FBI was privileged to catch-up with Mr. Marek Zmyslowski, famed author of the bestselling book, “Chasing Black Unicorns.” The Polish-born serial entrepreneur and CEO, adjudged among “The Ten Most Important People in Tech” is currently focused on online business and renewable energy, with a keen passion for the Emerging Markets. Following his illustrious career with some of the most renowned tech organizations in the world including Google and Rocket Internet, Zmyslowski co-founded Sunroof, a 2-in-1 Solar Roofs producer; Hotelonline.co, a travel technology company and Jumia Travel, Africa’s biggest hotel booking portal, listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He still serves as a Lead Mentor with Google’s Launchpad and World Bank’s XL Africa Program.
The former Snowboard Instructor and Bartender is inspired by his humble beginnings to extend his love through uncommon acts of charity, to the poor and needy. A proponent of women and youth empowerment, especially in developing nations, Mr. Zmyslowski defines is life goal simply as the quest to leave the world in a slightly better shape than he met it. He, along with Yaritza, founded the MaYa Foundation in 2003; a charity organization with extensive operations in Nigeria and the Dominican Republic.
In this riveting interview, Mr. Zmyslowski, a captivating storyteller, shares the story of his success trajectory and offers useful insights to all current and prospective entrepreneurs.
From a snowboard instructor, and a bartender, to a bestselling author, serial entrepreneur, and one of the Ten Most Important People in Tech in Africa- Do you mind leading us through the transitory period of your “Grass to Grace” story?
Born in a typical 2+1 post-soviet Poland family. My mum was a teacher, my father was a soldier. When I was a kid and compared myself to other children from my school, their clothes and toys, I thought that we are poor. But later I understood it was because my mum spent most of her money to always send me to good (so private) schools, where the “rich kids” used to go. We lived in a very small, poor polish town, which was such a huge contrast to everything I could see on the TV (Hollywood movies and music clips). Since then I had always felt how unfair life can be simply because of the place you were born in. This is why throughout the rest of my life I always wanted to move around, see the world, achieve a lot. And not be the “victim” of the place I was born. Only after I moved to Nigeria I realized how truly blessed I really was never to walk hungry, got always all the books I needed, etc. That trip totally changed my point of reference. But partially I could also relate to many issues I found in Africa. But to be fair, what I mostly found in Nigeria, was an amazing opportunity to be a part of a growing nation, while building cool businesses, and hopefully making some money and doing some Good on the way.
You have worked for (or with) some of the most powerful tech organizations in the world such as: Google, Rocket Internet, OLX, Jumia, Glovo, Booking.com, and many more; kindly share your experiences at these places.
Peter Thiel in his fantastic book “Zero to One” wrote “All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” I could write or talk for hours about all these amazing companies I had the opportunity to work with, but if I had to sum it up somehow, that’s how I exactly see them. Each of these organizations is really different and unique in its own way. For example, I never met a Google employee who hadn’t been an extraordinarily smart and nice person, their company culture is just amazing. I also love their approach to solving problems. Their “Design Thinking” methodology is legendary, and I encourage everyone interested to do research about it. Many times when I approach a challenge, I ask myself, “What would Google do?”
You co-founded Sunroof.se – a 2-in-1 Solar Roofs producer, HotelOnline.co – a Travel Technology Company, and Jumia Travel – Africa’s Biggest Hotel Booking Portal; these are very successful businesses. However, we will like you to tell us some of the businesses that failed and how you handle(d) failure.
I had way, way more failures than successes! I think I can count just straight out of my head close to a hundred projects I started, invested time and money, that failed. One of the most spectacular ones were a dating website – I think I wanted to solve my own problem back then. And a nationwide network of funeral (!) services. Michael Jordan once said “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I actually think that being able to handle failure is the single most important skill in business. By handling, I mean first surviving it, secondly, learning from it. And at last, coming back stronger and smarter after it. Failure is many times related to some kind of rejection (by clients, by the market, by investors). Dealing with rejection (business, relationships) is so hard because the pain is in your body, not just your mind. Rejection from the tribe for hundreds of thousands of years meant death by predators. To “fit in” is a survival instinct we no longer need. Another thing is risk management, building a business is not a game, you don’t get many lives. Whatever you get yourself involved in, you need to calculate risk in such a way, so that failure will not destroy you financially to an extent that you won’t able to get up try again.
For successful businesses, what do you think has been the key to their successes?
Timing, luck, and hard work. In that exact order. I think we can’t outwork bad timing when the market is not ready for your product. Also, it’s really hard to outwork a constant lack of luck. But if the timing is right, you have some luck, and you throw a lot of work and perseverance, success might just come around. It sounds easy, but it is very hard to execute. Because it requires quitting often, when there is lack of timing and luck, until finally, that one time you make a decision to never quit anymore until the success is there. That’s the finesse in business thinking and strategy, that separates the best entrepreneurs from the rest. Or at least that’s what I believe in. Seth Godin summed it up perfectly in his book “The Dip” that I highly recommend.
Expedia CEO Peter Kern is quoted as saying “I think people are still not sure what it’s going to take to go international and what they’ll have to do and what will be allowed” in your opinion as Co-founder of Africa’s biggest travel company, kindly paint a picture of what we should be expecting in the coming years in terms of international travels, Covid passports etc.?
I want to believe that what is awaiting us after the lockdown is over, is something similar to the post-WWI/Spanish Flu “Roaring 20’s” when society became more thrill-seeking and adventurous for a time. That may be true again, especially for young folks, especially the ones who think it’s their last chance before the Climate Change Armageddon.
Long-distance travel may decline as people instinctively may wish to go places closer to home in the awful advent of another out-of-the-blue threat. Airlines will be mostly very well supported, just like they have been for years. Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian, Emirates, Qatar, Singapore Airlines, and many many other amazing airlines are considered a strategic asset for the governments of the country they come from. It’s one of a few positive examples of asset nationalization.
Regional travel could get a huge increase in demand as a result of a “comfort zone” factor. People may want to stay away from big hotels with many people inside and lean into a more home-like experience, renting out whole apartments, houses, or staying in more cozy and smaller environments.
Alibaba founder, Jack Ma said that “47% of his employees are women and that has contributed to his company’s success” what is your opinion on this in relation to Women empowerment in Africa?
I couldn’t agree more. Women empowerment is the single biggest change-bringing-improvement in society I could think of. Empowered and educated women will:
1. Join companies; and it’s already been proven all over the world that more women in companies mean more successful companies.
2. Have empowered and educated children; they will do everything so their kids become even better than them, as loving mother usually do.
3. Have fewer babies in general; in poor societies with large infant mortality, it’s almost a must to make a lot of babies, because only some of them will survive to later help the parents survive. It’s a bad cycle that can be broken with empowering women. This issue is very important for me, I launched Maya-Foundation.com a charity where we address exactly that problem in Nigeria and Dominican Republic. This approach is also greatly explained in Mellisa Gates’s book “Moment of Lift”.
You are quoted as saying “your real-life goal is simply to leave this World in slightly better shape than what it was when you arrived.” Was that the motivation for the MaYa foundation? What impacts have you made with the foundation and what future?
If you have food in your fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of the world. I consider myself extremely lucky in life. I had a careless childhood. My parents paid for my toys and education. I learned about brutal conflicts and child labor only from books and my grandparents’ WWII stories. I learned what hunger feels like only after I discovered intermittent fasting. Let’s put coaching literature aside. Hard work is not enough to be successful, period. There are millions of people in this world more talented and more hardworking than me. Most of them will never have even remotely comfortable life as I do, just because of where they were born. The location of their birth is not their fault, and I want to change that at least a bit. Not because I’m some kind of a high-spirited person, but because I simply feel uncomfortable to be that unfairly lucky in comparison to others. At some stage in life when you feel accomplished enough, you’re mainly motivated by giving back. My life partner, Yaritza had it much tougher than me, born into a big, humble family in the poor suburbs of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. She worked her ass off in school, getting an education, learning foreign languages, getting a degree, and starting her career in a male-dominated world. She had to earn everything by herself, but she still acknowledges there are people in the world that pray to God to be put in her childhood situation. This is why, together with Yaritza, we have decided to launch the MaYa Foundation. To redistribute “the luck” in life.
Africa is a continent of 1.3 billion people with more than 30% of the world’s mineral suppliers and the biggest precious mineral reserve on earth, yet most countries within the continent are still battling with poverty and under-development. What are we missing?
It’s a trillion-dollar question, isn’t it? After living here for almost 10 years, what I can say is that it must be some kind of a very unfortunate mix of human flaws (greed, indifference) that lead to corruption and theft that can’t lift the nations out of poverty. The best book I read about what can be done about it was “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo. I’m also very aware of the fact of how ineligible I am to speak on this matter. I am too young, too inexperienced, too foreign.
Let’s move to your recently published book entitled “Chasing Black Unicorns: How building the Amazon of Africa put me on Interpol’s Most Wanted list.” The book is considered a fascinating tell-all about your triumphs and challenges in business abroad. What inspired the book and what key lesson can a foreign investor pick from the book?
When I was traveling to Nigeria for the very first time, sometime in 2012, I desperately looked for any relevant literature that could help me understand the business landscape of this fascinating country; I think by now, you already know I’m a bookworm. I could only find books written by some university professors; too much theory without practice, or some travel books. I couldn’t find, back then at least, anything contemporary about business. So I remember saying to myself that maybe I will be the first foreign investor/entrepreneur to write such a book. But of course, I had put this on my mental shelf with the name “things to do when you’re closer to death than your birth date”. But later, the whole drama happened when my business partner decided to steal the company from me, by bribing the police to put me into jail, unless I give him all the shares. It was a 2 year-long legal battle, and the thing that kept me motivated through all its craziness is that my supposed-to-be boring business book could become way more interesting if I write about it, but I needed a happy end. Eventually, I was able to win the battle and prove the illegality of Nigerian police actions against me. I wouldn’t call it a total win, because the fight hurt me financially and the company almost went bankrupt. But the happy ending allowed me to write the book. I wanted it to be a mix between a biography and a business book, so the book is really divided into many interesting, I hope, stories of my life, mainly in Nigeria, where each of the stories has a business lesson that it carries. My inspiration to use such a structure came from 2 sources. First, I read “Chaos Monkeys” by Antonio Garcia Martinez, an entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, who did the same mix, and I think the book was a great read. Secondly, I’m a huge fan of stand-up comedy. I consider this one of the most demanding forms of art. You get constant feedback literally every 30 seconds, it’s so dynamic. But the fact is that the jokes are not the most important thing in stand up. Many comedians are extremely smart, and wise people. They tell you jokes to make you feel comfortable, to make you listen, and when they have your attention – they usually tell you something very important… I wanted to do the same in my book. I’m not the one to judge whether I succeeded or not. The readers are.
Lots of people haven’t been most optimistic about the investment ecosystem in Africa. Why did you choose Africa?
I think my investment horizons are longer than those of other people. If you look at market changes in decades, not years, you are able to see more. But to be very honest, none of my commitment to Africa comes from the calculation. On the contrary, I proudly say that I’m allergic to Excel. I simply fell in love with the dynamism, nature, the people. The opportunities. I love chaos and adventure. And I believe Africa gives that great combination of “life and business” experience. And the risk size is balanced by the level of opportunity. What more to want?
What is the most misunderstood thing about you?
Many people in Nigeria still think, or rather want to believe against the facts, that I was the bad person in the whole drama of “me vs my old business partner and the Nigerian police officers, who were bribed by him.” Many people didn’t like that I attracted the attention of the International media to the corruption and fraud problems in Nigeria. They thought I was attacking Nigeria and purposely damaging its image. They felt that by attacking me back, they are defending the good name of Nigeria. But unfortunately, they were indirectly defending the real fraudsters instead. Also, for anyone that is familiar with my public work, it’s obvious that I couldn’t be more positive towards Nigeria, and Africa. Since 2013 I was featured in close to a thousand articles and videos, I gave hundreds of speeches. All of them to a total audience of over 5 million people, always preaching the Nigerian/African Tech Ecosystem. The fact that I went through some problems in Nigeria, you can’t solve a problem without exposing it first, only gives me the legitimacy to say good things, as they come, as a net result of my experience.
COVID and the incident on the Suez Canal, where one ship paralyzed Global Trade. It became obvious to me how fragile our civilization is. It was a sad realization. The “butterfly effect” couldn’t be more real. I think I worry about safety in case of any type of disaster much more than I used to. My business and life decisions are affected by it now too. I definitely keep more dry food, water, and toilet paper in the house than I used to.
If you could “trade shoes” for one month with anyone who would it be and why?
If I could do it only once, I would have a hard choice between Mick Jagger and Jeff Bezos. I would probably go for Mick Jagger, I want to see if that rock-star life was really worth it. It seems becoming 2nd Mick Jagger in my case is even less probable than becoming second Jeff Bezos (laughs).