Lola Masha: Prima bella of ecommerce |Leading Woman| E-PAYMENT REVIEW January-March 2016
She oversees OLX in Nigeria, the platform that allows anyone with its application on their phones to upload and advertise their services. Lola speaks to BROWN N. UGBAJA about the potentials of the online market and the role of women in a changing business world.
What is it about OLX that makes it successful? Will you say it’s successful?
Yes, OLX is successful. There are several things that I would point to that has led to OLX been the number one classifieds company in Nigeria. We have done a lot to provide a product that actually works; a product where users – both buyer and sellers – can connect to allow them exchange items. We also make sure we are available to our users. They can reach us via phone, email, text, Facebook, Instagram, or whichever channel they prefer. Some e-commerce sites try to drive business in Nigeria from outside but we are on the ground; we understand the market and support the local users effectively. We have fantastic execution. We are a very small team with a very big name as such people are often surprised when they hear that we have 25 full staff members and they think it’s much larger than that. But we are a core team of very dedicated individuals continuously pushing and striving to do better. I can boast we have the best team in the e-commerce space in Nigeria and everywhere. We invest in our people to make sure they are successful and we invest in a bunch of other things like development, trainings and so on.
Explain to me like I am a 10 year- old about the classified online market in Nigeria. What are the potentials, the challenges and the opportunities?
Buying and selling has been happening for ages. It’s only the way we do it that has changed. Back 200 years ago, people were buying and selling and using different forms of exchange including trade by barter or just cowries. What has changed is how we do it now. What we have done as a classifieds company is take the traditional buying and selling that occurs in any market and bring it online. At the market, there are sections for shoes, foodstuff, jewel-
lery; that is the same way we have it on OLX. They are placed in categories. We have a variety of buyers and sellers because it’s actually not OLX selling. We enable them to meet up, discuss, negotiate and then make a trade. The potential is tremendous because trade is an inherent part of us.
What about the challenges?
Frankly, it hasn’t been an easy road to travel but what’s important is that we are learning from each challenge and finding ways to get even better. The main challenge is that for trade to effectively happen, there needs to be trust between the par- ties engaging in it. Our priority is to ensure that our users are comfortable with any trade that happens. So, we have created several steps and processes that must be taken on our platform to make the trade safe. We have over 100 agents that go out to verify that the products on our site are good enough to trade on our platform. If a user has something to sell we send one of our agents to meet him personally to inspect the item and to ensure that it is real and authentic before we put it on our platform.
How do you protect users against the dangers of bad guys who try to scam people on the Internet? You mentioned how you protect your side of the business. How do you protect yourself from people who could create a facsimile of OLX just to scam people?
We have actually seen such activties but we are constantly on the lookout to bring them down. We see Facebook pages created by people pretending to be OLX and we go after them legally by telling Facebook that they are not ours. Facebook usually takes them down because that’s brand infringement. We definitely take all legal steps to fight scammers. Same thing with domain names, we go through the international route to protect our brand to make sure we guard our- selves against scammers who repre- sent themselves as OLX.
Historically, people see Africa as a big market for copy cats, especially in ecommerce. How is OLX differentiating itself from local startups who offer the same services?
I think the challenge with innovation in Africa is that we innovate to solve a short term problem and we don’t always build it to the next level. We have seen cases where users are selling very unique items on OLX but they don’t have the resource or the financing or the net- work or have what is truly needed to take their business to the next level. We at OLX in Nigeria continue innovating to remain the number one player. There is no other market in our forty different OLX countries that agents physically go and inspect items. We are the only country globally who doing that. We had to innovate that way because of the dynamics of the local market we find ourselves in. Competitors think they can simply copy and paste the platform and launch it here. But we don’t believe that; we believe we need to learn and practice what will work in Nigeria. We constantly modify the offering and the processes to make it work for the local market. Similarly, we use local talents; if you walk round the office, you won’t see any- one who is not Nigerian. We believe that Nigerians have the intellect, the creativity to drive the business. It might take us longer to find the right candidate for the position, but we think it is actually important to empower and grow our staff to do business here.
You talked about the local dynamics but online business itself can impact, sometimes negatively, on traditional business culture. An example is the way publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica were forced to stop publishing print editions and go completely digital after 244 years because of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia which provides free and instant access to articles. What effects do you think the success of companies like OLX will have in Nigeria terms of preserving the local trade environment?
That’s a good question and I would answer from the fundamental human evolution point of view. I think Darwin got it right when he said it’s survival of the fittest because there is always someone who is trying to do something a little bit better that in the end remakes what is already existing to become modern. We see it across every industry. No one knows if this business is a temporary model; may be 10 or 15 years from now someone else may come up with a super innovative way to achieve the same fundamental transaction objective that we offer today. One key thing in business is to always be aware of risks and threats, and to always innovate to stay ahead in the game. I don’t think it’s a question of what happens to the small businesses but how they will be able to adapt to the new reality because if they don’t, they would not survive and that’s just a fundamental evolutionary fact. The key part of our proposition is creating lots of possibilities and options for small business by connecting them with people that they ordinarily would not connect with. Small businesses have a lot of cost – rent, staff salaries, managing people and so on. By having their goods on OLX, they actually get help because we are removing some of these barriers and putting them in touch with a wider market that they couldn’t reach otherwise. I see it that we are helping the existing small business landscape to allow everyone move forward. It makes sense and it is progressive.
Let’s talk about women issues. Our aim here is to provide a channel to celebrate influential women in Nigeria’s FinTech space and offer a mouthpiece for thought leading women in the sector to tackle some of the biggest issues impacting the space. Now, here is my first question. Are there qualities you think a woman needs to have to be a leader?
I would take that more from a broad leadership point of view. Not necessarily male versus female. To be a good leader, you need to know how to collaborate, you need to work well with your team, and you need to learn to build on those around you. It’s all about working to achieve clear objectives. You also need to put on a human face because at the end of the day we are all trying to make things work. You don’t always need a rigid approach; it’s better to be flexible and to learn to collaborate with others to ensure input, insight and contributions from everyone involved in driving the business. I think that’s my general philosophy especially with my team because we all have something to contribute to make things work.
What do you think are the challenges facing women leaders?
I think some of the challenges actually begin when young girls are told that they can’t choose certain careers like engineering. They are advised to study fashion designing or some other course that will make them useful as housewives. That actually creates internal, logical confusion in them. Women have to believe in themselves and eliminate all that feedback. They have to believe that anything is possible. We have seen examples of women reaching very great heights. Germany, one of the most powerful countries in the world has a woman as its chancellor. Oprah is a successful black woman in America. We have other successful women we need to celebrate. We need to encourage young girls to reach for higher goals through initiatives that showcase the successful ones.
Do women lead differently from men? Folks believe women need to be tough or need to have a tougher edge in order to lead effectively. But women are different from men fundamentally in their approach to things generally. Good women leaders understand their strength and use it to work towards success. They rarely want to show off to look powerful in the eyes of people. They are very compassionate and understanding. They take time to hear people out before making a decision.
How would you describe your leadership style? I prefer a laid back, easy going collaborative approach. We are all part of one family here. I don’t have an office, I have a desk just like every other person. Decisions get made collaboratively; it’s all based on input from everyone. I believe this is supportive because in doing so people become aware of their potential. Most people don’t realize how great they can be until they are pushed to reach within themselves.
Do you think it’s important to empower women economically? Absolutely. Women are a key part of every group in any community – family, church, school. In each group women are a very key part and it’s important that they have a say. Typically, the person that has the money usually has the most influence. It’s important to allow women reach a decent economic position to give them that voice in whatever forum they may find themselves in.
You have worked in other places before OLX, so you must have an experience on the nature of the work place. What do you think are the biggest issues for women in the work place? Because a woman is a key part of many groups, like the family group, work group, church group and so on, it’s absolutely important that the work place is supportive of
her achieving a life work balance. Women get pregnant and when they have a baby can be out of the office for up to six months. Men don’t go through all that. The company has to understand that for the woman it is a natural phenomenon as such support her during that period by not passing her over for a promotion because she is not in the office. Traditionally, women have to take care of the home although now it is changing because some men are becoming stay at home dads. But the office needs to understand that women have certain obligations to their homes and their children and should be supportive of them to allow them thrive.
You mentioned twice that women belong to different groups, do we really understand that in the design and nature of the workplace in Nigeria?
Yes. I think some companies understand this and are beginning to allow them have the option of working from home, have flexible hours so that they can drop off their children at school and not get penalized at work for not being at the office by 7.30am. Some companies don’t get it while some do. We need to educate those who don’t. Studies show that those who do provide flexible hours actually see higher retention and higher quality output because these women appreciate having those options. That’s what
we try to do here at OLX. If you need to get your work done from home because your child is sick, we sup- port you to take care of your child. We provide that culture where we allow women to thrive in the work environment. Traditionally this practice is not built into the way companies do things but they need to start adapting to new norms.
How do you think we need to educate young women about their career choices?
I think parents need to take their role seriously in correcting the mis- conceptions that there are careers that their female children cannot pursue. These misconceptions come from TV, from entertainment, from videos, music and even Nollywood. If this is inculcated early in a girl’s life, then she would have the confidence to face whatever comes as she advances in her career.
What’s the worst standard career advice out there that you want women to stop believing?
The worst one is that women have to stop reaching for more. Some people say once you are married, you should concentrate on your family and forget about trying to aim for more in your line of career, I think that’s wrong. If you want to be a receptionist that does who works 8 to 5 and goes home to family, not worried about promotion or aiming for more, that’s fine by you, it’s your choice. Nobody has to make that choice for you because they think that is what you should. I had to make some decisions in my career, including whether to stay back in the US or come back to Nigeria. I could have had a very good job and a comfortable lifestyle over there. But I made a choice to come back.
What do you make of all this social media madness and online explosion? What’s real and what’s hyped and falsely inflated?
I think a big chunk of it is peer pres- sure; teenagers want to be on social media because their friends are on it. Actually I am off of it by choice but everybody keeps telling me that I am in the tech space and I should be in it, but I don’t think I do. I prefer people sending email or sms or calling me the traditional way. It’s just about individual comfort level. What we have is a transition to a full bouquet of options. Ten years ago, we all had three options, now we have thirty and it’s up to us to choose what we want or what we are comfortable with.