The introduction of smartphones in Nigeria back in 2007 meant different things to different people. For Elochukwu Umeh, a young and aspiring entrepreneur, the cellphone revolution came with a vision – a business idea that would use smartphones to drive interactions and create values for companies.
Two years after this vision came to him, Elochukwu conceptualized and established Terragon Group, a company that would later be described as “Africa’s digital powerhouse.”
The dreams of a teenager
As a child, Elochukwu had always imagined a future where he would be free to travel the world and explore. This naturally meant that all of his career plans were pointed towards exploring. As he later recounted:
“It had everything to do with exploring, and nothing to do with technology. I pictured being a pilot, an ambassador, and any other thing I thought could take me around the world.”
(READ MORE: Elo Umeh named 2019 B2B SME CEO of the year)
According to Elo, the desire to explore never died. However, it was sort of redirected after he got a job with a technology company, following the completion of his studies at the university. By this time, mobile technology had become a new avenue for him to explore the world.
The realities of adulthood
Fresh out of school as a Business Administration graduate in 2003, the then 20-year-old Elochukwu joined MTech as a content associate. His commitment quickly took him through the ranks, from content associate to head of Operator services, and then product manager, before he was finally put in charge of Telco partnerships.
The young man soon found himself traveling across Africa, setting up subsidiaries for MTech. As he went from Kenya to Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire to Uganda, Elochukw thought that all his childhood dreams had finally come to pass. But little did he know that he was acquiring the experience and acumen he would later use to build Terragon.
A brief stint with IFC and the quest to unravel smartphones’ endless opportunities
As part of his career advancement, Elochukwu took up a consulting engagement with the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) for some months. His job entailed rolling out modalities for mobile payment services, management of rural telephony initiatives, and the deployment of new products.
Even while working out his heart, Elochukwu was busy brainstorming on endless possibilities of the smart mobile technologies. Since his days as an undergraduate, he had always been fascinated by the opportunities inherent in those devices.
“As an undergraduate in Lagos, I had observed people couldn’t communicate unless they queued along with 30 or 40 people for hours to use a public phone. The government held a monopoly on phone lines and provided relatively substandard service, so not much was happening from a commercial standpoint.
“The development of mobile communications was a real game-changer and from the beginning, I realized it was going to change everything,” he later explained.
And Terragon was born…
In the last quarter of 2009, Terragon was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission, and by 2010, the company launched fully into the market. However, the journey wasn’t spicy with everything nice.
As a matter of fact, it was a tough first year of operation for Terrogan, as the founders explored various options of what people could do with the smart technologies, as well as how companies could get value from it. Raising funds was also a serious challenge for Terragon, as it is the case with all start-ups.
It was a tedious journey for the founders – two young men who, until then, were never really aware of the true pains of entrepreneurship. Reflecting on it, Elo says:
“For the first year, running out of money was a constant problem. We always needed money for one thing or the other, especially to keep the business afloat while working on the product market phase. Another problem was finding competent or strong team members that buy into the vision.”
By the end of the first year, the co-founder opted out, leaving Elochukwu to drive the business alone.
Thankfully, the resilient young entrepreneur had mentors who provided him guidance and moral support. Mitchell Elegbe, the MD/CEO of Interswitch, is one of such mentors, as well as Chika Nwaobi of M-tech. Years later, Elochukwu would describe their help and contributions as ‘unquantifiable’. This is because they provided him with insights into several projects that he later undertook.
During those early days of Terragon Group, one of the things Elochukwu ensured to do was to bring critical staff members on board. A number of those critical staff later became partners in the company. Oduntan Odubanjo was one of those critical staff. He later became the co-founder of Twinpine, which was launched as an arm of the Terragon Group.
Another one of those critical staff was Ayodeji Balogun, who became the company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Co-founder of the Terragon group.
With an interesting mix of grit and patience, Elochukwu Umeh was able to drive the start-up off the ground and into the competitive global market.
Milestones achieved by Elochukwu
Elochukwu is all about mobile, digital innovation and creative solutions. He is also a staunch believer in the school of thought that Africa’s problems can best be solved by Africans.
Finding solutions has been the crux of Terragon’s existence. And over the years, the company has rolled out products and services to provide a solution to the problems of consumer brands, mobile network operators, financial service institutions, media agencies, and SMEs.
Terragon first launched Terragon Digital – a digital media agency for companies that wanted to connect with their customers on mobile devices.
Twinpine Network was then launched as a premium mobile advertising network reaching millions of African consumers on mobile devices, and delivering outstanding results for brands and media agencies. It has helped lots of advertisers and media agencies to manage and optimize returns on their advertising budget.
These two would later form the basis for diving into the data and marketing technology business, a sector where Terragon expected to break new grounds, as the business was relatively unexplored in Africa at this time.
“We were not looking for companies to imitate, so we went in. We did a lot of market research and looked out for opportunities” Elo recalled.
The Terragon group also launched Adrenaline, the company’s flagship software in 2017. Adrenaline is a cross-platform mobile ad serving and data monetization platform specifically developed for the African market. It delivers targeted messaging via Web & Non-Web channels. It combines data, channels & tools to help businesses reach the right audiences at the right time and place.
Bringing Adrenaline to life required critical partnerships, so Terragon partnered with MTN Nigeria, Globacom and Orange.
Over the next couple of years, the software outstripped Facebook’s 18 million subscribers with 80 million subscribers in Nigeria. It gets over 3.58bn monthly impressions across its mobile operator channels, publisher and ad-exchange network.
In November 2018, Terragon Group also acquired Bizense Pte. Ltd, a Singaporean mobile advertising company targeting Telcos and large publishers.
Terragon Group is now the parent company to Terragon Ltd, Terragon Media and Twinpine.
After going through the tough early years, it undoubtedly gets to that point when the recognitions start rolling in.
In 2018, Terragon Group won the “Employer of the Year 2018” award at the Future of Workplace Awards – an initiative of HR Summit and Expo for West Africa.
Umeh also made the 40under40 list of Entrepreneurs by IESE Business school, University of Navarra Spain, from over 46,000 alumni across 129 countries. He had earlier completed his MBA from the university in 2016, graduating as ‘The Best and Brightest EMBAs of the class of 2016’.
Elochukwu Umeh was named the Business-to-Business SME CEO of the year at the 2019 Business Day CEO awards.
Elo is married with kids. Talking about what he would love to go back to doing, he says, “I am a football commentator in my free time. I have had a football program on radio and I analyze football, but since Terragon started to take a lot of time, I haven’t been able to allocate enough time to that passion.”
Looking back, Elo would say that patience played a huge role in his achievements, maybe even more than talent. “There are no shortcuts to the entrance,” he says.
He discusses the problem of entrepreneurs as that of imitation. “You must solve head-shattering problems. It’s the only way to keep competition at bay.”