“Consistency is always the first step towards success”
Meet Toheeb Ojuolape, co-founder of TELL- an online publishing community for African creatives. He is a writer himself, a digital marketer, and a software developer.
In his interview with GABI, Mr. Toheeb took us through how he built himself into being a software developer as well as his unrelenting desire to shapen the world of literature in Africa such that creatives can seamlessly showcase their brilliant talents and get rewarded accordingly. He revealed the secret behind the low reading habits in our society and how the narratives can be rephrased. You would also love to drink from his wealth of experience as he highlighted 5 key lessons he’d learnt in the creative industry.
BEING A SOFTWARE DEVELOPER, A WRITER, A DIGITAL MARKETER, AND ALSO THE CO-FOUNDER OF TELL, HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO BALANCE THESE SKILLS?
I will say passion. Passion has been the major driving force for me in balancing all these interests, skills, and competencies. Although passion in itself is not enough to make work not feel like work, passion makes it more enjoyable because you’ll feel a deeper connection, enjoyment, and fulfillment from the things you do and I think that has been the major driving force for most of my engagements.
So, I’ve been able to successfully double my skills with overseeing a continental initiative because I have a genuine passion for them and that has been the reason for me to move forward.
WALK US THROUGH TELL’S BRAND JOURNEY?
TELL started when I was in my third year at the University, that was about four years ago and the goal was just to provide a platform to continue to explore my passion for writing and it came up as an avenue for me to also practice and hone my software development skills.
In that same period, I was getting started with learning how to code, how to develop websites and mobile apps and I just thought what if I use these skills I have learnt to work on a project and that was how TELL came to be. The main idea was for it to be a platform that enables people to create accounts and publish their stories in various categories. It could be in form of articles, movie reviews, poems, fiction, non-fiction, interviews, and so on.
We have evolved from that time since we discovered that people valued the platform. So in the first 2 years of launching, we were able to reach 10,000 registered users, and ever reaching that milestone we thought it important to find ways to scale the platform and the impact of what we were doing.
So from the initial name of Tell.com.ng, we changed our name to Tell. Africa on June 1st, 2020 and since then our focus has been on trying to ensure that not just Nigerian creatives but African creatives are given a platform to share and publish their stories and content and we have also developed how stories and content could be monetized.
In October 2020 we introduced a new feature to the TELL platform which is the Tipping feature which enables readers to monetarily reward and appreciate writers for the enjoyable content created on TELL and since then we have been able to provide monetary compensation for over 500 writers through that feature since we launched.
Aside from the main platform of TELL which is the online community platform that enables people to create accounts, publish their stories and get monetary rewards for their content, we also have other subsidiary products that are spin-offs of what TELL does.
So at the moment we, have TELL Academy which is an online learning platform that enables people to take online courses on writing, digital marketing, and soft skills.
We have EditNow which is our editing product that is used to help people give more meaning to their ideas, content, and writings.
We also have TELL business which is the business arm of TELL through which we provide services to businesses in Nigeria and Africa. These services include content marketing, content creation writing, copywriting, email marketing, and so on.
We also have TELL book- our most recently launched product which is an online reading and book store app that enables readers to read in the app and it is available in both the mobile app and web formats. The idea behind TELL book was majorly to create a platform that encourages reading and the platform is user-friendly and beautiful which encourages people to read.
TELL book also prevents a lot of plagiarism that occurs in Africa. So you know this thing where people just share a book on WhatsApp without the consent of the author, TELL book tries to solve that problem by ensuring that people don’t have access to the downloadable version of the book unless the author provides such access. So, that is one of the problems TELL book is trying to solve, plagiarism of books and creative works of authors by ensuring that the content can only be viewed on the web and within the mobile app.
We’re also looking into diversifying our service and providing TELL books as well, so aside from books we are looking into audiobooks. We already have plans in place to implement the audiobook feature on TELL book very soon, so people will be able to publish audiobooks and podcasts on their TELL book account seamlessly.
So yes, that is all about the revolution of TELL. So moving forward we will continue to develop products that serve our audience of African creatives across various countries in Africa and we remain committed to that goal.
HAVE YOU LONGED TO OWN A PUBLISHING FIRM OR YOU WERE INSPIRED?
It wasn’t like I set out to own or build a publishing firm. I didn’t even set out to own a company or startup from the outset, it was just a hobby, an expression of my passion before it evolved beyond being a hobby.
We were able to secure some funding and support for the idea, incorporate, and get registered as a business.
And since then we have been operating as a hybrid business of being both a for-profit organization as well as a social enterprise because we prioritize both making money and making an impact. And yes, it is not like I woke up one morning 4years ago and say okay I want to build a publishing company or not, it was just something that was a consequence of building Tell as a passion.
WHY DO YOU THINK WE STILL HAVE A POOR READING CULTURE IN AFRICA DESPITE HAVING PRODUCED GREAT WRITERS WITH RICH CONTENT?
I think it has a lot to do with attention span. The truth is that there is a lot of content out there these days, there is Tiktok, Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms and a lot of content is created every day. Over 1 million, I can say billions of content are created every day.
And it’s just a matter of fact that generally, aside from being Nigerians or Africans, there is a hierarchy of content. The most engaging content is videos, followed by pictures, and then followed by writing. So I think that is just how human beings are tailored, that is how human beings are in this current 21st century.
The attention span is low and people are looking for stimulations for their minds quickly and I think that is one of the things we are trying to evolve with TELL. So we understand this and are still trying to explore ways of getting new content because the goal has always been not necessarily focusing on writing because like I said we are a community for African creatives although writing is part of the creative community.
There is also the part of the video, the part of the audio, and in fact, if you go through our website now you will see that when a person publishes an article or story on the platform the audio version of the story is automatically generated as well, for people to choose to either listen or read the article. With that, you can see we are trying to, as much as possible, also evolve with the way people are.
In the next few months, we also plan to start creating content more seriously on our social media pages especially YouTube channel to provide more information to our audience and also to engage and entertain our audience. It is majorly just trying to understand what people accept, what people enjoy, and then evolving your business model, evolving your organisation to fulfill their demand.
So you can’t say you want to be rigid as regards that because people won’t change their behaviour because of you, as an organization, you are the one that has to find a way to evolve your organisation’s value to satisfy what people want.
BUILDING A CREATIVE FIRM CAN BE VERY FRUSTRATING AT TIMES, WERE THERE TIMES YOU FELT LIKE GIVING UP AND HOW DID YOU ENCOURAGE YOURSELF??
I will be deceiving you if I say the journey has been smooth, enjoyable, and fun since the beginning, it hasn’t. It has been a roller coaster of wins and losses, good and bad, excitement and disappointment but if there is one thing that I have learnt it is that consistency is always the first step towards success.
One of my favourite TV shows is The Simpsons and it is an American series that has been on for over 35 years, so you can imagine how much effort has been put into it to stay relevant for so long. The cast of that series have been working on it since day one and have remained the same, hundreds of thousands of episode of The Simpsons have been created for the past 35 years and yet new episodes still come out with the same people doing the same thing they have been doing for the past 35 years and they are still consistent with it. And I feel that that is a lesson for everyone that life is really about consistency. Life is really about showing up even though you feel bad, even though things aren’t working well for you, even though there are a hundred thousand reasons for you not to show up.
I think success comes when you persevere and see beyond everything that is meant to pull you down and you still show up and still come through for yourself, for your team and organization and I think that is the mantra, the mindset that has been keeping me and my team going for the past 4years and we see ourselves still going until the next 6,10, 20 years working on this. Although, as I mentioned, one of the most important things for an organization is evolving with trends and changes. So, of course in the next 6,10 years perhaps we might have changed a lot from what we currently do now but the vision and the goal and the principles we started with will remain the same.
WHAT BUSINESS MODEL HAVE YOU EMPLOYED THAT HAS HELPED YOU AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
The first thing I will say about this is that it is really important for entrepreneurs to always be in a constant state of learning, learning is really important if you want to venture into entrepreneurship and own a start-up or run an organization.
This is because, that way you’ll continue to know what has worked for certain people then try to mirror it, try to model it and try to see how you can make it work for your organization as well. The other option to not learning from other people’s mistakes and examples and trying to mirror them is making those mistakes yourself and learning from them and that is a very dangerous thing to do. You’ll just realize that you make too many mistakes and one day you could make a mistake that costs you your entire company.
So it is always best to learn to read books and take online courses, get mentors and people you can talk to about those kind of things, to provide you with the right and appropriate information you need, I think that is one of the things we have been doing as much as we can.
Since we started we have been part of about four major learning opportunities for startups, we went through the Right Combination Startups school learning program, we went through the Tony Elumelu entrepreneurship learning process where we got selected, we went to the Leap Africa fellowship learning program as well.
We have also taken some courses at Acumen Academy which is a global leader in creating courses for social enterprises and businesses, so we have always been doing that, it is a core part of what we do, learning and improving our skills and developing our knowledge of how to run businesses and organizations, so that is one.
Another is how we have learnt to leverage on community. We have come to realize that for any business to survive and succeed in this 21st century you need to establish a more intimate relationship with your users, with the people that you seek to serve. So it goes beyond just creating a customer service or a way for your customers to reach you to talk and ask questions.
You should try to create a more amicable, friendly and relaxing relationship with them such that they see you as a confidant that even if there are people or alternatives other than you they will want to choose you because they have established that level of relationship with you.
So I think those are the two key things that work for us and then also one thing that has also helped is constant iteration, a constant improvement on the things we do. So if you go to our website Tell.Africa and compare the first design and appearance to what it looks like now, you will be shocked because you will see that there has been a lot of changes and improvement in the way it looks and that is because we are constantly improving it, even just yesterday I added some new features to the platform for you to know how important that is to us.
So it is just a matter of having the knowledge, building the community, implementing and executing as soon as possible just so that you can make what you are offering more valuable and appreciated to your community, basically that is what we have been doing got the past 4years and it has been working well for us.
HOW HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO MAINTAIN RELEVANCE IN YOUR CREATIVE INDUSTRY, ESPECIALLY GETTING PEOPLE TO READ?
The goal has always been to create a platform for creatives and in this case our primary audience and the major people we target. With every decision we make, every platform we build we always have them in mind, and in the aspect of trying to get people to read more we have done a lot of things most especially related to improving our technology. One of the things we have done is to improve the appearance of the website to make it more user friendly and even more enticing for people to read and we also added the text to speech feature which automatically converts article to audio.
You might argue that this does not necessarily improve the reading culture because it gives people the option to listen to the article, I will argue that the goal was basically to help creative to showcase their creative works and by providing that medium either for their audience to either read the article or to listen to it. We have provided the platform for them to showcase the work and we are providing them options.
Then aside from that our newly developed product which is TELL book is built with the sole purpose of improving the reading culture. TELL book is an online reading and book publishing application that is available to both web and mobile platforms and the goal is to provide a fully integrated reading experience that enables African creatives and authors from any part of the world to publish their books and essays and monetize it while simultaneously preventing plagiarism and unwarranted or unauthorized duplication of creative works.
So the entire goal of the platform was majorly geared towards reading and encouraging people to publish their books. If you go through the platform it will show you a link, check it out if you want, you will see that the design, the interface, and the entire appearance of the platform are geared towards reading. I think those are some of the efforts we have been making towards promoting the reading culture and helping African creatives showcase and monetize their creativity.
AS A CREATIVE WRITER WHO WANTS TO BUILD A CAREER IN WRITING, WHAT ARE THE IRREFUTABLE STEPS ONE MUST TAKE TO RISE?
I think the first step is first identifying what you enjoy writing about, identifying your niche. A lot of people think it’s cliché, and that a creative writer should be able to write on anything but that’s not quite true.
For me writing about technology, writing about tech and start-up and entrepreneurship, that is one thing, though I have tried in the past to write fiction and poetry I see that what I enjoy writing about is technology, true-life stories, and non-fiction. So that is the first step.
The second step is finding a good platform to engage your audience; I feel in this 21st century and at this current stage it won’t be great or wise if you are a new writer and you’ll now say you want to go and create a blog and you’ll just be writing on your own. I think that although it can work for some persons but for most people it doesn’t because at the end of the day you’ll realize you are the only one reading your blog and at the end of the day you are not encouraged to continue writing, that is why it is always best to be part of a writing community, leverage on the power of community to improve your writing skills.
And that is one of the things we are really passionate about at TELL, we have a lot of upcoming young and talented writers in our community that we provided support and encouragement to when they started their writing journey so that when they just start at the early stage they don’t feel like they are on the journey alone and they have a support system to keep encouraging them to continue writing and they can always leverage on the inspiration and encouragement of other writers to continue writing. So that is another step to consider.
So the last step will be deciding on whether you want your writing to be based on passion or you want it to be something you do as a 9 to 5 or something to make you money from because there is this thing that people say about passion “if you follow your passion you won’t have to work again in your life” I don’t think that is quite true. After all, passion is not something that you need to monetize, it is not all passion that you need to monetize.
It is not because you are good at writing that you’ll now say okay, I need to start making money from writing, it doesn’t work that way. You need to know if you are comfortable with making that passion of yours into something you can make money from.
For instance, Jeff Bezos started Amazon as a bookstore. I won’t say he was passionate about selling books he was just passionate about building a platform and that was what eventually led to him becoming the second richest man in the world. The same goes with establishing a career, you can start it off as a passion and may not necessarily have that intention of making it a money-making medium and then just keep going, you just have to make that decision at a point so that you will be clear on how you move forward, so you don’t get stuck and confused.
If you have a job on a 9 to 5 basis and you have your writing as a side hustle or as something you just do for fun you’ll need to decide if it’s that writing that you want to use as your source of daily bread. Yes, I think you’d be on your way with these basic steps.
WHERE DO YOU SEE TELL IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS?
In the next 5 years, I see TELL as a community of storytellers, problem
solvers and critical thinkers across Africa, perhaps not just even reading stories but proffering solutions, providing sustainable solutions to some of Africa’s most critical problems because that has been our core value since the outset. We are passionate about uncovering the ills in the African society and also celebrate the wins and we have been doing that since inception through stories and we are also passionate about idea sharing and we have been doing that through storytelling, providing people with the platform to share their ideas and stories.
But moving forward, in the next five years we see ourselves as a platform that has evolved beyond just providing a medium for people to share their stories but also a medium for people to implement and execute those ideas such that we have fewer problems in the society and we are already on the path towards that; we have started optimizing our technology, optimizing our team to ensure that in this next five years we are still viable, we are still seen as a go-to community for our target audience which are the creatives, the problem-solvers, the storytellers and the critical thinkers.
WHAT ARE THE FIVE THINGS YOU HAVE LEARNED THE HARD WAY WHILE GROWING TELL?
The first one is that things aren’t as easy as you think they are. So a lot of people view people who do a startup and social media enterprises or run a business, and are like I can do that its quite easy, there is nothing difficult in doing that but when they start they realize that it’s not that easy, it is not something that you just feel like you can control or fully make projections on, because that was one of the mistakes we made in our first few years. Saying by the next few months or years, we were like by 2019, by 2020 we want to do this and that but all those projections were great; it’s good to project, it is good to have ambition but it wasn’t quite easy to achieve those, you know reality versus imagination. That’s one of the lessons I learnt that things are not as easy as they seem.
Another lesson I learnt is that leadership skills are very important when it comes to running an organization and not everyone has great leadership skills because personally I know I have failed a lot to do right by my team members. I made a lot of mistakes and I guess I am pretty much learning and I am trying to find ways to improve, ways to be better, nobody is perfect so mistakes are like a part of the daily life of people, so that’s one of the things that I learnt growing to Tell.
Another is, you should always try to do good, a lot of people do a lot of things because of many reasons, for instance, someone or most people that I know are in the venture for the money, fame or the popularity that comes with building something. So really, most significant thing to me is to be a good person, do not lose your humanity in your journey to trying to build something great because that is the fundamental thing and I think that boils down to how well you treat others, how well you treat people around you and how well you treat yourself as well.
The fourth is that the most important factor to any business or organization is the users- the customers, you need to put them first, you need to listen to them, you need to do things that will make them happy. I think that’s one of the things that has kept us going because we tried as much as possible to grow as a thriving community of people that are passionate about what we stand for and that has helped us in the long run because we have gotten a lot word of mouth and referrals from members of our community. After all, we treat them well.
Finally, the fifth thing that I have learnt is that failure and rejections are part of the journey and it will always happen but the major aspect, the major part of when bad things happen, is how you choose to react to it, how you choose to respond to such situation. For instance, if you apply to an opportunity and you get rejected, that is a bad situation, that is a bad thing, of course, the default thing to do in such a situation is to feel bad and break down but as a person, you need to understand that you have control over that decision to feel bad and break down.
As such, you can either choose to do the defaulting of breaking down crying or feeling bad or you choose to see that as an opportunity to improve yourself. See that failure as an opportunity to identify what you did wrong in this application, what made me not selected and how can I improve on that the next time and not give up and keep pushing.
I have had my fair share of failures, I have had my fair share of disappointment and that has taught me those lessons the hard way and it is something I will continue to incorporate moving forward.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUNG WRITERS AND PUBLISHERS OUT THERE?
My advice for young publishers and writers out there is actually in three folds. The first is, don’t be afraid to do things differently because that is one of the things that have helped us actually since we started, we chose to do a lot of things differently, we chose to incorporate a lot of fresh ideas that have helped us serve our users better, I think I will advise them to not leave out the opportunity for creativity and innovation in whatever they do.
The second piece of advice is they should try to look at the ways of modeling or mirroring something that already works for other organizations and see how they can incorporate it into whatever they are doing and I think that is something that works because if I give you some of the examples of the best startup or businesses in the world you will see that there is a lot of modeling or mirroring that happens.
Take for instance Uber and Airbnb. Uber is a startup that enables you to get rides with strangers, connects drivers with people that want to get a ride. Airbnb is a platform that connects people who need accommodation, although the two businesses have different markets, you can see there is a very strong relationship between the two of them and it’s just connecting someone that needs something to someone that has something and I’m pretty sure Airbnb mirrored Uber to come up with their business idea and today they are worth more than 10billion dollars.
It’s also a great idea for writers and for publishers that are trying to start up. You need to look at which writer is out there that is doing good and you enjoy the person’s work and it’s in your niche (please remember that it is also important to know your niche and what you enjoy writing).
So you can try to model around this writer, try to do the things the writer does, and try to improve on that and the same goes for publishers as well.
The final advice I have is, don’t shy away from collaborations and partnerships, try to look for ways you can work with people you refer to like your competitors to a certain extent because that is important. Try to look at ways of making partnerships work because that way it will be beneficial for both yourself and your competition.
So you look for collaboration, look for areas of joint work so you can both come up with something together. Like a favorite quote of mine, “The competition is not between ourselves, the competition is with poverty”.
So once we can see beyond competing with ourselves we will realize that we don’t need to compete with others because everyone has the same purpose and that purpose is to live a life of meaning and not one of poverty and lack. So we all need to just look at that as a combined point of Unionism and move forward from there