INTERVIEW: How Nigerian firm I started with $300 grew to sell hotel rooms worth billions of naira – Founder

Mark Essien, CEO

Mark Essien, the founder and chief executive of the largest hotel booking site in Nigeria, started in 2013. Since then, the platform has grown to become the largest database for booking hotels in the country, with about 80 employees.

PREMIUM TIMES recently met with Mr. Essien to share his experiences in the first of a series of interviews with Nigeria’s young, innovative and smart entrepreneurs who continue to make a difference in society, dedicated to improving their lives and other Nigerians. Excerpts:

PREMIUM TIMES: Give us a story from your background that should resonate with the average Nigerian youth

ESSIEN: Back in my pre-teen and teen years, I had asked a lot of questions, quite like every young person. This was at a time when Google was not yet available. So, I could not just ‘ask’ the internet. The closest thing, however, was the public library in Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom state, where I spent most of my free time.

I think being a reader and an observer of people in society, and having a father who was so passionate about building stuff, led me down this career path. What I am saying essentially is this: everyone’s story has a developmental phase, which has a mix of good, bad and neutral life-shapers. If you meander towards the seemingly inconsequential, yet positive influences of your life, you will be positioning yourself to ride the wave towards defining yourself as the person you would be proud of introducing to other people.

PREMIUM TIMES: Enlighten us on your educational background and experience?

ESSIEN: I spent the first 18 years of my life in Ikot Ekpene, Akwa Ibom. After I was done with secondary school in Federal Government College, Ikot Ekpene, I went to Germany for my tertiary education where I acquired a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and a Masters in Science. In that time I honed my coding skills and started building applications for the then – nascent Apple App Store. I have since then returned to Nigeria to set up

PREMIUM TIMES: You once said your first paid job was as a night watchman for a paralysed man. How many phases would you say you have passed between that time and where you are now?

ESSIEN: I would say about six phases. First, as an employee, then as a student, a freelancer, as an App developer, as a master’s student, and now as a founder of

PREMIUM TIMES: Aside, what other business engagements are you involved in?  Tell us the process that led up to the establishment of

ESSIEN: I am currently not involved in other businesses, because I believe in the power of focus. In the moments that led up to me founding, start-up fever had just gripped Africa and innovators were exploring ways to tap into the market that the continent promised. This was the time where Jumia and Konga had started some operational ‘tilling’.

I observed that travel was also going to be the next big thing. I compared the Brazil and Indian hotel experience and travel tech space and I figured that it should be possible to replicate the model in Nigeria, as both countries bore similarities to Nigeria at that growth phase.

This was in the final months of my M.Sc and I was seriously considering a career

that would lead me on a worthwhile venture in Nigeria. My ideas for at the time were, at best, a well-researched hypothesis. So, I returned to Nigeria to test them out and the results since then have justified my thinking.

PREMIUM TIMES: What informed your decision to establish What were your expectations for the platform? Have they been met?

ESSIEN: I conducted a rigorous market analysis before I started My expectations have largely been exceeded- the market is larger than even I anticipated. Although I started the company with just $300 in 2013, we are currently selling hotel rooms in billions of naira after under three years of operation. Suffice it to say that I am living quite comfortably.

PREMIUM TIMES: What are the real or perceived threats to the Nigerian innovation space?

ESSIEN: A potential threat to innovation happens when the innovators get pulled into fields that pay well, but do not require innovation. This calls attention to unemployment in the country. Therefore, we all have a duty to support and preserve innovative minds for Nigeria to achieve more.

PREMIUM TIMES: What can unemployed youth who are interested in entrepreneurship do in current circumstances to become successful business owners?

ESSIEN: They should study their field of interest, and not just cursorily. True innovation comes from in-depth understanding of the workings of a particular field.

Today, at, we reach over 400 million people, this would not be possible if those working there did not have a deep understanding of what the job entails.

We create and improve every day, something all entrepreneurs have to master if they will make a difference. However, every prospective entrepreneur must be aware that all entrepreneurs face challenges and must be prepared for that. Managing a growing team is a challenge that one has to deal with daily. There are, of course, also the standard ‘Nigerian problems’ of power and internet.

PREMIUM TIMES: If you were not a software developer, what would you be?

ESSIEN: I would probably be a police officer.

PREMIUM TIMES: What is your opinion on Nigerian entrepreneurs? Would you invest in small upcoming businesses?

ESSIEN: I am not yet at the stage where I am ready to invest. But there is no doubt that Nigerian entrepreneurs are some of the best in the world.

PREMIUM TIMES: Your blogpost “How to become rich in a time of a dying Naira,” published on February 13, 2016, was rather impressive. What is the one advice you have for upcoming entrepreneurs in the country with the current economic downturn?

ESSIEN: I would say the focus for Nigeria and Nigerians should be on producing and building right now. If you can produce anything in Nigeria that can be sold online to a foreign market, you are guaranteed to be a winner with the current exchange rate. Also, I would advise them to stick to building entrepreneurship based on business before engaging in social entrepreneurship.

PREMIUM TIMES: Tell us about your company’s Corporate Social Responsibility portfolio.

ESSIEN: Lately we have been educating the public about Nigeria’s flora and fauna – the wildlife, and the beauty and the potential it holds for all of us. It is paradoxical that it is at once flourishing and becoming endangered. So, we embarked on several social campaigns to reverse this effect.

In January 2016, we launched the #ThisYearIMustVisit, a campaign that spotlights some of the lesser-known tourist destinations in Nigeria, using our analytics to bring insights into hitherto overlooked parts of the country.

We also had a #RestoreOurcampaign, a collaborative project where we tried to rehabilitate iconic landmarks in the country. This is an on-going project. We also raised awareness after the death of the Jos Lion about Africa’s diminishing lion population. We are always interested in partnering with platforms that intersect with our field for social good.

PREMIUM TIMES: Thank you indeed for your time.

ESSIEN: Thank you for having me.

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