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When Shegun Otulana followed his brother to Birmingham from Nigeria in 1998, he knew he wanted to build big things. Just yesterday, May 18, KKR closed on its acquisition of Therapy Brands, one of the companies Otulana founded, for a hefty price tag of $1.2 billion. We reached out to Otulana to find out what he’s working on now.
Considering that Target bought Shipt for a cool $550 million, an exit this size is literally a big deal for the startup community in The Magic City.
Bham Now: When you were growing up, did you envision this kind of success?
Otulana: I’ve always been kind of ambitious and entrepreneurial, but I’m not sure that I thought about that specific number [$1 billion].
But I’ve always thought about building great things and working with large teams.
Bham Now: Tell me a little bit about Harmony Venture Labs.
Otulana: Harmony Venture Labs is an idea that came to me from being part of the startup ecosystem—building a startup, failing, building products and succeeding, and looking at the companies I’ve invested in.
As an investor, looking at the Birmingham ecosystem, and thinking about how I love to build things, I see a future where I want to create multiple startups and help build the technology ecosystem here.
Harmony Venture Labs will be a great vehicle to do that.
We want to create a flywheel that helps grow the ecosystem here. A flywheel is something that you get going, then the momentum is self-perpetuating, and it becomes the engine of growth for what you’re trying to build.
Bham Now: what are the core focus areas of Harmony Venture Labs?
- HVL Acquisition: we buy existing profitable startups from founders who want an exit & build up the teams and continue to grow the business.
- HVL Studio: we create high growth startups from our internally generated ideas.
- HVL Consulting: we consult with other startups to help them create solutions around marketing, sales, growth, and organizational excellence.
One of Harmony Venture Labs’ first investments, at $10M, is in Copysmith, a women-founded startup that uses artificial intelligence (AI) in content generation. Otulana is assuming the role of CEO at the helm of that company.
Bham Now: Why is Birmingham the right place for Harmony Venture Labs?
Otulana: Birmingham is where I am and where my family is. It’s also where I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of people help me.
It’s where my kids are growing up, and it’s a fantastic place to live. It may not be perfect, but there’s a lot of good about Birmingham.
Bham Now: Why is the time right?
Otulana: One, we’re generally becoming more open to the idea of startups in Birmingham. We’ve seen a successful company like Shipt, and as a community, our capital has become a little more open to risk.
Two, the time is right for me personally, because I do have a frame of reference, I do have experience, and I can be impactful to these companies. I know the things that I’ve done that have failed and the things that I’ve done that have succeeded.
I can contribute that to the journey of the other companies here that are trying to be successful. And I have developed the skills to put a team together that will make this possible.
Bham Now: What will Harmony Venture Labs offer that’s not currently part of the Birmingham tech ecosystem?
Otulana: I don’t think we have a venture studio here—my suspicion is we’ll probably do and I’m just not familiar with it.
A venture studio literally comes up with new ideas and creates new businesses.
Bham Now: If you could fast forward to the far distant future, what do you think you might be most proud of?
Otulana: If I look ahead, 10 years from now, Harmony Venture Labs and HVL-affiliated companies have created billions, hopefully 10s of billions of dollars in economic value in terms of company valuation.
We’ve been able to bring all the startups to life, and the people on our teams have gone on to lead and grow other startups. We’ve exited from businesses and the people have been able to found other startups. Then we really will have succeeded.
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