Seun Osewa is the Founder of the highly-acclaimed multi-audience online forum, Nairaland. In this interview with CP-Africa, Mr. Osewa talks about how he started and continues to grow Nairaland. Excerpts:
Nmachi: It is our pleasure and honour to have you on. Let’s start with the origins of the site. When did you start the Nairaland Forum?
Osewa: I installed the Simple Machines Forum on the 10th of March, 2005, and opened Nairaland to the public on the 25th of March, 2005 after working on it for about two weeks. That’s about 14 months after Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook.com.
Nmachi: Why did you choose to start Nairaland?
About two years earlier I had attempted to start a web hosting business, but after 3 months I could only boast of one customer, so I ran out of capital and the business died. It would probably have succeeded if I had managed my capital more wisely or raised more money as I got many hosting requests I couldn’t satisfy later that year.
After that first failure, I was encouraged to get certifications and a regular job, but I couldn’t go back to that kind of path after tasting creative freedom, so I kept researching business ideas and presenting them to friends and family, but no capital was forthcoming to carry any of them out. I did this for less than 2 years. (The last idea was a site for sending SMS messages. I picked up Python to implement it.)
Eventually, I decided to start a web forum, because it was the only idea that required no additional capital: I already had Internet access and a $15 per month VPS graciously paid for by a family friend. I created 3 forums in November 2003 (one for higher institution students, one for IT discussions, and one to cover the emerging GSM industry; the Mobile Nigeria Forum at MobileNigeria.com).
The Mobile Nigeria Forum took off, so I relaunched it in February 2005 with the assistance of Mr. John Sagai Adams, who posted a link to the forum on his mailing list and participated enthusiastically in those early days. Other mobile enthusiasts like Mr. Yomi Adegboye pitched in to make the site a success. In a month or so, the forum had about 300 members, but the growth potential didn’t satisfy me.
I decided to start Nairaland when I noticed two odd things about MobileNigeria:
(1) Despite its narrow focus, it was the only Nigerian community that gave a voice to Nigerians at home. Most other Nigerian sites were owned and dominated by Nigerians in the US or UK. They covered only issues of interests to Nigerians abroad.
(2) The off topic section of the forum, covering topics outside telecoms, like romance and jokes, was becoming more vibrant than the Mobile Nigeria Forum itself, suggesting the need for a more general-purpose Nigerian forum.
This gave me the confidence to take forums like Naijaryders and Talknaija head on by starting a general purpose discussion forum with a strong bias towards issues of interest to Nigerians at home. I felt that such a site could attract enough traffic to make enough money from Google adverts. That’s why I started the Nairaland Forum.
Nmachi: When will you say Nairaland hit its “tipping point” that helped launch it into the mainstream in the Nigerian internet community?
Osewa: I don’t believe there was a real tipping point, because we were providing something people really wanted. Growth has been linear from day one. However, I can tell you about some memorable moments in our history.
I remember a time we got about 30 registrations a day from our coverage of Gulder Ultimate Search. I think that was the first month.
I remember when the Job section became so popular that most Nigerians at home thought Nairaland was a job portal. It was a bit annoying, but I embraced it.
I remember when our business section became popular when all those wonder banks were in vogue. And after that, spammers and advertisers finished it off. It used to be great.
I remember when I realised I could no longer respond to every thread on the forum, and after a while I couldn’t even read every thread. Now I can’t even check every section in day.
I remember when I first realised that revolts by old members couldn’t kill the site because of the constant influx of new members. This, coupled with stress from the rapid growth of the site, led me to adopt a Buhari-style approach to managing the forum, which tarnished my reputation quite a bit. I’m trying to change that now.
I remember when I locked all Nairalanders out of the forum during a public holiday because I couldn’t keep up with spammers anymore. I was spending several hours every day just deleting spam and I was tired. Mukina2, a famous Nairalander, volunteered to help by moderating and recruiting other volunteer moderators.
I remember when I wrote an ‘antispam bot’ because moderators couldn’t keep up with spam. And it wasn’t enough. Then I added a registration CAPTCHA and it didn’t make any difference. Nowadays, everyone hates the bot, because it often makes mistakes, but we would have had to lock down the forum if we didn’t have it.
Nmachi: How many users/members does Nairaland currently have? How many people currently use the site?
Osewa: We have about 650,000 user accounts. About 30,000 were logged on in the last 30 days. Most Nairalanders don’t bother to login or register. They just read the site like a newspaper site and search it with Google. Our daily visitor count is much higher.
Nmachi: Who are your main competitors?
Osewa: NaijaHotJobs, NigeriaBestForum, Goal.com, and maybe Jobberman.
Nmachi: What do you think has set Nairaland apart from other Nigerian online forums over the years?
Osewa: Compared to Nigerian forums that preceded Nairaland: local point of view, better organisation, more serious topics, and guest-friendliness. Compared to our current forum competitors; momentum.
Nmachi: What were some of the initial challenges you encountered when you first started out?
Osewa: Power. I had to get an inverter with my last savings to run MobileNigeria. Troublemakers. Some people refused to follow the rules of the forum and caused fights.
Nmachi: Are you looking to outside investors to further scale the service? Why or why not?
Osewa: Not really. Right now, our major problems are due to the nature of an internet forum. Very few forums grow as big as Nairaland, because several problems crop up as many people try to interact on the same forum.
One is trolling; some people just love to behave badly on anonymous forums. They derail discussions, insult others for no reason, and treat people asking for advice with insensitivity. In a small forum, it’s easy to identify these people and exclude them, but in a large forum like Nairaland, it gets to a point where you can only deal with the extreme cases. Trolling becomes part of the experience, and that limits growth quite a bit.
Another one is spam, which I discussed earlier. Any popular site that allows strangers to post what they like for free will have that problem.
The last one is the most subtle and difficult to solve. A young internet forum is like an extended family. Everyone knows everyone, and people really care about each other. Being part of one is a very nice, cozy experience. That’s what the Mobile Nigeria forum was like. But as a forum grows, it becomes a community of strangers, like Oshodi before Fashola. Most members are forced to become spectators.
I don’t think these issues can be solved by having a lot more money. We (Nairaland moderators and I) will just end up doing the same things we’re doing now in more expensive ways. But I have been working on a plan to solve these problems by changing the way the forum works. It will be incredibly risky and time consuming, but won’t require much money.
Facebook has 1 employee for every 300,000 monthly active users. Nairaland has 1 employee (me!) for just 30,000 active users, so I think the priority for now should be to make Nairaland 10 times more efficient.
Nmachi: Do you intend to include other features, such as evolving Nairaland to become a social networking hub? Why or why not?
Osewa: This is such a nice question. If I got 5 naira every time a developer offered to help me make Nairaland like Facebook, I would be rich enough to buy the moon!
But here’s the thing. You can’t beat Facebook. even if your website is perfect. Social networks benefit from ‘network effects’, which means the bigger they are, the better the experience. Facebook has grown so big that the only thing other social networks can do is die. MySpace, Hi5, and even Google’s social network (Orkut), and Microsoft’s Live Spaces have been beaten and are still losing members every day. If Google and Microsoft can’t beat them, I don’t think I should waste my time.
There’s an element of Facebook I’d like to incorporate, though. The ‘social graph’. It’s the reason why Facebook can have 500m users on the same site and yet, unlike most big forums, doesn’t feel over-crowded. The social graph approach scales so well.
Nmachi: How profitable is the Nairaland Forum?
Osewa: Haha. Nice one!
Nmachi: Is this where you envisioned Nairaland when you started out?
Osewa: My initial dream with MobileNigeria was to make more than 60k a month, which seemed like a reasonable salary at the time, and then use any extra income as capital to start a more promising business. This was reasonable to me. Afterall, the total capital I wasted in my failed hosting business was under N60k. Nairaland flew past this target within the first year, and continues to grow.
Apart from wanting to create a place where Nigerians at home could feel at home, I didn’t have lofty visions for Nairaland, save to remain number 1. I just wanted to succeed at something for once, and I thought this was the cheapest thing I could try.
Nmachi: Where do you see Nairaland in the next five years?
Osewa: Hopefully, someone more capable than me would be running it by then, and it will be the most popular African website (we’re currently number 2). Little steps!
Nmachi: Any last words for readers who are currently members of the Nairaland community?
Osewa: Yes. Just two words: Thank You! I have so many people to thank. If I’m ever interviewed again, I’ll surely mention more names.
Nmachi: Thanks so much, Seun, for sharing your story with us! Very inspiring to say the least. All the best with Nairaland!