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A conversation with billionaire Bassim Haidar about how he built his fortune

Bassim Haidar

Bassim Haidar is a Lebanese national, Nigerian-born self-made billionaire. Starting his first business at just 20 years old, Haidar has gone on to establish Optasia, a large telecoms provider which operates in 19 countries and plays a major role in infrastructure in Africa and the Middle East.

He now has a stake in a variety of industries including fintech, logistics, energy, engineering, and medicinal cannabis. We find out how a billionaire businessman maintains motivation, why being afraid of failure is crucial to success, and what the important differences are between entrepreneurs in developed and developing countries.

You founded your first business when you were only 20 years old. Can you tell me a bit about your path to success?

My path to success was definitely unplanned. After going to university in Lebanon, I came back to Nigeria and found that communication in the country was bad, but no one was doing anything about it. To put it into perspective, Nigeria had a population of seven million people and had 300,000 telephone lines – yet people couldn’t communicate. There were factories 50-60 kilometres outside of Lagos but there wasn’t there any communication with them. So, I managed to find a solution to connect these factories to the main commercial hub.

I had very little capital to start the business – only $3000. But after coming up with the equipment to make this work, it was a success from there. Factories were lining up to have this service – this was a solution I brought to my country.

I tried to create satellite TV on mobile phones and spent a lot of time and money on this, but it didn’t go well, and it failed. I was a bit ahead of the time with this idea and phones weren’t ready to deal with the massive flow of data required to make this work. This failure was a wake-up call and I was a lot more careful with how I approached new ideas after this happened.

In 2012, I had the idea of allowing people to provide credit to people who aren’t credit-worthy. In Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asian countries, there weren’t any credit scores and no data on consumers. We used the data collected on people’s phones to create a credit score, which allowed us to lend money to people by pre-approving them as a paying customer. This was a great success.

My most recent venture is a medicinal marijuana business – our idea is that medicinal marijuana is going to be big in the future. So, that’s where I am now.

You mentioned you tried to start a TV satellite business but this failed. How did you deal with this failure?

The biggest lesson for me was making the mistake of assuming you can think of everything to make a successful business. There will be one thing staring you in the face that you didn’t pay attention to and this will ultimately cause your business to fail.

In this case, it was content. When you don’t have enough of the right content and the content providers are charging you a lot of money, this will kill your business. Smartphone penetration wasn’t as big and smartphones weren’t as powerful as they are today – we were too ahead of our time with this. Did you know that there’s more technology in an iPhone than there was in Apollo 11 when they launched it?

This is something I underestimated completely. I also underestimated the strength of data requirements on mobile phones at the time, to be able to have a good quality experience. And, therefore, these two things were very difficult to solve because we were ahead of time, smartphone penetration wasn’t as big and smartphones were not as powerful as they are today.

That was a lesson that we learned and it was quite hard. It cost us good money, but I took it as a lesson because if you win at everything, maybe the bigger failure will be devastating but this one wasn’t. So, I used this failure to think of any potential parameters that could make me fail next time. I still use that mantra today.

You mentioned the importance of identifying a need in society and building a business around this. Do you think the most important thing for a business owner is to identify what the needs of future consumers are?

I think the biggest mistake business leaders make is following a trend – that’s the single biggest mistake anyone does. Never, ever follow a trend. I’ve never followed one.

Do not underestimate the power and curiosity of the consumer. For example, I recently started a medicinal marijuana venture. When you have consumers that really want medicinal cannabis or recreational cannabis but there’s not enough supply, we realised that this demand from consumers is what is going to drive growth.

Once you solve the equation around getting people to want your product, where you get this product will be the next challenge you face. We realised that there are people in Germany, the UK, Australia and so many other countries who were struggling to find this quality product. I knew that we needed to develop our own intellectual property and own strains.

I wanted to create a top product that would be in high demand – so that we won’t have to sell it, people would come to us to ask for it. This is what we achieved. Today, our product treats insomnia, arthritis, Parkinson’s, and so many other diseases without any side effects.

If you look at every successful business in the world today, the ideas were there, but it’s the need and the curiosity of the consumer that made this business successful. For example, for iPhone or Amazon, they were successful simply because the need was there and that’s what drove demand. You can sell, generate revenue, and you can fix things as you move along. But can you imagine investing in something and you don’t have the market to sell your products to? You can’t create a market if it doesn’t exist.

Optasia offers banking to developing markets and now you have 650 million users across the world. Why is extending financial inclusion to unbanked developing countries across the world important?

It’s important for three reasons: one is that many people tried to crack what we call ‘financial inclusion’, yet nothing was done about it – no one was able to crack the formula. How do we get a lady in Bangladesh to borrow $50 because she needs to buy textiles to sew, sell, and make some money and pay back banks?

Banks were not interested in doing that because the cost of acquisition is incredibly high: to give a loan of $50, the cost of acquisition is about $150.

Two, the banks have no idea how to score these customers. Three, the bank is about 100 kilometres away – how much is it going to cost this person to go to a bank and come back to be able to borrow $50, $80 or $100?

We decided to crack that and it was a challenge for us. And the second reason is if I look at my background and where I started, I didn’t come from a privileged family. I started from basically nowhere and opportunities were presented to me maybe at the right time and the right place. Call it luck, call it whatever you want.

I wanted to create an opportunity for people to be able to do something with their lives, and this was one of the drivers. The impact we’ve had on millions of people by providing these loans has just been incredible. And when we decided to go to some of these countries and I speak to the people and ask them: “Do you know about this product?” And they say: “Yeah absolutely, it changes my life because it gives me that extra liquidity today to start my business.”

How does accelerating affordable smartphone ownership positively impact people in these countries?

Let’s put it into perspective. We have so many products we want to try and sell to consumers that we believe are good, but in these developing countries, they are unable to get them because they don’t have a smartphone.

But what if we provide a tool for these customers to be able to get onto the financial system, and what is the tool? It’s the mobile phone. If we’re able to create a technology that allows us to give a mobile phone and allow customers to pay gradually for it, why not? And as a result, we developed a technology that allows us to lock the phone remotely if payments are missed.

Do you think that there’s a difference between the way the Western world and developing countries welcome technology into their lives or their society?

I think in the West we take technology for granted. Whereas in the developing world, it is a daily need, a daily human right. It’s a daily requirement to survive, so it’s not taken for granted. The mobile phone in the West is your life but in terms of social media and unnecessary stuff.

How many people bank today through their mobile phones? You can do banking through your laptop or you can walk to a branch. There are so many ways you can do it. In emerging markets, it’s not that easy without a phone, a secure connection, good connectivity, and a bank that is willing to bank you, and because of the small income that you generate, your phone is your livelihood.

How do you think growing up in Nigeria and having the experiences you had impacted the way you look at the world?

I think growing up in Nigeria is equivalent to Harvard in a different way. You learn first-hand how to deal with being in a very tough environment. Because in the West, when you have infrastructure and regulations supporting you, you can use your education and your skills to build on that regulation, to try and build a business. When you’re in a country where regulations are weak, where the environment does not support you, where the laws are weak, and where there is a high level of corruption, you need to be very careful, and you need to think very differently.

Your mindset is not the same mindset that you’d have in the Western world. And I think this is something that gets embedded in you from childhood – to be super careful and alert, but not to underestimate an opportunity being presented to you.

Is entrepreneurship something you are born with, or is it something that can be learned?

The really successful entrepreneurs are the ones that are born entrepreneurs. You cannot teach this to anyone else. I’ve got three daughters and I can see the one that is going to be an entrepreneur, I can see the one that’s going to be a lawyer, and I can see the one that is a little bit of each but doesn’t really know where she stands.

Just because I’m an entrepreneur myself, can I make them entrepreneurs? No, I cannot. Can I force them to be in one of my businesses? No, absolutely not. You either have it, or you don’t have it. And I’ve seen many, many families hand over businesses to their sons because they believe they’re entrepreneurs and I can tell you 80% of the time that doesn’t go well.

That family wealth disappears on the second generation because of a lack of entrepreneurship. Succession planning is critical when it comes to well-developed businesses. It doesn’t have to be a family member. It has to be people that can continue the mission of the business.

Entrepreneurs are told again and again to not be afraid of failure because it’s nature on the path to success. But would you say a fear of failure is a universal characteristic in entrepreneurs?

We should not mix both things because I believe that fear of failure is the single biggest driver for an entrepreneur. When you’re afraid to fail, you are going to put not your best, but your absolute best into being successful. If you are thinking: “What if I fail? I’ll try again,” you’ve already set yourself up for failure because you allowed that 10% chance for failure to happen.

People say to me: “Well, you always have a plan B.” And I respond: “No, I only work on my Plan A because the moment I think about my plan B, I’ve already discredited my Plan A. So, why can’t I perfect my Plan A in the first place so that I don’t need the Plan B?” This is very important and I think this is something we really need to embrace very strongly.

Forget about Plan B, only focus on Plan A. The fear of failure is going to drive you to deliver Plan A because you’ve not created another choice. In response, people say to me: “Oh, you must have been very confident.” But I was absolutely not confident. I was terrified to fail and this is what drove me more than anything else. I was not prepared to fail.

‘Imposter syndrome’ is spoken about a lot in the West. Do you think imposter syndrome exists in the West as part of the privilege that exists here, or is this something spoken about in the developing world too?

Mental health, stress, impostor syndrome, depression – people don’t have time for this in emerging markets. People want to live, people want to move on, people want to build things in these countries. Maybe it exists, but they don’t think about it because how is that going to help them and where will they go for help? The only thing they can do is help themselves, build their lives, move on and think about their kid’s education. That’s what people are thinking about in these countries.

I think in the West, we’re spending too much time thinking about issues that we create. We start to believe in these trends so much that we stop moving forward. Then we end up with people self-diagnosing themselves.

I’ve not heard any of this come up in any of the emerging markets. We operate different businesses in more than 40 of these markets and it’s not something we come across because I think people have bigger problems that they need to deal with. People need to think about their food daily, people need to think about their kid’s health and kid’s education, so they don’t have time to self- diagnose.

I think in the West, we live with great standards. But as humans, we should start believing more in ourselves. Life is not easy; it’s going to throw a lot of bad things at us all the time. It doesn’t mean you’re just going to give up, you should learn from that and try and move forward.

A lot of entrepreneurs would consider your story to be an exemplar story of success. Do you feel like you’ve ‘made it’? How do you maintain your motivation even though, by a certain standard, you would be considered to have ‘made it’?

The truth is, I don’t feel I’ve achieved anything. I feel that I’ve achieved something, but there’s still a long way for me to go. Don’t get me wrong, and I’m not going to be philosophical about this, but a lot of people say: “Oh, it’s not about the money”. Honestly, right now, for me, it’s still about the money. But it’s not about the money like it used to be.

It’s more about creating things that are impactful, things that maybe someone hasn’t done before – and that’s what excites me. I’m super excited about my medicinal cannabis business, and that’s because I’m learning all the time and because I believe this is going to be huge in the next five years.

I have zero doubt about this and I can already see the trend. We just participated in the Europa cannabis conference in London and we could see the biggest distributors in the world coming and trying to sign deals with us for future supply chains because there’s not enough top-quality medicinal cannabis in the world. And if we could lead in that sector, and become the number one player in the world – why not? The money will come – that becomes a natural thing after. Of course, money is a huge driver in the early stage and it is still important, but it’s not the main driver for me right now.

Do you feel like there are moments when you lose your confidence or your sense of purpose?

We all lose our sense of purpose. Sometimes we question ourselves, but I think that’s just human nature. You need to question yourself all the time – whether you’re doing the right thing, whether you really need to start something new.

I think the most important thing for me was the challenge of removing myself from the operational day-to-day aspects of my businesses and trusting people to run my businesses – I think this is one of the biggest challenges that I had. Thankfully, I’ve got some of the most amazing people working for me, which allows me time to think about other things, to think about personal things that I want to do. I think the next stage in an entrepreneur’s life is to be able to achieve that.

What makes a great business leader?

I don’t think there’s one thing that makes a great business leader, I think it’s many things combined. One of the things that I feel is very important is people trusting me. You need to create trust and people need to believe in you. Everyone wants to look to a leader, and when people believe in you, they believe in your mission and in your vision.

You should be a fair person and willing to take the people on the journey along with you. You shouldn’t be shy to get your hands dirty and be part of the teams you’re working with.

Do not sit up in the castle and let everyone do your work. You need to be down at the same level with them. But always let your people challenge you. The day you stop letting your people challenge you is the day you’re going to lose them.

I also think it’s critical that you listen. You’re the leader, you make the final call, but at the least you must give the opportunity for people to present their ideas and challenge you in a strong way before you make that final call.

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