We keep focusing on why they fail but not how they start. Even when we talk about successes, the conversation is largely anecdotal and not scientific or with any rigor. We get caught up in terms and buzzwords, notice I didn’t say “startup”?
Nobody wants to fail. The greatest open secret about not failing is that it largely depends on how you start. A lot of focus on starting is about ideas and money when it should be about people, processes and regulation. A lot of these things are hardly considered in advance by us
We always believe we will tackle business problems when we meet them but a lot of business problems in Africa are not new. The real problem is that people have very little documented precedence to learn from. Most people get information and even ideas from hearsay and “gist”.
So, how are Business formed? This is how we started. 1. I worked for a tech company and met my cofounder. 2. Went back to school for MBA. CoFounder was in school too. 3. A former client contacted me to solve a problem my old company wasn’t interested in. 4. We solved and billed. 5. We needed to travel to a tech event in Lagos. We went back to same client for repeat business. 6. Client introduced us to others to repeat the same service as we did very well. 7. The introduction was the largest Agro business in West Africa and we had a lot of work to do. 6. We realized suddenly that we needed to build software products not just provide service. 9. We decided to increase the size of our team after cofounder had to leave to South Africa to get married after school. Key thing was we had prior knowledge, connections and were a team
Crazy part of our story is that we could afford to properly incorporate until we failed and restarted. We only registered a business name to help us setup a bank account. It was risky from a legal point of view but it was the simplest path to start with less friction.
One of the reasons why we failed initially was that we didn’t have any real governance or oversight. We didn’t get any mentorship. We just sort of winged everything.
Our failure became the lesson we learned to do things better the second time around. I started to pay attention more and learn from how others did it. I was lucky that my uncle left banking and was restarting a new investment business. We bought and restructured a bank, I learned.
My uncle had always been a fan of learning before starting. He was not in favour of going out there with zero experience and plenty of expectations. I thought he was “old school”. I later learned that he was very right. I started learning from his mistakes and successes.
One of the key lessons I also learned was that corporate politics was not for me. I would never have survived the cloak and dagger moves people had to do to climb up the corporate ladder. I was lucky to have seen things from owner and board level to realize it was all hopeless.
I went back to give entrepreneurship another shot after Uyi Edokpolo and Andrew Alli introduced me to Dr Aloy Chife in a consulting gig. I learned more from how Socketworks started to know how to start a technology business properly. Dr. Chife was well prepared but he still asked for help.
Imagine getting help from a consulting gig done by a failed entrepreneur? The advantage I had at that time that I later knew was that my interaction with other tech firms while trying to serve my previous client and setting up the bank made me know a lot more about local industry.
My uncle was one of the first investors in Econet Wireless (now Airtel) and being involved in that project set me up for further work in telecoms and transactions. If we had not failed, I would not have been exposed to these new opportunities. Failure became my biggest blessing.
It took me 10 years of learning and mistakes to know how to build a business. Some people work elsewhere for 10 years or more before they start. The difference between me and those people is that they probably would be comfortable and used to those comforts before they start.
Sometimes that comfort is a hindrance but it is still better than struggling. They probably can go back to their former profession or job as they have more options than the entrepreneur just starting. The only advantage I had was not being afraid of failure anymore. I had done it
Starting well does not mean you cannot fail. I also believe what we see as failure is only a learning iteration. Luck is a key ingredient of success and you get luckier when you are prepared. I think a lot of needless failure is due to lack of preparation.
Victor Asemota is founder of SwiftaCorp, a pioneering African software and technology services group with subsidiaries and operations in over 14 African countries.