-founder.

So what advice would you give for identifying a great co-founder?

Okay, a great co-founder will do the things that you are unable to do or you are scared to do, that falls into that competency side. So if I’m a good talker, maybe my co-founder is someone that can actually listen and fully pick out the hole in any conversation I’m having. So, we need to complement each other’s skill sets, if we have two people that have the same skill set it’s also good, it’s not bad. It just means that there’s a lot of strength in that particular area but then you must also put more strength in the other area. 

How have you dealt with the challenges of running a Nigerian Startup?

It depends on the Challenge. My own business started because I had a wonderful mentor and colleague that said Biodun, I am a great marketer, I can sell community banking software however, I can’t build it. If I ask you to build it for me, you will not do it properly because it is for me but if I ask you Biodun go and start a software business  

And Mr.Gbemiga said Biodun go and create a company, go back to your dad, tell him to register a business for you and my dad did that. A limited liability company called Essential Software Company and I had a verbal gentleman’s agreement with Mr. Gbemiga which we still honor till today, [interesting]. So, if not for the fact that he motivated me to go out and start a software business that he’s going to sell, I never would have done it. I hope that answers your questions

So should entrepreneurs should seek people like Gbemiga, who will encourage them in tough times?

Yeah. Everybody has a Gbemiga. You always have someone that believes in you and maybe they don’t understand what you’re doing but that belief is there. I have a couple of friends where [you know] we talk about these things regularly. They have their businesses [you get] some of them are even doing the same kind of business I’m doing but we talk about the challenges we are facing, we motivate each other, we borrow each other money when we are stranded so it’s about having a network of people that you can trust. And people will trust you when you are willing to trust them. 

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