Aziz Pabani W’13 interned at Sabunta in Lagos, Nigeria

2012-2013 Startup Internship Award winner, supported by the Wharton Entrepreneurship Advisory Board

I worked at Sabunta over the summer in Lagos, Nigeria. Sabunta is a Rocket Internet portfolio company and is an online fashion retailer of apparel, shoes, and accessories. Rocket Internet was a company I had followed for some time and I found the internship by applying directly through the Rocket Internet website, though I was also lucky enough to meet a recruiter on campus about a month after my application. Entrepreneurship is what I’m most passionate about so I particularly wanted to work at a small, very early stage startup, both so I could be involved in a position of greater responsibility and so that I could see the business grow from scratch.

Any startup is a roller coaster ride and an e-commerce startup in Nigeria was the epitome of one. When I first reached Nigeria, I was only the second person on the ground. We were still a month away from launch so it was a great foray into the toil and hard work that go into launching a business from the ground up. By the time I left at the end of the summer, the company had grown to 70 employees, was in a brand new office, and the only remnants of these early days were the memories that stuck with us.

The early weeks were spent trying to get some marketing and publicity going for the business. Setting up various social media initiatives, putting in place content guidelines, trying to reach out to local bloggers and fashion media outlets, getting in touch with local publications, and trying to create our own content was all part of this push. As a result we were able to collect a fair number of signups even before we launched and there was definitely a big buzz on the local tech scene about Sabunta’s launch.

The next part of my summer was spent with the purchasing team (all two of us) trying to sign up local suppliers, distributors of international brands, and high profile Nigerian fashion designers. A lot of cold calling, tapping into all our networks, attending fashion shows and trying to make connections, and hours of Google searches were all part of the game. Once we had a meeting; negotiations on prices, payment terms, procurement, and inventory storage options were all obstacles that had to be overcome, as well as the biggest one of them all: the fact that shopping online was a revolutionary new concept, and brands still weren’t convinced that e-commerce was for them.

They say you wear many hats at a startup and that cliché almost always held true for me.  Our big push with suppliers had started bearing results, and we realized we had no real way of getting these products online. So I set about trying to create the production department, recruiting photographers, sourcing high end studio equipment, setting up relationships with modeling agencies, and trying to establish best practices, all while remotely coordinating with our South African sister company on established guidelines and practices that result in high conversion rates. This was also a time we were stretched to capacity from a human resource point of view and we had to go to Lagos Business School and recruit some of their top graduates as well as first year MBA interns to staff up our teams and increase efficiency. Up till now, most work had also been about setting up structures and putting the processes in place, and now attention shifted more towards improving efficiencies and tracking production rates, as well as implementing a profitability drive across the firm.

The final part of my summer was spent trying to implement new processes for the operations team. The number of orders we were doing were growing by the day and fulfillment was lagging pretty far behind. I had previously worked on setting up our inbound logistics, and now was trying to connect it to the warehousing and outbound functions, all while building an in-house customer service operation and looping it to connect with all of these functions. The operations task was incredibly challenging but one that absolutely had to be revamped to manage the large order quantities we were doing as well as keep excess capacity as week-on-week sales kept showing incredible growth rates.

Trying to set up an e-commerce company in a developing country requires a fair amount of innovation and thinking outside the box. Nigeria was a country more renowned for internet scams than online shopping and very few people were willing to use their credit card details online so excellent customer service and cash-on-delivery payment mechanisms were a must. Logistics were another hassle and traffic in Lagos was probably the worst I’ve ever seen, which meant we had to ditch our rather unreliable logistics partner and build our own delivery team complete with a motorcycle fleet and a mobile warehouse. All part of a day’s work at a startup.

Also, working in Nigeria was an incredible opportunity and it was great to discover the business potential in a country that few ever visit. While it is certainly plagued by the usual developing country problems of poor infrastructure, unnecessary bureaucratic hassles, and a general unease in doing business; for those who are willing to work hard to overcome these obstacles, the potential is enormous. Nigeria is Africa’s largest and fastest growing population, and one of its biggest economies. It dominates the West African economic and cultural landscape but for those willing to look beyond Nigeria (I also had a chance to travel to Benin and Togo), the entire West African region is one that is often overlooked, even by other Africans, and an area that is ripe for development.

As far as startups go though, the one thing I’d say to anyone interested in an entrepreneurial career would be to have incredible hustle, and keep trying harder no matter the adversity. It’s certainly something that helps in finding cool startups and landing positions with them, but it’s even more useful if you’re interested in doing you own startup. I’m perhaps too young to be dispensing advice but would love to chat with anyone interested in entrepreneurship and startups and feel free to reach out to me at apabani@wharton.upenn.edu