There are lots of buzzwords and theories flying around startup world promising sure-fire success. Here are eight pieces of advice you thought you’d never hear.
You have probably heard of finding a problem and developing a solution for it. It’s true; necessity is the mother of all invention. You have heard of combat-inspired phrases like ‘think global, build local, and target social.’ This must be true; the internet is laced with living testimonies. Then the inevitable buzzwords like big data, sharing economy, analytics and all the rest.
The coolness associated with starting up a startup – the illusion of instant fame and riches – sometimes outstrips the perceived economic and social value of that startup. Often founders seem to forget the simple fact that they actually need to put some thought and grind into setting up their business. Innovation is not just about 140 characters or about flying cars.
The costs of starting up are definitely going down in our digital age. There’s free, open-source technology for software, hardware and fields like biotech, cloud technology at your fingertips at dirt cheap and affordable rates – all you need is some wifi to reach it all.
Keen interest from big players puts African startups in a very uncomfortable position.
As a continent of over 1.1 billion people, Africa has been touted as the next big frontier. Foreign investors and donors and existing powerhouse companies are greedily eyeing up the continent’s emerging markets. Keen interest from big players puts African startups in a very uncomfortable position and many that have tried competing against these giants have been squashed.
So, instead of competing against these Western giants perhaps African startups need to adapt the advice to ‘find a problem and solve it’. Perhaps African entrepreneurs should solve problems that haven’t been solved by Western companies.
Save everyone a lot of stress.
Have a grasp of the numbers. Sure people may say that smartphone penetration is skyrocketing in Africa but if that rate is only at 21 per cent in Africa and the Middle East compared to 75 to 85 per cent in other regions, perhaps your surefire road to success isn’t as clear as all that.
Always remember the numbers don’t lie.
With Africa’s middle class estimated only to be at six per cent of the total population, the ‘Africa rising’ rhetoric may need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Always remember: the numbers don’t lie.
Many startups are in a rush to grow and scale. Desist. The power of building things that don’t scale is criminally underrated. However, the compound effect is the most encouraging tool for this. When you have 100 users, add 10 users and there you’ll have a 10 per cent increase, not just 10 users. Over time the numbers will gain momentum and then you can worry about scaling.
Building things that do not scale enables a startup to develop a deeper interpersonal connection with its users or customers and also enables development of resilience to work through unattractive growth phases.
Somehow the acclaimed Lean Startup book by Eric Ries has somehow become an aspiring mogul’s bible. It’s full of brilliant and insightful methods and analogies. The main one is the lean methodology: startups should not accept too much risk and should lay low.
Perhaps being reserved isn’t the way to go.
Most African startups are already restricted by limited resources and the difficulty of accessing funding; so they are lean by default. When investors seed their capital into startups, it’s definitely because they believe in the person or team. But even when a startup has a market fit, they often naively stick to lean instead of going fat.
Perhaps being reserved isn’t the way to go.
The truth was and remains that 99 per cent of startups fail, almost after kicking off. People who fall into the 99 per cent category don’t like to be seen as failures because Africans often hold a lot of weight on what other people think of them.
It is more detrimental to be seen as a failure than actually to fail. So a model such as the lean startup that allows them to hang out longer without appearing as if they are failing is perfect for saving face. Even though they eventually silently veer off the scene.
Appreciate failure as a springboard to success.
Entrepreneurs develop a thick skin from the time they decide to venture into startups. This should mean they’re more open about failure but really an entire culture shift need to happen.
Africans need to learn to appreciate failure as a springboard to success.
Reading is the most underrated guideline of all, especially documents about law and policy, frameworks and academic papers. Read treaties, books and peer reviews. This applies to greatly regulated areas like health and financial which recently have been the bread and butter of the startup scene and are subject to regulation.
You’ll find these papers hide a wealth of information when you pay attention, which would help startups save thousands of minutes of valuable time (and money) they’d otherwise have wasted.
Maybe Wizkid’s Ojuelegba is your favourite motivation song as you and your co-workers are bungled up in the office but have you ever stopped and wondered if the real hustle is indeed offline, on the streets?
The hustle needs to move where it originally was before the smartphone revolution.
The notion of ‘build it, they’ll come’ is outdated, especially in Africa’s current economy where attention has been commoditised to the max. The hustle needs to move to where it originally was before this whole smartphone revolution sprung.
Potential users need to be convinced to use a service or product. They need to know that an entrepreneur actually cares about their needs. What you get today is an app that is just like the other one. You have to fish for your users. That may be through the good old cold calling and emailing. Just be ready for doors to be slammed in your face or even threats flung your way. The effort is worth it once you have a dedicated base of customers who trust you.
If you don’t do this, make sure you have a lot of money to throw around like Rocket Internet.
I should have mentioned this at the beginning, but the piece would have then lost all of its meaning. The number one rule when starting up is that there are no rules. The game is uncertain for all and nobody’s figured out the future.
Just try not to get caught up in buzzwords and ephemerality.