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#NairaLife: This Product Manager Was Down Zero In 2019. How Did He Turn It Around?

Every week, Zikoko seeks to understand how people move the Naira in and out of their lives. Some stories will be struggle-ish, others will be bougie. All the time, it’ll be revealing.


This week’s Naira Life is brought to you by QuickCredit. With QuickCredit, you not only get the funds you need instantly, but you also get to pay back at the lowest interest rate in Nigeria.

The 34-year-old product manager in this #NairaLife was slowly building up his wealth until a work mishap sent him out of a job and wiped out his life savings. Two years later, he’s building it back up and at $9800/month; it’s never been easier. 

What’s your oldest memory of money?

It dates back to 1994 when I was in primary three or four,  I stole ₦20 from my mum to buy some biscuits and sweets for a teacher so I could become their favourite student. I said it was from my mum. Unfortunately for me, the following week was Open Day and the teacher thanked my mum for the gifts. When we got home, she asked me to explain and I came clean. I got the beating of my life. 

Wiun. Could you paint a picture of what it was like growing up?

My mum was a teacher in the civil service and my dad was a jack of all trades. What both of them made wasn’t always enough for a family of eight. Things were especially tough during periods when the government owed my mum salaries or times when my dad’s businesses didn’t do so well. We were pretty much alternating between plenty and lack for the longest time.

Do you remember the first time you made money?

1997, and I was about 10 years old. I had friends who worked at the local market. They helped people carry their goods for a fee. I asked to follow them one day to observe how they worked. After watching for a while, I joined them. I made ₦16 on that evening and was so proud of myself. Unfortunately, one of my church members saw me and reported to my mum. I got another round of beating for “embarrassing the family and making people think we were hungry.”

I don’t even remember what I used the money for anymore. But I stayed off trying to do anything for money until I got into university to study computer science. This was in 2005.

What was the next thing you did for money?

I helped someone write a math exam in the second semester of my first year, and I got ₦2k for it. I got over the guilt of what I had done when I got the money. For context, my allowance from home was ₦1k/month. 

When I got to my second year, he introduced me to another guy who had missed out on school for the entire semester due to a personal tragedy. He was going to write six exams that semester, and I agreed to do it for ₦6k per course. That brought in ₦36k.

I knew it was illegal and could get into a lot of trouble, so I pivoted into something different in my third year.

What was this?

I started a tutorial centre to teach students in the lower levels. The centre caught on, and I was always booked and busy during the exam periods. On the side, I was writing final year projects and seminar papers for final year students. On average, I was making more than ₦150k per semester. I did these things until I left university in 2011. By that time, I had about ₦1m in savings. 

Hmm.

One of my cousins was going to a university in the UK that year, and I started thinking about the possibility of going abroad for my master’s degree. He directed me to the affiliate centre that helped him with the whole process, and I went there to make enquiries. But I missed the floor and found myself at an I.T training centre. Somehow, the facilitator of the centre convinced me to get some certifications with them instead and showed me a pathway of how I could use this to get into tech. I thought it sounded good, so I paid for six certifications in software development and network engineering. It cost me ₦600k.

The courses lasted for six months. The centre retained me as a facilitator after I finished my programme and paid me ₦15k/month. On the side, I was also looking for a better paying job, but nothing came until NYSC in 2012. 

Two weeks before my service year ended, I got a job as a systems and server admin with a contractor doing some IT work for the government.

How much was the pay?

₦90k. But I also had to be transferred to a state in the south-south. However, I was at the job for only three months. I resigned in May 2013. 

Ah, why?

I found out that my chances of growth were low. On my team, there were people who had been working there for two to three years and were still at the same income level they were when they joined. I didn’t want that for myself. I’ll admit that I made the decision because I had a bit of savings. ₦450k. 

Fair enough. What came after?

Unemployment. I was at home for five months. 

Uh-oh.

I was getting interviews but I either didn’t think the companies I was interviewing with were the right fit for me or they were offering me ridiculous salaries. I was bent on not accepting any offer below ₦100k and these companies were offering me ₦40k or ₦50k. 

By the fifth month, I had burnt through my savings and had ₦70k left. I was beginning to realise that saving money only works if you’re earning. 

Thankfully, a company reached out to me in October 2013. Someone at my last job had referred me to them. I got an offer almost immediately after I did my interview. They wanted me to come join them as IT support staff and my starting salary was ₦90k. Not the ₦100k I was looking for, but it was close. 

I get that. How long did you spend there?

Six months. I left in March 2014 after I got a better offer from an FMCG company. They brought me on as an IT lead and my salary was ₦150k. This was probably one of the most toxic places I’ve worked at. 

Why, what happened?

First, an IT lead was the highest role for the Nigerians who worked there. The supervisor positions and other superior roles went to foreigners. So, there was no opportunity for growth for me. I spent six months there and left in August 2014 after an argument with one of the supervisors. 

Here’s where it got interesting: they didn’t accept my resignation. 

Why not?

A lot of the foreigners on the team were in violation of their visas, and they feared I would report them to immigration if I left like that. They gave me an offer instead: they would pay my salary for six months if I didn’t get another job within that time frame. I accepted it. 

Sweet. 

I got a new job lead at a fintech company about two weeks after I left. Two months and a series of interviews later, they offered me a senior IT role. My basic salary was ₦250k, but there was an extra ₦30k transport allowance, which brought my total monthly earnings to ₦280k. Another ₦150k was coming in from my last job. In total, I was earning ₦430k until November 2014. Somehow, my former workplace found out that I had gotten another job and stopped the payments. 

Hehe. How did it go at the fintech company?

Oh, it was great. I spent three years there. A lot of growth and learning happened there, so I wasn’t in a rush to leave. However, I never got a salary raise even once. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much, but I got married in 2015, so I had to earn more. Ultimately, it was one of the reasons I left. 

Another fintech company had been trying to bring me on board, but I didn’t give them a lot of attention. I accepted their invitation to interview when I made a decision to leave the company I was with at the time. They liked me, and I got the job. Like that, my salary grew from ₦280k to ₦650k. It was a massive move I should have made earlier. 

It does seem that way. 

Haha. Apart from my salary, there was at least one bulk payout in every quarter of the year: leave allowance in March, performance bonus in June, Profit from the previous business year in September, and end of the year bonus in December. 

Could you tell me a bit about how you navigated money at the time?

I was saving 40% of my monthly salary. The remaining 60% was spread across other expenses, mostly household expenses and black tax. At the end of everything, my core savings was enough to cover house rent, which was ₦1.8m.

The bonuses I got on the job went into investments. 

What kind of investments?

Bank investments. Treasury bills were hot and at an all-time high, bringing in 13% – 14% per year. I also had a fixed deposit account I was putting money into. By 2018, I had gathered ₦6m in core savings and investments. 

Then something happened. 

Uh-oh. 

At the fintech where I worked, I was on a product team where we managed high network individuals. We helped them buy international portfolios and investments to reduce tax.

Everything ran smoothly until December 2018. I got a call from work and was notified that the infrastructure we used to facilitate these transactions had been exposed. What had happened was that the systems could not verify if the transactions we had made on that day to the BDCs — who were the middlemen — were successful, so we ended sending money to these people more than twice. And these were large volumes of money — $30k here, $20k there, some were more than that. 

By January 2019, we had recovered most of it. But the other BDC agents went underground with the money. The total debt that was on our head was $2m. 

Ehn? This sounds like a nightmare. 

It was. The affected  High Net Worth Individuals were on the company’s neck. Before long, the regulators got wind of it and everything spiralled out of control. My line manager resigned. I was next in line, so I had to be the fall guy. 

When the regulators came knocking, they seized the assets of everyone on my team to recover the money. All the money I thought I had went up in smoke. 

How much?

About ₦8.2m. They also took two cars belonging to me and my wife and some pieces of land I had bought. I was at level 0.

Damn. 

The company asked me to resign, so I was without a job for the most part of 2019. Marrying my best friend saved me. My wife took over providing for the family on her ₦200k salary. 

Seven other people were affected by the asset freezes, and we were fighting it in court. But I pulled out in 2019 because I realised how long court cases in Nigeria can drag on. I had to move on. 

What did moving on look like for you?

For starters, I had to figure out how to make rent in October. Thankfully, there was something to look forward to. 

What was that?

Before the whole situation started, I had been talking with some Chinese acquaintances about the possibility of bringing in Android POS machines into the country, and I had paid ₦700k for it. In March 2019, 10 POS machines were delivered to me. I had the infrastructure and configuration skills, but zero coding skills to integrate the POS into the Nigerian payment gateways and teach them how to read ATM cards. I went back to the same fintech company I worked at the previous year and convinced two friends to work on it with me, promising them 15% equity each. After five months, we figured it out. 

Agent banking was already becoming popular in the country, so it wasn’t hard to find 10 agents. I got ₦120k in revenue from the 10 machines in the first month. It increased to ₦300k in the second month. 

Then I ran into another problem.

What was it this time?

Regulators again. I got an email and they informed me that I was running the operation without a license. That’s how I was back to fighting for my life. I still had a relationship with the MD of the last fintech company I worked with, so I thought I could leverage it. After a series of back and forth, the company bought me out and paid me ₦10m for the POS machines and the solution I had built.

Whew.

I paid my guys ₦1.5m each per our equity agreement, ₦2m fine to the regulators and paid my rent, which had been due for a month. At the end of everything, I had ₦3m left. Things were beginning to look up again. 

Did you ever get another job?

I did in the same month. My former boss came through again and referred me to a company that needed somebody to manage their payment gateway. The salary was ₦350k. 

It was less than what I earned at my last 9-5, but it was either that or rely on the ₦3m I had left. I spent only three months there and left in January 2020. The people there weren’t open to change and preferred to stick with their old ways of doing things. 

The same week I left, I got a call from an oil and gas company. They were looking to build a product for efficient fuelling for their fleet offshore and someone had referred me to them. I got a six-month contract as senior product manager for the product. ₦750k per month. When I left, I had built my savings to about ₦5m. 

Then I got another job. 

Tell me about it. 

I wasn’t even keen on another 9-5, but it was a digital bank and the offer was good. ₦1.3m. It’s funny when I think about it now, but it took me about eight years to hit ₦1m every month. 

Inside life. 

The product I was building went live in December, but I stayed two extra months before I left in February 2021. The plan was to take some time off, build and ship my own product. But I couldn’t refuse the next offer I got. 

Ghen Ghen. 

One of the VPs of a digital bank in South America DMed on Twitter and asked if I was interested in a senior product manager role at the bank. I got an offer from them in April 2021.

How much?

$11k gross. $9800 net. That’s about ₦4.9m per month. 

Omo.  How do you move money in and out now?

Every month, I take $2k out for my monthly running costs, $2900 for short term investments, and I leave the rest in my international bank account. My wife and I should leave the country before the end of the year because of my new job, so I’m saving for when the time comes. 

Let’s start with a breakdown of your running costs. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but I imagine it looks something like this. 

What about your short term investments?

Every month, $900 is spread across different crypto investments. $400 goes into my PiggyVest for any emergency expenses. I put $1k in mutual funds, and this is to raise the tuition for my two kids when it’s time every three months. I also put $600 across a couple of agritech investments. 

What has all of this done to your perspective about money?

First, your risk appetite is directly proportional to how much you’re earning. I’ve realised that the more I earn, the more my interest in investments grows. A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have considered investing in crypto. 

Also, whoever says money doesn’t give happiness isn’t being fair. I would know because I was at my lowest point in 2019, and I know what that did to me. I developed high blood pressure during those months that I now have to manage for the rest of my life. 

I’m sorry about that. 

Thank you. I’m fine. But perhaps the most important shift is realising that people who depend on you will manage without you if you don’t have money. For the entire time I was down to zero, calls from members of my extended family were non-existent. The good thing about that is it’s now easier to say no to them when they come knocking. So, maybe don’t kill yourself so others could live. 

How much do you think you should be earning now?

I don’t think I should be earning a salary at this stage. I feel like I should have launched a couple of products in the market and earn money based on their market valuations. That’s one of the things I’m looking to do in the next five years. 

Let’s come back to the present for a bit. Is there anything you want but can’t afford?

I’m big on family houses. I’ve been thinking about a building that would accommodate my family, my parents, and my siblings and their families. I know the location I want for this project, but I’d have to buy old properties from the current owners and tear them down, and that alone will cost about ₦90m. It’s a huge investment I can’t take on yet. 

That’s an ambitious project. Is there anything you’ve bought recently that’s improved the quality of your life?

An air fryer. I bought it for health reasons, and it’s been absolutely worth it. It cost only ₦120k. 

Ah, nice. Is there a question you think I should have asked but didn’t?

My financial happiness. 

I was coming to that, but let’s hear it. 

It’s a six. 2019 was tough, but it could have been worse. I’m also glad that I’m bouncing back. I’m not 100% fulfilled yet because I haven’t built and shipped a product for myself — all the ones I’ve worked on have been for companies I’ve worked with. When this finally happens, I’m moving up to an eight or nine. 

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