Last year I spoke at an investor conference in New York City which included 400 of the world’s most successful internet entrepreneurs – while I had the opportunity to meet some incredibly smart and talented people one guy stood out in the crowd more than anyone else….Obinna Ekezie, and it wasn’t only because he is nearly 7 ft tall.
Not surprisingly, Obinna Ekezie is a former college and professional basketball player…first at the University of Maryland and later as a NBA player for various teams, including the Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, LA Clippers, and Vancouver Grizzlies. Obinna counts Dallas Mavericks owner and fellow entrepreneur Mark Cuban, as well as former NBA player (and fellow entrepreneur) Magic Johnson as inspirations.
Of course, one is inclined to want to talk basketball with Obinna…as I did over dinner in NYC one of the nights of the conference, but ironically Obinna primarily wanted to talk about business – in particular, about how he was on a mission to build the #1 provider of online travel bookings in Africa and his native home of Nigeria.
As we began to talk I found myself quickly on the edge of my seat for a few reasons. First, Obinna is a passionate guy and brilliant entrepreneur – during our initial meeting he came across as a combination of an Ivy League professor and a motivational speaker. Second, Obinna thinks big – listening to him is like listening to a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs….he really wants to revolutionize the way people book online travel in Africa. Did I mention Africa has over 1 billion residents? Yeah – Obinna thinks big!
Over the last year my personal and professional relationship with Obinna has grown much closer – in fact, there probably hasn’t been a week that has gone by without us chatting at least once or twice by e-mail about Obinna’s entrepreneurial ambitions and in particular his travel company Zeep (see Wakanow.com), which has quickly become the fastest growing online travel company in Africa.
Below you will find an exclusive interview that I conducted with Obinna – we briefly chat about his basketball career and then discuss Obinna’s entrepreneurial ambitions along with what inspires him to do what he does. I hope you find the interview as rewarding to read as it was for me to conduct.
INTERVIEW BETWEEN KRIS JONES AND OBINNA EKEZIE – APRIL 2011
KRIS JONES: So…let’s talk basketball first. You attended and played college basketball on a full scholarship at the University of Maryland from 1995-1999. Why did you attend the University of Maryland?
In the video above Keith Booth and Obinna Ekezie lead Maryland over Duke.
OBINNA EKEZIE: I wanted to study Mechanical engineering and business. UMD was the only school that offered engineering with the IBM Total Quality Management program as a business minor so I chose MD. Moreover, it is the ACC. The best conference in college basketball at that time.
KRIS JONES: What was the highlight of your basketball career – is there a particular game and / or achievement that you cherish?
OBINNA EKEZIE: There are 3 games against UNC that we won. One we were down 21 points and came back to win at their gym. One we won at home. The last I had 3 fouls in the first half with 2 points. Second half I ended up with 19 points and we won. I couldn’t be stopped. The UNC team had Vince Carter, Antwaun Jamison, Shammond Williams, and more NBA players.
KRIS JONES: You were drafted in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft by the Vancouver Grizzlies and went on to play for multiple teams over the course of your basketball career. Can you tell us more about your professional basketball career and share some of your favorite highlights?
In the picture above Obinna Ekezie plays defense against Philadelphia 76ers’s great Allen Iverson
OBINNA EKEZIE: My professional basketball career was a blessing. It is an achievement I cherish. In terms of my actual performance, I feel I could have done much better without the injuries which was out of my control. I still feel very blessed though because the injuries cut my career short but led me to where I am today.
KRIS JONES: After having a successful professional basketball career you decided to dedicate your life to being a full-time entrepreneur. Your current business is Zeep Travel, a Nigerian based online travel company. You offer hotel business and bookings in Lagos and air travel from notable African airlines such as Virgin Nigeria and Aero Contractors. Can you tell us more about Zeep Travel and what it is that you are attempting to accomplish with the company?
In the above video CNBC’s Erin Burnett interviews Obinna Ekezie, Zeep Travel founder.
OBINNA EKEZIE: I believe there are few opportunities in life that come ones way. This is a big one and I recognized it from the start. When I was injured in 2005, I started thinking about life after basketball. I was introduced to online travel through a former friend but our venture was not successful and I pretty much lost quite a lot of money but I never gave up. A few years later I returned to Nigeria to visit and I had difficulty booking my flight. Next time I got stuck at the airport going from Lagos to Moscow because I needed a transit visa through frankfurt which I did not have and I could not buy a ticket at the airport. Although I met my wife the next day while buying a new Turkish Airline ticket, I did not find this funny. This is when I realized that there was no online travel company in Nigeria so I said we must do this.
KRIS JONES: Travel is one of the most competitive spaces to build a new online business. What makes Wakanow.com / Zeep different than other travel companies in Africa and other parts of the world?
OBINNA EKEZIE: We do not have the competition like the U.S or other developed markets. We are actually pioneers in this extremely challenging market. With the success we are having in Nigeria, we have the opportunity to expand to other African markets quickly.
KRIS JONES: How do you stay motivated and find passion on a daily basis? Can you share with us some tips for how you have been able to build such as successful career despite the natural challenges that you likely faced along the way?
OBINNA EKEZIE: People close to me know that motivation has never been an issue for me for anything that I am passionate about. I think about Wakanow and the travel business 24/7. I want to be successful and I want to make a difference. We are radically changing the way travel is planned and booked in Nigeria and I am happy about that. In terms of challenges, I put everything I had on the line. Fortunately, my father also invested as well as my partner. This is a capital intensive project but I decided to go into it knowing it would be difficult to attract VC’s without showing a viable business.
KRIS JONES: Over the years I imagine you’ve had many mentors that have inspired you. Can you share with us who your top three mentors have been and why? In basketball? In business?
OBINNA EKEZIE: My mentor is my father. He is a successful businessman so I learned a lot from him. I was inspired by guys like Mark Cuban, Kevin Plank (under armour), Magic Johnson and Steve Bischotti (Baltimore Ravens). I also read a lot of Forbes magazine trying to gain knowledge on how the richest people in the world made their money.
KRIS JONES: If you could “trade shoes” for one month with anyone who would it be and why?
OBINNA EKEZIE: No one not because I don’t admire people like you and the guys that I mentioned above because I do. I am in Nigeria doing what has been very successful in the U.S and other developed countries and having success doing it here. This makes me happy and very determined to take this across Africa. This is Africa’s time and I feel blessed to be among the leaders in the technology space. We are creating jobs and opportunities for young people here. This is very important to me.
KRIS JONES: In business, who do you admire most and why?
OBINNA EKEZIE: I admire my father because he built arguably the best Nigerian owned oil service company in Nigeria. I admire Kevin Plank because he is a UMD grad and built what we see today (founder of Under Armour) from 5 t-shirts. I actually tried one of them.
KRIS JONES: Please share what it is like to conduct business in Nigeria?
OBINNA EKEZIE: Challenging is an understatement. Things just do not work like it does in western countries.
KRIS JONES: Aside from building Wakanow into the most successful travel company in Africa, are there any other projects that you spend your time on? (this is an opportunity to share anything else you’d like…from service / philanthropic related projects, to your itunes project or whatever.
OBINNA EKEZIE: The work load is enormous so I spend a lot of time on Wakanow. After we have achieved our goal of being the biggest online travel company in Africa in a few years, I would like to make the same impact in the development of sports academies in Nigeria. We need to create opportunities for our very talented youth and we are no where close to doing that right now. The demand for Nigerian music and movies has exploded globally. It is in great need of online distribution to generate global and domestic revenue for its continued growth. Piracy is rampant but technology can soften its impact tremendously.