Not many people get to live the life of a CEO, and at the same time, live the life of a movie star. Any of the two is enough achievement for most people, but Rich Tanksley has managed to excel in both. He is a successful brand builder, an I.T specialist and a fine thespian.
The former CEO of PULSE Nigeria and star of the TV show, Husbands of Lagos sat with Tush Magazine and gave so many interesting hindsight of his stay in Nigeria so far. Read below
How did the PULSE media idea develop?
Pulse is owned by a parent company which is based in Switzerland. It is the oldest and largest media company in Switzerland, called Ringier. They have registered some success in other developing markets and they decided that Africa was the next place to go. So about 5 years ago, they established a media company in Nigeria called PULSE. The vision was basically to go into the next emerging market and capture some market share. So PULSE hired me over two years ago to take what was sort of a foundation, as the head to the next level.
Speaking about the next level, what is the vision for PULSE in Africa?
Pulse wants to be in every market in Africa, they want to be the largest pan African media company and they are kind of on their way to doing that. PULSE now has properties in Ghana; they are building one in Kenya right now, they also have different media properties in Senegal, Ethiopia and Tanzania but you know; I retired as CEO of PULSE about six months ago. So as CEO for 2 years, I built it from nothing to 5 million monthly visitors and then, I retired. Now, my title at PULSE is Brand Ambassador, although I still work with them mostly as an advisor.
Why did you retire from PULSE after only what seems to a short period?
I like building things, I am an entrepreneur and I always say you are not a good business manager if you cannot build something that survives you. So after two years, I felt I had built PULSE to a point where it could survive without me. I want to build things, but I don’t necessarily need to run them. I decided to retire and leave PULSE to a team that I have put in place, which is an all Nigerian team. So now PULSE is run by Nigerians and it is doing well.
Now that you’re retired from PULSE, are you working on some other new things?
Sure, I work for a consulting company and it is called New Bridges and we do innovation training programs. We have a large crop of clients right now, where we teach 3D printing, we teach students how to manufacture products with 3D printers and how to build a business around those products. I also have my own consulting company and I have a couple of clients that I do reputation management for, so it is basically online media, digital marketing and things like that.
With all these programmes, do you have Africa in sight?
Well, everyone is in Nigeria because of the opportunities and we are not here because there is no traffic, or because the beaches are clean or there is a lot of power. We are here because there are opportunities, I mean, there is so much promise here and so many smart, hardworking people that want to get things done, that’s why everyone is here. I cannot think of another more exciting place I will go.
There is a lot of discussion going on in Nigeria presently, on youths taking up positions of power, what do you think is the contribution of the media to achieving this?
First of all, new media, which is basically all media now, online, social media and the likes, is run by young people. In PULSE, I think the average age of the employees hired is, 24. Whereas if you look at traditional media, like newspapers, the average age of people working there and reading there, is older than the average life expectancy for a Nigerian, so it is a dead business. Whereas, the new media is run by young people, the young people are creating the narrative; they are creating what gets said and how it gets said. So, I think the media is already an amazing tool for the young people and I think they should utilize it.
What was the impact of government policy on PULSE, when you were CEO?
Government policy did not really affect PULSE that much. The government seems too slow to regulate quick moving industries, so I don’t think there is any regulation about starting a media company. PULSE, we were an exporter; we created the content locally and exported it to US, UK. 30% of our traffic came from the US, UK. So things we created here, and we exported it, but the government did not recognize us as exporters. They did not give any tax benefits, no breaks, nothing, even though we were exporting something that we developed here. There should give incentives for exporters but they did not. It is much easier to do your work and not bother the government.
The foreign influence that PULSE has, do you think it gives them an advantage over indigenous media companies?
Well, PULSE definitely has an advantage being that they have a very experienced parent company that has been doing this for over 180 years and they have almost unlimited resources. That definitely gives them an advantage over an indigenous company that probably does not have the experience and does not have the deep pockets in order to spend.
What is your style of leadership?
I always try to hire people that are smarter than me, and get obstacles out of their way, that’s my leadership style. You cannot micro-manage everyone. If you only hire people that are not as smart as you, then you’d get frustrated by the job they do. So I hire people better than me or those that have a specific knowledge better than I do, they can do the job better than me. Then I remove the obstacles to their success. Don’t tell them what to do, just remove obstacles to their success. Let them perform well; if they do not perform well, then okay let them go find something else that they are better at.
How do you balance work and family?
Fortunately I’m single, so I do not have a family here to worry about. About family, I have kids from my first marriage, then my parents, then sisters in the US and it is easier to communicate with them either [through] Skype or e-mails but I think my family here are my friends.
The future of the media and the internet seems to be tied, what is your projection for the use of media and the internet in the future?
I think basically, the media requires the internet to grow. The video is where the media is turning to right now. Because it is videos, then it requires data and that is expensive and slow here. So yes, they are closely tied. Access to cheap and fast internet helps the new media grow faster.
What is the guiding principles that you would recommend to a start-up media company?
The good thing about new media is that you can measure instantly people’s response to what you do. So you put a story up and you can tell the next day if people like it or not, did they like it? Was there a lot of users on it? Did you get engagements? Did you get all sorts of comments? You can be systematic, if I put stories up, every story should be measured by the response, or you can categorize them and say this type of stories do not work well, and then you know what to do. Measuring, analyzing are very useful tips in building a successful media company.
Please share some of your experiences growing up?
When I was a kid my dad worked for GE, so my concept of work was to get a good job in a big company and work there my whole life and retire. So that was how [it was] when I was young and then I realized that I really do not want to do that. I did not want to wear suit and tie but that was my father’s concept of work, so that was sort of like how I was thinking. Just like in Nigeria, every parent wants their kids to work in a bank where you have to wear a suit and a tie. I had to insult my dad and say the only reason people wear a tie is so, when they get miserable with their job, they can hang themselves. [I thought] If you’re working in a bank and you have to wear a tie every day and maybe your job is to move a piece of paper from one place to another, your entire life, you’re gonna hang yourself in the end. So I became an entrepreneur when I was really young, I started shoving snow, when I was 8 years old. I always shuttled between working for people and working for myself. I work for people for a while and then I’m tired. Then you know when you own your own company, you never sleep, you’re constantly stressed. So I get to move from working for people, which is great because you get experience in other industries, and starting my own company.
Decisions like this never come easy, how did you get to convince your family that this was the right move for you?
Frankly, my first marriage never survived that move. I think there was too much stress on the marriage; you know I was running a startup and my income wasn’t steady and there are lots of risks, and you have to borrow money to run the company. There was too much stress; my first marriage did not survive that. I think I failed in finding that life balance with that first company.
A lot of young people would make the same decision you made some years ago, what would you advise them to do in finding the life balance?
You need to find someone that supports your dreams, if you don’t find someone that supports your dreams; you should probably not be with them. Then if you have dreams, let them know at the beginning.
The IT industry in Nigeria is not where it is supposed to be, if you had the chance, what would you like to change?
I think one of the things that slow down tech development so much in Nigeria, is access to internet. If you’re a tech company that required a lot of bandwidth, the cost for bandwidth would be a thousand times what it would be in another country. For instance when I was with PULSE, we had 40MB/second of data, download speed, and it costs us $8000 monthly. In the US, I can get 75MB/second at $75 per month. So twice the speed and unimaginable price difference, it is crazy. So for Nigerian companies that want to compete on global market space are already at a disadvantage, they are paying a thousand times more for their internet and they are generating their own power, they are pumping their own water, and they are kind of hiring people coming from a school system that does more harm than good. So they are at a disadvantage. If I have to discuss with the government now and say hey, let’s change this right now, I’d say, better internet, it would be nice not to spend a thousand dollars a week on diesel fuel for your company. So, internet, power, and somehow they need to fix the education system. They need to just throw it away, fire everybody, because the teachers really do more harm than good. They teach you how not to think and if you try thinking, they’d beat you and say don’t think just sit there and regurgitate. You’d do better not going to school.
Do you have any mentorship or leadership program that you’re working towards to help Nigerian youths in successfully transiting from being students to functioning in the labour market?
I hired a lot of interns at PULSE but honestly, there are millions more than I can absorb. I know a lot of people that have had internship with Nigerian companies but there are a lot of ways that they can do better; researching, learning from YouTube, there are so many education programs on YouTube, where you can learn things. It could cost you some data, but still you could become an expert. So if you cannot get an internship, if you are trying to find a job, you’d do better to start learning yourself and have that curiosity and try to seek knowledge. It is better than sitting at home, and watching stupid videos on Instagram, [by doing that] you are not really helping yourself much. You can spend half the time watching stupid videos and half the time learning.
What do you see yourself doing in the next couple of years, knowing that you have conquered a lot already?
So far, all the jobs I have had, I have made money and I have also helped people and I have helped grow things. I’d like to continue doing that. I’d like to have enough money on my own, where I’d have to worry less about making money and more about helping people because that is where I get real satisfaction.
Leaving America for Nigeria, how did you cope with the change in environment?
Well, before I was in Nigeria, I was in Ghana for three years. Before I was in Ghana, I was in Cameroun. So I have had some experience in West Africa, which makes it easier to handle Nigeria. Although I would say Ghana is the opposite of Nigeria. In Ghana you’d feel like everyone is on vacation all the time and here in Nigeria, you feel like no one gets vacation and everyone is working.
What were you doing in Ghana and Cameroun?
In Ghana I was running a program called Not Water Entrepreneurial Development School of Technology which is a software development graduate school which teaches students how to write software, how to set-up software companies and then we fund their companies. So I helped start 25 companies, I helped them get funding; I mentored them, there in Ghana.
Speaking about Nollywood, you featured in Husbands of Lagos, was there an audition or how did you get the role?
I know Jason Njoku because we invited him to be a guest lecturer when I was running my software development school in Ghana and I became friends with him and then when I came here, I was with his partner who helped him found Iroko TV and they said “hey, we are having a TV show and we need a white guy to play a role, do you want to do it?’ and I said sure. So, we shot the first season and it became the most downloaded show they have ever had, we are about to shoot season 4 now, the show is in 30 countries I think. Because of that I have been in 6 other movies asides Husbands of Lagos.
How has the experience been for you?
It has been fantastic. It is a new profession that I did not know anything about, [it is something] I never thought I’d be doing. So with every new character, I learn. I have learnt from every actor that I have worked with, they are amazing. It has been great.
How about the culture here in Nigeria, we always attach morals to our culture, how have you been able to cope with that?
It is easier for me because honestly I have a standard. If I don’t go to church no one is going to criticize me. It is easier for me. However, it is a little bit difficult for me to watch people who do not have a choice at what they do. Their aren’t push them like you have to be a lawyer, you have to be a banker and you say I don’t want to but in the end, you still do not have a choice. So they suffer through choosing profession that they do not want, till they get to the point where they tell their parents what they want, especially women. They have fewer chooses and they do not have the freedom to do what they want, or what they want to wear, it is difficult for me but it is not my job to change Nigeria. If I do the things I do and things change, then that’s great. I’m going to keep doing my job, I’m a visitor here.
Culled from Issue 17