Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2 years and 10 Hardest Lessons Learned

A Startup is a borrowed culture in Africa .see footnote 1.

What I will call a Startup would be limited to the scope of  what Eric Ries of Lean startup movement defines as:
" A human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty. "

It's almost 3 years since I joined the Startup community and almost 2 years [2011-2012] when my University pal  @quincy_k   made the the decision to build a company from our idea.
During this time, I've had the best experiences by getting my hands right on practical knowledge. Learning .see footnote 2. is a  vital tool to where I am today.
The lessons below are Startup lessons and Personal lessons. Some of them would be ramblings, some of them I tried to make the points.

Finding the right skill for your Startup is a life time search: it is the hardest thing ever
The best men are hard to keep. The best men are hard to find. The best men are self made.
Last year from the early days, I spent time looking for first class Sales man or business Manager for our Startup Wasamundi. I've met several interesting people whom we've worked with but till yet not found anyone who truly understands what we do and try to adapt as a first class Sales man in this business. The problems I noticed were:
1.The  kind of business. see footnote .1.
2.Generational "mundane" mentality: In our community, there is a defined circle: You are born - You school - You get a job - you retire and enjoy pension. This is how we are taught. We are not thought to start something and so we have no pre-knowlege and adaptability skills to this.

Further, People live to survive poverty and live for their salary from a financially secured Job. Finding the best skill would require finding the right passion to fit in building a dream.
I've resorted to keep finding and I have a solution which can only be tested but I've not had the opportunity to.

You can't be everything to everybody at all times: Say no, no, no as much as you can
The want to Satisfy everybody should be a Sin.
The want to want to be everything for everybody should be a deadly sin.
Over these years, I said yes many times. I said some No's, some of the No's is to have rejected out-rightly the idea to sell Wasamundi. Refused investment .see footnote 3. Refusal to integrate a new social network under Wasamundi brand...etc. But if I take a retrospect, I still had more yes.

I tried to commit to many things and in the end I did very few and only those within my power. Committing to many things takes it's turn when you get up in the morning and you are paralyzed by the many things you are supposed to do; then you fall into this state of inertia to start any and in the end you #donothing. The work for one Startup is too much alone to bring other hurdles. The Startup requires your ultimate focus for at least 2-5years.

Scaling prematurely would kill you: Focus and Focus and Re-focus.
If you don't focus, you will die. I strictly mean the scaling of building many "products" not in adding servers and investing in heavy technology to prevent twitter's fail whale from happening to your Startup.
In the early days of a Startup, especially one led by techies, there is a huge amount of energy around. The temptation is to experiment with projects.This is a necessary temptation but  these experiments unknowingly creep into the Startup and some emerge as products. The shear excitement of building something and having a Startup gives You the Gods to push this experiment in and call it a product.

In the end, the obvious sets in. Maintenance becomes an issue. It takes more than 1 day to respond to a product bug. You abandon products that have bigger and better vision and requiring your all to start fitting the new "product in". This plays a large down role and I should say this is one of the biggest hard learned lessons for me. This lack of focus comes with lots of bruises and recovering gives you alot of time to rethink, take a defensive position and re-strategies. The necessary fall back here is Pivoting.

Avoid side projects: They feed you and kill you
An Internet Statup has the problem of Capital. This is because before you can secure Capital from capital backers like Friends, Families, Angels, VC most of them need you to validate your Idea. An exception here is if you get in touch early with someone who wanted to do this, has money and need the technical expertise or is just interesting in financing great ideas. This expresses it self worse in the community which we find ourself. People lack fundamental education of what software is as they value what they touch more than what they don't see. Infact, it has taken me more than 2 years for my closest Family members to understand what I'm engaged in. But if I told them, guys I need to open a boutique selling provision, I would have had their backing to get more help than in this Internet / Mobile Startup.

So, In the end, you need to bootstrap. Side projects come into play. These I blame the most to contribute to the failure of startups as per my experience and I got the support of Paul Graham in his essay on 'how not to die' . "[D]on’t go to graduate school, and don’t start other projects. Distraction is fatal to startups. Going to (or back to) school is a huge predictor of death because in addition to the distraction it gives you something to say you’re doing. If you’re only doing a startup, then if the startup fails, you fail". This has cost us more pain and regret than any other thing.

People would not keep to their promises: It starts and ends with you
Most promises and favors aren’t as genuine as you’d like them to be.
Promises will come in like a waterfall in between. Initially, you’ll want to hold those promises and favors until you need them. Not relying on them is the best way I manage something like this.  Remember, this isn’t personal for the other guy. It’s not their company. It’s yours.

The right people will respond when you need them, but most people won’t. There’s nothing wrong with that. People get busy. Don’t beat yourself up about it.  It should always start and end with you and your Startup.

You will always underestimate how much it cost to deliver a service or a product
In estimating how much you need for 6months
How much you need to deploy a pilot
How much you need to travel to the village and back etc...

Go for the highest you can as your experience deems. If you have no experience, consult an adviser. [ So that you can blame them if you think you under-costed - LOL.]
It would always take more time for things to happen than you thought. Always give allowance for everything. You should always have more allowance than less.

A startup messed up at it's foundation cannot be fixed
I first read this in one Blakemasters CS notes. It is today known as  Peter thiel's Law of startups.
There is no better way to explain or say this but the foundation of a Start-up is it's Team. 
Culture and whatever would only come later on. In the early days of a Startup, if the team is messed up, it will take grace to turn it around. Also, this is experienced when a Startup in it's early days has more than 2 people. There is setting in  of Chaos especially in the equality of Power. 

Messing up is inevitable, again except 1 person who can exist without everybody else and also has the greatest power to fire and hire at will failure is bound.  I have a bitter experience on this and hope to bring it to full light of what totally went wrong to the public one day.  There are few exceptions though. The most plausible escape is one person hijack the whole idea and re-brand everything. Everyone goes their separate ways. A great idea to a big problem all goes to waste. The effort put all goes to waste. The waste of  Life.

Always think about making money, because if you don't. You'll die
Internet Companies are picking up in the continent and in Cameroon at an interesting speed. The temptation is: Go with the freemium model. When I build user would come, then I'll start advertising to generate revenue. The issue with this is that, there is failure to understand how to take a startup from idea, to business and you depend on a freemium model.For a startup to start generating advertising revenue tangible enough for the whole business to depend on takes a lot of Capital injection. Even Facebook. To get to profitability they put in almost 1Billion. We don't have people to give you 1 billion in cash to push your idea in Africa now.  So, always keep thinking how to generate revenue for your business.

This will help you even in raising capital faster as investors can be more certain about how they would get their money. My dawn in this came from one of our key advisers. But again it was written to my heart clearly when one of these investors I contacted replied my mail saying: " We are a startup also,..., and are currently in an extremely busy period.".
This was pure proof. That  message transcribes to, I mean in business terms:  " your business model will not be making money. I don't have time for that  now. When you decide on start making money and check your models, I may be interested in what you want to say".

At that time that was the biggest blow for me in 2012. The most regrettable and painful  moment. When I started questioning everything and pushed to learn more and take a defensive position personally. But as I write this post, I see it as the best thing which must have happened to me. I'm growing,  I'm learning.

Growing too fast
It means growing too fast. I consider vertical and horizontal growth. In the early days of a Startup, the best fast growth should be horizontal growth. Growing too fast horizontally means you've found a product market fit and you are gaining territories.
The true growth is when you get more customers. When you get more customers who pay you so that you can't handle the request. You bring in the right personel to handle this. With the right expertise. Where you put them on the necessary salary without burden on the Startup or on borrowed money or the founders as you are making money. This also sets you a foundation for vertical growth in your latter years in about your third or fourth year.
In the beginning if you follow vertical growth, you are tempted to measure growth, by the number of experiments you turn to products. By the number of praises you get from friends, by the number of people requesting to join you etc. This throws you to think you need more hands. You are thrown into hiring. The small money you might be making you spend on rents and operational costs  goes up. Then you start paying others salary even though you as a founder you get 0F as salary. The startup can barely take care of your needs.

Lesson, People are attracted to what seems like "Success" and I think the greatest trouble is when a visionary becomes a liar .see footnote 4. A lot of people would come to join you. Would come with brilliant ideas. It's for you to chose who to keep and who to drop. And don't compromise in pain especially when you smell your vision is being swayed. Say no, no, no then say yes if you can.

You’ll be wrong most of the time. Try to make the right decisions     many times as you can
As a team member in a Startup, you’ll astound yourself by the number of times your assumptions are complete garbage. You’ll make the wrong decision only to have to redo it later. Recognizing mistakes and acting on them are more important than being perfect. 

The more times you’re right, the faster the company grows and the better off everyone else is as well. Pretty simple. Appreciate when you’re right,  tomorrow you’ll be wrong about something. Always push yourself to be right again and again.

One thing about a leader is that, you must be able to sense everything. When something is going wrong, when passions are dieing, when to bring our the next necessary strategy. But in all it boils down on how you understand and communicate with the people you shall be working with. Be persistent keep redefining and and validating. Find the best people who can go through this. You need few core people. People who are ready to risk all through the ups and downs: 2 Maximum + You. This is necessarily a Logical Choice because your feelings may not always be right. But data and fact is the key to making right judgement.

" That which does not kill you makes you stronger ". - Fredrich Nietzsche.

1. Don't get me wrong. Let me try to express  what I mean. A Startup here I strictly mean an Internet / Mobile Company. Where programs and platforms are written and marked as company milestone. Every business starting up can be called a Startup.So African's are not learning how to start a business. But Africans are learning how to run an Internet / Mobile Startup from Startups and Company out of Africa, Like, etc... This is not our culture. I often say programming is not in our culture. This is part of the western civilization culture which we are embracing because we think It can get us out of poverty, create jobs, make you better. It feels really sane and OK for those who had the opportunity to start the adoption of this culture as they grew. But of course like every other culture which is learned or inherited there are better days ahead. There is more and needed skill to acquire. 5- 10 -20 years. When we are there, we would know it.
2. Learning I should say is the biggest tool Mankind gave to Man. If you learn, you get out of the dark. Period. If you don't you stay in the dark. Learning gives you the ability to do what they call "get out of the system" and take a look from the outside. I love learning. It's a life long process. If you a learning to be great in a skill, in Malcolm Gladwell's words you will need at least 10000hours of practicing. Which from high school I've always known I'll need 10 years in any field to become a professional.
3.No one refuses a sane investment. If you accept investment from someone who does not understand your business and is asking almost 50% for so little amount of money you are better off dead. We refused. And I don't regret it. When I recall it, I only tend to start cursing and tempted to call people idiots and shout " Go open call box if this thing is rocket science put your money somewhere else, not in an internet / mobile company except you are in for the long run and ups and downs". Because of failure to understand the business, it's the same reason a Cameroonian investor and an American Investor's perspective when investing in a mobile/ internet startup are like day and night.We all would learn and understand one day.
4. A visionary lies to himself, a liar only to others. -- Fredrich Nietzsche

Thanks to Julie Owono, Tita Leslie and Brian T for have re-read this.
Thanks to all the brilliant people we've worked with at Wasamundi. Everyone contributed as they could within their powers. And for all those who shall be joining, better days are ahead in our mission to help people discover and connect with Local businesses.