I Don’t Know Who You Are, But I Am Rooting For You.

I was going to start blogging again by writing a series on some of my thoughts and experiences in the technology startup scene in Nigeria. In the last four years, we have witnessed the rise of e-commerce, iRokoTV, NairaBET, Andela, Wakanow, Hotels and host of other technology startups that seem to be doing well. We have young, bright, and energetic people building all sorts of amazing things. There is a lot of exuberance, braggadocios talk, wins and losses. It was only right that I should talk about hard work, patience, risk taking, perseverance, and all the other virtues that lead to success. But then I read this article.

So I’ve decided write instead about a dangerous and insidious trend I’ve noticed within the startup scene in Nigeria, and it is the vilification of ideas. Nigerian’s by nature are a cynical and lugubrious bunch of people. It’s only natural, given the environment we live in. We love to criticise and disparage anything and everything. And we have a special talent for incisively picking things apart. The problem is that this trend of being overtly critical stifles creativity. I strongly believe that this is the single most dangerous thing for our tech startup scene. Great tech startup scenes are built on ideas; stupid ideas, bad ideas, quirky ideas, a few good ideas, and even fewer great ideas.

What we risk, when we choose to be overtly critical, is an environment where people are afraid to be unconventional. We risk an environment where people don’t build and iterate quickly because they don’t have the necessary feedback loop to improve their ideas. We risk an environment where brilliant people hide in their little corners and create things that no one sees or hears about. We risk an environment where people wait for ‘perfect’ before coming out, only to shrivel back into the dark, because there is no such thing as perfect, and Nigerians must let you know.

The only way you learn is by building. Not everything has to be useful. There is a place for building for building sake and creativity in and of itself. Every project built leads to a richer and more experienced talent pool. I know this, partly because Orbi was built by a bunch of young, smart and driven guys who wanted to learn new programming languages. We did not have the luxury of finding experienced developers, but we had an idea we thought was pretty cool and we were hungry to build something. We are now on Android and iOS and have registered users in over 30 countries. How cool is that?

The second thing to note, is that Nigeria is very, very, very early when it comes to technology. We are early when it comes to market readiness, talent, managerial & institutional experience, funding/investment. Everyone is learning. Everyone! And so at this point we really should be all about experimenting. Every project, every app, every drone built is a learning experience. Your terrible looking, buggy app, hopefully will lead to a better designed and functional product on your next project. What ever happened to encouraging people to run wild with their imagination? What happened to daring to dream? How did we reach the point where being creative has become something to be maligned? There should be no boundaries to what people choose to build.

And instead of constantly criticising, we should be figuring out how to tinker with things enough to make them useful. What we need at this point are positive feedback loops that move you towards your end goal. We need to quit the wanna-be-Steve-Jobs syndrome already. You are NOT Steve Jobs. Save the bile for your own startup and don’t poison the public space. What many people don’t realise right now is that a win for any product or startup in Nigeria, is a win for everyone. When any startup is successful, it raises confidence in the tech startup scene as a whole. We need to root for ourselves, and stop the tear-him-down syndrome.

I root for everyone out there doing, building, learning. Your silly ideas are valid. Your not-so-useful app that no one will use is valid. Your project that no one believes in but you is valid. I don’t know who you are, but I’m rooting for you.

“ I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules or controls, borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

- Neo.