Michael Akindele, a 30 year-old Nigerian, is a director and a co-founder of SOLO Phone, an experience-driven digital content and smartphone company focused on delivering the best content and services on the mobile platform to African consumers.
SOLO Phone, which was established in Nigeria in 2012, is an experience-driven mobile device manufacturer which aims to provide the best content and services to the African consumer at an affordable price. The company manufactures smartphones priced at $150, bundled with free music of up to 20 million songs licensed from Sony, Universal and Warner. SOLO also recently launched a Video-On-Demand App available to all Android devices in Nigeria which offers the latest Nollywood and Hollywood movies from global movie studios.
I recently had a chat with Akindele where he recounted his entrepreneurial journey and explained why he feels SOLO phones will give other smartphones a run for their money.
What’s your personal and professional background?
I was born August 29, 1984 in Washington D.C., to Nigerian parents. At the age of 2 years old, my family moved to Nigeria and spent the next 10 years in Ibadan. At the age of 12, my family returned to the US where I continued my education in Alexandria, Virginia. After graduating from T.C. Williams High School, I attended George Mason University in Fairfax, VA where I received a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree from the Volgneau School of Engineering with a focus on Computer Science and Information Technology. I also received a minor in Business Administration from George Mason’s School of Management. While at George Mason I was a member of the Track & Field Team and competed in the hurdles and middle distance running events. Being an athlete on a Division I Track & Field team gave me the confidence I needed to take on events outside of sports and a chance to win. Two days after graduating from George Mason I began my career as a Technology Consultant with Accenture. I gained valuable professional experience from being a Technology Analyst with Accenture. While at Accenture, I started working on a project, which quickly progressed and birthed The Apprentice: Africa. A business partner and myself successfully licensed an American reality game show from Mark Burnett Productions for the Sub-Saharan media market, which featured real estate magnate, businessman and television personality Donald Trump. I returned to Nigeria January 2007 and was part of a team that developed, produced and distributed the African edition of an 18 week reality show titled The Apprentice: Africa that had a strong following in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
Walk me through your entrepreneurial journey so far. I know you worked as a Core Analyst at Accenture in the U.S, and then you returned to Nigeria to help produce the African edition of The Apprentice reality TV show. You were also involved in an animation studio before SOLO. Tell me about it.
While developing The Apprentice Africa, I gained hands on experience on producing TV content for the African market. I recognized the gaps and immediately started developing original content inspired by African culture, music and folklore. I recognized the media market was populated by an influx of content from Western markets with little commercial opportunities left for local content producers. We successfully produced a pilot for an original 3-D animated series titled The O Twins. However,we quickly learned the market for content distribution was very shallow. Outside of the cable TV market there is little to no room left for original content production. The cable TV market is limited to affluent consumers who can afford televisions at home. However, the majority of African consumers are unable to afford this luxury. This presented a challenge I was willing to take on. I knew if someone was able to successfully solve that problem it would create tremendous opportunities not only for the distributors but also for creative professionals across the continent. Today Sub-Saharan Africa is among the world’s fastest growing mobile market in the world, and is the biggest after Asia. The introduction of affordable smartphones, specifically designed for the African market, has improved the market scenario. Mobile broadband connections are now anticipated to quadruple from its 2012 figure to reach 160 million in 2016. This uptrend reflects the gradual change in consumer habits, as they gain their first Internet experience through a mobile device. This is the future of content distribution and value added services.
Tell me about SOLO. What prompted you to set up SOLO Mobile, and how where you initially funded? (How many employees does the company have?)
In 2010 I started a company called Fusion Mobile, which was short lived. We were unable to close funding needed to start a company singularly focused on driving Africa’s first mobile device manufacturing and content distribution company. However, in June 2013 I was approached by Adlevo Capital to partner with a group of experienced mobile telecommunications professional led by Tayo Ogundipe to start a company called SOLO. Tayo Ogundipe is an experienced finance executive with extensive background in the technology and telecommunications sectors working for companies like Ubiquitel, Sony Ericson and HTC. Thus the dream of SOLO was born. November 22, 2013 we successfully launched a mobile device company that provides experience-driven, end-to-end digital content and services to young adults and adults who are young at heart requiring a mobile device that provides convenient, affordable gateway to the widest range of digital content that is delivered on the go, every at blazing speed to the African consumer.
There are so many Smartphones in the market already. What is Solo doing differently from the others?
Companies simply compete today in the Smartphone market on hardware specifications. Prior to 2005, no one saw Apple coming. Today Apple consumes over 90% of the profit in the Smartphone market. However, to the average emerging market and African consumer an Apple device is out of reach due to its high cost. The emergence of an open OS driven by Google had brought commoditization to the mobile hardware market. SOLO is an emerging markets play. SOLO is an experience driven device manufacturer with a vision to provide the best content and services to the African and emerging markets consumer at an affordable price that not only delivers tremendous value for money but also enriches their lives. The foundation of SOLO is built on delivering key value added services in critical enterprise verticals such as education, healthcare and commerce, to mention a few. Today, SOLO offers affordable smartphones bundled with free music up to 20 million songs licensed from Sony, Universal and Warner. This innovation was possible because of partners that believe in the SOLO vision. We also recently launched a Video-On-Demand App available to all Android devices in Nigeria offering the latest Nollywood and Hollywood movies from global movie studios such as Disney, Universal Studios and Sony Pictures. Our go to market strategy was to offer download powered by SOLO HotSpots. This innovation offers consumers to download movies in 3 – 5 minutes. This by far is the best offering in today’s market populated by streaming services where data costs are still extremely high. SOLO innovates by putting the consumer first and that is the premise SOLO was founded on.
You launched in November 2013. How has the reception been so far?
Consumers have received our offerings relatively well. In our first year, we established strong distribution network across Nigeria by partnering with key smartphone retailers. Furthermore, we’ve also partnered with primary eCommerce platforms to drive adoption and sales of our device and services.
Founding a start-up like SOLO must have cost quite a bit of money. How did you raise the finance to set it up, before the January 2014 round of funding from Adlevo and Kuramo Capital?
The initial start costs for SOLO was funded by its founders who generously contributed to its vision. On December 24, 2013 we closed our Series A funding led by Adlevo Capital and Kuramo Capital.
SOLO seems to be focused mainly on Nigeria. Might you be looking elsewhere for growth, say the rest of Africa, or even Europe or North America?
The vision for SOLO is an emerging markets play. Our goal is to expand beyond Nigeria and establish SOLO as an Africa-wide brand offering consumers access to the best content and services on the mobile platform. Furthermore, we will expand to other emerging markets that compliment the SOLO vision.
Are your phones manufactured here in Africa or is manufacturing outsourced to China?
The economics for manufacturing our devices today in Africa isn’t possible yet. Today we produce our devices in Asia. In the mid-to-long term we will explore the possibilities of manufacturing our devices locally in Africa.
I read somewhere that SOLO phones offer owners free access to millions of songs from international, African and Nigerian songs. What are the details of your licensing agreements with the record labels and musicians?
Our commercial engagement with the music labels is confidential. However, we structured our agreement with the music labels to benefit local artists and content producers. Today SOLO Music compensates local music artists and their management companies with an opportunity to generate additional income based on music consumption through SOLO Music thus providing artists an opportunity to promote their music through SOLO Music to increase their earnings potential.
How has innovation changed the way you do business?
Innovation is everything at SOLO. We live and survive by it. Every day we ask ourselves: “how can we do what we do better?” Without that core premise we wouldn’t be where we are today. Speed and execution is a common phrase you will hear at SOLO daily.
What’s your motivation?
My motivation is driven by the need to create value for all stakeholders involved. This includes investors, management, content owners, partners and all SOLO employees. Today SOLO employs over 160 people with expertise in various disciplines from engineering to sales.
What has been your biggest challenge in running a successful business from Nigeria?
The opportunities we’ve created have far outweighs the challenges. We’ve successfully secured some key assets that provide SOLO key value differentiation in today’s market. However, we face the same challenges all companies face such as the increase in Dollar to Naira exchange and strikes at the port. In summary, we’ve been able to weather these challenges with a belief that staying power in a fast growing industry positions SOLO for success.
What’s next for SOLO?
We recently launched a co-branded affordable Smartphone with Airtel in Nigeria bundled with our music and movies offering. We will continue to deepen our relationship with Operator partners building on the premise of delivering the best content and services to consumers in emerging markets. The future of delivering these value added services is tremendous in a market where low income earning consumers can benefit on the access to these affordable solutions that enriches their lives. That is the future of SOLO.