FIRST CLASS: Victor Fatanmi Dropped Out of University To Build A World Class Design Agency

First Class is a column about extraordinary Nigerians aged 35 years and below. It collects their thoughts on what it takes to thrive as a young person in Nigeria. 

Victor Fatanmi is a brand consultant and identity campaigner. Illustration: Benjamin Oluwatoyin/Channels TV
Victor Fatanmi is a brand consultant and identity campaigner. Illustration: Benjamin Oluwatoyin/Channels TV
Victor Fatanmi is a brand consultant and identity campaigner. Illustration: Benjamin Oluwatoyin/Channels TV
Victor Fatanmi is a brand consultant and identity campaigner. Illustration: Benjamin Oluwatoyin/Channels TV

Victor Fatanmi starts our conversation by sharing a story about his childhood – a story about taking risks, trusting your intuition. In a way, it’s a metaphor for how his life has turned out. The story goes: one day in nursery school – he was maybe three years old – he decided to step out of the gates without his older sisters. They were supposed to return home together. But seeing the chaos outside the gates and with little chance of locating his siblings, he decided to walk home, alone. When he reached a junction, he became confused. But he made a turn and found himself home. “When my parents saw me, they beat me because I should not have come home alone,” Victor says during our hour-long conversation at a restaurant somewhere in Lagos. More than 20 years later, Fatanmi continues to take similar risks. He dropped out of the Federal University of Technology, Akure to focus on building FourthCanvas, “a brand-centric design agency”. He is a serial entrepreneur. And, in 2022, he published a book about ‘selling’. At just 28, he feels he’s just getting started.

First Class is a column about extraordinary Nigerians aged 35 years and below. It collects their thoughts on what it takes to thrive as a young person in Nigeria. 

SE: How was growing up for you?

VF: I was born in Osogbo, but my earliest memories were in Ife. My childhood is dotted with many events of me asking questions, taking risks – I was a curious and daring kid. I remember that I would report my grandad to my dad. I was that kid who asked adults questions that they didn’t want to answer. And I loved to play around stuff. In primary school, I would cut out pictures of Julius Agahowa, Wilson Oruma, Sunday Oliseh, trace them out of newspapers and sellotape them on 50 leaves exercise books – that’s how I made my first magazines. This was in the early 2000s. I loved football but I was bad at playing. I started organising football tournaments instead and would make trophies out of bottles. Looking back now, those were my earliest works. 

Every kid starts as an artist but along the way, some of us lose it. But I was able to keep mine. If you asked me what I wanted to be, I’d say sailor today, pharmacist tomorrow; it’s just whatever came to mind. But I know I was very fascinated with visuals. My dad had a library but I never read the books; I only read the covers and check if there were illustrations; I loved dictionaries that had drawings, and I would learn the words accompanying the visuals. And I was very attracted to calendars.

Tell me about your journey into design.

The journey into design began when I got into Federal University of Technology, Akure. My brother was in final year when I was in first year. He ran a magazine on campus and I watched him pay people to design. I studied Estate Management. I was supposed to do Architecture, which was more visual, but I failed Post-JAMB at my first attempt. On the second attempt, I figured Architecture had too much maths and I hated maths. So I just picked the next thing to it.

And when my brothers commissioned designers, I would have opinions about the work; and my brother would be like why don’t you just try to learn it if you have so many opinions. Then, I would speak to the designers but I couldn’t afford what they were asking for. But I had a laptop and they would view the designs on it; so they had to install CorelDraw on it so it could open. When the project was done, the application was still on my laptop. So I started playing with it. I never formally learnt design; I just played around with it and created designs; then I started following top designers and agencies; and started watching YouTube videos, people speaking about design principles.

The real difference started when I met Bolaji Fawole. He was a great influence. He was really how I became an entrepreneur. I was a designer; I was not prepared for entrepreneurship, for communication, for timelines, for invoices, for following up. But Bolaji was my roommate and he was more organised; he wanted to be a military man. He was on campus while still applying for the NDA. He had a more structured mind while I was the opposite. So that combination is what would become a business partnership. Actually, the existence of FourthCanvas is credited to him. What I brought and still bring is the vision, the innovation, the ideas, the storytelling. He brought and still brings the sustainability. But the beautiful part is that I’ve learnt from him; my weaknesses are better. I’m structured too now.

You guys started FourthCanvas at the University?

Yes. We started VGC media around 2012 or 2013. In 2015, which was the year we were supposed to be graduating – we stopped attending classes and dropped out even though we were still on campus. That was when we rebranded into Fourth Canvas. 

Why did you stop attending classes?

Yes, in year three. I was just not a serious student. I did student union, played tennis, was active in every other thing, but the thing I was in campus for, I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy the learning system; it felt draconian. And I think I saw through the system. I’m here to certify that I am employable. And it makes sense for many fields. To even practise as an estate manager, you have to get a certificate to join NIESV. As a doctor, you need the certification before you can be allowed to touch a human life. But this new field I found myself in certifies itself. Do good design – that’s all the certificate you need. When I left school – it was gradual, missing classes here and there. My parents found out when I had already left. So all I had to do was post-explanation.

But I tell people that my leaving school was easy for me, not based on – there was some courage – but not so much brash, sheer courage. It was so much thinking through something and understanding that – you know, if I hold a gun and you are not flinching, it could be that you are just bold; it could also be that you know there’s no bullet in that gun. If you know there is no bullet in the gun, it’s not really boldness per se, it’s more like awareness; it’s that you know something that others don’t know.

We didn’t communicate about it but Bolaji was also dropping out. I was a year ahead of him. We dropped out for different reasons. I made mine clear, but he hid his own for a while before most of us found out. He had come to campus because his parents asked him to come to school. He wanted NDA and nothing else. And his lecturers didn’t help either.

Was there a big break for FourthCanvas?

In 2014, I had the opportunity to work with Future Awards Africa. I was in Akure and that was in Lagos. I connected with Chude Jideonwo through Joel Ogunsola who was a student on campus. In January 2015, I was a designer on the media campaign that brought President Buhari to power. Those were eye-opening – the Future Awards in December, the campaign between January and March. They were eye-opening opportunities that brought me to Lagos, and paid me well relatively. That experience gave me some confidence. Whatever money I was making from it, more than half of it was being used to pay guys back home – our student employees. In Lagos, I interacted with people running media companies, clients; I had a feeling that this thing was possible, that there was an industry for it. Towards November 2015, I had a friend who urged us to take it more seriously. The employees also felt we were not fully committed. So we decided to rethink the business. VGC was also problematic because it sounded like the BBC and our logos also looked similar. So since we were going to be crafting identity for people, we need to have our own identity. We decided to start all over again. We came up with names and settled on FourthCanvas. Our goal was that in five years, we would be number one in Nigeria and one of the best in Africa. And in 10 years, we would be number one in Africa and one of the top in the world.

By 2020, I wouldn’t say we were the number one in Nigeria, but maybe at least number two. And now, we are really on the path. We’ve started to do the Africa Challenger Brands report. And we’ve done some of the most important projects that have taken us to the next level. So 2025 is our target to be recognised on the global stage as a top brand consulting agency. Major moments include working with PiggyVest. That was our first in the tech space. We identified an opportunity, reached out to them, made a solid case and it was a big break for us in tech; tech people are aligned with our thinking. In 2020, we did the 4C Share where our team members taught a virtual class online.

Our biggest break this year was Nomba, which we rebranded from Kudi; but we have done many other projects.

Looking back at your journey, what are some of the things you could have done differently?

I wish I had read more earlier. I read, but I wish I had read more. I wish I had written more. Again, I wrote but I wish I wrote more. Also, there are things I wished happened but I don’t regret the way they exactly happened. So for example, I wish I came to Lagos back earlier. In 2015, we were in Lagos, but we ran back to Akure because we felt the city was costlier. It took up until 2020 before we came back to Lagos. Sometimes I feel we could have built some business connections faster if we had stayed. But the fact that we were outside the pressure of Lagos for five years helped us to build the team bond and a culture; because many businesses struggle to find any depth in Lagos, because everybody is just working towards the bottomline. Even the bosses can’t truly be kind to their people because they have bills to pay. Not to say it’s a valid excuse, I’m just saying it makes it more difficult. So while we can actually take credit for being good leaders, creating a good culture, I think it was also made easier because in Akure there was no pressure.

But sometimes the pressure is good?

Yes, the pressure is good now. But it seemed like we needed that period of grooming, just knowing ourselves. We now have five other co-owners in the business; it was through that period that we created a special bond and we felt they were deserving of that, but they earned it.

Also, I don’t regret leaving school, because it has worked out well for me. But if I went back now, I would have found a way to combine both, because it would have been a practice in discipline, a practice in surmounting challenges. I would have learnt a lot from it. You can’t always drop out when it looks difficult. There’s marriage that you would always feel like you should drop out from when things are not going so well.

For someone starting out, what would you tell them?

I would say that you need to radically believe in yourself, that your friends almost think you are crazy. Some of them would say you are being delusional; because you radically believe in yourself, you will make different choices. You need to get to a point where people say, why is he full of himself? It’s either they react that way or they become your fans. 

My message to young people is to be able to combine self confidence with intellectual humility. You have to be confident, not in a way that you believe you know everything, but that you can know everything. So your confidence is not in your state, it is in your potential. Don’t let how you grew up or what someone said . . . completely believe in yourself and completely remain humble at the same time.

I should have read Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich as a teenager. It was in my dad’s library but I never read it, maybe because I was just looking for pictures. I read it this year and I realised why I didn’t read it as a teenager – it’s not interesting. It’s a great book but I wouldn’t say his writing was great. But what he was saying was so fundamentally amazing and it works. He was saying something that was true and powerful. I think I would tell a young person to read. Everyone wants a good life for themselves, but I would say, be specific about what you want. I want to make 10 billion dollars. That’s richer than Richard Branson. I’ve written it down. I want to influence 140 million people. I’ve written it down too and set specific dates towards achieving them. Specific aims are very powerful. You wake up in the morning and it keeps you going.

You spend a lot of your time in Nigeria. Do you think of permanently leaving?

No. I like the UK; I’d like to live there. I like its artistic and cultural heritage. I’d like to do something in America because of the money; it’s the home of capitalism. When we talk about global growth as a company, we would need to be servicing clients in America. So I intend to relocate but it’s not permanent. 

That question of course brings me to Nigeria’s current state. I’m sure you’re not happy with that.

Sure. And I’m voting for Peter Obi.

Do you regret working on the Buhari campaign in 2015?

No I don’t. I wasn’t on the strategic or decision making level. I was designing things I was instructed to design; it was purely business. So, I can’t regret it because that experience was pivotal for my career. But I believed in the story that we were putting out – that it was the future. But six months later – when he couldn’t select his ministers – I knew it wasn’t what we needed. So, I’m sad that the administration turned out that way, but I can’t regret being a part of the campaign because it was an eye-opener for me. 

What do you think young people can do to make Nigeria a better country?

I would say to speak up as much as possible. People make speaking up on social media seem like it’s nothing. No, social media is incredibly important. We’ve gone on the streets for #EndSars from Twitter. And that ‘speak up’ can be tweets. I would say continue to speak up. Also, talk to your parents and convince them to vote for those you believe in. 

I would also love to join a party. I see myself, on a local level, being active in politics. I don’t see myself running for office; but I see myself engaging someone who says they want to run for counsellor or ward chairman, and advising them and trying to influence them. So I would work to canvass for the right candidates, but I don’t see myself contesting – it does not align with any of my life purposes or vision I set for myself. 

You’ve also published a book about sales. What would you say is the most important thing in selling?

It’s to think of yourself as a changemaker rather than a salesman. Currently, the obvious definition of selling is exchanging something for money. But now I’ve moved it to understanding a desire that you want and I – the salesman – is interested in helping you get it. So I focus less on what I’m selling and more on you the buyer and where you want to go. When I start to think about it that way, it’s easier for me to improve and iterate what I’m selling. Because it’s now all about you, about the future you want.

First Class is a column about extraordinary Nigerians aged 35 years and below. It collects their thoughts on what it takes to thrive as a young person in Nigeria.