This Ugandan Startup Is Why We Need to Rethink Startups and Ideation

Alexander Twinokwesiga, the sole founder and brainchild of Uganda's Alextwino.com is anything but stratospheric ambitious. The sky cannot be the limit for the lad who, in startup speak, is a star. Or as modestly put: a star in the making. In a March 2016 post on Linkedin about the launch of his group of startups is a recursive title: Alex Twino; The Birth of Conglomerate. From the post, Alextwino embodies the pomp and aura and grandeur of the big traditional companies founded by the men who built America at the dawn of capitalism in the late 1800's: James O. McKinsey, Henry Ford, John Deere, etc. I almost blasphemously associated Alex Twino with the great cathedrals aforementioned. Association by a structure. An odd thing among recent dot io startups, but to what rationale anyway, I pondered. It’s just a name and as old adage spells, a rose would smell just as nice even if it was called a different name. But there are important caveats. Even though Alex Twino is like that little company that’s barely a day old and therefore deserves all the benefit of doubt possible. It’s an injustice to the status-quo if all is left unsaid, especially in light of severe deficiencies. The benefit of the doubt could as well be informed of honest and brutal critique.

An excerpt from the Linkedin post about the launch of the startup conglomerate promises much:

"To highlight, these companies are interested in; providing efficient solutions in matters concerning immigration and/or the movement of goods and professionals and the starting of businesses across the region; creating partnerships in, and providing state of the art solutions in the field of indigenous or African literature; marketing and shipping abroad of local works of artistic expression — like fashion, art, music; mapping of the un-mapped places for short term and long term residence across the country and the region; dedicated to transforming Uganda into a running nation; partnering with existing service providers and tailoring new, creative ways that are aimed at augmenting tourism; and, last but not least, cataloging charity projects to which both locals and tourists can, by their own choice, contribute to."

In short, Alextwino is a conflation of 7 startups on a mission of disrupting 7 industries at a go (yeah, coincidentally, according to research 7 is the world’s favourite number).

Just to build up a relational model for easier understanding. The group of companies is largely concierge services based conglomerate as follows:

1. An Uber for running errands in administration and management such as company registration, making birth and death certificates, etc.

2. A literature platform where contemporary Afro-centric books and literary material are sold. Exhibits similar features of a niche social network. Feels like Magunga’s bookstore.

3. An Etsy of sorts. An e-commerce platform where Ugandan creatives, artists, vend their merchandise and services.

4. A safaris company. It promises a heavenly experience just like a million others. Locally, Roundbob does this already.

5. Another one organizes hikes and runs, for a fee of course. I guess it would be an instant hit for those who continue to populate social networks with their Nike+ and Runtastic running regimes.

6. This one is for those who love exploration. There is a Tao of enlightenment in the name of this little segment: Pumzika; a Swahili word to mean be at rest/peace.

7. The seventh (wonder) wants to connect volunteers, mostly foreign-based, to less know initiatives back here in Africa.

El Oh El.

There is some sort of rigmarole required to internalize the startup structure of Alextwino. Otherwise, it’s outright laughable and trashable. And that is what friends and family are not telling Alextwino.

But their very inaction  —  or rather, morale boosting  —  is a manifestation of extreme bias, even if it’s subconscious. The problem does go deep in our psyche and our collective history.

We blindly love encouraging and supporting friends regardless of how schmuck their ventures could be.

Isn’t that what friendship is all about?

In Alextwino, I see many of my very own past fears and arrested dreams. To which, frankly and frighteningly, I am still getting over. Even today I continue to err on some of these things.

Once Bitten. Twice Shy. Thrice done

In my Twitter bio, I claim that I am a jack of all trades, and a master of some. There is nowhere I say that I am a master of none. I feel like a polymath.

This certainly feels lit and rad: as my peeples would put it. Feels like the renaissance men and women who gifted society with a dazzling array of rare skills. This was in a period when inefficiencies glared but with no reachable solutions. The technology was limited. Jacks of all trades saved the day.

To this date, it is hard to explain to an African parent what a startup really is and what it does without sounding like a loss to the clan.

I mean, why would someone buck away the prestige and assurance of being a lawyer or doctor, in favor of tussling it out in a field dominated by cozy white people who don’t feel a historical responsibility of pulling their entire family into a new level of economic security?

There is another side to this narrative. Our attention spans can only go so far, so we scatter our thoughts, projects, and missions. We become great starters, but not great finishers.

Jim Collins explicated on an interesting concept in his all-entrepreneurs-must-read bestseller Good to Great.


Good to Great Jim Collins

Get yourself a copy of "Good to Great" by Jim Collins

The analogy of the fox and the hedgehog (also known as porcupine).

"The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

The fox pursues many ends at the same time and sees the world in its complexity. It never integrates its thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision.

A hedgehog, on the other hand, simplifies a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world is, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simplistic - indeed hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that doesn’t somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.

Is it possible that Alextwino ends up being the fox that failed while trying to build an infinite company?

That would be terrible and there is so much worse that could happen anyway. The beauty of starting up a startup is that an astounding amount of mistakes are permissible and one would easily go unpunished for the misdemeanors.

In the illustration below is the intersection I call the pinnacle of enlightenment. It’s akin to the light-bulb moment. It’s akin to figuring out what to do and where to focus the energy.

Focus

The best kept public secrets by companies many startups covet are hidden in their main product offerings.

For Google it’s the search engine. Facebook’s the confounding size and vastness of their social graph. Twitter’s somewhat lackluster social network but trumps any other platform as a dynamic information network. Those are the salient features the big three will protect at all times and that’s how they started.

But when you look closely now, for example, Google has ventured into Android and advanced robotics, Facebook is into Virtual Reality, Twitter is into live streaming. The diversification doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon but the silver lining remains: they stayed the course with their major product offerings.

Alextwino notoriously reinvents the concepts that catapulted the giants to stardom.

1. Product Is Everything

I had an intense conversation about products with Mbwana (Savannah VC founder and Managing partner) in January 2016. He couldn’t put it any better:

A product is the mirror to the soul of a startup. - Mbwana Alliy

Its organization, efficiency, aspirations, communication. All are mirrored in the product itself and good products envisage ingenuity and the level of craftsmanship. Good products are a result of good engineering.

I was disappointed when I attempted to check out on the bookstore on Alextwino but couldn’t because of whatever reason. An e-commerce platform is more than just a woo-commerce plugin here, a shade of bootstrap there.

2. The Lone Wolf (Lone Fox?)

The lone wolf persona, even though alluring, is a disservice for most entrepreneurs. When lone-wolfing, there is a delusion about being Chuck Norris or some sort of super-hero.

It’s not written in stone that startups can’t be run be a solo entrepreneur but to taper out the risks and to diversify ideas and build to greatness. There is always need for a Woz to the Jobs, a Munger to the Buffet, an Allen to the Gates.

3. Portals (Mort: 2007)

Internet portals were a big deal back in the day (circa 2004). Popularized by Yahoo! An enchilada of several services were served on a single page  —  a portal. A little news here, e-mail, messenger. Google replicated the portal by introducing a charcoal grey toolbar on their home page. But this didn’t last long.

Portals suffered the wrath of democratization of apps. Small features were spinned out as standalone apps. To my dismay, Alextwino picks up the chaff left by Yahoo! and models it back. The concept of the main domain and then several sub-domains could be the most detrimental thing.

It not only confuses probable clients but also confuses search engines and social networks. And we’re in an era where Google can either make or break your website.

5. Falling For Hype

Starting up a startup should be the modern equivalent of inventing fire. A startup founder is such a big deal. A rockstar, maybe a pirate. When the strobe lights shine, they reflect off the magic that their hands continue to bless the world with. The media loves their stories: especially where there is doom and gloom. Even at the mere suggestion of such a story line, you expect a magnum opus to fall in place. A long feature in a magazine or a TV show.

But on the other side, it’s usually noobs praying that one day such shine, shines on them. They are more charged at making it to BBC or CNN Africa startups than they are charged to making their first million (in US dollars).

6. Being Distracted

Falling for the hype begets getting distracted but what is more distracting is illusory. I call it idea porn.

Ideas look amazing and sexy in equal measure. That’s why if you fell for each idea that crossed the mind you’d have just as many and instead of wrangling clients and cash flow statements, you would be wrangling what idea to push out first or which one to retire.

The big corporations have the luxury of starting, stealing and killing ideas at whatever time but startups, on the contrary, don’t. Every minute you get distracted, you lose 60 seconds of time to change the status-quo.

While I am not suggesting that ideas are crap, and I respect that the greatest inventions by mankind started out as ideas, what counts at the end of the day is the ability to go in Do-Not-Disturb mode.

And come out unscathed by the idea deluge.

7. You Have Not, Because You Ask Not

Of course, you’re an idea factory. Those ideas, you have in abundance but what you don’t have is in your backyard but you keep on ignoring. I have seen Kanye take it to Twitter to ask Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for a billion dollars for some wack idea he’s had and says is dear to him.

Startup life isn’t only about work, it’s more of pitching. Startup life is a pitch. This succinctly explains why you need to seek out opinions of thought leaders, pitch to a focus group and get some invaluable and real-time feedback, pitch to tech bloggers and journalists to give you legit press devoid of hype and sensation, pitch to the world to try out your sample or free trial.

But the question is what value would you be giving back in return?

The product and engineering woes always come back to haunt at this moment. If Alextwino called me for further deliberations. I’d say exactly what former Intel Chairman and CEO, Andy Grove, said to Steve Jobs when the estranged Apple co-founder was considering the now much acclaimed return to Apple inc in 1997.

When Jobs called Andy seeking counsel about whether to take the revolving door or not. To his dismay Andy shot:

"I don’t give a shit about Apple."

Disclosure: I studied with Alex in the same school in high school. That’s why I got interested in giving his product a review in the first place. I dedicate this post to Andy Grove, former Intel Chairman and CEO, who succumbed to cancer on 21st March 2016. His concepts in management such as creative confrontation among others enabled the raise of tech giants like Intel, Oracle, Apple.

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