Starting Up in Africa

My first Tech Startup launched last year, 2013, in South Africa.

The startup is a "cloud-based platform that delivers locally relevant educational content to students no matter location or background". You can read more about the startup, IQmates, on its website.

It's approximately only a year in business but there are some aspects about entrepreneurship in South Africa, possibly Africa as a whole, that I have come to notice and would like to elaborate on in this post.

Solving Problems

I believe entrepreneurship in it's bare bones is about solving problems and Africa has a myriad of them.

Everyone is talking about the awesome potential of our untapped continent. You, too, can feel the energy buzzing not only in the tech industry but even traditional brick & mortar businesses.

So many incubators are sprouting everywhere hoping to tap into that potential. Along with investors who see it as the next frontier. Many prizes are lined up to reward innovation through various competitions across Africa.

The hottest frontier

It's definitely exciting times but the problem with potential is that it is just that and only that, potential.

We need more serious risk takers who can throw caution to the wind and say,

"Que Sera, Sera, I'm going in."

Entrepreneurs who are seriously focused business people who want to positively change our continent. That is how innovation and progress are born. People are excited at the potential but are we really doing what it takes to realise the gold in the ore?

A few things are needed to change the entrepreneurship landscape in Africa.

Powers That Be

Zimbabwe Image Credit: Baynham Goredema

Legislators, policy makers and administrators need to create an environment that promotes innovation. How do they do this? They should reduce the cost of failure.

In Zimbabwe, for example, it is almost taboo to give up professions like medicine and finance to venture into the abyss of the startup world. The cost of not making it, if you decide to venture into it, is simply too high.

The social cost of failure includes people laughing at you, questioning your sanity over such decisions, looking at you differently, or losing touch with many people because your business is a beautiful struggle that is taking your time and energy.

It is almost impossible to eliminate this in the early stages. There is little that any government can do except educate people about the importance of starting businesses and taking risks. The individual is the only one who can do something,

just grow a tough skin champ!

Then there is the professional cost of failure.

Employers need to start prioritizing intangibles like effort, vision and risk taking. As it stands, most employers who would otherwise benefit from the visions and capabilities of daring individuals actually shun these "failures", wherein the failure could be totally due to circumstances beyond their control such as limitations in resources, marketing, supporting expertise and finance.

Employers treat entrepreneurial failure as a wholesome, generalising it to a lack of skills. A genius developer can have a genius idea and still fail and so employers need to assess at a microscopic level why gifted people sometimes fail.

In the US for example, startup experience (success or carefully considered failure) and open source contributions contribute more in an interview process than college grades and certifications.

The system thrives or rather it expands because of dreamers, people who probably fail and have battle scars to show for it.

Their skills are battle tested and their resolve documented. That is a culture we need to adopt, not stubbornly at a college dropout level but even at a gap year level after high school to dabble with the unknown.

Little do people appreciate the skills one learns in a startup. I like giving this example. A bank printing flyers to market new student bank accounts doesn't even put a dent in marketing budgets that run into thousands or millions of Rands.

In a startup, you probably won't have ZAR10,000 to run your marketing campaign so you have to be very creative. As someone who is studying Applied Mathematics at Wits University, I have learnt so many things outside my academic focus area - public speaking, coming up with marketing and sales strategies, managerial accounting, reading financial statements, human resources, labour laws, PHP, Javascript, MySQL, emotional intelligence, patience, perseverance, - all in this one year of IQmates' existence.

Even if it is to fail today, those skills and lessons learnt are for me to keep forever that any employer can tap into.

Needless to say, our government ministries accross the continent have to coordinate with each other and create a lending scale based on intellectual capital and product-market feasibility.

They need to avail more resources and data to the public for better market research for business planning. They need to create incentives for local risk takers that are challenging the current state of the world.

In 1994, flight lieutenant Flt Lt Sibanda developed his own helicopter in Zimbabwe but where did it go?

Same thing happened with young Daniel Chingoma, an intelligent Zimbabwean who dropped out of school in Form 3 (roughly grade 9 in South Africa). His helicopter was displayed a number of times at the Harare Agricultural Show but never saw any more light after that. Despite his latest run-ins with the law, I weep over his untapped genius.

On the first episode of Dragons Den SA, a guy came presenting a cellphone he had invented. I don't know his name because his presentation was not even shown in full. It was part of those mid-episode miniclips. Maybe it is was not feasible but him attempting to do it shows something about his enduring character.

There are many examples like these three across Africa especially in the eastern and central regions.

Our governments should seriously start giving these kinds of people the right toys they need and a playground.

Believe In Yourself

We need to take risks, learn to appreciate failure, humiliation and not being understood. Grow a thick skin and and dare to be different.

Basically, believe in yourself.

Starting a business can be emotionally draining especially without a strong support structure in place. There are highs that will send you rocketing to cloud 9 and suddenly a low that will bring you crushing back to earth. As an entrepreneur, these are some of the of the challenges you will face.

They and their impact in your business cannot be quantified for any mathematician to come up with a formula of how to overcome them - even though incubators offer loads of value, starting a business rarely has a formula anyway and that's the best part! You just have to keep pushing and believe in your convictions about the change you want to see in the world.

I think sometimes our traditional African humility (Ubuntu), while good, can be our own undoing when it comes to entrepreneurship.

An entrepreneur needs a certain level of arrogance. Enough to say I'm the man for this task. If you are an excellent developer, wear that ability with pride, you are an awesome developer!

Don't rub it in people's faces and don't be a douchebag but acknowledge your ability and not just say "Haa I'm so so." Trust me, self confidence goes a long way. Know what you know and learn what you don't.

Individuals need to understand that not everyone wants to steal your idea. Share your idea, don't be a know it all. When you share your idea, you have more chances of finding complimentary skills from others, which will take your startup even further than you alone can.

Your idea is worth nothing, your team, your product-market fit and your execution are everything.

Good entrepreneurs pursue ideas in domains they have knowledge in. I am not in your idea's domain because either I don't know enough, it doesn't excite me or I'm too busy focusing on one I am pursuing. But as entrepreneurs we are all part of the same domain of fire starters, we can teach each other a thing or two so share your idea (Advert alert! - IQmates' tenet, based on the idea of students coming together to share knowledge, is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson : "Every man is a hero and an oracle to somebody").

Of course, entrepreneurship and the ecosystem are much more complicated than this. I'm still learning, eagerly at that!

What I can say for sure is it's time for Africa to stop boasting about "potential" and start putting it's shoulder to wheel and make things happen.

Let's roll up our sleeves ladies and gentlemen, the night has just got exciting!

Cover Image Credit: Anne Worner