Mar 5, 2024

David Lanre Messan: Investing in Dreams and Disruption Across Africa

Navigating the Frontier of African Innovation with David Lanre Messan

David Lanre Messan: Investing in Dreams and Disruption Across Africa

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Bridging the gap between ambition and reality in Africa's startup ecosystem, David Lanre Messan isn't just playing the game—he's changing how it's played. Leading FirstFounders Inc. (F2), a venture studio with operations in Lagos, Nigeria, and Delaware, United States, David’s work is centered around a mission to democratize entrepreneurship and institutionalize venture building across the African continent. Yet, it's his grounded approach and tangible achievements that set him apart in an industry often criticized for its preference for hype over substance.

David's background offers insight into his drive and methodologies. Raised in a Lagos suburb, his upbringing straddled the lines of socioeconomic strata, providing him with a firsthand understanding of the challenges and opportunities present in emerging markets. This nuanced perspective has undoubtedly informed his approach to entrepreneurship. His father, a retired teacher, and his mother, a West African trader, imparted the values of curiosity and entrepreneurial acumen from an early age. However, David's recount of his early aspiration towards music stardom, juxtaposed with his eventual gravitation towards entrepreneurship, illustrates the unpredictability and multifaceted nature of career paths, particularly within the volatile tech ecosystem.

At the helm of F2, David has not just theorized about venture building but has actively invested in and supported eight portfolio startups from 2020 to 2023. Each of these startups benefited from his hands-on approach in ideation, product development, and spin-off strategies, with financial investments ranging between $10k and $25k. Beyond these ventures, his work with over 250 SMEs, assisting in go-to-market strategies and securing over $10 million in grants and equity investments, underscores a significant commitment to the startup ecosystem.

David’s career is decorated with numerous awards, from the 2004 MTV/Staying Alive Youth Leadership Award to being named one of the 2020 top CEOs in Nigeria. While these accolades recognize his contributions to business and leadership, they also reflect the broader narrative of success and recognition in the world of entrepreneurship—a world that often values achievement in the form of awards and titles.

However, the true measure of David’s impact might better be gauged through the lens of his contributions to the tech ecosystem, particularly his role in raising over $5 million for tech startups and providing founder support and startup advisory. His engagements as a speaker and trainer, with invitations from prestigious institutions like Lagos Business School and Harvard Business School, speak to his role as a thought leader in entrepreneurship and innovation.

David's personal anecdotes, including his forays into skydiving to honor African founders and his diverse interests outside the boardroom, from music to writing, add layers to his profile, portraying a figure who embraces risks and creativity. His commitment to his family, coupled with a background that defies simple categorization, paints a portrait of a leader who is as complex as the ecosystem he seeks to nurture.

David’s story is an acknowledgment of the challenges and achievements inherent in the venture building space. It’s a reminder that behind the startups and investments are individuals navigating personal journeys of risk, innovation, and sometimes, transformation. As we transition into a conversation with David, it’s this balanced perspective that we aim to explore further, seeking insights not just into the successes but the setbacks and lessons that define the path of a venture builder in Africa’s vibrant but challenging market landscape.

What criteria do you prioritize when selecting startups to invest in or build, and how has this evolved over time?

When we started, we were agnostic just to observe the project pipeline and to validate the ventures studio model as another way to invest in Africa. Now, we are generally interested in repeatable and scalable SaaS and transactional ideas, plus early MVPs with a strategic focus on the following sectors: fintech, healthcare/biotech and artificial intelligence.

Before now, we were very keen on the product and its potential to scale across Africa or globally, but over time we’ve come to understand that the types of founders that lead/execute these products are probably even more important than the products themselves. We’re now more meticulous in choosing whom we work with and in light of that, we choose founders of character, drive and ability to be consistent with problem solving.

How do you approach product ideation and development, and what role do you believe it plays in the success of a startup?

We have two approaches to ideation, the first is through internal idea generation where our in-house idea strategists, product designers, researchers and software engineers brainstorm to create as many ideas as possible in a vertical sector focusing on niche markets and underserved communities and then, we select the ones that fall into the highest market opportunity category and begin development. The second approach is we invite founders outside of our studio to submit ideas within specified sectors which our startup review committee considers and selects the best ten for our studio to prone further down to five before we begin development.

We believe this has helped us in building authority as a venture studio as it presents the opportunity to create a repeatable validation and build process; setting up a proven team; identifying a standard vertical to focus on; equity split where we co-own the portfolio companies; this also includes aligned interest with investors and the founders we work with.

How do you provide ongoing support to founders beyond the initial investment, and what do you believe is crucial for their long-term success?

Our venture studio provides financial backing, operational support and provides a list of strategic partners that help our startups launch and scale; however, our founders are equally important. Hence we have a team of experienced startup advisors that provide insights and mentorship support within a structured timeframe to the founders. We also take into consideration their mental health through related support which we believe when combined with the long term mentorship through the startup advisors provides a holistic view of the future of their startups and the required motivation and the mindset to remain steady with execution.

Given your interest in geopolitics, how do you integrate this knowledge into the strategy development process for political candidates and ventures alike?

Strategy is about creating pathways to success. For me, I leverage my deep sense of curiosity to solve problems in any environment I find myself in. This has played out seamlessly in the political, business and social impact spheres of my life. I am passionate about national and geopolitics and if I get any chance to contribute my quota of knowledge and expertise, especially in the area of strategy, I am always happy to do so. So, working with political leaders is just my way to add value to the advancement of leadership and society at large. I have worked with three political leaders in the past. In 2010, my work with a governor of Lagos State, Nigeria was purely an appointment to render a service on communications where I developed communication structures for all the ministries under the government through the Lagos State Public Staff Development Centre. For a presidential candidate, it was a sheer commitment to what I thought would be the beginning of a prosperous Nigeria back in 2019 and I simply gave my all to see it work but for some reason, it didn’t pan out as planned. And for Dianne Regisford in Oxford, United Kingdom, it was my first time to play in the political scene in the United Kingdom and I was appointed to be in charge of strategy which I gave my all too as well. Excellent experiences that would remain valuable in any political setting I find myself again.

How do your personal interests, such as skydiving and music, contribute to your mindset and approach to business?

Music makes me happy, it is my natural talent. I make music without stress and just maybe, it is my way of escaping stress too. Skydiving is a sport I love which represents my strong appetite for risk. If it were up to me, I wanted to be a pilot, which is the reason I love jumping out of planes these days in every country I travel to! So I would say that music expands my creative instincts and opens me up to creating ideas and opportunities, while skydiving helps me weigh in on the risk that the ventures I create or support come with. That being said, I will term them, ‘relevant life hobbies.’

Is there a particular book or piece of music that has had a profound impact on your perspective or leadership style?

Hoovers Vision: Original Thinking for Business Success by Gary Hoover. This book was basically predicting the future at the time it was written. I like the fact that it kept me asking more and more questions about innovation and the possibility of the future we are experiencing now.

What role do you believe community engagement plays in the success of an entrepreneur or business leader?

Community engagement boosts an entrepreneurs’ confidence and enables them to express their vulnerability in a way that makes them trust the process of change or balance. For me, community has helped shape my perspective and draw significant insights that has helped me consolidate on my entrepreneurial journey. The reality is community engagement when well leveraged counts for something in anyone’s entrepreneurial journey.

Looking ahead, what do you hope to achieve in the next five years, both professionally and personally?

I am looking at FirstFounders Venture Studio, exiting successfully from 24 startups in the next five years. But most importantly, I would love to see the venture studio model be institutionalized across countries in Africa. Personally, I look forward to serving humanity with whatever I must have amassed for myself.

How do you envision your legacy in the field of venture building and entrepreneurship?

I see a future where capital would be domiciled with venture studios as a measure to control sudden startup shutdown or failure as well as reinforcing an enterprise apprenticeship culture where founders learn practical entrepreneurial skills subject to milestones and accountability. We see a lot of collaboration happening in the future with African/Nigerian startup studios. There’s so much to be done and building in silos only limits and slows down progress.

As one of the pioneer venture builders and a venture studio operator in Africa, I look forward to the emergence of more venture studios who would operate in accordance with the venture studio playbook and the many unicorns that would be spun-out from them. This will be the greatest legacy I will cherish.

And finally, David—what is your one guiding principle in both life and work?

It is better to be a small part of a big thing than to be a big part of a small thing. This principle means everything to me and guides my actions both in my life and at work.

Images courtesy of David Lanre Messan

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