Media Entrepreneurs: 263Chat’s Nigel Mugamu wants to build dialogue in Zimbabwe. And he’s doing it for his 3-year-old daughter

Nigel — Sir Nige to his fans — has a way of making an impression. He’s a sponge for ideas and wants to build a better way for Zimbabweans to understand each other through conversations, news and information. Nigel started 263Chat in 2012.

But he isn’t a journalist; he’s an accountant.

Nigel appears here as part of The Splice Newsroom’s profiles of media entrepreneurs reinventing the service of journalism. Nigel was also recently named in New African’s rankings of “100 Most Influential Africans 2016”.

How did you get started in this? Why did you create 263Chat?

So I’m an accountant by profession and I was sitting in Edinburgh. Prior to that, I was in Australia. I did my first degree out there and I worked there for a small practice. Then I went across to the UK to do my MBA and that opened out my mind to the fact that the world wasn’t just about accounting. There’s all this other stuff — strategy, marketing and whatnot.

While I was there, as a fresh MBA, I didn’t like the way Zim (Zimbabwe) was portrayed by the BBCs and the CNNs of the world. I didn’t like what media back home was doing either and how they reported on Zim. There was a huge disconnect between the diaspora and those back home.

In January 2012, I had an idea: Why don’t we have a Twitter discussion once a week about Zim and bring the diaspora and the locals to talk so we could deal with the misconceptions.

What made you decide that this was the right point of your life to do this?

Well I didn’t have a business plan. I saw a problem — people don’t understand each other. I see the families and they didn’t understand each other because they couldn’t have a discussion. So I thought, at a national level, we needed to have one.

I chose Twitter because first, it has 140 characters to keep things concise and second, you could be anonymous. Facebook is real life, so that wouldn’t work. But Twitter is 140 characters and you can be anonymous.

So I had the idea in January but I sat on it because I was scared. I never told anybody. But we launched in September 2012.

Why the hesitation?

I just thought if I set it up as someone from Zim and living in Zim, I would draw attention to myself for trying to get people to talk and engage in dialogue.

What finally made you decide to go with it?

My then-girlfriend — and now wife — dropped by the house and I said, “Babe I’ve got an idea and this is what I want to do.” She said, “That’s a great idea, do it.”

The very next Tuesday, I set it up and off we went. I often think if she had said no, where would 263 be? We started a discussion and that’s all it was. We eventually found a business model around it.

What was the first revenue that you were able to bring in?

Someone said to me, “Hey, you’re always online. Can you manage my Facebook for me?” I said, “You gotta be kidding me.” He said, “No, you’re always online. So if someone says something on my Facebook page, you’d respond.” And that was it.

I thought if I could do this for him, then I’d be able to get more clients.

So three years later, things are different. You’re married now and you have a kid. How did the arrival of your daughter change you as an entrepreneur?

Gabby’s birth changed the game completely. I don’t take certain roads anymore because I think, that’s a risky road. But she singlehandedly inspires the work I do at 263chat. She’s almost 3. When she’s 18, I want her to live in a better Zimbabwe. That’s not going to happen overnight, so the journey needs to start now. Obviously there are people who were doing this way before I came along with the idea.

I want for her to be able to see the work we’ve done, and for us to leave a legacy. It’s important for me that when she grows up in Zim and later she goes away to university, she would still want to come back home. I also think it’s very important to document the stories and the reality of Zimbabwe. That’s what we do every day.

Having my daughter actually strengthens my resolve. I’ve done a lot of soul searching — should I be doing some else that could be easier? But 263 has given me purpose.

The stories however put you at personal risk as well.

They do. The idea of encouraging people to dialogue sometimes is not seen as the [right] thing. You’ve got to assess the risk. I remain passionate about what I do. Having my daughter actually strengthens my resolve. I’ve done a lot of soul searching — should I be doing some else that could be easier? But 263 has given me purpose.

When you look at the last 3 years, what do you wish you knew before you got into all this?

I wish I had a co-founder. We decided this year that we wanted to go out and collaborate with various organizations. I talk about our plans openly. We’re about to launch a podcast network. Talking about it and putting it out there is liberating. It also lets the market know that this thing is coming and to expect it. I wish I had the guts to do that back in the day. I wish I monetized sooner.

What is it like when you have doubts, which as entrepreneurs, we all do. How do you keep going?

I wake up every morning and I do something like an “anti-virus” scan — how do I feel? Am I stressed? Am I good — ok, let’s go. That’s something I do every day.

There are moments when things are tough — clients don’t pay and we’re in a tough business environment — I feel like giving up. And then I meet somebody who says, “Thank you very much for the work you’re doing.” I go home and I see my daughter. And I think what Zimbabwe will look like for her. Then I pick myself up and I go do this again. That’s tough but my daughter has been instrumental in picking me up when times are tough.

There are people who are closest to you and they will try to discourage you from doing what you’re doing. Fuck ’em. I say that in the nicest way.

Finally, what’s your best advice for anyone trying to start up in this space?

Find what you’re passionate about. I’m very lucky. I’m doing something that I’m very passionate about and I do this for a living. It’s not easy.

It’s often a lonely road. But once you find that thing that you’re passionate about, do your research and pursue it with both hands. Sometimes you’re not gonna win. You may not win today, but you’ll win the war. It’s not something that takes a day or two but it’s a protracted daily struggle and you’ve got to consistently work at it. Be consistent. Be intentional. And once you decide, go.

There are people who are closest to you and they will try to discourage you from doing what you’re doing. Fuck ’em. I say that in the nicest way.

Once you know what you’re meant to be doing in life, just pursue it. Don’t be selfish obviously. What I do can potentially put my family at risk. So I always assess that risk.

But just go for it. And learn. Learn from others. Talk to other people.

This interview is part of a series of stories around the journey of entrepreneurial journalism and the different ideas that could help build sustainable models.

We want to showcase both the ideas and the courage that goes behind breaking new ground on the business of media. If you know of someone who should be interviewed here (or yourself), please drop me an email —