Inspirational Black Men In Tech: James Saruchera of Kuva On The Five Things You Need To Know In Order To Create A Very Successful Tech Company
An Interview With Jamie Hemmings
Talk to the market before you build anything. We spoke to vendors, shopkeepers, domestic workers, as well as high-flying professionals, to understand where we could solve the most important problems.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Saruchera.
James Saruchera is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kuva, the DeFi peer-to-peer payments startup that allows users to transfer funds in real-time globally in multiple on-chain currencies (KUVA Coin, USDk, and BTC) using just a mobile device. James founded Kuva in 2017, alongside his co-founder, launching the blockchain protocol out of a growing need in Sub-Saharan Africa, where soft currencies mean diminished purchasing power for citizens. An experienced digital leader, strategist, and conceptual artist, James has over 10 years of global experience that spans both established multinationals and fast-paced startups.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My parents lost their pensions built up over 30 years in hours because of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. We knew we had to build something that helps people protect what they have worked for. While hyperinflation is an extreme scenario, on closer inspection we realized that most of the world’s currencies (and therefore most of the world’s population) lose more than 10% of their buying power a year, making people poorer even if they save every penny through no fault of their own. If we could help people preserve the value of what they have, we can help billions of people to reach their full economic potential. And so Kuva was born. The word “Kuva,” in the Shona language, means “to have” and “to be.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I feel like there are still more interesting things to come and there have been some great moments thus far. However, experiencing history firsthand on the ground when Bitcoin became legal tender in El Salvador was pretty special. I’ve never seen a government so full of life and energy, completely embracing the future and the exciting possibilities that may hold. It was like roots rock revolutionary reggae in action on a national and official scale.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I remember in one of our early pitches pre-Kuva, we kicked off an investor presentation in London by slamming a hunk of meat on the table to emphasize we were bringing nothing but substance. If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘chew the meat and spit out the bones,’ then you’ll understand the message that we were trying to convey. We definitely got their attention, but not their investment.
The key lesson I learned from that experience is that as long as you can survive a mistake, it’s never wasted effort. There’s no better tutorial, you just carry on.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
A tech startup is a race against time — you have heavy capital costs and it may take a while until you have something that works, especially if you’re doing things that haven’t been done before using complex new technology.
The hard times I faced would be referred to by some as the valley of death. The point where you have used most of your funding and now need to survive until you start generating upward traction. Some friends and colleagues left, and as founders, we paid ourselves nothing for months on end. I never considered giving up.
The mission I’m on is a revolutionary one; it’s why the Most High put me where I am in this space. It’s part of who I am.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mother grew up in the 1940s, so it’s no surprise she didn’t fully understand what I was doing with blockchain. But even so, she always believed in me. Her “user feedback” was brutal, to the point, and helped us build better and easy-to-use products.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Art is best done all in.” That’s a quote I conceived during the formative stages of Kuva. There can’t be half measures when you are creating. Humans are sensory beings and can feel when something has been made with care and whether the makers have put absolutely everything into the final product to make it special.
The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
It’s a visible crisis now, but the truth is the marginalized communities and people at the base of the economic pile have been at boiling point for a long time. With the internet everywhere, it was just a matter of time before this spilled over into the public consciousness.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Populations are inherently diverse, if you have a single point of view you’ll miss the subtle trends that lead to the next big thing.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
We should add black women to this discussion as well. I think it’s about early exposure to the tools of the trade, namely, computing, connectivity, and learning the skills in primary school. How do you compete with people who had a computer and started coding before they were 10?
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Most people in the world do not have access to secure financial services. As a result, they have less buying power, less ability to make payments, and pay a lot more when they do.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are “mobile money” companies like mPesa, that allow people to transact with money on their mobile phones. These, however, are limited to subscribers of specific telecommunications operators and these systems don’t talk to other operators or to other financial systems. Neo Banks and App banks like Revolut or Monzo are all centralized and are not available to most people in the world. Even Apple Pay and Google pay are not available to most people in the world outside of developed markets.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
All the time. We look forward to enabling rural farmers in Africa to be able to purchase stocks on the US stock exchange, which would allow them to not only preserve but grow their wealth.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill?
From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
This relates to my earlier points about diversity. Listen to your market.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high-performing sales teams?
I would say it starts with the quality of your team. Building teams is a process; you need the right people but then you have to make sure that everyone is aligned in a way that ensures that there is room for everyone to play to their strengths with one overall goal in mind.
In your specific industry, what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
Having a good handle on the analytics — understanding the data of who is using your product, where they are, and what they use it for. This can give you great clues as to the direction in which you should evolve your customer acquisition strategy.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Firstly, understand who your most important customers are. Study the data and even more importantly talk to them. Ask your customers questions about why they use your product, what they find difficult, and respond quickly to their feedback.
My second strategy would be to make your product easy to understand. This is easier said than done, however, the reward of implementing this could see your product reach a wider audience. Customers will be more likely to engage with your product if they are able to understand what it is and how it aims to help them from the get-go. As the age-old saying goes, “keep it simple stupid.”
The third strategy would be to ensure that customers are able to access your product or service via their mobile phones. This strategy might seem obvious, but 4.32 billion out of 4.66 billion Internet users use a mobile phone versus a desktop. Developing a product with a mobile-first mindset will greatly increase the chances of customers having a good experience.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
The analytics are important; it’s important to know where your customers are dropping off. We saw using analytics that at one point half of our potential customers were not getting their phone number verification email. So, as a result, we changed to a more localized SMS provider and the results were immediate.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know your real target market before building anything. We sketched for months before turning our ideas into working code or even designs. There were more than 100 such screens before a single line of code was written for Kuva.
- Talk to the market before you build anything. We spoke to vendors, shopkeepers, domestic workers, as well as high-flying professionals, to understand where we could solve the most important problems.
- Recruit the right people. For us, there was a lot of trial and error throughout this process. You don’t always get it right, but it makes a huge difference when you do.
- Build quickly so you can fail fast, and validate what resonates as well as what doesn’t. In some respects, we didn’t really have much of a choice to go fast because of how new the space we are in is. Things that require a lot of security and depth take time, but if we could have gone faster we would have.
- Study the analytics and make the product better, consistently. Analytics made a huge difference in our business, especially in understanding what users found difficult. For instance, the SMS issue I mentioned earlier.
Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It would be building Kuva — enabling people everywhere to reach their full economic potential. This would solve a lot of problems — healthcare, education, equality, and conservation to name a few.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Elon Musk. He has set the standard for what’s possible when you give creativity free reign. So many haters dismissed his ideas early on, but he had the wherewithal to carry on and prove his ideas.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!