prag .ma.tic

Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that’s based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.

There’s a new world, far across the great ocean known as the internet: a land of opportunity where anyone can achieve their wildest dreams through code and with a modest budget.

It’s called the startup world, a mega-continent in the cloud with real-life implications.

Now, dear reader, there are several notable guides for techprenuers willing to explore this new world, but this is not a guide per se, it’s an attempt to rethink the status quo by comparing tech business with regular brick-and-mortar enterprises for innovators in the developing world.

You see, in emerging markets like Africa many things are different as compared to first world countries with regard to tech ecosystems and the socio-economic context.

So we have to think differently, we have to be pragmatic.

The Pragmatic Startup

For thousands of years humans have been trading with each other, from barter trade and now bitcoin, and the fundamentals of trade haven’t changed much: they’re still driven by what Adam Smith called ‘The invisible hand’ back in 1776.

It’s the task of the pragmatic startup to grab this Invisible Hand as early as possible and use it for survival and growth.

The Invisible Hand

Adam Smith was baffled, but he merely expressed the subliminal: profit drives trade. As my high school teacher once taught us, the reward for entrepreneurship is profit.

So start making money asap, from day one if possible: when that customer uses your product, be it a web or native app.

You see, most tech startups fail mostly because they take way too long in grabbing the 'Invisible Hand' in a country where angel investors are like unicorns and Silicon Valley paradigms are irrelevant.

You don’t get to pitch your idea or showcase your prototype to someone and get funded, that rarely happens.

The few existing accelerators, incubators or angel investors are usually too fidgety, and this is understandable in a new market.

So they ask you for traction  —  how much money are you making or, how many users do you have, blah…blah…blah.

In other words: Do the legwork, sweat it out, then invite us to the party once you’re all set.

So since it’s all about the money, make sure you have cash flow: one cannot fight a war without essential supplies, money is your new oxygen: without it your startup will suffocate to death, rot and become just another skeleton that litters the road to the new world.

Opportunity Cost

the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

From the moment the average person wakes up to the moment they sleep, the brain whirs away doing computational analysis that seeks to optimize the opportunity cost from what to wear, what to eat and so on.

Running a business is no different, you have to do a lot of opportunity cost analysis, intuitively in most cases: this comes easy with more business experience.

The most crucial opportunity cost assessment is when your’e thinking up a new idea, one of the most important things you should consider among the barriers of entry into a market is the role of gate keepers.

Gate keepers can make your life a living hell.

So look within and across industries in your areas of interest for insights, while steering clear of sectors with high entry barriers, for example, banking apps where you need to comply with government regulations that are hostile to startups.

In other words, start innovating on the fringes of the industry of your interest.

Full-stack Engineer

Most of your brilliant and bankable ideas will sound absurd to other people before they’re brought to life through coding, so if you can’t code you have to first convince someone who can about the viability of your idea and if they say yes you enter into a relationship.

In the uncharted territory of a newborn startup, this relationship can be rocky and quite messy.You need to carefully choose who you’re gonna tango with.

So teach yourself how to be a full-stack engineer by:

  1. Learning the basics of both front-end and backend development.
  2. Leveraging formidable web engineering frameworks, like Django and Bootstrap among a whole plethora of free and open source projects.
  3. Use premium backend services like IBM’s bluemix, parse, etc to lighten your engineering workload so that you can focus on the UI and UX.
  4. Hire a freelance web engineer for a specific task if you have to, make sure they document their code to your satisfaction.

As a full-stack engineer, you’ll be able to sprint faster and at a much shorter notice, in short, you become more agile.

The Team

In the early stages, you’ll literally be the team.

There’s no Seal Team 6 coming to extract you when things go sideways, you’re it.

Startup folklore whines about the moral responsibility being too heavy for one person to bear hence the need for a co-founder, once you have a co-founder they’ll whine about the composition of your team…blah…blah..blah.

It’s like trying to get the neighborhood kid with the brand new bike to let you give it a spin: only this time round it’s your own bike.

You see dear reader, in the other world of brick-and-mortar businesses, entrepreneurs have been doing just fine for thousands of years without the need for a co-founder or a team.

You start a small business, make money, innovate and grow, hire great people to work with and repeat this process in your next venture. It’s that simple.

Anyway, back to the new world of tech startups, for you to be the team, you must be versatile and not necessarily a loner.

Consult widely, filter the advice wisely while keeping in mind that the easiest person to fool is yourself.

I’m an ardent fan of the show The Apprentice, in the first 5 seasons, contestants from different professional backgrounds were given diverse tasks to execute, from selling lemonade to refurbishing a motel, in one of the boardroom sessions George stated one thing i’ll never forget:

You have to be versatile.


Fundamentally, tech startups are no different from brick-and-mortar businesses as we have seen, they just operate in different space.

If we can marry their pragmatic approach with our tech innovation, then we have a shot at successfully running a startup in a harsh environment where the tech ecosystem is either too young or non-existent: a common scenario to most techprenuers in emerging markets or the world outside the global tech hot spots.

It can be done, we just need to be more pragmatic about it.

Arthur Mwai

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