The Making Of Nigeria’s SeamlessHR Start-Up
Dr Emmanuel Okeleji has lost his French. It is, he observes, a complex language. One must use it or lose it. Rather like his medical knowledge. But more on that later. Paired with Deji Lana, a coder whose pedigree dates to the mid-90s, the CEO and CTO (Chief Technology Officer) at SeamlessHR respectively are in Nairobi to suss Kenya for an expansion. CEOs and heads of IT departments such as CTOs or CIOs must learn to play well with each other. Each organisation has its own dynamic. Either way, both the day-to-day grind and the overarching mission and vision of the business need tech and collaboration. These are almost always behind-the-scenes interactions. Okeleji and Lana bring their professional relationship to the fore, and I get to watch a C-Suite conversation in real time demonstrating digital transformation.
Why is it, do you think that Nigerians attract so much funding?
CEO: I think Kenyans raise money too.
Not as much as Nigerians.
CEO: I think you are right. But Nigeria’s population is 4X your population, is a large addressable market which is what investors look at, and there are more customers, more engineers, more businesses …
There’s just more.
CTO: I think in the FinTech space Nigeria is a bit different. A bit unique compared to Kenya. Most Kenyans have to be innovative around mpesa while in Nigeria, while in Nigeria, people can work on their own platforms. Because of that, financial inclusion is something I think mpesa has solved in Kenya.
How long have you been in your roles as CEO and CTO?
CEO: We started out in 2005. Depending on how you count. This is our 3rd company together. So we built one company before this and started this one in 2012, and we were doing something else – a jobs aggregator – like a Google for jobs. We run it from 2012 to 2017. It did not go very well because unemployment in Africa is tricky. It is not easy to monetise when people don’t have money. Job seekers don’t have money so you can’t take money where there is no money. In 2017/2018 we began to change to what is now SeamlessHR.
I understand that Lana is an original geek.
CEO: Yes. The original geek. The OG. In my case, I am an entrepreneur now. My background is in medicine. I was a doctor, then I left medicine in 2013. We have been partners since 2005.
Your family didn’t have an intervention when you announced that you had left medicine?
CEO: Yeah, there was. There were people who asked if I was sure about what I was doing. Everybody’s fine now.
What made you decide to move specifically to HR?
CEO: When we started the job site, our mission statement was to help people in Africa to become more productive and successful. The way we interpreted that we help them get jobs was because there was a lot of money in the continent but, it was hard to monetise that skill. We went back to strategy and with that mission statement asked ourselves, “How can we still help Africans to become productive and successful?” What’s in our mission statement now is to help businesses to optimise their businesses so that they can become productive and successful. We hired more people in such a way that was sustainable and profitable. By automating HR processes. We were able to get more resources. The journey continues.
You got funding in January this year. What are your plans with the funding? Are you planning to expand to other countries in Africa and what brought you to Kenya?
CEO: This is our second major funding. In the first round, we raised $2.1 million, while in 2022 January we raised $10 million. We are expanding our team to be able to continue investing in our customers across the continent. We are expanding across the region. We have Kenyan operations which cover East Africa; there is South Africa which will also cover Botswana and Namibia. We are now investing in embedded finance.
CTO: On the product side, maybe I will speak more on data science with the consistency of data, which is super important, so we are looking at how to optimise within the data privacy act and regulations and give better insights to our customers. Provide thought leadership, and let them know what is going on in the organisation and across the industry and continent.
You have done three businesses together. What is your professional relationship like? If Lana needs to buy tech, does he need your approval or can he simply go off on a tangent all his own?
CEO: What we have tried to do, and continue to do, is build an institution. We are friends, but everything is legally done. We have a real corporate governance structure and a real board of directors. There is a proper organisational design where there is a CTO and CEO; where the paperwork helps the institution. There is a proper organisational design where there is a CTO and CEO where the paperwork flows. There are many decisions that he will take that I have no say on. There are people below him who make decisions I don’t need to know. We are designed such that what is my business doesn’t get to him and what’s his business doesn’t get to me. We have a very complementary structure. I can’t write code to save my life. If you kidnapped me and told me to write code, I’m dead.
That makes the two of us.
CTO: It’s not that hard.
Says he who started writing code in 1997…!
CEO: I focus on the business such as investor relations, fundraising and entrepreneurial kind of things, and Lana focuses on the product and the technology side.
CTO: There is that partnership, there’s that friendship and there is the mutual respect right from the beginning. Something that sets corporate governance. We want to do things properly. We have always had proper structure, who reports to who, accounts, who does this and who does that.
CEO: We have our fights. Today we had our fourth fight, and we are celebrating…
Do you mean “SeamlessHR Not So Seamless After All?” How did you create these structures? Sounds like you’ve had them all along. We are currently going through the transition from CIO Africa to dx⁵ and are going through building this. It’s not exactly the easiest place to be. How did you do it?
CEO: It’s a work in progress. Even now we are going through a transition. We are changing and restructuring things. There was a time everything worked, and I knew what was in place. With fundraising, there is a new level. Launching in Kenya is not the same thing as settling ourselves in Nigeria. We are trying to structure everything off the back of Series A, but when it comes to Series B, new structures would have to happen. What helped us is that first of all, we wanted to be an institution. Our goal wasn’t just to make money and live like ballers. That was not our goal. Our goal was to build a proper institution.
We also had mentorship. People on our board have built multinationals. We were accountable to them from a corporate governance standpoint. They didn’t just demand excellence from us. They taught us how to do it. Once these foundations were laid, it just became a foundational thing to keep.
CTO: We are also very agile. While we have a mentorship on how to build structure, we still remember we are a tech start-up. We don’t want to build a bank or such, but we are always experimenting. It’s not just reports all through otherwise things develop a bottleneck and you can’t get through. We have discussions on how we look at the organogram.
Would you describe your organogram as fluid?
CEO: I’ll qualify that because it might be misconstrued. It is not set in stone. The thing with transitions as you will see with dx⁵ is that you must change your structure. What is called growth for a start-up is that you are adding things to the organogram. If we moved to the US or Europe, we would have to restructure; with the Europe team in communication with the Nigerian team. I think organic is a better word.
How do you deal with different cultures? East and West are different as, well, East to West!
CEO: If you have decided to do something you just get it done. You’ll face challenges. If this is what you must do, then you must do it. We can’t be weaklings and say, ‘Let’s just not go.’ People who conquer the world go despite challenges and we are just selling software.
Well, technically you are conquering the world one software after another.
CEO: We are here to stay. Besides, Africa needs to come together, and we must scale things across. We must build big institutions in Africa that work for and empower Africa. We try to work with locals. SeamlessHR is African. We don’t see ourselves as a Nigerian company. We are very proud of it being African. When we make a move towards diversifying our leadership, we want to have different senior roles from different countries so that the leadership of the company looks like Pan-African leadership.
CTO: About the culture and the DNA of the company – this is something we worked on when we started the company – define the culture. In Nigeria, the way the Igbo behave is different from how the Hausas behave. And that is just tribes. With our organisation, there are some 19-year-olds in the company, older people, and different people with different mindsets. Some people want to know break things like code and scatter this knowledge, others want to know and then be conservative with it. We define the culture and know what it is we want to be known for and make it an inclusive culture with diversity.
CEO: One last thing. Something we are very keen on as a culture is me asking myself, ‘What kind of a company would I love to work in?’ ‘How would that company be run?’ And we documented that. What challenges people and gets in the way of building a great company is removed. For instance, in communication, we give candid feedback to people in a way that feedback won’t be used against them. We do have a great company. We really do. Everybody knows what is good.
How big is your C-Suite?
CEO: We use Porter’s Value Chain as our strategic framework. On that value chain are leaders on all points. We have a line of senior managers who lead every department. I would say at the centre about 10 people oversee the entire institution. The team is over 160. We are scattered across nine countries. We have a hybrid structure so people WFH or work from the office depending on wherever is best for them. We have teams in the US, UK, Canada, and Sydney (usually hard to get into meetings because of the time zones).
Do you think your C-Suite is ready for digital transformation?
CEO: We are a digital company. We were born on the web. Everything is online. All you need to access us is a browser. We were born in the cloud.
I already anticipate the answer to go a particular way but what is more important? The technology or the people?
People. If you think about it, it’s the people.
Why are people more important?
CEO: It’s people who build the technology. Technology is lifeless. It is the people that matter. People who can do great things. We are the founders, and we want to build an institution that is going to outlive us. It requires the ideas of all those people to take it where we can’t take it. The idea of 2,000 people – because we think our team will be as big as that in future, or more – is more than the ideas of one person, no matter how brilliant one person is. We create a culture where they can do their best. One of us is all of us. Humans can innovate beyond technology. People are important in our company especially because of the SaaS innovation.
Lana, when you’re buying tech, what is it about people that prompt and inspires you to make that purchase?
CTO: First, we look at our culture, diversification, how many people can use it, and what will this technology do? How is it going to improve? For example, we don’t buy software just because it is the latest tool. I look at what is in the organogram and the value chain and ask – what will this technology actually solve presently? We could easily say this software is one of the best in the market so it will add value. But we have to look at the people, where they are instead of buying the tech. If not, it will be a waste of money.
CEO: We try to automate everything. For us to build an institution, things have to be automated as much as possible, so we are always looking for ways to do that. If you need human beings to do everything, then you are really not a technology institution. I make decisions in technology in that regard. Money also counts. There is technology we can’t acquire now because it is too expensive. Automation. Automation. Automation. Automation.
CTO: One of the things we also do is transparency and communications. If we don’t then things disappear into silos, and I wouldn’t be able to have access. But with automation, information flows. Everybody can have access and there is transparency.
CEO: We use Notion. We don’t use Windows. The reason we use it is Notion is the automation of documents. Everyone had access to documents people are altering. If it is online, you can have access to it anywhere in the world.
This is generally a challenge across the board. How do you actually break silos and have departments flow into each other?
CEO: It’s a work in progress. Human beings just like to form groups naturally. As the organisation gets bigger, and you’re trying to do structure, silos form. One of my biggest goals as CEO is to create and continue to work on a communication system in the organisation. It gets more complex as the organisation gets bigger. Imagine having a million employees. I can’t imagine what that communication must be like. It’s crazy.
That’s like communicating with an entire city or in some cases, country.
Gambia is 2.1 million people. That’s a nation of people. We are still 160 people – not 1.6 million! We continue to work on it. Notion, our organogram and the way it’s working, management team, how we communicate to employees – we have Seamstars Live which is like a magazine we produce every quarter. It updates everybody on what is happening with staff across the country such as who has had a baby, who got promoted, got a certification; or generally achieved something interesting. At least everybody in the company knows what’s going on. We have our town hall meetings every two weeks and employees get together to talk about things like who has joined the company, the older employees answer questions – basically just the human side of the organisation. We try to document everything so that people know what’s going on.
You are. At your core, something of an HR company. You must know a few secrets on how to retain talent and keep your employees happy. Do tell.
CEO: Culture. Human beings want to work in a place they enjoy. We ask ourselves ‘What kind of company would we like to work in?’ We want to work. Work is part of our lives. If the place is a good place; there’s no drama, we’re not going to work with our hearts beating and worried, you’re not afraid of anything and you’re free, you enjoy your work, the company is responsible and keeps challenging you, looking for ways to make you better. It’s like working on a relationship. We really work hard to build a great organisation that people really love to work in. That is extremely valuable. At the end of the day, everybody wants to live a good life in a place where they are welcome. People love to work at SeamlessHR. I can say that for free.
Of course, people want to be paid well. We are not the highest-paying company in the world. We can never be. That is why culture is such a big deal. We do pay well. If you are a good person, do you want your people to have money to live or do you want to be ballin’ while everyone is suffering? For the first few years of this company, both of us weren’t getting paid. Staff were getting paid because it is important. People need to be able to earn a living to be able to enjoy their lives. It is important to me that people live a good life.
CTO: To add to that, which is also part of culture is we are interested and invested in their growth. When someone joins the organisation, which is one of our core pillars is that you have to be curious. We had a developer who joined us and within six weeks said he had learnt more than he had all those years as a developer. We showed him around, gave him stuff to do, and asked him about his goals and all that stuff. Our people leave and come back. There’s one who left, the money was better –
CEO: Double what we had been paying him –
CTO: But he said he wasn’t going to grow there. While at SeamlessHR he could see his career growing.
CEO: We have that a lot. People leaving and coming back. A lot. When people are leaving, we let them. It’s not a jail. I wouldn’t want to be held back if I wanted to leave an organisation. It happens all the time. I think it speaks to culture. If you really are good, and really want to be good to people and you’re just good folk, people know it. They see it, even if you don’t say it. If you’re bad, people know it even if you say you’re good. People know the difference. But I think we built a good company that people would really like to work for.
Are you hiring?
CEO: Yes, we are hiring. We have 20 positions to fill.
What do you have to do with your business to get it funding-ready and attractive seeing how you have gone through this twice?
There are things investors are looking for. If you build a good institution, people who have funds are looking to invest in good institutions. We are always very conscious of what investors are looking for. And there are different things investors are looking for at different stages. If I was Equity Bank, what I’d be looking for as an investor there would not be the same as what I am looking for at SeamlessHR because there would be different stages.
We got Series A funding. I know what investors in Series B want to see. How? I speak to them. Then I take note of it. There are guys on my board who are investors. Those things go into our goals and KPIs as a company and we are always trying to achieve those things.
Do you think you got your funding at the right time?
CEO: You see what’s happening now? Markets are crashing and we already have money. We can continue to pay salaries comfortably for the next two years. We would still have raised because we are a healthy company even now.
There are companies that – let me qualify that – founders who get funding and become confused. They suddenly don’t know what to do with it or they did not expect that much funding. Were you ready for your funding?
CEO: There are such companies. I blame them and their investors. If I give you money, I need to know what you’re doing.
Any last words or something you think our people need to hear?
CTO: I think SeamlessHR is a true SaaS company in and out and we are here for the long haul. From a product technology point of view, we are trying to build a new product. We want to build something that outlasts us, and we are proud of our product. We use our product ourselves. We love our products. We brag about our products. What is important about our product is that our customers love using it.
CEO: I’ll just piggyback on one of the things he’s talked about. We are not a flash in the pan. We are building an institution. I know I keep saying institution. This is not a group of individuals who want to do something by themselves. We are building new things across the board. Check again in two years’ time. We will have raised $1 billion.