by Wilfreed Okiche
Toni Kan is perhaps best known for his creative writing career which kicked off effectively in the iconic Hints magazine and spawned a top selling short story collection, Nights of the Creaking Bed among other titles.
But not many know about Toni Kan the business man. His Radi8 outfit which he runs with partner, Peju Akande is a PR/Advertising, design and events firm with a clientele list that would make any competitor green with envy. Some months back, he ventured into the world of online publishing with Sabinews.com and is quietly but purposefully treading the murky waters involved.
He spoke with us about this new venture, as well as the many opportunities available for the hardworking writer today. Enjoy excerpts from the conversation:
With sabinews.com, you recently ventured into online publishing. Is the internet where it’s at now?
I have an integrated media company; a PR component, an advertising component and a design component. For the past 4-5 years I have been teaching writing, training companies on how to use social media both for PR and information dissemination and I was always having this discussion on the growth of online media and the gaps therein so I decided to put my money where my mouth is and do something to fill those gaps. We did some research and I didn’t see a culture of Nigerians visiting websites outside the big news cycles, people just followed whatever news item is trending. We wanted to create a community where people come to the website every day for different reasons. Today it may be for politics, tomorrow for romance, next tomorrow for something totally different. We did a survey and asked people to name the top journalists working presently and people could not even recall the award winning investigative journalists but they knew people like Dele Momodu or Simon Kolawole because they have their own columns on national dailies. So we felt we should publish an online magazine that promotes columns, analyses and insight over core reportage.
How do you arrive at that balance or scheduling where you get readers to commit to Sabinews.com everyday but for different reasons?
One of the biggest compliments I have received is when someone commented that all the crazy women write for Sabinews.com. I thought so because we are just 4 months old and it means that people are getting what we are trying to build. Our columnists; Joy Isi Bewaji, Ruona Agbroko Meyer, Pearl Osibu among others, are published on a different day and they all have different writing styles. We noticed that if we do not put out say Joy’s stories on Wednesday, her archives become the most read for that day so people are responding to our style. People come on Monday and Tuesday for the hard stuff and by Wednesday the tone starts to change to lighter topics
What has been the response business wise? Any income coming in yet?
I’ll tell you that we got our first advert 10 days after launch and it is funny because I speak with publishers and bloggers who haven’t gotten an advert 1 year after they started. We are yet to begin a proper advertisement drive because we wanted to test the viability of our idea first. By the time we are 6 months old, we should be ready to go. All the columnists we approached are being paid, the editor is paid. We spend more than we make but that is business at times.
It must help that the umbrella business, Radi8 is profitable enough to cover these losses.
I used to be a banker and all of my businesses have a plan. Sabinews was initially budgeted to run at about
N350,000 a month and we set aside capital for the first one year so we are pretty much operating within budget.
Is Sabinews.com modelled after any foreign media website?
Yes, our model is The Onion and the only reason we are not at that level yet is because sadly, we do not have people to write for us. I was speaking with Ayeni Adekunle who runs TheNetng.com and the story is the same, scarcity of good talent. There are many ideas I haven’t been able to meet up with because I don’t have someone to delegate them to and I have to do them myself. But Ayeni and I are in talks with other partners to start a media school where we can prepare young people for the various media positions possible.
Is it that there isn’t enough talent or that the talent is properly remunerated and so young people do not see a future in blogging or publishing?
Well, I am sure they see Linda Ikeji’s cars every 2 years, I don’t see any bigger motivation than that. These people started from somewhere and yes there is the element of luck but if Linda and BellaNaija.com did not work hard at it, they would have collapsed. And you don’t even have to be a Linda or a Uche Pedro to succeed at blogging. The world is divided into people who dream up the vision and people who help run the vision. Once you discover which part you fall in, everything is easier. Someone says people like to live on social media because they cannot exist in the real world and I have found it to be true. You will see someone that spends all his time Tweeting and I buzz him and say ok come and tweet for Sabinews.com on a regular and he gets flustered. People just cannot deliver, it is amazing.
I am curious, how does your partnership with Peju Akande work? What role does each person play and what unique qualities do you bring?
We were in school together. We met 24 years ago in school and we are both writers. We applied for a competition where she finished second and I was third. We applied for the same job when we left school, in advertising and she got the job, I didn’t. So she has been doing copy-writing for about 16 years while I went into publishing with Hints and True tales publications. So she is the advertising head of the company while I am the PR head. 5 of us started the company but the others who left could not fathom leaving their
N2 million paying jobs for one that paid N150,000 so it became just the 2 of us and thankfully we don’t even worry about how much we earn any more. In our first 6 months of business, we did a job for Chams Plc that nearly killed our business. They are still owing us till tomorrow. Chams (Computer hardware and maintenance services) owed us N2 million and all the staff was lying to us, we called the owner, Demola Aladekomo who was in Canada and he was angry with us and I told him he didn’t have any right to be angry at us because he owes us money. It was a case of Nigerians who we hold up as models not practising what they preach. If not for God we wouldn’t have survived Chams.
Do you think Radi8 would have attained the same amount of success in the same space of time without your experience working at Hints and then in the corporate world.
I always tell young people who want to write to go to school, then work for someone because talent isn’t enough and you need discipline more than you need talent. It is important for you to wake up at 6 am and its pouring outside, you shower in the dark because there is no power, then you get to the bus stop and the rain beats you from the bus stop to the office. This experience is important for you to be able to do your own business so that when your staff comes to you with a similar story, you are able to empathize with him and you can tell if he is lying to you. But if you call yourself a writer and you sleep from 12 midnight till 9 am, get up drink beer, smoke hemp or whatever and await inspiration, then you will never write. I started working with Hints magazine from my 3rd year in university till I finished and my dad stopped giving me pocket money in year 3. I started my business at 39. Jim Ovia started Zenith bank at 39, lots of other successful business owners started at 39, maybe there is something about the number. My success has been a mixture of experience gathered, diligence funnelled in other peoples jobs and of course God.
Are you a businessman who writes or a writer who does business?
You answer that, how did you first hear of me?
As a writer but I think it is grossly inadequate to call you one now.
The thing is writers don’t understand they have a peculiar gift and I have come to realise that it is because they are lazy. Let me explain, once I had an issue with a driver when I worked in the bank. I came back complaining and my friend told me to give him a query and ask him to reply in writing. I did and this guy went round the bank telling people to come and beg me because he just could not write a reply, that showed me clearly that this thing we have is not common. And I mean it, we should get paid for the hard work that we do. The comedian Seyi Law used to come to my shows on a bike about 3 years ago, he now owns his own house. Many writers I knew within the same period are still jumping bikes. We must find a way to get paid for writing. Write reports for NGOs, for governments, for banks, they’ll pay you well. Writing is a profession not a hobby, find a way to make it work for you.