There are many factors in life that are beyond your control. I believe the only things you are always* in control of are your faith, focus and discipline. (*if you are committed to it).
Every successful tech founder I have met embodies the essence of discipline that has helped them grow and stay focused. I think many companies fail not because of the lack of finances but more the loss of focus.
It’s been over a year since we published NALA for the first time in the Google Playstore. You can read about that journey here. Fast forward a year later, we have always ranked among the Top 10 Finance apps in the country, peaking at #1 for over 53 days.
Even though some may say we are ‘successful,’ I repeatedly remind my team we are only at 2% of where I would like us to be — of what our real potential is: we are live in Tanzania and launched Uganda just a week ago.
This is only the beginning of a long journey, with plenty of challenges ahead of us. And truth be told, I don’t have it all figured out. For many of the obstacles that pop up, I have either no experience or no expertise in. Yet I often get asked by other founders on how I manage to overcome those obstacles.
While I am no expert, I have been very reflective about how we have overcome our past challenges. I, therefore, wanted to share some of my key learnings from this challenging yet very rewarding journey I’ve embarked on.
As an African tech entrepreneur, there are a few things that really stood out to me. I’ll start with one that I think could be very distracting to most founders.
The seduction of Awards, PR, & Media and Conferences
I’ve learned to be careful with awards, PR, media and conferences. They are not a bad thing per se, yet they can be dangerous distractions.
In 2018, we did rack up our fair share of awards from the likes of EcoBank Africa FinTech Award to AppsAfrica Disruptive Innovation Award and finally the Seedstars Africa’s Best Start-Up Award. In January 2019 then the biggest acknowledgment thus far, we got into Y-Combinator.
Now, one may read this and feel impressed. But these are just the outcomes. What you don’t see is all the hard work behind it. In 2018, I had applied to over 80 awards/competitions and was rejected 95% of the time. And what most people don’t know is that I have been applying to Y-Combinator since 2016… we had been rejected 6 times. Many have asked about our Y-Combinator experience, I’ll share more about our experience in a future post. On a side note, Y-Combinator is not the golden ticket.
I had this ‘hope’ that those awards and competitions would help me build my business. While in reality, I honestly had to ask myself: what is the point of winning the award if no one uses your product? Or if you get all this positive press for an elevated sense of ‘status,’ while in reality, it doesn’t actually make your product any better? Awards are not assets, they are just a piece of paper /wood/glass or metal that someone gave you.
What about grants? Hmm this is a hard one. In a place where capital isn’t readily available, I see why this is a target for many founders starting up. However, always remember grants are never revenue. The same way, freebies are not sales.
So, what about PR? Let me share an anecdote from our first day of Y-Combinator(YC). The CEO of YC, Michael Siebel, asked me about our user acquisition strategy. A little surprised, my gut answer was “Oh, I think media articles help.” Michael looked at me with an incredulous smile and said: “PR is not a scalable way to grow your business.” Feeling unprepared and called out, I saw his point and acknowledged his feedback. Ever since I look at PR not as simply a tool, not a strategy.
To me, PR and awards are icing on the cake, they aren’t the cake. Without a cake (a viable business that you are growing sustainably), each of these vanity awards will only raise expectations and pressure. And that nice PR-icing you got? You still have no cake to put it on.
Humility is important, your customers don’t care about how many people liked your Instagram photo.
I think our African culture often glorifies having ‘status’ and being ‘known.’ Admittedly, I felt the same way when I first began my career in TV. However, this journey of entrepreneurship has taught me a few important lessons with regards to humility.
Instead of being out there tooting your own horn(which, admittedly, I do find myself doing), you gotta let your users sing your praises. Nothing is more powerful than building something that people love and readily talk about in positive ways.
All these awards aren’t worth anything if you get them for something that no one even really uses.
As Africans, I think we all need to be careful to not get lost in the image of being successful, while we actually forget or dismiss the process that is required for us to actually become successful.
Support other founders
“Hey Benji, what do you think of this company xyz?” — this is a question I get asked pretty frequently. Often with a tone that hopes to elicit a negative response. My response, however, is always the same: “I don’t.” Thing is, conversations like these are not constructive and don’t help anyone.
I know very well from my own experience that starting a company is no joke. This is why I respect every founder I meet, because as founders we go through a journey that is more often than not, very painful.
Founders love their product more than anyone else ever will. When something small breaks (in that product or service), it’s hard not to take it personally, it’s hard to fall asleep at night sometimes knowing you could’ve done better. And I truly empathize with them.
Instead, I want to make a case for us helping one another. We need to build an ecosystem, not an egosystem — one where we sit down and share what we have struggled with to create the opportunity to learn, not to put each other down. This goes to everyone in the tech ecosystem.
Talk to users, like actually.
One question we get asked a lot is about our traction in Tanzania when we have never had a launch event or release party for our app. So far, you’ve never seen a NALA flyer, billboard, TV ad, radio commercial or mass media campaign.
When we got into Y-Combinator, we were told that out of all companies in Y-Combinator history, we had spent the least amount of money and had the most traction. For me, the companies I look up to the most didn’t have launch events, they just built, re-iterated product listened to users and re-built.
So what was key to our growth? Prioritizing user interviews. Personally, I call users with my personal cell phone every week or try to meet them in person. This allows me to learn and helps me in my work of guiding our product journey. Eric from Y-Combinator shares some great insights here on how to talk to users. I can’t tell you how often users are shocked to hear me calling them to ask them questions on what we could do better. Nothing substitutes being out there, out of your four walls, and talking to actual users.
On the flip side, the PR I talked about earlier that we received actually hurt this user interview process and became frustrating for me. During many in-person interviews, people were scared to tell me the things they wanted on the NALA product, rather kept wanting to praise me/our teams work.
Lessons on product: It’s always a numbers game.
Never run from conflict, it’s a metrics game. Metrics matter, when you aren’t performing, you aren’t performing, fix the problem vs. thinking it’s about throwing more dollars at marketing or hiring more people. I’ll be the first to say, there are many things about our current product that sucks, but the aspect of user feedback is essential. When you stop listening to learn about understanding your user's pain points, you won’t know how to truly solve their problems.
The best praises come from your customers, not your Twitter followers.
Quick thoughts on hiring
I actually think smaller teams that execute more make you more profitable at the end. The answer isn’t about hiring more people. Don’t fall into this trap. I always admire founders who are able to do more — with less. I still remember the look on the interns faces last year when they realized we were only 3 people full time at NALA. At the end, I had asked them, what surprised you the most about your time here. One thing everyone said in one shape or another was that they thought NALA was a company that had 20+ employees and didn’t know we were working out of a living room. But what’s the trap, really? I think many might fall for the status of being able to say they have XX employees or that they feel more powerful if they can command more people. Yet that the ultimate goal of an entrepreneur is to make the most out of the limited resources that you have. here.
LearnKilaSiku (Learn Everyday in Swahili)
This is one of our NALA Family key values as a team. No one is qualified to build a startup, so if you feel like you aren’t ‘good enough,’ you are in the right place. Figuring things out and learning on the go is a big part of our culture. This attitude also instills a sense of ownership. If you don’t know, step up, and go and learn it. It’s an execution game, not an excuse game.
Now, this topic is even more important in light of what I often hear in conversations or see online. People tend to think that it’s lots of money that builds a successful tech company. But when you ask: “What do you need the finances for in starting an app?,” they go quiet.
All the things you need to get started are available online, and often for free. Software development and product management are taught for free on Youtube or through services like Udacity. I would say that well over 90% of the things I do today at NALA, I did not learn in any school classes. Curiosity, Youtube, Udacity and talking to people in the space have helped me learn so much for free. So for you to start a company, you don’t need that press-creating fundraise, you need people who are hungry to learn and execute.
Rejections: Take those L’s
If you look at what the press says about NALA, about the fact that we are just a year old, or that we have such a small team — you might easily walk away thinking that building a company is easy.
But these are just the outcomes that you see, it doesn’t show you what’s “behind the scenes.” What you don’t see is how many times we have fallen short. How many times we almost shut down NALA. How many times a VC turned us down (over 300, and counting).
The best part about rejections is the frustrating motivation it gives you to beat odds and expectations. This is something I personally struggled with a lot. Truth is, everyone gets rejected. It’s important for you to learn to leave your ego at the door because you will be humbled. When you get rejected, listen carefully to understand vs. listening to respond. The faster you realize it’s not about you, the better you are positioned to find the lesson in the rejection. Then, something magical happens when many of the VC’s who turned you down, start calling you again.
One part that has helped me through this was sharing the pain with other founders going through the same thing. See, it does you no good to throw stones at another founder; putting them down doesn’t help anyone, it actually makes you look worse. When you see a founder being successful, put your ego aside and go learn from them as they maybe could advise you a thing or two that could help your business significantly.
Now, back to work. Y-Combinator always told us ‘The most successful companies coming out of Y-Combinator, do two things really well: 1. Talk to users. 2. Build fast. 3. Repeat’ There are no shortcuts to talking to users. On our first trip to Uganda, Aaron Fu, one of our mentors joined us and highlighted some key learnings from that trip here.
The element of doing those 3 things take an uncanny ability of discipline and focus. Two characteristics that embody every successful tech founder I look up to master.
So you are the new founder on the block, you have some traction, your company is growing and people are hitting you up to speak at their conferences, just remember the following: Your user metrics and feedback are more important than your birthday.
Let the main thing be the main thing.
Oh, finally, Hi Uganda, we are live. Feel free to try out version one of NALA Uganda on this link. Nope, there will be no launch event. Building slow and steady.
Send me feedback directly firstname.lastname@example.org on what we can improve here or chat with Mama NALA via the application.