I was introduced to Abe Niederhauser through my friend and colleague, Travis Washburn, as we toured through Body Worlds 3 in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2008. I was immediately impressed with his down-to-earth yet energetic and creative drive.
A while after we met I learned that he’d launched Ads4Africa.org, a website focused on aiding entrepreneurs in poverty-stricken countries via microfinance loans. This immediately caught my attention as I’ve been following the microfinance work of Muhammad Yunus for years. I was impressed that Abe, probably in his mid-twenties, had such a large vision and was actively engaged in humanitarian work across the world, and that he had found a way to do so from his home with limited finances.
When the opportunity arrived to interview Abe, I quickly jumped at the chance to pick his brain and learn a little about his vision, his values, and his work with Ads4Africa.
I’ve posted our interview below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Reading time (full transcript): ~20 minutes.
Reading time (main ideas in bold): 5 minutes.
Total listening time (full transcript): 35 minutes.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?Abe Niederhauser
I’m from here. I grew up in West Jordan, Utah, so I’m a local boy. I graduated from BYU a couple years ago. What else do you want to know?CM
What did you graduate with?AN
I graduated in Economics, and I’m glad; I really like Economics. Even though a lot of the work I’m doing isn’t related to what I studied, I still think it was a really good major. I think studying economics really helps you to think analytically and weigh pros and cons and costs and benefits, which I think can be useful.CM
Do you have much business background experience? Did you study business at all?AN
I got minors in math statistics and business. I was originally planning on getting a Ph.D. in economics because I really like it, but then when it was time to head off to grad school, I was thinking about it—grad school is expensive, and my friends and family are here. Also to study Economics at the graduate level you have to have a lot of math and statistics, and so I took a lot of classes, and in those classes I met people who were going to be actuaries, and I decided to do that. I worked as an actuary for a couple years and took a lot of the exams, and I still do some stuff related. Then I got laid off. […] So I have some business background and about two years of work experience, and my business minor.CM
From my perspective, I’d consider you a young entrepreneur. A lot of times people feel like entrepreneurs are around 35 years old or so. When did you first get started doing entrepreneurial-type activities?AN
That’s a good question. I think that it’s something that I always thought I’d like to do. I always envisioned myself graduating from college, getting a job and then I’d start some business on the side and work on them until they were big enough until I would quit my day job. I’m very risk adverse, and usually people think of entrepreneurs as people who enjoy risk. And ironically, I don’t know if you’re familiar with what an actuary is… their whole profession is about managing risk—definitely, a contrast there. While working as an actuary, I thought I’d be an entrepreneur but wasn’t really sure.
I’ve always had an interest in humanitarian work, and this is what led into my different entrepreneurial endeavors. I’d learned about microfinance and I thought, “That’s a great way to help people in need because it helps them become self-reliant rather than just helping them temporarily.” And so I always had thought I’d wanted to do something; I thought maybe I’d start some kind of business where the profits would go to help fund microfinance or something. I was always thinking of that but didn’t want to take any risks like that.
Over the years of thinking about it and learning about the internet, I came up with an idea which is Ads4Africa. And then I got it started with some of my roommates; shortly after we started getting it going, I got laid off from my job as an actuary. The company went under and so they laid off almost everybody. I thought, “Now that I’m getting severance, I’m going to take this time and focus on getting this humanitarian thing going. And I think when it’s done I’ll go and get a job again.” And as I did it, I realized how much I enjoyed doing it and working for myself. In addition, I didn’t want to pay someone to build our website and so I started teaching myself how to build the websites and do other things with the internet.
Since then, I still work with Ads4Africa and kept that going, but I’ve also been involved with starting some other business and have been able to so far make it into something full-time where I can just run my own businesses and support myself. And I think it’s getting to the point where I feel comfortable where I could support a family. And so, yeah, I’m kind of young and I just kind of fell into it. If I hadn’t lost my job, it probably wouldn’t have happened.CM
It’s interesting that you say that, because so many people say the same thing. If I had not been laid off, then I wouldn’t have done it.AN
Yeah, we’re all scared.CM
Yeah, it’s scary; you’re scared of the unknown a little bit… I want to focus on Ads4Africa. I’m very interested in the humanitarian aspect of it. You touched on it just a little bit, and how you were always kind of interested in the humanitarian things. Is there some inciting event that occurred that made you interested in humanitarian work, or some person maybe that inspired you to do this? Or is it something you’ve always felt, like you want to help serve?AN
I don’t think there’s one specific event, but there have been many events that have been small steps. Some of them have been certain people I’ve known. Growing up—I didn’t grow up extremely wealthy. We weren’t poor and struggling, but we weren’t really well off—I learned I didn’t need a lot to be happy. It was one of those basic things and I was happy as can be.
As I grew up I learned about money and finances and different things and I began thinking, “What is life really about?” I felt like I have been born in a country where I have everything that I need and so much opportunity. And there are other people who are born in situations where they can’t get out and they’re stuck in poverty cycles, and I feel like it’s no fault of theirs that they’re in those situations. I felt a responsibility like I’d like to do something to help them. I felt like I don’t want to live a life where I’m really focused on buying material things and getting a lot of money. And I would like to get a lot of money, not so that I can live an extravagant lifestyle, but so that I can help people in need. [… ]
I took an entrepreneurial class and there was one particular teacher who was into humanitarian stuff, he was also an entrepreneur, and he talked a lot about that. I took that class about 3 years ago and that was also a big stepping stone for me. […] Different things have kind of pushed me towards that and got me interested.CM
Tell us a little bit about Ads4Africa and what it is.AN
Ads4Africa is a search engine. Basically it’s powered by Google. All of us Google search every day, except there’s advertising on Ads4Africa. Whenever someone searches, those advertisers pay us and we use that money to help people in need. We use that money primarily for funding microfinance. I felt that this was a good way to be self reliant. Basically, it allows people to do something that they do every day, but when they do it, it will raise money for people in need.CM
From what I understand, correct me if I’m wrong, it didn’t start out as a Google search engine.AN
That’s correct. Originally I had decided microfinance and I thought I’d like to start some kind of a business where I would use the profits to help entrepreneurs around the world. And it kind of started as a business, and then as I learned about the internet, I thought this would be a good way to start a business without having to provide a lot of capital to rent a place or do inventory for something. I can use the internet.
I learned about different things like advertising. The reason it’s called Ads4Africa is because as I first learned about Google Adsense, that you can place ads on your site, and Google will pay you, I thought, “Well what if we put ads on the site, but instead of Google paying us the money, we could use that money to help people in need?” And then I had the thought that the internet is very large, very fast, but there are really big sites that primarily advertisers target. And I think that there are a lot of smaller sites, like personal blogs, that individually they don’t really want to monetize because they wouldn’t give a lot, maybe a $1.00 or two in a month, or 6 months. But I thought an aggregate—a bunch of those—could raise a lot of money. And even a small number of websites could make up a larger portion of the web that is untouched.
And I think that in part, that’s what Google is trying to do with Adsense, allowing individuals to place ads on their site and reach that other part of the internet that is untouched. But I felt like there wasn’t a lot of incentive for people to do it because what’s one or two bucks, and why go through the trouble when they don’t know how to set it up? So the idea for Ads4Africa was to help people walk through putting ad code on their site so they would get money and that money would come to us and we’d use that to fund microloans for entrepreneurs around the world. So, yeah, it wasn’t search.CM
What pushed it over from being helping people to place ads to actually being a search?AN
We wanted to extend into a lot of different things. For one, we talked about the advertising, and putting ads on sites. We also knew that Google allows you to add searches. People can put a custom search to search their own site or a particular topic, but you can also customize the search to do whatever you’d like. We had the idea that in the same way that people put ads on their blogs that they could also use the search engine and see the ads on there and those advertisers would pay us as well.
And so we had that idea, and my brother, I don’t even remember what he said, was the one who gave me the idea. He was talking about something, and then it came to me, “We could use the search in the same way.” So the day after that, we started the search. And basically in comparison with the ads and the search, people were much more likely to use the search. It was a lot easier.
When I first learned Google ads, it seemed complicated, but now that I’ve worked with it, it’s like an everyday language. But there are a lot of people who don’t understand what it is. But the search, a lot of people understood it because a lot of people perform searches. So people were a lot more willing to do that than they were willing to put ads on their blog or their website. And so that’s where it kind of switched.
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