Q & A With Mayowa Adegoke on Lawyering and Entrepreneurship – the Journey so far

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November 3, 2021

Mayowa Adegoke, Esq., AICMC is a lawyer and chartered mediator. In addition, he is a startup founder, self-taught programmer and strategist who has built several prototyped and released consumer applications. Mayowa generally has passion for activities that revolve around art, technology, music, space exploration and business. He also loves to write on tech, digital privacy and regulations, and is a published writer of foreign publications such as The Capital and DataSeries. In his spare time, he watches football and casually reads on a wide range of topics that may not be connected to his core interests.

Could you introduce yourself, explain a bit of your journey and how you got to where you are today. Was studying Law a choice of yours?

I am currently a lawyer, with several tech projects under the belt, but it wasn’t always like this. While my journey into law was deliberate from day one, my traverse of the tech space started as an accident. When kids write JAMB, WAEC and NECO in Nigeria, after exams are over, there’s usually this 3 to 6 months that kids wait for before results are out. During this period, I got my first phone (a cheap Nokia) that could browse the internet with the popular Opera Mini browser at the time. This also meant that for the first time, I could get answers to several tens of stuff that I was curious about on a daily basis. I probably did around 40 to 60 web searches everyday, asking all manner of questions.

Some time while on my question-asking expenditure, I discovered that Facebook actually earned from ads, not the sums we spent on data subscription. This got me superior curious about the company’s business model, revenue, mode of operations etc. Soon enough, I got wind of another company called “Snapchat”. And during this period, I learnt that Facebook was ready to pay Snapchat $3bn for some app. I got even more curious about what exactly was going on. I basically learnt more and more and more until my 200L in uni when I felt confident enough to want to build my own thing. I really have to credit the internet — Quora, Reddit, TechCrunch etc for educating me up to this level about how things work in tech.

Studying law for me was a choice — I loved the whole idea of human rights lawyering. But as I grew older, I became more interested in solving problems at scale than being purely focused on a particular method (e.g. law or even tech) as the sole means of solving problems. Currently, tech remains the most efficient method of solving problems at scale. As a lawyer, at best, from now till I’m 60 or 65, I can directly impact in the lives of 15,000 or 20,000 people. But as a techie, I can touch the lives of billions. If tech becomes less efficient and scalable in the future, you can be sure that I’d develop interest and “jump ship” to the next field that allows for more efficient problem-solving.

From being a Lawyer to a founder, what spurred the change? How was the journey like? Being a lawyer, has it made your role as a founder easier? Which would you say requires more attention?

Initially, I tried to keep my law and tech lives separate. It meant a lot of context switching — I would literally be Tech Clark Kent on some days and Legal Superman on other days. But, later on, I became better at moulding both sides into one — I use my legal knowledge during negotiations or tech contracts and I use my tech efficiency side when trying to cut down on cost of building projects. I “switched” from just being the legal compliance guy to being an active part of the founding team because of how I got into tech law. My tech law journey started with me as a founder before becoming a lawyer and eventually merging both.

It’s, as such, difficult for me to entirely ignore that founder side — so if I’m in a meeting with product managers, I can’t just sit there and only concern myself with discussions on what the law says about some feature being built. I would rather discuss the applicable regulation, as well as how the product itself can be made better to generate more revenue, scale more etc whilst requiring the least amount of regulatory overheads possible. Attention-wise, law currently takes most of my time at the moment because my day job is being a lawyer. But in terms of love for both fields, I’d say I love tech and law equally.

Given, it is not so easy to run a sustainable startup in Nigeria, you not only run one but two startups, what was your motivation behind HelpTalk Technologies and Sky Music or was it something you have always had an interest in?

It is definitely not easy to run a startup in Nigeria. And being a lawyer, I can see firsthand the amount of regulatory and compliance headaches involved, even outside fund raising, user acquisition and retention etc.

Sky Music was my first shot at creating a tech project from the scratch. Before then, I mostly built and ran websites and blogs that used existing backends like WordPress. When I built Sky with my cofounder, I was really interested in music at the time and felt I could introduce a badly-needed social layer for music. We have a social layer for photos and videos, but none for music, despite music being a huge part of our lives. Utimately, the project failed, not because the idea was bad (I still plan to revive it at some point later), but because we didn’t have a team strong enough to build a solid product in the pretty competitive music space. Because we had literally zero cash, we also couldn’t directly broker deals with artists to have their songs on the platform. We had to rely on users directly uploading songs while we sort of tracked songs behind the scenes for payment to right holders down the line.

Downloading and uploading song made sense for the years up until year 2010, not now that we’re in the golden age of streaming.

HelpTalk, on the other hand, was built as a charity project. On my way back from work after I won a hackathon with a different project, I heard people discussing domestic violence over the radio. I don’t know why that conversation stuck with me, but it did and I got motivated to build a product that could provide more practical solutions to the problem instead of just discussing it like everyone. While sketching out the idea on my way home, I discovered that the idea could be expanded to cover more than just domestic violence.. and HelpTalk was built to cover domestic violence and about 30 or so other areas.

I’m currently building mLaw, a pretty cool education app for lawyers. I’ve hope to have this out some time in July or, at most, August 2021.

Was there any point people were skeptical about having a lawyer as the founder/employer? How was that like? How is funding for these companies?

I haven’t really had issues with skepticisms because the way things work with me, my eye is always on the prize.

When I’m building a tech project, I wouldn’t build it “the way it has been built” or “the way lawyers build it”. Rather, I would build it “the way I believe it should be built”. As such, there’s usually very little focus on my background/profession. The focus is more on what exactly is being built.

Funding has been interesting. For my first startup, I was interested in funding, but I had no idea how to go about it. So I tried getting a volunteer cofounder to join me and get equity stake in the business first, believing that after it gets built, I can shop the product to investors for investment. In hindsight, I should probably have raised funds first.

For my subsequent startups, I’m more knowledgeable about how funding works… How it isn’t as glamorous as the media paints it. As a result, I’m really more into bootstrapping than raising funds now. Nonetheless, when I really need to raise money, I would, on great terms.

To build these companies, was learning to code a necessity or a longtime interest for you? Would you advise law students/lawyers to do same?

Learning to code was never an interest. I learnt the basics of how coding worked because I needed to understand what exactly these engineers were doing under the hood. It is easier to negotiate, set deadlines etc, when you know exactly the work to be done. So it’s really more of a necessity.

I don’t think lawyers need to know how to code. For a lawyer who just wants to do compliance, no need to know how to code. But for a lawyer who wants to create a company, if he or she doesn’t know how to code, then he or she needs a get trusted technical person who can efficiently run the coding side. But when a lawyer can code, it makes any kind of work that he needs to do a lot easier and backed with confidence. Imagine writing 15-page documents about APIs when you can’t even identify an API if you see one.

Where would you have intensified your efforts as regards your company  if you had fore knowledge of the challenges you have encountered? What do you believe founders lose sight of while starting out?

I can’t really say I made grave mistakes in my early journey as a founder, even in hindsight. But I think if I was lucky enough in some areas, I would have had it easier. Early on, I had no safety net. It meant that I had to be very cautious about risk taking. And I was just a uni kid with middle class parents and no source of income outside pocket money.

Now, it’s a bit easier because I have options. My experience during & after the law school really opened my eyes into how things worked outside the whole “Silicon Valley perfect founders’ world” that TechCrunch paints. Currently, I think founders focus too much on solving problems “as they have always been done”. No one questions fundamentals. Today, open any iOS app and you see the same 4 or 5 tabs at the bottom. No one questions why those tabs must be used in the first place… Everyone just use it.

Why did Snapchat open straight into the camera instead of just doing what everybody did at the time to open to feed first before the user can tap some button to open camera or post editor? But that’s not even that main issue — I think the major distraction for founders today is the extreme focus on the hype — announcing fundraising etc — than the substance — how much of the company do you have left if you’ve raised $10m at $15m valuation? Do you even still own the company at all, when you have just 5% of the company after Series B? How many users are really using the product, and how many are you literally paying/burning cash on ads for to get them to use the product?

These are the hard questions founders don’t ponder about. And investors have no incentives to help founders focus on that. As long as you continually need their investment (which means more stake in the business for them) and someone else is continually willing, due to the hype, to pay a higher price for the shares, then that’s awesome for the investor.

What major problem/problems would you like to solve? What app/solution are you surprised, it hasn’t been built yet?

The two biggest problems I want to solve before I retire have nothing to do with apps. Like I hinted earlier, for me, apps, tech, law etc are just means to the end. The end is the actual problem being solved.

First, I want to solve the problem of hunger in the world. I still find it weird that we waste food when some others don’t even have food. Why does food expire at all? Why is it so expensive to grow food. In answering these questions in the affirmative and building technologies to get these issues fixes, I think I can, with a great team, solve the problem of hunger in the world.

Second, I want to put Nigeria on the map in space exploration. We’re currently very very very very bad at it. And we shouldn’t be. The future is humans becoming multi-planetary. We cannot be a third world country on earth and still go ahead to continue being a third world country even in Mars when humans finally colonize that planet. That would be double jeopardy. We have the opportunity to be at the forefront of this colonization and planets thingy, since everyone, including the U.S. etc, are still figuring it out too.

For lawyers looking to build their own startups, what should they expect and what is your advice to them?

Lawyers are not used to being scrappy. It is not unexpected for a lawyer to spend 3, 4 months writing a 50-page business plan even when a single line of code hasn’t been written for the product itself. A lawyer that wants to succeed in tech needs to drop habits like that. Lawyers need to focus on core tech stuff like an MVP (minimum viable product) first and be willing to manage resources including time. Of course, everyone’s reality is different, so a lawyer that has rich parents or investors or even personal savings of N400m or N500m can build cool stuff, without being scrappy.

But for the average lawyer, I think we have to drop the formality and focus more on the practicality of what is being built.

Lawyers should generally expect having to deal with more than just compliance as usual. As a startup founder, one has to consider the product, capital, legal compliance, marketing, user satisfaction and Net Promoter Score (NPS), product roadmap, competitive threats and advantages etc. This may be too much for a lawyer who is used to just compliance work, but I think it can be done if the lawyer is truly interested in the problem being solved.

As a shortcut, a lawyer who still remains only good at regulatory compliance can negotiate to bring in other persons who are good at the other areas. This would usually come at the cost of extra salaries for those persons or/and even precious equity.

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