April 13, 2015
Nigerian-born Oke Okaro, 41, is a product visionary, award winning technologist and pioneer in the U.S. mobile and connected devices industry. Okaro has been at the forefront of the U.S. mobile data/content industry since 2001 when he worked on the first wave of mobile apps in the U.S. and the rollout of the first mobile app development and distribution platform, BREW (binary runtime for wireless) – 7 years before the Apple AppStore. Over the years, Okaro has established a distinguished track record as an innovator by creating multiple pioneering, industry leading and award winning mobile products that have transformed established businesses and built new ones at ESPN Inc and Bloomberg L.P. The mobile products Okaro created are used by more than 60 million unique users every month and generate over $1B in annual revenues.
Most recently, Okaro spent 5 years (Mar 2010 – Mar 2015) at Bloomberg L.P. as Global Head and General Manager of the company’s Mobile and Connected Devices business where he built and led a global team focused on transforming Bloomberg’s businesses globally. Okaro set the vision and strategy, managed the P&L, and led product strategy, product development, engineering, marketing, business development and operations. While at Bloomberg, Okaro established Bloomberg as a leader in the mobile industry in terms of audience, revenues and market share, and the products he created won 15 of the most prestigious industry awards including Webbys, Appys, mobile marketing awards and best Finance app of the year from Apple.
I recently had a chat with Okaro where he spoke, among other things, about how smartphones are changing Africa’s digital media consumption habits and how mobile expansion will fuel innovation in Africa.
Who is Oke Okaro?
I was born in England and moved back to Nigeria when I was 5. I attended primary and secondary school in Nigeria, and at age 15, won an academic scholarship to study Electrical Engineering at Kharkov University in the Ukraine, the former Soviet Union. Within a year, I left the Ukraine and moved to England where I roughed it out but stayed in school and obtained my bachelors degree in Computer Science from the University of Hertfordshire in 1996. I started my career at Symbol Technologies as a software engineer where I programmed robots that wirelessly automated operations at large scale warehouses in the U.K. After a year, I resigned and moved to New York in pursuit of the American dream. I joined Greenwich Capital Markets, a leading financial securities firm, as a software engineer and built fixed income derivative trading systems. After doing that for 3 years, I left to obtain my MBA from The Wharton School. For my internship, I worked at Qualcomm and by a complete stroke of luck got to work on the rollout of the first AppStore and development of some of the first mobile apps in the U.S. It was 2001; 6 years before the iPhone and 7 years before Apple introduced their AppStore. After Business school, I joined ESPN where I was part of the team that started their mobile business. I initially led the design, product and engineering teams but later led the entire mobile business as well as ESPN’s interactive TV and online video subscription businesses. I spent 6 years at ESPN before joining Bloomberg L.P. in 2010 as the global head of its mobile and connected devices business. I resigned from Bloomberg in March 2015 to focus on the next big thing.
The mobile products you created have built large multi-million dollar businesses for globally renowned media brands like Bloomberg and ESPN. When did you discover your fascination for all things mobile?
It started back in 2001 when I got the privilege of working at Qualcomm. Back then, most of the telcos in the U.S. didn’t have data networks and I got the opportunity to work with them on some the planning for the rollout of their networks. I also got to work on the development of some of the first mobile apps in the U.S. I remember sitting in a conference room during a meeting and a colleague who just got back from Japan pulled out this really slick and beautiful slim phone from his pocket. It had a huge screen and a backlight that lit up the keypad and screen when you pressed a button; most phones didn’t have backlights then so if it was dark and you wanted to see the screen, you needed to turn on the light in the room. He pressed a few buttons and before I knew it was playing a game. I could hardly contain myself because I’d never seen a phone like that. I’d played around building apps on my Palm but this was different. He eventually handed me the phone and right then, I was hooked. The future looked incredibly bright. Everything on the phone, except the game, was in Japanese but that didn’t matter. He struggled to get that phone back from me.
You just left Bloomberg L.P. where you served as Global Head and General Manager of the company’s Mobile and Connected Devices business. What did your job entail, and why did you decide to leave?
My roles at Bloomberg and ESPN were very similar. I was brought in to start new businesses and given full autonomy to do things my way. My mandate in both cases was to get the companies to #1 in the industry on mobile and connected devices. I lived in what you can consider a bubble within these large companies running what was essentially my own startup with the full backing and support of the executive leadership. I would present my business plans annually and be left alone to get things done. In both cases, I built the teams from scratch and recruited some of the most talented minds in the industry. We were hungry, driven and relentlessly focused on driving meaningful results through products and services that led the industry and propelled the businesses to new levels. It was amazing. Across both companies, the mobile products we created generate hundreds of millions of dollars in recurring annual revenues and are used by more than 60 million unique users every month. I’m at my best when I’m tackling big challenging problems so after I solve the big challenges and get the business on track, it’s time for me to move on. That’s why, to the surprise of my colleagues, I left both ESPN and Bloomberg. I am a builder not a baby sitter. Both businesses were at the point where professional managers could come in and run them, and so long as they didn’t mess up too much, they’ll continue to be successful.
How are Tablets, Smartphones and Connected Devices changing Africa’s digital media consumption habits?
The modern devices are gradually taking center stage as the preferred platform for consumption. It’s still early days though since the overwhelming majority of people still don’t have access. This is changing though and within the next 10 years, 800 million more people are going to have smartphones and thus greater access.
Is there any African mobile-based business you’re watching closely which you feel is primed for global domination in the next few years?
The most innovative digital businesses of the future are going to come from Africa and I’m not just saying that because I’m African. Mobile is going to be crucial to every business of the future especially here in Africa. And yes, I think a number of businesses have the potential to go global.
What are some of the key mobile trends you believe will take center stage in Africa within the next decade?
I think one of the most substantial developments will be the emergence of the localized web, at scale. And, by localized web, I mean home grown digital properties that uniquely satisfy local needs. Today, the majority of the most trafficked digital properties are foreign websites. This balance will shift overtime with the proliferation of devices and introduction of new services because the mass market audience will demand a web that’s more relatable.
What does mobile expansion mean for Africa?
New businesses and industries are going to be built entirely around mobile devices. In the U.S and Europe, the web was built around desktop users and 99.9% of the digital properties today are desktop companies which support mobile. In Africa, it will be the reverse with mobile leading the way and this is where the breakthrough innovation is going to come from. This is why I’m convinced that a large proportion of the most innovative digital companies of the future will come from Africa.
You’re now an Angel Investor in your own right. What sort of companies/technologies do you favor when selecting your investments?
I’ve primarily focused on businesses where I have deep knowledge, experience or passion, and where modern technologies are central to their operations. This includes businesses in the consumer internet, retail, logistics, education and health care sectors. I generally only get involved with businesses where I can add more value than a cheque. So far, it’s been working well.
What does innovation mean to you?
It means setting the new standard. It means creatively solving a real problem in the market in an original, thoughtful, elegant and commercially viable way. It means creative destruction; throwing out the old because you can and without inhibition or pre conceived notions, rebuilding a new and better mouse trap. It means leadership.
Of all the mobile technologies you’ve developed over the course of your career, which one was the most exciting and why?
Interestingly enough, the thing that excited me the most failed as a business because the business model was flawed. It was the ESPN Sports Phone service, an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) which launched in Feb 2005. While the business didn’t succeed, its premise was spot on; sports fans desperately wanted sports on their phones. It was one of the most exciting projects for me because I got to design and build a revolutionary award winning sports app that set the industry standard for content experiences on a phone before anyone else in the world did it. I also got to build an entire telecommunications data infrastructure to support the project along with an AppStore. While the initiative ultimately failed, the learnings were invaluable and it formed the foundation for all the success that followed. I worked in close partnership with all the telcos and creatively used the power of sports on phones to drive the growth and adoption of their data plans and services. Looking back, it’s amazing to think of all the things we tried, the things we got done and how big the market has since become.
I understand you’re building a new exciting startup? Do you care to share what your new company is all about?
It’s still in the early stages so not quite ready to share yet but I’ll happily let you know when we’ve made much more progress.
What will your African legacy be?
I hope it’s that I helped improve the quality of life through the creative application of technology