My first trip to Cameroon was in the spring of 2011. Amazing to see what kind of progress is being made only a year and a half later. It is exciting to see the ranks of technology entrepreneurs grow in the country. Also the quality of startups has greatly improved and I noticed a serious focus on business models. Several teams have gone through multiple iterations of their product before refining concepts that have real potential to gain traction.
In fact, a recent visitor from Nairobi remarked that the Kenyan entrepreneurs have something to learn from their Cameroonian counterparts. Indeed, it might seem that the constraints placed on entrepreneurs in the country forces them to focus – working faster with less resources. It was also noted technology entrepreneurs in Nairobi are sometimes hesitant to close their computers and speak with actual customers, when most of the teams in Cameroon spend a great deal of time and effort on market research.
Almost not a week goes by that we don’t read about the launch of another fund in Nairobi, an accelerator in Ghana or a competition targeting startup entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Its herd mentality with everyone piling into the same plane. Maybe Cameroon doesn’t get the same attention because people are less familiar with the operating environment or the government has done less to bolster its image. Certainly there is less sector support. That said, the quality of innovators we know in Cameroon are on par with any we have met.
There should be a podium for technology entrepreneurs in every country, and the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012 is another step for the community in Cameroon. These individuals, in every community, are critical if we are to solve difficult social, economic and environmental problems. They are an important part of our future. Their path is not an easy one and it is important to take a step back and to recognize the progress being made.
It is hard work and these guys are blazing a new path for hopefully many generations to come. Already we see new teams of entrepreneurs staking their ground. These are still the early days of many exciting times ahead. Congrats to the team at Djoss.tv, KingMaker and Agro-Hub!
I love teaching a course on Entrepreneurship in Interactive Media. In my work I don’t think there is one person I refer to more often than Steve Jobs. He is an incredible inspiration and source of creativity. He is someone entrepreneurs will always aspire to.
Building a successful business is one of the hardest things to do. For many entrepreneurs building companies in different parts of Africa assumes extra challenges. But from all of the different reasons that might cause an African based startup to fail respondents to a recent poll selected poor execution as the leading cause. This point was followed by lack of finance and an unwillingness to adapt to changing market conditions.
So despite often times a challenging business climate i.e. lack of infrastructure, difficulty attracting qualified staff, poor legislation, unfavorable tax climate, etc…. respondents suggested the failure of most startups rested solely on the shoulders of the entrepreneur and their poor performance. This result reflects the findings of a recent study published by the Startup Genome project. Their recently published report found that 90 percent of startups failed primarily because of ‘self-destruction rather than competition.’ The study looked at 3,200 high-growth technology startups and pinpointed ‘premature scaling’ as a key trend. Specifically this idea that the entrepreneur is getting ahead of the game before they actually have the necessary foundations in place first. This ‘skipping’ of steps might give the impression the startup is finding success early, but lacking key pieces in the business model creates much bigger problems later in the business lifecycle. And given these are fundamental building blocks the startup is too often unable to recuperate and is forced to fold the business completely.
There are many ways this occurs i.e. possibly spending money on unnecessary things like an expensive office, hiring too many employees too early, not spending time on proper market research, running expensive customer acquisition or launching the product before it is ready. According to the Startup Genome report bout 74 percent of Internet startups fail because of premature scaling, while those who scale properly typically see growth that’s 20 times faster. Those companies that scale properly end up attracting more capital and servicing more customers. They are also the businesses that end up hiring more employees. But in how far can we compare this study focused on startups in Silicon Valley with the startups in Africa? Growing too fast was also an option in this weeks survey but surprisingly the option only received a single vote. The results of this week’s poll seem to place more emphasis on the inadequate abilities of the entrepreneur (poor implementation) than on their efforts to grow the business too fast.
Marieme Jamme, the founder of Africa Gathering, raised the point that entrepreneurs behind failed startups too often lack a long term vision. Jitesh Naidoo, currently researching the subject for an upcoming book, added, ‘Many of the start ups have very little managment skills that would allow them to run a business and grow it on a sustainable basis. They have the initial drive, but become shipwrecked when they encounter problems that require specific skills to overcome. Skills also allow a person to separate personal from financial matters.’ He goes on to explain that entrepreneurs behind failed startups lack essential business acumen and forward thinking. He expands, ‘Very often those at the helm of startups lack the business foresight to make decisions that are business based.’ This hints to the second point highlighted in the survey suggesting that many entrepreneurs behind unsuccessful attempts fail to adapt or change their plans needed to meet a dynamic and changing marketplace. Possibly the point also hints to the need for better market research, deeper customer understanding, more prototyping and rapid iterations needed to better close this gap.
Brian Maphosa an entrepreneur currently running a startup countered Jitesh, ‘Is this exclusive to the African continent? Do we have a statistical analysis to back this argument? I am saying this based on my own personal experience running a start up and the issues I see as potential sources for business failure. It takes discipline, personal character, the integrity, the controls/systems, funding, work ethic of those involved, etc… to pull a business through. As far as I am concerned these are universal issues that any startup would grapple with.’ John Priddy concludes the point, ‘Failure is the inherent nature of start ups. It’s about risk-taking and the creative destruction impulse that drives innovation and growth.’
Clearly the African startup process shares many similarities with other parts of the world. In the end, building a successful company is simply one of the most difficult things to do wherever you are located. But for many entrepreneurs in Africa the context does seem more complicated (albeit many times the business is complimented with greater potential). Given the density of Silicon Valley’s startup culture it is reasonable to think entrepreneurs there have an easier time following a beaten path. There is arguably more entrepreneurial infrastructure in place. Can we then say that in the context of Nairobi or Lagos there are simply less success stories and examples to follow? This forces many entrepreneurs to figure it out on their own and that means many entrepreneurs are facing certain odds unprepared. Taking that into consideration respondents to this poll do seem to be asking entrepreneurs to step up their game if they are going to compete on an international level. They are asking for better/smarter implementation and more flexibility/adaptiveness to the changing business climate around them.
So the million dollar question remains. How do we better support entrepreneurs and the development of their startup DNA? What are your thoughts on the subject?
Last week I presented at the Making Finance Work in Africa conference in Addis Ababa. This was a unique opportunity for the African financial community to come together and discuss ways forward.
Specifically, taking a step back to review what has been achieved the past few years, to outline challenges that remain to be tackled and to identify areas still in need of attention. Also to get a handle on the possible strategies that can be employed in the efforts to address them. If anything, it was made clear that there are no prescriptions and anything but a one size fits all approach. Its about thinking local, taking a careful look at the context and the solutions that might address specific needs.
Thorsten Beck, the author of Financing Africa through the Financial Crisis, put forth the argument that, ‘In the industrialized countries of North America and Western Europe, financial innovation has acquired a bad connotation after the recent crisis, being associated with CDO, CDS and other three-letter abbreviations, which few understand.’ He continued, ‘ However, innovation is more than that and comprises numerous new products, new processes and new organizational forms. Innovation can be an enormously positive force, even in the financial system and especially in Africa. However, in order to reap the benefits of more innovation, a different regulatory approach is needed than currently present in most African countries.’
S. Kal Wajid, the Division Chief of Africa at the IMF, recognized the role of innovation and technology as key components in furthering financial sector development. At the same time he cautioned the attendees to carefully evaluate the risks and to not lost sight of the macro economic agenda. Thorsten agreed but expanded, ‘We can’t lose our focus on the macro economic agenda. At the same time we can look at innovative options for financial sector reform and to consider more activistic approaches.’ He highlighted one opportunity in which banks could share a common payments system that would reduce infrastructure costs, help expedite payments and thereby lower transaction costs. But again, what might serve as a ‘fast gain’ solution for one country could be less relevant for another.
Finding ways to better serve SMEs was also raised as a top priority. Gaiv Tata, the Director of Finance and Private Sector Development at the World Bank, highlighted the issue when he explained that 50% of SMEs in Malawi still rank access to finance as the leading challenge in their ability to realize potential. In Ivory Coast it’s 60% and in Benin the numbers approach 70% of SMEs that identify access to capital as a key constraint. Jason Wendle of Dalberg added, ‘the biggest challenge facing SMEs is collateral. Banks see the SME market as an attractive segment but still have difficulty assessing the risks.’ Leveraging technology, psychoanalytic testing and smart due diligence processes were offered as positive sector developments that combined could start to address this issue.
Still it was clear, Banks don’t necessarily appreciate the business of small scale entrepreneurs. Their products are limited and do not always offer the terms an entrepreneur requires to really grow their business. For example a big order that comes in and the business in need of a fast loan so they can scale production and service the contract. Difficult circumstances arise when the entrepreneur has to still wait months before the financing is organized on often unreasonable terms.
But there is much optimism. SMEs consistently show good returns and finding businesses that can generate a profit is really not the issue. The focus is instead on identifying smart and effective ways that better connect financial services with the entrepreneurs that can really put money to work. It’s connecting the dots that will see more SMEs creating jobs, paying taxes and building the sustainable businesses for the future.