Jason Njoku was born on the 11 of December, 1980 in Deptford, South-East London and raised by a single parent, his mother who was a full time employee at National Health Service. After recording success in Nigerian Entertainment Industry, Jason co-founded SPARK, an investment company with Bastain Gotter and Mary Remmy Njoku in 2013. The company invest, support and develop aspiring Nigerian tech and internet entrepreneurs.
SPARK approach to investment is not the typical approach used by Venture Capitalist, they provide legal, marketing, technical and administrative assistance to their funded companies. They have invested in many tech start-up, some of which have packed bus while some are waxing stronger and stronger. The company’s portfolio includes Drinks.ng, Hotels.ng, Tolet.com.ng, OgaVenue, Paystack and many others. He has also invested in Blackbet NG, an online sports betting brand.
Through Spark, a seed investment company, I’ve invested in Hotels.ng, Drinks.ng, ToLet.com.ng, Paystack and OgaVenue. All the companies are similar in that they have super-focused, smart entrepreneurs who are building long-term companies for the Nigerian tech space. I buy local, I support local, I invest in local. In fact, with Paystack, we were so impressed with the company that not only did we invest in them; we also used them to help take online payments on iROKOtv.
Who is Jason Njoku?
In terms of my upbringing, I was brought up in the U.K. in a single parent household, and my mum worked extremely hard to provide for me and my four brothers and sisters. I believe I learned my work ethic from her. In terms of education, I schooled in London, apart from a couple of years in my early teens when I was sent to Nigeria to learn some discipline. When I returned to the U.K., and after I finished school in London, I went to the University of Manchester, where I gained a degree in Chemistry.
I’m basically a terrible employee. In my mind, I always know best. I’m intense, emotional and very direct. In the past, I struggled with authority, process and structure with my employers, and therefore found it easier, and more personally gratifying, to go it alone. I’ve always had a side hustle or found a means to generate additional income from childhood – so I would say that the groundwork for my entrepreneurial life was laid down from a very early age. My first real business was post-University. It was a magazine in Manchester, targeted at students. It consumed three years of my life and was, ultimately, a failure. I was left flat broke and broken, personally. But it was an amazing education in the school of entrepreneurship. It laid bare the brutalities of starting a business and making money. It removed any notion of glamour in business and made me realise what I would have to do in the future to succeed.
Jason Njoku is the founder and CEO of Iroko Partners, the largest digital distributors of Nigerian music and movies, with a library of 1600 licensed movies. Mr. Njoku’s, Iroko Partners, consist of 5 web brands; iROKOtv, iROKING, iROKtv, NollywoodLove and YorubaLove. Mr. Njoku is building a modern digital distribution infrastructure using Amazon Web Services, Ooyala and several video ad networks, to service the second largest movie industry in the world (by volume), Nollywood, or Nigerian cinema.
iROKOtv came about when I was living at home with my mum, aged 30, in London, and she asked me to get her some Nollywood DVDs. Being a child of the Internet, I went online to source them and when I couldn’t find any, either to buy in DVD format or to stream online, my interest was piqued. I suppose my first thought was – how can this super popular content that my mum, sisters and aunts watch all the time, not be online? I bought as many films as I could find, watched them and did some more research into the industry and realised there was an opportunity to reorganise the informal distribution structure that, at the time, it had. Originally, I tried to set up the business from London, but the company couldn’t really take off there, as all the action – all the deals – were in Lagos. So I moved here in 2010, thanks to some seed investment from my friend, Bastian Gotter, and the business really began then.
Our investment ‘story’ is a little different to most others. We didn’t have a pitch deck. In fact, we’ve never approached anyone for investment – our capital raises have all been inbound. So it’s never been a case of convincing anyone to be part of the business. Our investors saw a business opportunity and deals were done. Even in the very early days, we weren’t approaching investors or applying to incubators or pitching in any way. In fact, we were just ticking along nicely as a YouTube platform, producing great numbers and turning a profit. In 2010, there was an article about Nollywood and what we were doing that featured in the United States, US-based tech publication, TechCrunch. It was picked up by a US-based VC called Tiger Global, who contacted me, and, to cut a long story short, invested $3million in our company, so that we could move off YouTube and build our own dedicated platform. We have since brought on other investors, including Kinnevik, RISE capital and Canal+.
According to Pando Daily’s, Sarah Lacy, last year Iroko did eight million YouTube streams a month, with a $1 million revenue run-rate. But since then, his traffic has soared, but the relationship with Youtube has soured. In Njoku’s view, YouTube has become so maniacal about pleasing Hollywood and doing original, high-level US-centric programming that they just didn’t care about what someone like Iroko was doing.
“I’m not going to hide who we are,” said Mr. Njoku. “We have 71 people working for us in a country with 50% unemployment. We did $1.3 million in revenues last year. We are the largest Internet company in Lagos by nearly any definition. We want to be Nigeria’s Netscape moment.”
Njoku decided to close his YouTube channel that was generating millions in revenue in an attempt to build something even bigger. He’s in the process of migrating users and content now, so his YouTube content will still be available for a bit longer.
Mr. Njoku holds a BSc, Chemistry from The University of Manchester, University of Manchester – Manchester Business School, 2002 – 2005.
Jason tried out a couple of businesses which failed after graduating from the University. He then moved back to his mother’s apartment in Deptford at the age of 30. This is to say that failure should never stop us from trying again, you never know which will work. It was at this period that the idea of starting the Netflix of Africa struck him. He saw an opportunity in online distribution of Nigerian movies and came down to Lagos, Nigeria to understudy the industry. This idea was funded by his friend Bastain who became his business partner.
Jason Njoku and Bastain Gotter first started a YouTube channel that streamed African movies for Africans. This platform became profitable in a couple of months and they subsequently purchased online access of Nollywood movies and worked tirelessly to make their business work.
Ever since Jason launched iROKOtv, the company has grown and birthed new businesses including the successful production house, ROK Studios.
At the early stage, iROKO Partners caught the attention of Tiger Global company, US-based venture capital from an article published on Tech Crunch. The company secured an initial investment of $3million from Tiger Global which they used to launch its streaming platform, iROKOtv in 2011.
iROKOtv offered majority of its content for free and later monetized through subscription service called iROKOtv Plus. As the business grew, they secured an additional $22million investment fund from some international venture capitals. The funds helped iROKO Partners to improve their technology resources, increase their film catalogue and expand across Lagos, London and New York.
iROKO’s online distribution also launched a free Nigerian music service platform, iROKING in 2011 where selected African music can be streamed.
Over the years, the company has grown and diversified its distribution model from streaming content to linear TV market. Iroko Partners launched its first TV channels, iROKO Play and iROKO Plus on Star Times in 2015.
The structure of iROKOtv platform allows it to capture a great deal of data, which is subsequently used to inform and shape iROKOtv commissioning and purchasing decisions. Thanks to the metrics of the platform, iROKOtv is able to monitor who is watching what, where and when.
Additionally, Jason Njoku and his team invest time into speaking with the viewers via platforms such as live chat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and so on, though this is not standard practice in the industry. In Nigeria many companies do not invest enough time or money in customer service and relations, and the industry could definitely improve in this area. Jason Njoku thinks that reliable and transparent box office data will help paint a wider and more detailed picture of the market.
We have found that the lack of affordable and reliable broadband internet has been one of the main challenges in reaching the viewership goals we would like to achieve. In 2015 we decided to de-emphasise the streaming platform of our products, and instead reconfigured our flagship brand to be a mobile-only and download-only product, focusing on the Android platform first.
As a result of these efforts, it is now possible for viewers to download a movie when they are connected to Wi-Fi and keep it on their phone to watch at their own convenience. This is far more feasible than having consumers try to rely upon a steady internet signal to stream long-format content. It provides a quick, cheap and convenient alternative to the still expensive method of using 3G and 4G mobile data to watch long videos.
When it comes to local media consumption, mobile data has made a slight difference in allowing more frequent consumption of our productions among certain consumer segments; however, the cost of viewing content is still too expensive for many people. Solving the issue of low internet penetration will require cooperation from telecoms companies, who need to work towards more affordable and reliable tariffs for the majority of the population.
It is undeniable that the production of content in Nollywood has been negatively affected by foreign exchange. Since the industry needs to import equipment, the fluctuations in the exchange rate have caused the price of production to increase quite significantly. Unsurprisingly, like most other companies in the industry, this has had an effect on us, and we have consequently had to make adjustments in our operations in order to keep the cost of production at an affordable level.
It is pretty tough to access financing for film production in Nigeria, especially for those starting out in the industry. The budget size needed to produce high-quality content – which includes the cost of a technical crew, post-production and cast members – is growing, and without a track record of delivering profitable movies, it can be very hard for newcomers to raise the necessary funding. However, it is not impossible, and talent does rise to the top. While it is important for filmmakers to forge connections, the same is true in all film industries, not just in Nollywood. Our own ROK Studios, for instance, works with a number of different producers and writers, developing long-term working relationships with many of them. In addition, the company likes to source young and up-and-coming talent, so it invests in promising first-time projects from time to time.
We need to see improvements in access to data, although I should say that quality and costs vary drastically across the continent. We need to see a ten-fold increase in young people having access to the right education and tools, so we can build the next generation of highly skilled, technically capable engineers, who can build for Nigeria. And, we need to make a connection between local investors and the tech community. African investors are still primarily focused on the traditional industries – oil, gas and agriculture, so the tech guys see very little money from their own countrymen and women. Therefore, they have to look internationally for investment. I’d like to see more African entrepreneurs and business people investing in the tech ecosystem here on the continent.
- 2012: Forbes’ Ten Young Africa Millionaires to Watch
- 2012: Entrepreneur of the Year (Technology) at the Future Awards
- 2013: Young Leader of the Year for West Africa at CNBC All Africa Business Awards
- 2014: 1000 Most Creative People in Business
- 2016: Outstanding Industry Achievement at West Africa Mobile Awards
Jason Njoku is married to Mary Remmy Njoku, a Nigerian movie star and producer. They are blessed with three children; Nwakaego Annabel Njoku, Nnenna Njoku and Jason Obinna Njoku.
The Last Words
The Internet entertainment space in Africa is super-expensive to enter. For someone starting from scratch, and wanting to build a company that makes a big impact and generates revenue, I would hazard a guess that you would need around $50 million. That’s because content and the engineering behind the platform are extremely costly. However, my advice to anyone wanting to start their own company is to focus on the customer – build for the customer. Understand the market. Build your audience, your numbers and generate some revenue – then you will start to attract the interest of potential investors, if that is your end goal.
I meet so many people who are focused solely on their pitch deck and not on their product – I don’t believe this is the right way to go. Last year, through Spark, I invested in an amazing events booking platform called OgaVenue. They didn’t have a 90-page pitch deck or shiny offices in Lekki. But they had really encouraging revenues and could demonstrate massive growth after just a few short months of operation, working on a very scaled down team. That, for me, is a great formula to start your own business.