One way to recruit Pan-African talent to join your Nigerian startup
Notes from my recruitment experience with Paystack
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In a recent article, Oo Nwoye argued that Nigerian startups who aspire to serve all of Africa should consider recruiting early from across the continent. He writes:
I think hiring outside the “Nigeria bubble” is one thing that companies can do to jump-start [diversity of thought and experience]…
…Nigerian (and African) startup founders should start thinking globally from day one, and their hiring should reflect that from the beginning. The earlier a company does that the earlier it avoids being an organization that has been purpose built for Nigeria and would find it hard to adapt when it needs to.
What follows are a few notes from my own experience of being recruited from Accra, Ghana to join the Nigerian payments company Paystack in Lagos, Nigeria.
After a period of consulting for Paystack, I’m joining the company full-time as Head of Growth, where I’ll lead our merchant retention, customer success, and customer acquisition efforts.
I hope this documentation of my experience provides a useful framework for Nigerian startups who’re looking to recruit from all over Africa.
Your recruitment process starts long before first contact is ever made
My recruitment experience for Paystack (from first email exchange, to signed contract) technically took something like 3 months, but in reality, the process started many months before.
As a product designer, I had been following Opemipo the Great (Product Design Lead at Paystack) for a long time on Twitter and Medium. In addition to admiring Ope’s consistently high calibre of work, I loved that he wrote often and unguardedly about his work at Paystack.
For instance, after Paystack launched a new website in late 2016, Ope published a blog post about the project that laid out everything from the design inspiration he drew from, to publishing the site’s source code for anyone who cared to learn from it. And this is Ope writing candidly about early mistakes he made when designing Paystack’s web app.
These blog posts did more to tell me about Ope’s values (and the values of the company, by association) than any slick recruitment video or headhunter.
As someone who lived outside of Nigeria, Ope’s posts brought the company onto my radar in a big way, and created a very positive impression that ended up influencing my decision to join the team.
- Talent is always watching, and every member of your team is a recruiter, whether they know it or not. Is this someone whose work I admire? Does this person’s values align with mine? These are the questions your prospective recruits are asking themselves whenever they encounter something your teammate has published on the internet. They’ll use your teammates as a proxy to build an opinion about your company.
- Allow your team to talk publicly about what they’re doing at work! The best talent wants to do the best work of their lives, and to share what they’re learning and how they’re growing in their craft. If you muzzle your talent, you’ll lose out to companies where the skilled folks talk often and excitedly about what they’re working on.
- When doing international press, remember that one of the constituents you’re speaking directly to is prospective pan-African talent. In the early days of a startup, press can be a tempting distraction for founders that takes them away from the more critical work of validating the problem and building the product. That said, PR can be extremely helpful in certain ways, and one of those ways is that it can get you in front of talent from outside your country. For example, consider the work that PR agency Wimbart is currently doing for OMG Digital. Within a few weeks, the startups was featured on NiemanLab (which is a popular website amongst media people around the world), as well as Forbes online. You can be sure that since those articles were published, the CEO of OMG Digital has likely noticed an uptick in talent inquiring about opportunities to join the team.
Let your network know that you’re open to talent recommendations from other African countries
Very few of us have large networks outside of our cities, let alone all over the continent. How then can you recruit from Accra or Nairobi or Windhoek if you don’t know anyone on the ground?
One way is to ensure that when you tell your network that you’re hiring, you mention explicitly that you’re open to speaking to candidates from all over the continent.
Shola (CEO of Paystack) and I got connected because he made it known to his network that he was willing to speak to talent from outside Nigeria. A number of people recommend he connect with me, and Oo (a mutual acquaintance) made the introduction.
- When asking your network for talent recommendations, explicitly mention that you’re open to recruiting from all over the continent
It takes engaged senior leadership to convince talent to move across borders
The first Skype call with Shola went extremely well.
It was very clear that he was a hands-on CEO who already had a keen sense for product as well as marketing. We found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences and generally vibing.
Why was this a big deal for me? Because there’s almost nothing worse than reporting to someone who has no appreciation for why your work is valuable. Shola had already tried his hands at doing customer acquisition himself before deciding to contract it out, and it was clear from our conversation that he valued the work.
- If at all possible, the CEO should lead the recruitment conversation when engaging international talent. For most people, “Leave your country and come work in Lagos,” is a pretty tall ask, so having the CEO lead the conversation implies that this is something that the company takes seriously.
- Whoever engages the candidate should ideally have first-hand experience with whatever the talent is being hired to do. At minimum, they should have enough exposure to be able to have an interesting conversation with the candidate about their craft. Few things get talent more excited than when they have a chance to talk shop with a a kindred spirit.
To attract talent across borders, you need to sell a challenging, ambitious vision
That first conversation with Shola involved him laying out the big picture for Paystack, and walking me through some of the company’s major projects for the rest of the year.
The more he described his vision for Paystack, the more excited I became about the prospect of playing a role in bringing it to life. I remember saying “Wow,” a lot.
Paystack’s mission is to accelerate the success of businesses all over Africa. The team aspires to be a growth engine that gives African businesses the tools they need to compete continent-wide as well as globally. If Paystack wins, hundreds of thousands of merchants will be able to provide for their families, their employees, and their employees’ dependents.
It’s the kind of vision that would be preposterous if the company weren’t well on its way to accomplishing it.
- Good talent wants to be working on things that matter, but this is especially important when you’re trying to get someone to move to a new country. Give the prospective team member a sense of how much you’ve already accomplished, and outline how their unique skillset will help you get to the next level.
- Don’t overpromise! It’ll be very tempting to promise the moon in order to snag talent — please ensure that your claims are rooted in fact. If you sell illusions to talent, the best case scenario is that they sniff you out for a fraud, and quietly let their network know that you’re a bullshitter. The WORST case scenario is if you succeed in bringing that person on board, and then they come to realize how much your words were more smoke than fire. They’ll quit very loudly and publicly, prompting an exodus of members of the team, and you’ll find it extremely hard to get anyone to work for you.
Allow the candidate to experience what it’s like to work with the team, and make the move as easy as possible
The Paystack team couldn’t have made it easier for me to start working with them.
For the duration of my initial one month consultancy, they covered travel and accomodation, in addition to my consulting rate. Two members of the team, including the CEO, were present to meet me at the airport when I arrived, and throughout the month, multiple people checked in to find out if there was anything I needed.
When you’re far from home, these thoughtful actions count for a lot.
Over the course of a few weeks I got to experience first-hand how the team worked, and got to know a lot more about the human beings in the company. At the same time, the existing members of the team also became familiar with me, which made the transition from consultant to team member a lot smoother.
Additionally, the company had the foresight to rent a shared house a few minutes from the office to house both team members as well as visitors. This means that I don’t need to go through the hassle of navigating the Lagos real estate market; I can simply just roll into the office and get to work from day one.
These are just a few examples of how the Paystack team pre-empted friction and eliminated it.
- It is extremely important to give the candidate the opportunity to experience your company culture first-hand, even if only for a few weeks. In hindsight, that one month I spent as a contractor was an important part of what helped me get comfortable with the idea of moving countries to work for Paystack. Shola initially wanted me to come out for two months or more, but graciously relented when I pushed for a shorter timeframe. I know there’re lots of situations where having the candidate on the ground will be hard (such as if the person already has a full-time job), but I firmly believe that it’s orders of magnitude easier to get non-Nigerian talent to accept the offer if they’ve had a chance to visit and experience both company culture and Nigeria for themselves.
- Address the issue of safety in Nigeria head-on. The elephant in the room is that Nigeria’s reputation as a hectic place precedes it, and that people who haven’t visited it might have concerns about safety. If you’re recruiting someone from outside Nigeria, assume that they have unspoken reservations they’re reluctant to voice, because they don’t want to seem rude. Bring up the topic yourself and candidly explain what the real issues are, and which things are overblown.
Africans working and trading with each other
I hope that the next few years will see many African startups looking past their borders to serve markets outside their country of origin.
The emergence of pan-African tech startups — bringing together a rich diversity of opinions, skills, and insights from all over the continent — will be a net positive.
If you find yourself looking to create pan-African teams, I hope you found this write-up useful.