Doing Startup in Africa’s Brutal-3 | On Self-Brutality




By Olumide Olusanya, Dr

“ But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves? Charity begins at home, is the voice of the world; yet is every man his greatest enemy, and, as it were, his own executioner.”
-Thomas Browne, Religio Medici

I hardly can blog if I am not really inspired to. These days nothing interests me whatsoever except for, Nigeria’s Biggest Online Supermarket. So this post means I am inspired—distracted—to blog. (Sorry, blogging is a distraction for me. I keep a personal journal instead, as I have been doing for the past 20 years.) My source of blogging inspiration comes from my recent experience in using internet services available in Nigeria, especially in the last 2-3 months. So first I will write about several of such experiences before boiling down to my message for this blog post.

This morning, I needed to print some post cards to use for an idea my co-founder and I wanted to experiment with. Pronto! I remembered the new startup I had read about a couple of weeks ago that is doing something in that space. So I excitedly rushed to the site to order some. I spent over 20 minutes on just trying to even start to do this. No way. No links existed on the site for using the pre-designed templates that was indicated could be used. I resigned to sending an email to the support email address provided to seek assistance. I am yet to get a response to my email. Neither has anyone bothered to call since a phone number was given during registration for the service. How much did I have the mind of spending? $200—but that cash is now lost forever from this new venture. Worse, they have lost me—and my friends, relatives and colleagues I would never refer to their service.

A couple of weeks ago I tried to post a job ad for two positions we are trying to fill on a prime jobs site in Nigeria. Everything went fine in placing the order. It indicated a $50 fee for the service and that a call will come through to me within 24 hours to confirm the order before the job will be published to potential candidates. Fine, but not so fine. Why do I have to wait for 24 hours? Anyway, I waited for 3 days, no call. I logged back in to the site to check, everything looked fine. So I called their support phone. The lady apologized profusely and said it will be done immediately after I drop the call. Since then till now, status remains same. Nothing. By the third day, I did not even mind paying the $200 for the premium service. But we have since moved on.

Several weeks back I ordered movie tickets from another popular site. Shortly after, I received an email and sms alert confirming my order. I had opted for the cash on delivery (CoD) option. This was on a Thursday. The ticket was for the following Tuesday morning. The next time I heard from these guys was on Tuesday night. An email was sent saying I should printout the order confirmation email and present at the cinema, where I could then make payment. Really? Lesson learnt. Next time, I will just drive to the cinema when I am ready to watch a movie and see any one that is available at the time I am there, which has been my hackneyed means of achieving same, right up until the point I attempted using the service. (And please don’t tell me I can at least check the timetable online before driving to the cinema. I tried that once before and was told when I got to the cinema that the time table that is on their own website, which formed the basis of my arrival time at the cinema, is no longer valid. Yet it was still published on the site even after I got back home.)

A couple of months back I used another service that has a remarkably innovative software engine that allows you to order directly from any store in the US and UK and checkout locally, with a promise of delivery in two weeks. I used the site to place an order for a native Amazon leather cover for my Amazon Kindle Paperwhite Reader. (Amazon does not specifically ship this Kindle cover to Nigeria.) The delivery charge was about 75% of the cost of the product itself, bringing total cost to $75. After 3 weeks of nothing—I mean nothing—from them, I sent an email to their support desk. No response. So I had to call—something I hate doing, calling Nigerian support desks. I was told by the person that answered the call that it was not their fault, that Amazon was yet to deliver my item to their US-based warehouse since the order was placed 3 weeks prior! Amazing!!! Considering that I order from here in Lagos an average of $400 worth of physical books directly from Amazon every month and have same delivered to my doorstep in Lagos within 2 days of order confirmation—consistently. After the call, I just willed it out of my mind and stoically accepted that these guys had invented a disingenuous means of separating me from my $75. Well, I eventually had the order picked up from them after 6 weeks when I was informed of its arrival. (Yes you read that correctly: there was no option for doorstep delivery despite the $35 delivery charge. I said a silent hallelujah after actually touching the Kindle cover.)

What do all these businesses I have described above have in common? One thing and one thing only. They are not going anywhere—anywhere more than they have already gotten. (Notice I said businesses not technologies or startups.) I have consistently observed one key failing in African technology startups from my numerous and multilevel interactions with them and their founders: the seeming lack of grasp by most founders of the very basic premise that, in creating sustainable long-term value, the business in technology business is more vital and more important than the technology in technology business .

Businesses, apps, and technology may be unique, but how we build companies follows a pattern.” —Steve Blank

I read a lot this past January about the noise in the Nigerian blogging space of how funding is the Achilles heel of our tech ecosystem. How Nigerians don’t like to fund technology startups. How aliens from outer space are gonna rape Nigeria dry of this new opportunity because they have a seeming monopoly of big, invest-able, technophillic dollars. How Canadian angels can behave like “the boy is good” whereas a single finger cannot successfully meander through the anuses of their Nigerian counterparts.

I have a different view. Mine is a supply-conscious perspective—not one of scarcity. I am supply-conscious. I believe Nigerians love funding businesses—maybe not the technology in it. And which Nigerians love funding technology businesses, even if not the technology in it, you may ask? Dear aspiring African entrepreneur, I will name a few from my own experience.

Nigerian customers. They will fund your business by pouring tonnes and tonnes of cash into it—repeatedly. Their singular requirement is for you to provide them what you promised you will provide. (Here in Nigeria, customers don’t even expect you to exceed your promise. Just that you deliver on what you promised. In fact, they expect you to fall short of your promise. Hence, delivering on your promise is exceeding expectations in this clime.) Give them that and they will bang your doors down with cash—consistently. Then, they will co-opt their neighbours, colleagues, relatives, friends—and enemies too—to do the same!

Suppliers. Every sane supplier understands that the name of the game is volume. What is a supplier looking for? A vendor who honours her obligations reasonably and who does not subjugate the supplier’s interest as a means of promoting her own business, one who does not take the suppliers interests for granted. In exchange, the supplier will provide you what is called trade credit. This too is hard cash—even if seemingly imperceptible.

Partners. Partners love working with and will do their utmost to support a business that provides them a platform or a win-win opportunity that promotes the partner’s enlightened self-interest. They usually provide this support in-kind, which to you still ultimately translates to hard currency—if you understand what you are doing.

And how about landlords that allow you to pay your rent in 6 months tranches? Or employees that will receive 50% less than the industry going rates for the opportunity to build out with you the inspiring vision you have painted for them to see, employees that add value to your startup more than twice what their colleagues in other startups add to their firms? (Yet people still wonder why your staff count is much lesser than the industry average and your staff costs are less than a quarter of theirs, weight-for-weight.) I can go on and on.

Am I therefore discountenancing the role of foreign institutional investors who can invest the big dollars in your startup? Oh no! You definitely need them if you are indeed building out a great vision that will have a huge impact. My point is that here in Nigeria—and by extension, Africa—if you are not a Harvard/Kellogg’s MBA graduate, or are not a Goldman Sachs alumni, or have not lived abroad for any length of time and built longstanding relationships with monied friends living abroad (aka, you don’t have a foreign accent), you will do well to heed these readily and superfluously available sources of cash I have outlined above and evolve a business model that deeply leverages the cash they can provide to your businessor startup, if you prefer—during the crucial early stages. Don’t go looking in Sokoto for what is in your sokoto. Stop being brutal to yourself. (Doing startups in Africa is already brutal by itself.) Otherwise, this scripture spoken by our Lord Jesus will ultimately be your destiny and that of your startup:

“Yes,’ the king replied, ‘and to those who use well what they are given, even more will be given. But from those who don’t, even what little they have will be taken away.” — Luke 19:26

Further Reading

Written by

Founder, CEO & Service Architect, @gloo_ng