In this exclusive interview on After School Africa, Michael Olafusi shares the inspiring story of how his curiosity to learn on impulse lead him to develop exceptional skill in Microsoft Excel, accidentally caught the entrepreneurship bug, and quit his job to start his own Consulting firm purely based on his Excel skill.
Michael Olafusi is the founder and lead consultant for UrBizEdge, a business data analysis firm. He is the first and only Microsoft (officially awarded and recognized) Excel Most Valuable Professional – MVP in Nigeria and Africa. He is a simple guy who loves reading, thinking, swimming, photography and trying new stuffs.
People keep saying I don’t have the personality of an entrepreneur… I’m terrible with phone calls, terrible with replying to emails. I will rather do things for free than even charge money… There are a whole lot of things that would seem to want to make the entrepreneur journey almost impossible for me. But I know I’m getting better. Because I’ve decided that this is the only way for me.
What I want is, I don’t like doing things when I know I can do something better. I read a lot. I know what’s being done around the world. You know when you read about something, and you come back to where you do something the world has stopped using 20 years ago, so that you can be relevant in your job. I should be able to live a life where I am working on something that I know is cutting edge; that is in sync with what I know. That was what led me to become an entrepreneur…
ASA: It’s good to have you here today, Michael.
Michael: It’s a pleasure to be your guest for this interview session. Thanks for the opportunity.
ASA: What is it about your passion for Excel and how did you develop yourself on this skill?
Michael: It all started 2011. My first job after school was in Nokia Siemens as a radio access engineer, which was a very technical job. I was in that job for 6 months. They downsized, I was let go. That was where the Excel story began. My next job was with Airtel, for an MIS – Management Information System – analysis job. It was basically about getting information about the company – sales and everything that matters; and having it analyzed and reported. That was how I got into the business data analysis world.
What were we using? Excel. I was surprised. This company has operation in 10 countries in Africa. A company this big, we use Excel just for everything. Backroll, business analysis, management report. It opened my eyes to the capability of Excel. I put my mind to it because everything I had to do had to be reported in Excel. With that I realized that Excel is that big. Companies can use it as part of their strategic tool. That was how I got interested in Excel.
ASA: What nature of businesses need Excel tool? Is it just for any kind of business or can any business use it?
Michael: I’ll give you some clients I worked for and what I did for them. I’ve talked about the company I joined that I used Excel for the whole operation analysis. After that I joined 21st Century Technology, a telecom company and I was taken purely because of my Excel skill. They didn’t have anyone that was analyzing the phone calls… the records. That’s lots of data in millions of records every month. But nobody was looking at it. So I had to use my Excel skill to analyze this huge data. To show who our biggest clients are, trends, who stopped using out network, who is using our network the most. We were able to classify clients based on how much revenue they generate for us.
Also I got a job on Odesk (online freelance website) to do Excel software for a stock analyst. What this does is that it pulls share prices for the company to specify. So he’s able to see how the investment is doing.
Another client was trying to set up a company. He has partnered with a phone manufacturer in Asia to be their authorized dealer in Nigeria and wants a sales and inventory manager. He want to be able to accurately monitor cash inflow, credits, which stock is running low, is he making profit or loss, who is his biggest sales partners and everything about his sales and inventory. And this was done with purely Excel, nothing more.
I’ve had to work with companies like Total, DeltaAfrik, Vodacom, MTN. It was just my Excel skill they needed. Excel is as powerful as you know how to use it. The good thing about Excel is that everybody has it on their PC. So if you build a solution with Excel, they don’t need to pay for a new platform to use it.
For small companies, it’s very useful to build up your invoice in Excel. That way you can have extra functionality of it keeping a record of all your invoices automatically. Also, you’ll like to have your account and business details, you break down the financial aspect of your business in Excel to see how you are doing; especially if you plan to pitch investors. The best way to do that is to use a solution already built in Excel, we call them financial template. Depending on your industry, you may need Excel beyond invoicing and finances. You can use it to capture and analyze any form of data, and even automate tasks, produce monthly reports. Excel will help you have a very organized way of doing business.
ASA: Quite enlightening for businesses. Now talking about MVP Award, what is it about and what did it take you to become the only MS Excel MVP in Africa?
Michael: Let me give you the background of how the whole MVP started. I think it came as an idea of Bill Gates. What happened was Microsoft sells their products for profit. No open source. It was very difficult for them to have people spread their word. So they decided to start MVP – Microsoft Most Valuable Professional in 1993. They look around based on nominations, and whatever criteria. Till today no one knows the exact criteria. They pick people that are the best in every category of their product line and give them some internal access, create an email group for you, and benefits like you can get almost all their software for free, and coupons per month.
Also they do a yearly in-house conference where you meet the who is who in Microsoft. There they share what they want to do. And it’s free. You only pay for your airfare. That way they were able to make people become independent evangelists of their products. People were now more willing to share what they know about their specific area of expertise. Microsoft began to see positive results. People answering questions in their forum. Creating forums on their own to share knowledge.
For me, I would go to the Excel part of Microsoft answer forum, and answer questions. That was the idea. I believe this was part of the things you get rewarded for. So they wanted people to be willing to share their knowledge and to also give them in-house feedback, since they deal with the clients and use their product more. So you have direct access to the engineers who actually build the products.
Me becoming an MVP, naturally I always enjoy sharing what I know right from university days. So when I began using Excel, I started blogging about it, answering questions, sharing my knowledge, building templates and giving them for free. I caught the attention of some of the big people in the Excel world. Bill Jelen, we call him Mr. Excel. He is one of the biggest personality in the Excel world.
To get the award you have to be nominated or nominate yourself. I nominated myself by filling the form, with references to what I’ve done with Excel. That was after about 2 intensive years of talking about Excel online. I wasn’t expecting it but after about 6 months I got the award letter. And then a call from the Microsoft team in Nigeria. They told me that I’m the first in Nigeria and Africa to get the Excel MVP Award. I was given the award again this year.
ASA: So, it’s a yearly award?
ASA: That means you can be an MVP this year and not for next year?
ASA: Let’s digress a bit. A lot of people want to own a business, but taking that step; there’s the fear of uncertainty. How would you describe your readiness at the point you decided to quit your job? Like, what and what did you have sorted out? Income source, business plan…
Michael: I quit my job in April 2014. But to be sincere, I had quit in October 2013. A senior colleague, who was like a mentor told me that I should first go and build like six months savings. That was the only reason I had to wait till April. So I saved up. By then, I was already making money on the side from Excel consulting.
Let me talk about how it started. When I changed job after about a year, and joined 21st Century Technology, it was because of my Excel skill. They had to create a role for me that didn’t exist initially. So the people at the company were like “what really is your role?” One day, a colleague came around on a Saturday morning and he was like, “you are at the office on a Saturday? You really take this thing serious.” He looked at what I was doing and was like “wow, you are really good with Excel. Why don’t you make a business out of it?”
That was where my passion for a business based on Excel was awakened. I contacted a friend for business cards, started talking online about what I can do with Excel. I went to online job platforms, Odesk, Freelancer and set up account on my Excel expertise. My part-time Excel business began.
Gradually I started getting jobs in and outside Nigeria. It wasn’t like I was starting from zero when I finally quit my job. I already had something going in that line. It was like taking something that was part-time and making it full-time. Basically, I had a life savings that would cover my business expenses and bills for nine months.
Also I informed everyone I have done job for that I’m now doing this full time. Telling them I need their support. And people will always want to support you with things like this. I didn’t really have a business plan. I felt I’ve been doing this part-time. Now I have not just 2 days a week but seven days a week to work on my business. I wouldn’t know if that affected my business, because everything kept changing every day. What I thought 2 months back was not what I think 2 months after. It was like facing reality on a new level. So business plan, I didn’t have, but I can’t say whether it would have made any difference if I had.
The other thing is that I try to focus on value. Someone once told to focus on my branding; “package myself”, that was the term he kept using. Go and print flyers. I printed flyers but some of the flyers are still in my room. They didn’t fly.
I even paid money to be listed on one business directory. Till today, I don’t know if I was listed. Almost 2 years now, nothing to show for it. So I tried to focus on value. Though it looked almost like not well packaged but I was able to get clients. Once someone needs your service and they are sure you are good in the field, they don’t care about your packaging. They don’t even care what your office looks like, whether you are talking to them wearing a pair of jeans and t-shirt. If I was to go back and redo things, all the money I put in making flyers and other traditional advertising, I would not have expended my life savings on that.
I did a lot of things for free and now I am benefiting from them. After I started I did a free online training and I’ve never had of anyone doing Excel online training in Nigeria. So it put me on a new level. People couldn’t consider me like yet another consultant. It took me 3 agonizing months to build video content. And now it’s that video content I use for our online and class training. That was my biggest and most rewarding investment.
ASA: In the last few months of running your business, what would your say is the toughest decisions you’ve had to make?
Michael: The toughest decision is more on my personal weakness. Being a techie person, I’m more of the kind of person who wants to do things myself rather than ask someone for help. Business doesn’t work that way. I built my website myself, content creation, marketing. I was doing almost everything myself. If I could, I would have registered the company myself without getting a lawyer.
So the toughest decision for me was to get and partner with people. I was almost like forcing myself to be who I was not. It was inevitable. But today I’ve partnered with people to be my marketer, to help with strategy. Though it’s still not as smooth as it should have been, the marketers are the ones who have made it possible for us to do monthly training, since January now. Before them, my effort to do that did not quite work out.
ASA: That brings me to the next question. We all have personal weaknesses, but we just have to adapt to get what we want. Right?
ASA: Considering the African environment and using yourself as a case study, do you think anyone can become an entrepreneur or are entrepreneurs born? Like, is there a bunch of people who can actually be entrepreneurs or is it something anyone can become?
Michael: On the surface it looks like a question with a simple answer. I’ve looked at so many people I look up to; people that when they give me advice on business, I’m like, if these people knew this much, why are they not running their own business?
Not in a way to belittle them, but seriously, why does he still keep his job. So I find out that the truth is anyone can be an entrepreneur, but I don’t know if everyone really wants to be. Because there are some people that I feel what they want is best satisfied having a regular job. They are happy with a regular job. They don’t care about how well you are doing as an entrepreneur. They are not tempted to become like you. With that, I feel everything is all about fulfillment. There are people who get fulfillment being an employee. They only hope to be CEO of a particular company someday.
As for entrepreneurs born or made, I don’t think there are born entrepreneurs. They are made. You are either lucky if you grew up in a community of entrepreneurs; may be friends or family who support entrepreneurship. Their influence will help you in making progress. But it’s not like you are born an entrepreneur. You have to decide that this is what you want.
People keep saying I don’t have the personality of an entrepreneur. I’m terrible with phone calls, terrible with replying to emails. I will rather do things for free than even charge money. You owe me money; you will be the one reminding me that you owe me. So there are a whole lot of things that would seem to want to make the entrepreneur journey almost impossible for me. But I know I’m getting better. Because I’ve decided that this is the only way for me.
What I want is, I don’t like doing things when I know I can do something better. I read a lot. I know what’s being done around the world. You know when you read about something, and you come back to where you do something the world has stopped using 20 years ago, so that you can be relevant in your job. I should be able to live a life where I am working on something that I know is cutting edge. That was what led me to become an entrepreneur. Everybody has their own reasons. So I believe entrepreneurs are made.
ASA: Inspiring! You talked about your blog. Your blog has actually helped your business.
Michael: A lot!
ASA: Right. Because, as much as it’s competitive online, there is opportunity for just about anyone to get in and make an impact. So what’s your advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on embracing digital media?
Michael: I will start by saying that the story of starting my business would not have been possible without my blog. Even getting the MVP award. People have contacted me because of what they saw on my blog. Most of the works I did before quitting my job were because someone went to my blog, looked for my contact and called me.
So the advice I will give is this. Like you said, it’s very competitive out there. It’s almost getting saturated but the truth is the saturation is in one part. Almost everybody in the Nigerian blogosphere is focused on gossip. Everyone wants to be the next Linda Ikeji, or BellaNaija. So to set you apart, it’s not hard. You may feel that you will not be getting as much traffic as news and gossip bloggers. But you will get quality leads and connections. People will see you differently. You’ll have a lasting impression.
Blogging is one of the strongest marketing strategies. I’ve had to meet with people, make friends based on my blog that are now business clients, enriching my life. Embracing the digital media by creating real genuine content, doing things that are of value to people will always set you apart regardless of the amount of traffic you get in comparison with the trend-focused kind of blogs.
Starting my business too, I’ve found advertising online much more rewarding than the flyers, that didn’t fly [laughs]… and other traditional media. I feel small businesses are losing out a lot if you are not on digital media.
ASA: Absolutely. Do you like movies?
Michael: Not too much. But I watch once in a while.
ASA: What one movie that no matter how many times you watch, you want to watch it again?
Michael: Don’t laugh! I enjoy animation.
ASA: [laugh] We seem to share the same likeness there. I enjoy animated movies.
Michael: Oh. The one that; in fact I watch it whenever I feel like things are tough is Treasure Planet. The story line, it’s almost like going against all odds. One of my favorite quotes is from that movie. A part where, ok for someone who has not watched it, so you don’t get confused. There was a quote where Captain Silver was having a heart to heart chat with Jimmy. Jimmy was asking him how he got the wounds he had. Because half of his body was burnt, almost like a robot. He was like how did that happen. So Captain Silver said, “Sometimes, when you are pursuing a dream, you have to give up some things to get your dream”. Jimmy then asked him, “Was the dream worth it?” He said, “I’m hoping it will be worth it”.
So, sometimes you don’t have to look at what has happened to you. You have to look at what you want to achieve. Even if you feel you are paying too much, you still have that hope that someday, if you keep ahead, it will be worth it. All this struggle, pain, all this hitting your head here and there is going to be worth it.
So, I’ll watch that movie again when I feel down.
ASA: True! It’s about taking action every day, with the assurance that someday, it will be worth it. One more question about Excel. What is the most amazing thing you have done with Excel? One.
Michael: It was software for a multinational company. I don’t want to mention names because I’m going to talk about what it does. What the software does is it takes one of their biggest service; mobile service. It analyzes, almost like automates four different set of that service. What they were using an external consultant for, and almost like 3 different department to do, the software was going to do it. When I say software, it’s Excel. I was in a meeting with the MD and his team and they told me that the software was going to save the company about $50,000 per month that they pay to third party.
I charged them peanut anyway but at least when you are starting a business, you want the opportunity to prove your value, not really so much after the money at first. It opened my eyes to know that this thing is huge. So that’s been my biggest Excel job.
ASA: Quite a huge one there. Now, obviously, everyone can’t or shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. Someone has to do the job. So what’s your advice for students and graduates out there on developing new skills and for those who want to start their own business?
Michael: Ok. What I will say is, even looking back at my live all through my university days, I was always the person who will rather do something for free. I’m always giving out what I know. I’m learning things, sharing it for free, even when people want to pay. So that mindset of learning or doing things just to know it, whether it will make me money or not later paid off after school. Every single skill I have learned in school, later paid off.
I learned Linux in school. I was almost installing Linux for everybody around the school. Even did a free seminar on Linux. I never thought it would make me money until like 2 years after school. Through a referral, I got a job to train staffs of NEPA on Linux. Something I learned while in school.
I’ve earn money on CCNA training and it was while in school I got those skills. I’ve earned money as a programmer, FORTRAN. Almost everything I learned in school that I didn’t make money from, after school the opportunities were always there. People will be willing to pay you for it, even if you don’t want to be paid.
So advice to students, whatever interests you, learn it. Even if it cost you money, learn it. Don’t just learn something when you are sure that it will give you money. Because a time will come when the opportunity will be there but the time to learn it will not be there. Like now I have many things I want to learn but not much time. I have books but the time to read them.
Now that you are in school, school is where you have the time to learn as much as you can. Learn those skills you have interest in. Learn out of curiosity.
The other thing is about being an entrepreneur; you wouldn’t know until, you know, for some people it’s like after 30 years of being in an employment. You can’t really tell whether you will eventually become an entrepreneur ultimately or not. I’d say whatever catches your interest, learn it.
There is nothing you learn that will not open a door for you later on. So that’s my advice. Learn, whether you are a graduate or student. Learn everything that catches your interest. Invest in learning and improving your knowledge.
ASA: Awesome! At this point tell us how one can reach you online?
Michael: My blog is www.olafusimichael.com. On it I share life tips, finance and investment tips, Excel tips. I have an email list. So if you subscribe you’ll get a free investment guide. It’s one of the easiest ways to connect with me. I’m also on Twitter but not very active. But I will reply if you send me a message. I share information primarily on my blog. You can get every other of my contact on my blog.
ASA: Thank you Michael Olafusi. It‘s been a wonderful time with you sharing your experience and knowledge. I’m sure our readers find it interesting and inspiring.
Michael: Thanks for the opportunity. It’s a pleasure.