Obinna Ekezie is the co-founder and CEO of Wakanow.com, the leading full-service, online travel company in Africa. Obinna played in the NBA for eight seasons and was selected with the 37th overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft by the Vancouver Grizzlies after playing with the Maryland Terrapins from 1995–1999. Following his basketball career, Obinna founded Wakanow out of his personal frustration at the time that there were no available options to easily book travel online between the United States and his native Nigeria or Nigeria and other parts of the world. Follow him at @obinnaekezie.
Who is your hero? (In business, life, or both.)
As a former NBA player and son of a successful businessman, I’ve been exposed to entrepreneurship at the highest levels. My father is my No. 1 hero. As a kid I was amazed by how my father was able to manage an international oil business while dedicating so much of himself to our family and community. My father continues to set an example for me of what is possible through hard work and integrity.
Two other heroes from my life in the NBA include Dallas Mavericks owner and fellow entrepreneur Mark Cuban, as well as Nigerian professional basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon. Playing for Mark Cuban was very inspirational and I took advantage of every opportunity possible to learn from him.
Hall of Fame inductee and fellow Nigerian professional basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon has been a huge inspiration to me both personally and professionally. Hakeem helped open the door for fellow Nigerian basketball players like myself to play professional basketball in the U.S. As an NBA player, Hakeem always represented what was possible, which trickled over into my personal life as well as my business life after my retirement from basketball. Most recently, I partnered with the NBA alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and WNBA All-Star and Nigerian-American Chiney Ogwumike of the Connecticut Sun to launch Power Forward, a youth engagement initiative that uses basketball to develop health, leadership and life skills among Nigerian youth.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today, and why?
Always take some time away from the grind. There is nothing like taking a break to think and plan. You don’t want to miss out on big opportunities because you didn’t have the creative energy to truly embrace the opportunity in front of you. So take time to think, to reflect and to recharge your batteries.
I usually wake up at 4 a.m. and think for about an hour or two. During this time I try to come up with new ways to improve my business and create solutions to existing problems. I take notes so I don’t forget my thoughts. You never know what groundbreaking idea or solution that can pop into your head in a relaxed and focused mindset.
I also try to reboot at least once a year by taking a vacation (where I unplug) or truly removing myself from the day-to-day demands of running a large and fast-growing travel business. Rebooting helps me get a fresher perspective on things that matter most and create better work-life balance.
What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your business, and what did you learn from it that others can learn from too?
From traveling constantly throughout the U.S. and Canada as an NBA player, as well as traveling from the U.S. to my native home in Nigeria in the off season, I was exposed to the positives and negatives of the travel industry. Since my dad had offices in Houston when I was young, we’d also go between Houston (and often New York City) and Nigeria.
I just knew there were opportunities to improve travel between Africa, the U.S. and other parts of the world, but my first venture to try to fix things failed and I lost a lot of money. The problem was we didn’t have the right focus and lacked a clear business plan. Despite this failure, I learned a lot about what didn’t work (and things that can work).
Considering that I got it right the second time around with Wakanow.com, I am thankful for failing the first time. One never truly “fails” until one gives up, and I never gave up. Wakanow.com today is successfully servicing the travel needs of our customers at home and abroad and we have become Africa’s No. 1 travel booking portal.
What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
During the first hour of my business day I say hello to my staff, ask them how they are and ask about their families and welfare. It is important to tap into the pulse of your staff. Strive always to establish a relationship with them so you become easy to approach. You will know that when there is a problem that impacts them or your business, they can come to you.
After I check the pulse of my key team members I look at the day before’s sales volume. If numbers don’t appear right, I immediately coordinate a meeting with key executives and staff to discuss. If numbers are strong I take the opportunity to celebrate a bit with the team.
What’s your best financial/cash-flow related tip for entrepreneurs just getting started?
My best financial advice is simple: always close sales transactions. No matter how little you think the value is, every dime counts. Train your people to think the same way. You’d be surprised at how quickly little drops of water become an ocean.
Quick: What’s ONE thing you recommend ALL aspiring or current entrepreneurs do right now to take their biz to the next level?
It is important to anticipate, look ahead and always be one step ahead. To do this you have to be better than everybody else out there at thinking through obstacles and opportunities before they occur. If you are able to successfully anticipate outcomes before your competition can react, you will always be first. Keep in mind that you should strive to always be proactive, not reactive.
Find solutions to existing problems and monetize them. Technology has to play a key role. Innovate new and better ways of doing things and you will surely succeed.
What’s your definition of success? How will you know when you’ve finally “succeeded” in your business?
My definition of success is being able to achieve the goals that I have set for myself. When you set a goal and achieve it, you have succeeded.
Wakanow.com has come a long way from when we launched in 2008. We went from having one corporate office, to establishing over 16 travel centers in Lagos, Ibadan, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano. We now have offices in Ghana, Dubai and the U.S. I currently have specific goals to continue expansion and position Wakanow as not only the No. 1 travel provider in Africa, but a dominant global travel portal.
From a goal-setting point of view, my near-term benchmark for succeeding is not just servicing the travel needs of Nigerians in Nigeria, but expanding Wakanow.com to over 20 African countries and servicing the travel needs of Africa at home and abroad.