Mark Essien Vs. Jason Njoku (Who is the greatest?)
There are quite a number of amazing startup entrepreneurs that I respect in Nigeria. Among them, Mark Essien and Jason Njoku stand out easily. This post is not to compare their greatness “coefficient” – if there is ever anything like that 🙂
Both of them are phenomenal and have become shining example in our startup ecosystem.
Same pose. (left is Mark with Jason to the right)
While Jason earned himself the Startup Internet poster boy for building a multi-million dollar business out of Nollywood, Mark Essien took a different route of making it easy to book hotels online in Nigeria. Both of them have become market leaders in their respective verticals.
Many people will say that Jason is charismatic, smart and brutal with execution. Others will say that he is a blunt, vocal (sometimes, gibberish) and unapologetic guy. One thing is obvious; Jason Njoku has cemented the market leadership of IrokoTV as the “Netflix of Nollywood” despite battling competitors with bigger pockets. It takes more than luck to achieve this kind of market leadership. In fact, contrary to what many people might believe, Jason was NOT lucky, instead there are quite a number of things that he did right (read: my analysis of Jason Njoku).
I also admire Mark Essien for his leadership at HotelsNG. I have learnt from Mark and HotelsNG several strategies which other businesses can use to grow their brand, as well as drive sales. First, there is a need for a background, so you can relate with my opinions about Mark and HotelsNG’s growth strategies.
What growth metrics matter to HotelsNG?
In the hotel booking business, your primary customers are those people who are shopping for hotels accommodation. To put this in context, it is important to know the metrics that are important to your business so you can direct your strategies to achieve them. For Hotels.ng, these can include efforts to ensure that new customers who are searching Google for “Hotels in Nigeria” or “Hotels in [insert Nigerian city]” find them.
They will also be concerned about user retention (that is, repeat businesses), having a sales team to sign up corporate accounts while also managing relationships with Hotels and other stakeholders. In addition to sales, there is need for marketing activities that reinforce customers’ trust, generate awareness and build brand appeal.
So how does HotelsNG do these?
I am not privileged to see Hotels.ng’s play book, but here are some of the unconventional strategies that they implemented in recent years that you can learn from.
1. Hotels.ng has an effective PR strategy.
PR is one of the most effective ways to build your brand, spread your story and also build quality back links. Effective PR helps you to sell, without sounding “salesy”. PR experts know that you can turn any event, milestones or activity to a newsworthy message for your startup. They also know the best channels to communicate your message through per time. Hotels.ng exemplified this very well, by taking advantage of events to drive quality PR stunts.
Here are some good examples.
a. Hiring Approach.
Mark’s hiring approach once “broke the internet”.
The unconventional interview started with a tweet and ended up as a story on CNN. Several blogs picked the story and linked back to Hotels.ng’s website. Asides, building links, one of the lessons I learnt about his hiring style (especially, if you don’t want to pay huge salaries for Harvard MBAs, like Rocket Internet/Jumia Group would do) is to construct your interview series to make the best talents qualify themselves.
Another very good example is the recommendation of Teachable co-founder for hiring growth teams. You might also like what Nat (formerly of AppSumo) shared about smart hiring that I expect many HR of startup companies will like to use.
b. Give something valuable away (Hey, Hotels.ng’s office is FREE to use on Weekends)
By the time you are reading this post, I would have used HotelsNG’s office to host an event.
To host your event, they literally have to clear their entire work stations to turn the office to a 50-capacity makeshift auditorium. This gesture also comes with access to power and free internet, literally saving you an estimated N100k. Do you think this is newsworthy? I guess so. And it has earned them backlinks too.
BTW. You must understand that giving away their office for event is not just gimmick; it is meeting real needs. The lesson is to see how you can convert your unused assets for public use while making a news out of it.
c. Internship programme
Another programme that benefits their PR is the internship programme. Recently, some of the interns built an open-source location API.
Just like HotelsNG did, you can easily score some PR for the initiatives that these interns execute. However, you need to know that asides PR, internship is important to the value-chain of how businesses can have access to new talents and build new products. Mark wrote about the decisions that led to the internship programme and even shares his passion for building future developers.
If you need a motivation to do something like this, you should read Emeka Afigbo’s treatise on why market leaders need to invest in the growth of the ecosystem in order to sustain their own market leadership (it is one of the most inspiring business fiction I read in recent times)
2. Mark Essien exhibits thought leadership.
Successful CEOs are thought leaders. Leaders like Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Paul Graham have even transcended their immediate industry because they have mastered how to convey their authority status across different industry issues.
You can achieve similar result on low budget by mastering how to speak to general issues as an industry expert. This can be through your writing (on your own blog, on Medium, LinkedIn or guest posting), with videos, podcasts, speaking at events or conferences – anywhere you can find your voice and your audience are – so you can indoctrinate them by winning their hearts, and eventually, their wallets.
Mark Essien uses Twitter and his personal blog to drive conversation about issues outside his core business. It is important that your communication style reflect how you want to be perceived. For example, while Mark Essien’s frankness and openness on issues (read his pitch deck to Rocket Intenet) is one of the things that endears him to people beyond his immediate customers, Jason njoku’s frankness and unapologetic views (read his bio on his personal blog) stand him out as brutal, no-nonsense dude.
3. Strategic acquisition and leverage.
When Jason announced the OgaVenue deal; most likely, it was largely an initiative to consolidate the Spark fund around entertainment. I used this this analogy to describe the value chain and economic sense for the investment.
As some industry watchers noted correctly, the deal can help HotelsNG to be better positioned for opportunities in the “event and hospitality” sector.
4. Invest in side projects.
Side project is the new marketing hack.
Companies like Crew have used side projects to keep their major business alive when they almost run out of funding. Others companies have used side projects to drive awareness to their major businesses (think sidekick – now known as Hubspot Sales), while side projects like Fedora – now Teachable – grew to become real businesses on its own.
At Hotels.ng, one of their side projects is Spots.NG; a website that aggregates interesting places to visit in Nigeria. While it is designed to provide information about places of interest, it also showcases hotels around the location thereby making it easy to use their Hotel booking platform.
If 3rd party data is anything to by, it is evident that the side project is one of the major driver of traffic to Hotels.ng, based on this chart from SimilarWeb.
Side project marketing can help you to drive traffic to your main site. You can draw a lot of inspirations from the team at Crew and others on how to start using side projects to grow your startup.
5. Open source projects, Hackathons and engagement of developer ecosystem.
Creating open source projects, hosting hackathons and engaging the developer ecosystem can benefit your startup while delivering value to the ecosystem. Last years, HotelsNG organised an hackathon to predict “no show booking” in order to improve its algorithm; this enabled them to engage a number of developers. Their internship programme also enables them to develop open source projects, like the Location API that other people can benefit from.
I respect what Mark Essien and his HotelsNG team are doing and I am of the opinion that he exemplifies the strategies of growing a business in a smart way, in Nigeria.
This post has nothing to do with endorsing the HotelsNG’s brand. Unfortunately, I also can’t speak about their revenues or the specific impacts that each of these initiatives has brought to their business. Even though I used several 3rd party tools to review their SEO, backlinks, paid strategies and traffic counts (like some of these competitive intelligence tools), they cannot give the exact or actual results that the business owners have. However, I am of the opinion that the company has solid fundamentals and the above strategies have something to do with it.