Ghana’s Keli Gadzekpo was part of the duo that set up Databank, one of West Africa’s most successful financial enterprises, in 1990.
At the time the country’s financial sector was being liberalised and its stock exchange was set up.
Databank’s goal was to provide corporate and public finance advisory services to companies.
Twenty years on it has spread its wings across Ghana and has branches in Liberia and The Gambia.
Its remit has also been widened to provide “innovative and responsive corporate finance, brokerage, fund management and research services to local and foreign individuals, multinational companies, institutions, and portfolio investors for the Ecowas sub-region [West Africa].”
According to Databank’s website, its flagship product, EPA¢K, is the first licensed mutual fund in Ghana with a value close to 70m cedis ($42m, £27m) and more than 53,000 investors.
“My partner, Ken Ofori-Atta, actually had conceived this idea of Databank and put it to me if I would be interested in sort of teaming up with him,” Mr Gadzekpo told the BBC’s African Dream series.
“I, myself, am a bean counter – an accountant – by training and everything, and that’s what I was doing at the US at the time,” he added.
He said that his “mental space” was very open to try something new.
“It came at the right time. I was young, silly or foolish enough, so I did it,” he joked.
Mr Gadzekpo said that in the early 1990s one of the group’s challenges was to explain to people what the stock exchange was and what it represented, and in their specific case what corporate advisory services meant.
“This was one of the most intriguing things for us when we started, because people would sort of sit around and listen to you, sometimes you’d actually submit a brief on an idea or a solution to their problems, and they would not be sure that it meant they had to pay you anything for the advice,” he said.
According to him, they started the business without any initial funding.
“In reality we started with zero but after about nine or so months, getting to a year, we at least were able to talk one of the money market firms in the country into giving us a 90-day promissory note because things just continued to be very, very tight,” he recalls.
With that $25,000 promise on their side ,they started to get the business on its feet.
“You can imagine that was a treadmill because every 90 days I was hearing from those guys: ‘Are you paying as we said?’. ‘Oh, no, we’ll get back to you’… we must have rolled over for close to a year or a year and a half,” he said.
To get Databank going, Mr Gadzekpo and his partner decided not to pay themselves a salary.
“We focused on paying what few employees we had at the time. We started, I think, with two or three guys and one lady… but we didn’t pay ourselves for probably a year and a half to two years,” he explained.
Small is beautiful
Looking back, Mr Gadzekpo considers that he was very fortunate in teaming up with his partner.
“I think partnership is pretty much like a marriage, and so all the elements that have to go into that kind of decision have to be there because you can’t be looking over your shoulders, you can’t build in enough controls and you certainly don’t want to be arguing about a small piece of bread,” he said.
He also believes that people have to be comfortable with starting small.
“I think it’s instructive that, as you start out, particularly in this environment where credit extension is not guaranteed or actually sometimes it does not exist, you need to be careful how you expend the little money that you have,” he said.
He also advises “not be too worried because Africa, and certainly most of the markets that we see are basically still frontier, so no need to sort of jump on the horse and want to just gallop away with your big dream”.
“You can achieve the dream carefully and in a measured manner by starting small,” he concluded.
African Dream is broadcast on the BBC Network Africa programme every Monday morning.
Every week, one successful business man or woman will explain how they started off and what others could learn from them.