4 key lessons for Africa’s tech startup entrepreneurs

Hilda Moraa, co-founder of Weza Tele Limited (the company behind the product MyOrder, launched at DEMO Africa 2012), shares 4 key lessons for entrepreneurs looking for startup advice. “We should write a book to remind ourselves and tell our kids of this crazy startup journey.” Share your own additions in the comments below.

Every Friday, I try and make room for peers running startups, to meet, share lessons and experiences, key milestones and our Aha moments. For me these peer to peer meetups have been the best way to learn, mature and maintain my sanity when it comes to running a startup. Every time we have these peer meet ups, we always jokingly wrap up by saying we should write a book to remind ourselves and tell our kids of this crazy startup journey.

It’s almost 3 years of running a startup – Weza Tele Limited, now in its validation stage – that involves refinement of core features, initial user growth, metrics and analytics implementation, seed funding, first key hires, first paying customers and finding our product market fit. Running a startup here in Kenya is not the same as running one that has been nurtured in Silicon Valley. If the book happens, I will be able to share more lessons based on the Kenyan context, forget the hype but the reality of things. For now, I will only mention four lessons that every new startup or entrepreneur who asks me for advice about starting up a startup – I will make them read this blog post.

#1 Detached passion: make rational decisions:

I remember my team and I disputing over whether we should kill our retail product or not. We spent hours and resources on brainstorming, mock ups, developments and shipping the product. So why should we let all these efforts and initial investments go down the drain even if we were not making any money 12 months down the line? We tried all sorts of things such as using the product ourselves and we ended up being the only active customers for our product.

It took time for us to sit down and agree that it did not work; and other people did better because they had the resources and capacity which we did not have. After using key performance indicators such as revenue growth, active customers transacting to evaluate the success, we finally had data to inform us it was time to “kill” the product and move on. It was tough and emotional, but we did it.

Looking back, I am so proud of myself and my team. We learnt that detached passion (having strong desire towards your products but not letting it consume you and leave you powerless with no ability to make rational decisions) is important and a step to then building the real solution that your targeted users need. There is need to redefine passion as we continue to redefine failure and let it be the adrenaline to commitment and execution and not the blocker to fail early, measure and learn then iterate. Having detached passion, has contributed to my personal growth and maturity as a leader when it comes to decision making with a clear feedback loop.

#2 Know what you are selling and how to sell it:

I am coming from an IT background and so did the rest of the founding team. At the beginning what really mattered to us was features and more features, but it turns out the users ended up using only a quarter of those features.

We realized that we needed to stop spending much time on developing new features, which were not based on customer needs but on our feelings and desires. Most important, we learnt that we needed to define the product so clearly that it would have nothing to do with features, but the benefits and value being offered.

I have learnt: before you hire talent in marketing and sales, it’s important for the co-founders to lucidly define the product, build a methodology based on experiences and do the sales themselves. Else, if the co-founders can’t sell their own product, even the hired forces will not be able to sell the product in the right way, meaning no customers at the end of the day.

#3 “Must have” fundamental values: Sweat-fear experience. Patience. Persistence. Speed.

Running a startup is a crazy affair. Its full of sleepless nights, tons of stress and constant pangs of guilt. It’s exciting, especially when a milestone is hit and new customers acquired.

Every time I am interviewed or speak in startup events, I am asked the same question; why I took the entrepreneurship direction. To be honest, I don’t have the answer to this question, I am not sure it’s the same reason what everyone else says, ‘to change the world and be rich’. For me, it’s been a time to learn and grow; then figure out relevant and scalable solutions to solve real market problems. So I am still trying to find myself in the journey.

It’s going to be a long journey of finding key pains and scalable solutions that solve targeted audience problems. Change of business models, strategies, value propositions and even endless debates with the team and exploration in different segments will be the order of the day.

If patience and persistence is not there then it’s going to be easy to quit and walk away. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t realize it would be this hard. I have also learnt to fear the right things. Employees will quit, initial co-founders will also quit. Any other big company with optimal resources, can start your idea tomorrow. A corollary is that you shouldn’t relax just because you have no visible competitors yet. No matter what your idea, there’s someone else out there working on the same thing.

#4 Talent management:

In the Kenyan tech scene, talent has been lacking. We are all fighting for a limited pool of talented individuals. It has been very hard to define the thin line between talent and experience. I have come to learn that you can become a talented python coder overnight by going through online tutorials but that does not grant the ‘dyed in the wool’ experience to executing a fully fledge product.

Experienced talent is hard to find and if you find it, the battle comes to the retaining them in a startup. I think one of the biggest nightmares for every serious startup out there, is loosing their best talent. What is key is to start thinking about motivation and retention strategies early enough and ensure ownership and a conducive environment as starting steps to talent management.

Looking back, it has been crazy and sometimes fun but I like it. The experience and lessons I have gathered so far are priceless, I cannot trade them for anything. Everyday I can feel and hear myself maturing, making me want to do it all over again with the same people. Looking forward to share more of my lessons on my blog in the coming months as I doubt there there will be time for writing a book :)

Something to add to this story? Share your own startup lessons in the comments below. 

Photo Credit: NapInterrupted via Compfight cc