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How Charles Navigates Being a First-time Founder

Every week, we talk to Nigerians around the world about money and how they make it.

This week features Charles, a product designer and tech co-founder. He speaks about his startup, what inspired him to start, and the challenges he faced as a first-time founder. He also talks about his relationship with money and his beliefs about work.

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Tell me about yourself and what you do.

My name is Charles Njoku, and I am a technology entrepreneur and a product designer. I have been in several design disciplines, at least for the past 8 years, and currently, I co-founded a startup called Spire. At Spire, we build products to help businesses collect feedback and be able to improve their customer experience.

That is interesting. What is the story behind Spire, how did it start, and why did you think it was necessary?

Spire was never a eureka or ‘I have an idea’ moment; it was tied to a community problem. One of the things I do outside of my day to day job is to help grow a design community. I do that by being a community leader at Àșà Coterie and by doing mentoring sessions at a couple of other design communities. One of the most common problems was how feedback was being managed.

Designers complained about how they get lost in lots of comments and could not seem to articulate things together at the end of the day.

It really was supposed to be us building a simple tool to help manage feedback for the community; however, we started to realise how this was even a bigger problem industry-wise.

That was when we decided to build something people would pay for. We ran a couple of validation tests and experiments, and we eventually built Spire from there.

Wow. What are the challenges you experienced as a founder, especially in the Nigerian tech ecosystem?

I do not think it is peculiar to me, but at first, as a first-time founder, you are bound to make a shit ton of mistakes.

Number one mistake is underestimating what it takes to build even the simplest things. That could be a moral dip for you, especially when you are weeks/months in and not yet at the level where you had imagined you would be. Software takes time to build; even the simplest things you use on the internet took a lot of time to get to that point.

Another thing is underestimating how rigorous building an organisational structure can be. I have led maybe two or three teams before Spire, and these companies I worked for already had core organisational structures. 

I have had to build an entirely new organisational structure myself. The people who I had managed previously knew what they were supposed to do and what was expected of them; it was easier to manage people that way. 

However, this is my first time actively trying to build an organisational structure and manage people simultaneously. I will tell you for free that it is the most tasking thing I have ever done in my life because the whole point is not just managing them; it is that for whoever eventually comes in in the future, there is a consistent management process already in place. 

If I had to do this all over again, I probably would let somebody else handle people management. Product is my strongest suit because it is technical, and the facts remain the facts. It does not care about your emotions.

So, this time, you are the one setting the standards and at the same time, holding people up to those standards.

Exactly, building everything from the ground up is not a small feat. A result or consequence of this is that, for example, because I am more technically inclined, I hire people I think are technically sound, and the biggest problem of why work is not done is that ethics-wise, there is a problem.

Hiring has just made me realise why many people do not get hired. You could be a pretty good designer or engineer, but at the end of the day, you would not consistently deliver all that your skill brings to the table, and that becomes a problem.

Surprisingly, the people I have eventually been able to work with for the longest, are not necessarily the most experienced but have been the most committed and dedicated. Sometimes, it is the simple things that make this relationship work; asking questions, giving heads up, and letting the work matter to you even when I am not there.

That does sound like a lot of work. How long has Spire been in existence?

Officially, we started in April last year, so it has been a year.

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Moving away from Spire, I would like to delve deeper into your relationship with money specifically. How would you describe your money habit?

Oh, my money habit is pure vibes. Except you have the risk appetite I have, it is probably not advisable to follow me.

Okay, what was your relationship with money like when growing up?

I grew up in a very conservative, communal sense, but I was exposed to money early on. My parents were business people. In fact, we ran a family business together. At the early age of 12 – 14, I was managing an entire branch of a business.

Wow, a lot of people would agree that that is pretty young!

Yes, I mean, I am my parents’ first child. As soon as I could walk, I would be in the shop with my mum. As early as I can remember, I ran errands. My mum was a trained typist, and she is pretty good at it. She was.so good that I remember this government official who would rather have my mum type his documents.

Ahhh, so, since you grew up around your parents’ businesses, it did not come as a surprise to you when at 14, you were managing one.

No, it wasn’t a surprise. As an adult, I would say my childhood was pretty much stripped away. Sometimes, I can’t relate to some things people say they did as kids because I was managing a business while they were being kids.

So, do you think that the advantages of doing all that trumps any disadvantage of not being able to enjoy being a child?

It is not black and white, honestly. There are days when I feel like I could just really be a child, and there are days I am grateful for the experience. Many people think I am 30+, and my physique does not exactly help. There was a time when I wondered why; then it began to make sense.

People, after looking at your physique would try to measure your age by other antecedents in your life, like where you are and what you have done. Someone once said to me, “you have to be like forty. How have you done this much in this short amount of time? When did you start?”

So, it’s good, it’s bad. Some days are good, and some days are bad.

So, from everything you have said, I would guess that from a young age, you have pretty much had a healthy idea about how money works?

I would say that I have had an incredible run with how money works. I think it could be a good and a bad thing. The reason is that I know how money works, and sometimes I can afford to take huge risks that I know many people would never try. 

I am hardly ever worried about money because, with my experience, I know that as long as there is a demand and you can meet that demand, you will always make money. 

My dad always tells me that the difference between having money and not having money is; time. All the jobs you are doing are you just trying to shorten the time to have money. It makes sense, and that is why throughout my life I will always consider working hard over trying to cut corners to earn money.

That is such an amazing way to think about money. Not many people are that lucky to have parents drill that into them from a young age. Still on the subject of money, I’d like to know, are there money mistakes you have made in the past, and what would you have done differently?

Yes o, ah! Let me start with one of the most foolish traits I have. I thank God I have changed. Because I have been exposed to money early on, I always find it fulfilling to be able to give money out. I remember one time in Uni when they increased the school fees, I had not paid mine, but I gave out about #150,000 to support people who could not afford to pay theirs at the time – it was partly a show-off and partly a ‘money just dey to spend’.

That is how I delayed paying my own school fees till it was two weeks to the deadline and exams were around the corner; you could not write exams if you had not paid your fees. At that time, I was broke and had to borrow money to pay my fees. 

Another time was when I took out a loan to take a girl out on a date.

I am sorry, you did what?

Yeah, I took out a loan, and she still told me no. It wasn’t until last year, I tweeted about it, that she found out and told me, “you are one hell of a crazy man”. She did say she was not sure why she said no, but at that very young age, I was too risky for her. And she was right – I was too adrenaline-driven.

As I grow older, the difference is that I am more calculative. I consider the long-term prospects of my decisions generally, but trust me, the very impulsive nature is still there.

What expensive thing have you splurged your money on that was very useful for you, and another thing you splurged money on just for the heck of it.

The most expensive thing I have splurged money on would be my car, which I have sold. I remember I had told myself that for my 25th birthday, I would like to get myself a car. I will be 25 on the 9th of August, and I have bought two cars already. It just makes me realise that I have done well for myself. Once I set my heart to do something, I do not stress about it; it just happens.

The next biggest expense is also something that I started thinking about for my 25th, but it is not something I want to make public yet.

Finally, what advice would you give young people like yourself looking to create or build innovations?

In my experience, I do not think I have ever achieved anything without working hard for it. I spend sleepless nights, and my peers would tell you “Charles’ work rate is unmatched”.

More recently, it is becoming apparent that lots of people are trying to beat around the corners to get things. Honestly, sometimes, I prefer not to have opinions about these things, but the people who I am committed to helping know that I do not condone attempts to cut corners or find shortcuts. 

My father would ask you when you misbehave, “where did you learn this one from?” It is the same thing with the people that are close to me. I am very clear cut on being ethically responsible and genuinely committing to seeking knowledge. That is simply my advice to young people out there. 

Committing to doing genuine work tests your contentment.

Wow, please explain that.

Only you would know how much work you have put into something, and when the results come, the only thing you want to feel at that moment is gratitude. But, if you keep chasing shadows, you will always be going for exponential displays of that success to fill in those gaps of you being a fraud.

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