Every day, thousands of startups wither, entrepreneurs flounder, relationships stall, families get broken. But that’s life. For entrepreneurs and innovators, uncertainty reigns day in day out.
In Africa, such occurrences are common but happen at a quiet. The silence is so deafening that you could hear a pin drop a mile away. A mile of shattered dreams. But well, starting up is starting up. The single move that could earn you millions is the same that could send you straight to the pack of statistics; yet another warning for others to play it safe. The numbing truth is that the majority of startups don’t make it past their first birthdays. There are no guarantees of success regardless of entrepreneurs giving it their whole. In simple terms, it’s fucking brutal.
Startup nirvana is that moment when servers are melting because of traffic surges. The future never looks more bullish than that.
Ivan Mworozi, in developer ratings, is Chuck Norris (he works alone and he’s tough). The young computer scientist left the US to return home to Uganda to explore the budding tech scene. But it wasn’t easy. He must have wondered where the stories mushrooming every day in the media had come from. The stories that influenced his return in quest of pastures green.
In 2013, during the PIVOT East Startup competition pre-pitch event in Kampala, Ivan asked Erik Hersman (a.k.a @WhiteAfrican) a nerve-wracking question. He wanted to know what he thought was the sure-fire way of making it in the ‘Africa rising’ narrative. On paper it looked so easy, yet succeeding was a totally different ball game. Of course, Erik, one of Africa’s tech luminaries behind iHUB, Ushahidi and BRCK, gave Ivan and the audience what they wanted to hear: words of encouragement and support. Easy for him; he’s made it.
His main point was that African developers should pursue the big ideas, with locally tailored solutions in tow, as he did with his own ventures. Ivan didn’t look convinced; he’d heard it all before.
A few months after the PIVOT East conference, Ivan tasted a bit of startup nirvana: that moment when servers are melting because of traffic surges. The future never looks more bullish than that. Soon, SMSFree was the word on the streets. It was an Android app that allowed anyone with an internet connection to send unlimited free texts to any telecom network in Uganda. The potential was enormous but the harsh realities of cash flow came back to haunt him. The voluminous data was challenging for a resource-incapacitated startup.
The narrative of the Evan Spiegels and Jack Dorseys of the world – kid makes app; app makes billions – is more toxic in this part of the world than anywhere else.
In fact, the one-man team went into overdrive, spending more time making sure servers were running instead of thinking about scaling. The dragons started taking hold. Three out of every four apps installed are never used again – or deleted there and then. People are more demanding with apps than with websites. It ‘doesn’t work’, spreads faster than Google loads its first page. Soon, Ivan’s app was his canary in the coal mine. It died a sad death.
Ivan’s unenviable predicament not only demonstrated enormous potential but also showed the structural flaws in the startup ecosystem, which affect techno-centric startups mostly. The lack of venture funding requisite for taking a startup to the next level is like lack of aviation fuel for rockets. But the rockets must also have qualified and trained stewards: talent, talent, talent. And they need talent in various fields. We often get it wrong; we think that we only need rock-star coding skills to shoot our startups to the moon. Yet, to reach the heavens, different skills – from business development to design and to coding itself – must be used together for a common goal.
It’s simple: build an app that is going to be used by people, not an app that is just going to be talked about by friends on social media.
‘The narrative of the Evan Spiegels and Jack Dorseys of the world – kid makes app, app makes billions – is more toxic in this part of the world than anywhere else. Young African developers spend invaluable time chasing mirages in pursuit of the next big thing. To make it they must be a super superstar. But there is no superstar doctor, or lawyer after just six months of practice! Patience is key in honing the craft and nonetheless building products that will endure.’ Ivan’s still positive.
The norm of late has been taking short cuts. The incentives are real and quick and sweet. Lights. Camera. Action. Startups go pronto on social media canvassing for votes for competition X, Y, Z every other day. Not that canvassing for votes is wrong. But winning prize monies has been turned into a business model. And to win, these startups only need to look like they’re delivering a shiny future free of poor people and other social problems. I guess, that’s why coverage is secluded to social media and not the real world where they would most definitely fail the market validation test. It’s simple: build an app that is going to be used by people, not an app that is just going to be talked about by friends on social media.
Startups are factories where dreams are turned into reality.
Startups are factories where dreams are turned into reality. What ‘experts’ more often than not don’t tell you is that those dreams can easily be turned into ash – no, not Ash-ish Thakkar tah-dah! But ash that’s consigned to the bin. The ones who survive are those who defy the norm; those who emerge from the ash as a new phoenix; those who turn problems and voids into market opportunities.
It’s a long and painful journey. It could last decades until it comes to fruition. For the impatient, stumbling along the way is inescapable. For the patient, you’re building something bigger than yourselves. We, as a continent, are graciously chanced to be at crossroads where history is being made, where the next billion-dollar companies will be built by African renaissance men and women. This is a chance to make a dent in our universe; let’s not fuck it up.