Republished: Meeting Uncle Sam
Meeting Uncle Sam
Aug 10, 2015 · 7 min read
No Free Lunch
I first met Sam Ovraiti while I was a postgraduate student at the University of Benin. He was a lecturer in the department of creative arts at that time and an enigma to the students who worshipped him. He was a painter and his water colors were unique. His style is also unique and as a collector, I admired and craved his work.
I met him again long after school, I was now running a tech business on Awolowo Road in the “High Brow” Ikoyi area of Lagos. I went down the road for lunch at a fast food restaurant and he walked in as I was about to sit and eat. I naturally offered to buy him a meal which he graciously accepted. I was proudly updating him on what I thought I had accomplished and wanted to take him to my office to sort of show off.
We got to the office and he seemed impressed then he sat me down and gave me a lecture I will never forget.
First he said, you were a very big fool to offer me free lunch when I did not ask for it. No 1 rule you should learn is that “there is no free lunch in Lagos”.
Secondly, he told me that I was a bigger fool to have an office on Awolowo road as he has seen now after talking to me that I was not in the luxury consumer business or in the business of keeping pseudo appearances. Nobody really came to my office except for the technical team. He made me realize that I didn’t need that office in that location and I probably was living beyond my means. He was right. The rent difference could have paid for several field consultants.
He then went on to tell me a story of what happened to him when he just came to Lagos.
When he first came to Lagos, Sam had a “jalopy” car as he called it. The car was in such bad shape that he needed to fix the tire most mornings at his neighborhood vulcanizer before he entered town for “his hustle”.
He noticed that the vulcanizer was never there between 9am to 10am every day. He finally cornered the guy he asked him why he was always absent at a time that should be his busiest? The vulcanizer told him that his busiest period was actually early in the morning before the transporters set out to ferry commuters. The vulcanizer had also learned from his former boss that he should take all the money he makes from 6am to 9am to the bank to save and never touch it. Anything else he makes after that time he can do whatever he pleases with.
Sam asked how much he made those mornings and the Vulcanizer told him he made an average of 200 Naira. Which was a tidy sum at that time. Sam quickly calculated how much the vulcanizer saved every week and every month and realized he did not even have that type of money to his name. His car was one of the things actually draining him. It was not an asset but a flawed status symbol.
He immediately decided to sell off his car.
The Richest Man In Babylon
After Sam sold the car, he decided to go into a new business different from selling his art. He decided to sell books. He was a teacher after-all and books came naturally to him. He understood books and he understood the market. He also needed something where he could get money every morning to save like the vulcanizer.
He created a distribution network of people helping him to sell the books everywhere including hawkers in Lagos traffic and he did quite well.
He “sold” me one of the books and it was one he had read that inspired him further after the vulcanizer experience. It was titled “The Richest Man in Babylon”. The same book Professor Osuide had recommended to me earlier as the key to fundamental principles of wealth creation.
That book has timeless investment principles and it is a book I recommend highly.
Thrift is quite common amongst African artisans and traders. When I was in school we had this store keeper who owned the provision store in the Ekehuan Campus Undergrad Common Room at UNIBEN. We called him “Diokpa” an Igbo term for reverence for elders.
Diokpa had about six daughters and we all watched them grow. We saw him and his wife take their kids home every night after taking turns to sit at the store and look after the kids all day after they had returned from school.
During my post graduate year, Diokpa’s eldest daughter got married and we were invited to his village. Diokpa’s residence or (residences) in the village blew everyone away. His humility and diligence did not reveal that he was also a secret real estate mogul.
There was a Stanford University study of kids and delayed gratification called the “Marshmallow Experiment”.
“The marshmallow experiment is a famous test of this concept conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University and discussed by Daniel Goleman in his popular work. In the 1960s, a group of four-year olds were given a marshmallow and promised another, only if they could wait 20 minutes before eating the first one. Some children could wait and others could not. The researchers then followed the progress of each child into adolescence, and demonstrated that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted and more dependable (determined via surveys of their parents and teachers), and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test”
The video of a simulation of this experiment is below:
I always think of this experiment and remember an incident with my uncle after I left school and was working for him. I asked for a loan to buy some shoes and he gave me the loan. Unfortunately, the loan was not enough to buy the type of shoes I wanted. I had to spend part of my salary too and was broke.
I went back to my uncle again for another loan at the end of the month and he asked me about the first loan and why I had not repaid? I started telling him about how the shoes were more expensive and he stopped me in mid conversation and gave me the most profound advice in my life.
My uncle said — “Victor, you are living beyond your means and that is a bad sign. Nobody ever becomes wealthy from living beyond their means”.
My uncle should know. He was and still is a wealthy man. It was for that reason that any funds I got from my family members especially my mum to run our business was always paid back. I was taught thrift. It is learned behavior.
I learned, from Diokpa, Uncle Sam and my Uncle and I am still learning. Entrepreneurship is all about continuous learning. It never stops. This is why I avoid interviews where people want to ask “The Secret of Success” , the successful man is one who never stops learning. The foolish man is one who thinks he has learned enough and boasts about it.
I really don’t like using the title “mentor” or “advisor” when I talk to startup founders. I honestly learn from them than they can ever imagine. From their experiences, I learn about the new realities. The new economy. I try to work with them through problems and not talk at them. I find that sometimes they have the answers figured out but are too much in a hurry to know it is all there. It is pathetic that few young founders really learn thrift. Maybe they need their own Vulcanizer epiphany.