Everyone is Clueless

From the outside, it always looks like some people have it all figured out and they are just riding the wave. The reality is very different, however. They are just failing fast and learning from the experience as they go on.

Mark Zuckerberg, Brian Chesky and a host of other CEOs doing amazing jobs are all first timers. They've all had to figure things out and sift what works from what doesn’t, little wonder Facebook favours the "move fast, break things" and the "done is better than perfect" mantras. We don't always know what we are doing, and that's a good thing.

When Konga opened formally for business on the 10th of July 2012, we started out with categories that we thought would help us hit a home run, categories that would possibly give us a leg up in the market. We were wrong. We didn’t know what we were doing.

Konga started out selling beauty and personal care products in addition to the baby, kids and toy items, the rationale was simple; get the women, who more often than not are the drivers of household spending, interested in your brand, then upsell them on other categories. Simple, right? Wrong. Though the two categories we started out with did quite well, we scored a bigger home run with the electronics category - mobile phones, laptops and the like.

Oftentimes people go into businesses and other endeavours with a very faint idea of what they think the outcome will be. They could make informed decisions based on trends and existing data, but this is rare. We seldom forget that our ideas, no matter how awesome they sound and look on paper will be tested in the marketplace. Nobody knows what they are doing.

When I wanted to get married, I remember vaguely someone asking the question — what do you know about marriage? My response at the time was simple; I don’t know anything, I will figure it out as I go.

So many startups, especially those in the emerging markets, don’t know what they are doing, not because they are totally oblivious of the realities and choose to ignore them. This is why a large part of the founders' time will be spent making gut calls. The belief is often simple - just get in, and once you're there, things will even out. We run in an emerging market, often without existing frameworks or blueprints. The only way to survive here is to follow your intuition and guts. We don’t know what we are doing.

About two months into Konga’s operation, the Lagos State Government placed a ban on motorcycles. Nobody had anticipated this. At the time we had invested in about 20 motorcycles for delivery, and to watch these supposed assets become dead on arrival was rather unsettling. How do you navigate around this? How do you properly serve a market that still hasn't quite figured out the logistics side? You have to figure this out yourself. Follow your gut, there are no existing models. Nobody knows what they are doing

In November 2013, we pioneered Yakata — our own version of Black Friday — the first of its kind in Nigeria. We had planned, prepared and drawn all our projections. We estimated that at best we will get quadruple of our regular traffic, we couldn’t be more wrong. On the day of the sale, something interesting happened, between 9 AM and noon we had beaten our estimates and traffic grew 16 times. Nobody saw this coming, and consequently our infrastructure could not cope. Even though we had planned, we still didn’t know what will hit us. We didn’t know what were doing.

Yakata 2015 has come and gone, and we have interesting tales from it. Around August this year, we started moving towards the paradigm of microservices. Konga hitherto had been running on the monolithic Magento system, and while the product has served us well, we grew too large for its capacity. It only made sense to decouple from it and break our monolithic service down into microservices: order service, inventory service, catalogue, notification, wishlist, seller ratings, etc. We decided to move away from PHP and go the Node route, though there was some uncertainty around this. No one in the team had experience running Node under high traffic. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we went ahead nonetheless.

Here is what we found out, Node outperformed PHP with the same resources. We ran the same services on Yakata, our busiest period, and the platform barely flinched. It shattered all our previous assumptions and made us increasingly confident on so many things. Nobody saw this coming. We didn’t know what were doing. But we went ahead regardless.

History is replete with examples of products that couldn't keep up with their creators' ambitions. Google killed off Buzz and Wave. Why? My guess is they wouldn’t kill a product that excelled in the marketplace. The defunct flash sale company Fab started out as a dating site for gay men. The company pivoted when things didn’t quite pan out. If Jason had foreknowledge, I guess he would have created a flash sale site from the get-go. Amazon pulled the plug on the Fire Phone, not because the Fire Phone was killing it in the marketplace, but because the phone performed below expectations. We all don’t know what we are doing.

It is easy to look at those you admire and get overwhelmed, especially when you look at what they have achieved in comparison to yourself, you could quickly and easily retire into your shell. The amazing CEO, operations expert and that manager you see and admire didn’t get there by understanding all that their positions entailed. They simply jumped into the deep end and believed that things will sort themselves out as they went along. We only grow when we step out of our comfort zone. It’s impossible to see all the troubles and opportunities that really lie ahead. Jump in, because, we all don’t know what we are doing.

Personally, I’ve blown opportunities, not because it was my initial intention, but because I just didn’t know better. I’ve learned from it and made significant progress as an individual and a professional. My job consistently involves stepping out and going beyond my limit, doing things I hitherto thought I couldn’t do. I always don’t get it right, but I remind myself that those that did it before me probably didn’t know much, they figured it out. As such, it becomes part of my duty to figure things out and forge ahead, because - let's say it together - we all don’t know what we are doing.

Celestine Omin

About Celestine Omin

Software Engineer at Konga, VC backed e-commerce in Nigeria. Lead maintainer and developer of NSEFinance, an experimental API for the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Convener of The Lagos GitHub meetup