Building Startups From the Ground Up

Building Startups From the Ground Up

Co-written with Amina Islam

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Following in the footsteps of the startup ecosystem worldwide, the African scene has blown up in the past few years. According to the Weetracker H1 report[1], 168 million USD has been pumped into African startups during the first half of 2018 alone compared to a similar amount garnered during the entire year of 2017. This is good news because it shows that the world not only carries hope for the African continent but is willing to back up that hope financially.

However, while it’s so easy for our young entrepreneurs to get high on all this money, if you’re currently running a startup it’s crucial you’re clear on whether you exist for the investors or for the users; the former being a bad long-term strategy. One sad thing you’ll notice — especially in Kenya — is how executives become more focused on fundraising and all the tasks behind it that they forget the fundamentals of managing a business: building a successful profitable business model, managing people well so employee turnover is low, setting a successful sales model that will test the product from the first customer and take it to profitability.

The inception of a startup presents a catch-22 situation: how can we execute without funding? However, with time if the balance of your focus tilts towards fundraising more than business execution, the fund well would dry up at some point. This is because, unlike grant or seed funders for whom fancy demos and videos might work, Series A and Series B investors come equipped with hard questions about how the business operations are being run and what the numbers exactly are.

A second element that’s missing from a lot of startups revolves around the most basic form of human feeling: carrying empathy for your market and understanding the exact problem you’re trying to solve. What occasionally happens is ideas get imported without validating their relevance to the African market. Unfortunately, this practice has been in the culture for decades because a lot of the business models we currently deploy have been inherited from the colonizers and other developed nations. And this practice is highly palpable in the tech field. Instead of focusing on scaling up local businesses and practices, tech entrepreneurs have a greater tendency to import ideas, repackage them and try imposing them on the African economy. This is not to say we shouldn’t import ideas, but we should import the ideas relevant to our communities. In other words, the attention needs to be inwards-outwards instead of outwards-inwards.

Take for example, using a card to purchase items on an online platform. While it’s common for a customer in the US to insert their credit card details on a website to make an online purchase, the lack of trust prevalent in the African culture acts as a barrier to its adoption. This has forced many e-commerce companies that operate in Africa to introduce the Cash on Delivery option [2].

According to an interview that appeared in 2014 on [3], Parinaz Firozi, MD Jumia Kenya says Cash on delivery has helped the company acquire new customers. Over 60% of our customer acquisition has been through cash on delivery. There is zero risk for the customer since they only pay for the product if they like it, there are no cost implications if they reject the product, the delivery man just takes it back. It’s stress free.”

But all is not lost.

One tech company that’s doing this right though is Twiga Foods. They seem to understand their market and if we break their business model according to Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, it’s clear to see that it goes as follows:

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Trying to solve the problem of the high cost of agricultural produce, Twiga Foods aimed to level the playing field by removing the brokers handling produce en route from its source to its destination.


This meant using technology to bring both agricultural producers and retailers onto a single platform, to make markets secure, reliable, and fair.


Getting farmers who grow a variety of products to join the m-commerce platform, where vendors are able to place their orders which is fulfilled the next day and paid for using mobile money.

Only time will tell how their growth will look like in the long-term, but at least it’s evident they seem to be taking the right first steps.

So, in summary, the main takeaways from this post are:

  • Judge from the actions taken by the executive team on whether your business exists for investors or for users
  • Have empathy for your users and understand what problems are you really solving
  • Focus on building a profitable business that’s sustainable in the long-run instead of just chasing funds

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[2] 2016 E-commerce sub-sector assessment report for Kenya






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The Rise of Funding in Africa

The Rise of Funding in Africa

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For the longest time we have been conditioned to see a single side of the story of Africa; one highlighted by poverty, civil wars, insecurity, and famine. Reinforced by images on international media of people waiting to receive international aid, animal carcasses littering parched grounds, and people packed into tiny boats trying to get to Europe, the narrative we carry about ourselves is that our countries are poor and self-defeated and the best way to make it as an African is to get out of the continent.

But then the waves of negative perception started to turn. And this turn could be tracked by the increased interest in attention that African countries have been getting through foreign investments and exposure to international events. As mentioned in the previous article, Building Startups from the Ground Up, funding into African startups significantly went up during the first quarter of 2018 when compared to 2017 with the sectors receiving the most money being Fintech, Agritech, Healthtech, Ecommerce and SaaS.

This upwards trend in interest had been going on for a while. According to EY’s Africa attractiveness program 2016, the year-on-year Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) project numbers for Kenya grew by over 50 % [1]. In 2015, Barack Obama and President jointly hosted the Global Entrepenership Summit in Nairobi [2]. In June 2016, Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation — the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — made a multi-million dollar investment in Andela, a startup that trains African software developers and gives them full-time roles at international companies. Other international companies such as Google and IBM opened offices here and people like Jack Ma jetted in with 38 Chinese billionaires.

Mark Zuckerberg was quoted to have said, “There’s so much energy and so much potential here. I just want to walk around and meet folks.”

So with increased attention towards the African continent, what do investors really look for in startups?

As mentioned in Building Startups from the Ground Up, execution and business readiness is key. Investors invest to grow their money so they need to see potential for a positive return on their investments. That means, if you’re a startup entrepreneur, you’ll need to show you have an idea with a good customer-market fit as well as an effective business model. Simply said, solve real problems that real people have and show that you’re going to make money out of it.

The best way to show execution and business readiness is through actual numbers[3]. As an entrepreneur you need to understand your numbers inside out. Know your intended market, financial projects, details on sales channels and back up your growth projections using hard data.

Besides the numbers, investors look for certain character traits in the team executing the idea. For example, Parul Singh, principal at Founder Collective, a VC firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, mentioned in this article that while self-confidence is required to launch a business, arrogance is a key red flag because it may hinder someone from taking constructive feedback from the market[4].

As part of their due diligence, some investors would also look into the background of the founders. For example, Isaac Ho, the founder of VentureCraft Group spoke about how he found out that integrity was a common problem among founders as they tend to hide the real situation of the company from stakeholders. They also face management problems such as not knowing how to delegate tasks or hire the right people for the right job[5].

So if the investors are going to dig deep into founders’ backgrounds, it makes one wonder what they would think when they see entrepreneurs proudly talk about the amount of time they spend travelling to present at awards instead of running their companies? It also makes one wonder if they would continue to invest if they contribute to a startup but there’s nothing to show for it after many years of execution?

As a final note, as we continue to reap the benefits of international attention, can we stop trying to get away with mediocre quality of work?

Co-written with Amina Islam








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Demystifying the College Dropout CEO Myth

Demystifying the College Dropout CEO Myth

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The graveyard is filled with startups that looked promising at one point but then plummeted to their death. Launching your own startup has turned into a fad nowadays. Whether it’s because there’s a lot of motivational content on Youtube telling you to quit your job and follow your passion or because kids nowadays do not want to be stuck in any type of 8 to 5 job, the reasons may vary, but the result is the same; many youth nowadays want to update their Facebook status to reflect, “CEO of so-and-so.”

I am not here to crush the ambitions of young people as the Kenyan economy does need you to be more self-starters thanks to the unemployment problem. My message is for you to understand that startups are not just fancy ideas set up to attract fund money. Startups are serious businesses that solve problems in the market and must become profitable at some point. Sometimes startups become so obsessed with their solutions, they don’t really understand the problem they’re trying to solve so they easily topple when someone shows up with a better solution to the problem.

As mentioned before, this means startup CEO’s need to understand who their customers are, what their business models are like, what their sales funnel looks like, and most importantly, as Kevin O’leary would always ask on Shark Tank, “How do I make money?”

When you judge a startup, understand what your unit economics look like, which would require you to answer the following questions among others[1]:

  • What’s the cost to acquire one user?
  • What’s the lifetime value of that user?
  • How are you defining your unit?

According to this report[2], 50 % of startups in the US fail because of some of these reasons:

  1. Lack of focus, motivation, commitment and passion
  2. Too much pride, resulting in an unwillingness to see or listen
  3. Lacking good mentorship
  4. Lack of general and domain-specific business knowledge: finance, operations, and marketing
  5. Raising too much money too soon

Unfortunately, we don’t have similar studies done in Kenya to corroborate or contradict those studies. Having built 6 business ventures myself, however, I’ve personally learned the following lessons: there are many marketers out there but not enough salespeople. Sales, sales, sales is the engine of any business and our youth don’t know how to sell.

You’ll see people build startups mostly as a good conversation starter; start a company that’s not even registered, call yourself a CEO, make business cards and look for funding, without having a single paying customer.

Unfortunately, you’ll hear stories of CEO’s who dropped out of college to start their ventures, but then they don’t have the skills it takes to run a company. The college dropout ceo who made it is an outlier. Aileen Lee published an extensive overview in TechCrunch of U.S.-based software ‘Unicorns’ (startups with a market value of more than $1 billion) and one of her findings was that Inexperienced twenty-something founders are outliers. Companies with well-educated thirty-something co-founders who have history together tend to be most successful[3].

Another research published in Harvard Business Review recently showed that the average age of people who founded the highest-growth startups is 45. So why is it that our kids drop out of college and think they’re going to be the next Mark Zuckerburg?

We can’t blame them, to be honest. There’s a cognitive bias called the survivorship bias where we are more likely to systematically overestimate our chances of success because the news is filled with success stories more than failure stories.

In 2013, The Atlantic published a post on how despite the sensational stories about college dropouts, 71 % of the 34 million Americans with no diploma are more likely to be unemployed and poor[4].

The graveyard is filled with startups that looked promising at one point but then plummeted to their death. Shield yourself from the survivorship bias by frequently visiting the graves of once-promising startups. Despite its morbid nature, such a walk should help defog your judgment.

Co-written with Amina Islam







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How to Break Your Mental Barriers to Increase Sales

How to Break Your Mental Barriers to Increase Sales

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In Demystifying the Myth of the College Dropout CEO, I wrote that there are many marketers out there but not enough salespeople. This is despite the fact that selling is a very important skill that everyone will need at some point in their lives. You might need to sell your skills to a potential employer, or sell your company to a potential investor, or sell your product to a potential customer.

Even if you’re employed in a non-sales position, you’d notice you spend some of your time selling because in a more generic sense, you can think of selling as persuading, influencing or moving people. As Dan Pink explains in his book, To Sell is Human, there’s more to the conventional view of economics than just producing and consuming. He writes, “There’s also moving where we move others to part with resources so we both get what we want.”

So if selling sits within the heart of the economic engine, and our youth don’t know how to sell, what chance does our economy have to not just survive but also thrive?

We also can’t blame them for not being good salespeople because selling is one of those skills that cannot be honed during a 3 hour seminar.

It takes a lot of experience.

Actually, let me rephrase that.

It takes a lot of bad experience to be any good.

When you’re trying to sell anything, chances are high you’re going to face a myriad of rejections. That’s why it’s important to build the required mental fortitude to inoculate yourself from the negative feelings that come as part of the process.

The first thing is to build your self-confidence. Many people think you’re either born self-confident or not. But having self-confidence simply means believing in yourself enough to be willing to try. It does not guarantee success. It just pushes you to take that first step.

Sadly, many do not take that first step because mentally, you’re more focused on the embarrassment related to failure than the potential good that might come from success. The human brain is wired to have a negativity bias, which refers to the idea that unpleasant thoughts, emotions or social interactions have a greater impact on one’s psychological state than positive experiences. As stated here, some authors state that it takes five good events to overcome the psychological effects of a bad one. So before taking any step, change your mindset by keeping a balanced view that your attempt at selling could work or it could not, and you are going to be fine regardless of the outcome.

Also, change the way you view failure and rejection to begin with. Unfortunately, our educational system has entrenched in our minds that failures are inherently bad when in reality they’re simply a natural part of the process. Failures can be viewed as signposts to show you what not to do and pinpoint where you can improve your techniques.

Another thing that can help build your self-confidence is to keep an updated and accessible record of your achievements so far. This list could more generally encompass the number of projects you’ve completed and/or exceeded expectations while delivering or more specific in terms of sales where you record the number of times you were able to influence people and sell them anything [an idea, a product, a company].

Once you’ve covered your basis on how you’re going to keep your attitude buoyant and your self-esteem high through your journey, you need to go down to the field and start selling. There’s no other way around it. You just have to practice. And because it’s a numbers game, you’re going to have to do it over and over again, sometimes failing, other times succeeding, but refining your techniques until you’re successful at it.

Another thing about your practice is that it should be both continuous and deliberate. Deliberate Practice as defined in this blog post is a specific type of practice where you’re always applying your skills at the edge of your comfort zone and trying new tips and techniques with the help of a coach who can give you some feedback on your performance. Even though Deliberate Practice is more common in sports and chess, it can also be applied in business settings such as selling as long as you find a salesperson who’s more advanced than you are and who’s willing to train you.

In general, the main parts of the sales process are prospecting, pitching and closing and I’ll delve into each one of them in the next posts so keep reading.

Co-written with Amina Islam


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The Sales Cycle

The Sales Cycle

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Co-written with Amina Islam

When kids are asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” nobody says I want to knock on the doors of strangers, and have them slammed in my face 80 % of the time accompanied by rude comments, but that is the life of a door-to-door salesperson.

In the previous post, I wrote that the main steps to sell anything are prospecting, pitching and closing. But that’s like saying the main steps to any medical operation is cutting, operating and stitching. There are so many intricate details that go within each step that it’s going to be hard to cover each one but I’ll try.

Before we proceed, let’s define the steps:

  1. Prospecting: Picking your potential buyers
  2. PItching: Developing a sales pitch
  3. Closing: Closing the sale so that value is exchanged between the two


Prospecting is the process of identifying your potential customers. To do that, you really need to understand the product you’re trying to sell; what problem is it solving, and who incurs that problem on a regular basis so they would be willing to part with their money to have it solved. Additionally, answers to the following questions need to be very clear:

  • What are the demographics of your potential customers?
  • Where do they live?
  • What kind of jobs do they hold?

Prospecting can be as easy as building a spreadsheet list of potential customers with their addresses or numbers.


Once you’ve identified your potential customers, it’s time to pitch your product. Unfortunately we live in a world where salespeople think pitching is all about going to the field and shoving the product down someone’s throat. But it’s more than just presenting your product or service to the prospect. To sell, there are various social skills that need to be honed, such as attunement as detailed in Dan Pink’s book, To Sell is Human. At the end of the day, businesses don’t do business with businesses but people do business with people, and as much as we may think we’re rational beings, human emotions play a huge factor in closing a sale.

Attunement is the ability to align one’s actions and outlook so it comes into harmony with other people. It’s the key to resonance or clicking, and for attunement to take place, skills such as perspective-taking, empathy and strategic mimicry need to be practiced. Perspective-taking as the name suggests is the cognitive skill of taking your potential customers perspective. It is a cognitive skill. Empathy on the other hand, could be considered its fraternal twin, but it’s an emotional skill. Even though both successfully produce greater joint gains and more profitable individual outcomes during negotiations, studies have shown perspective-taking as being more effective than empathy.

This means when you’re trying to sell, you have to understand where your buyer is coming from, what their desires, needs and pain points are. To get all that, you would need to ask questions and actually listen instead of just launching into a pitch straight away. Essentially, during your pitch, you would need to answer for them the question, “What’s in it for me?”

You also have to make them understand the value you’re presenting and why they would part with their hard-earned cash to get that value. They need to be able to imagine that something in their life would improve after having the product or service.

Another interesting technique that could be done during a sale is strategic mimicry, which involves mimicking the mannerisms of the person you’re negotiating with. The trick is to do it subtly enough that the other person does not notice what you’re doing. Otherwise, this technique may backfire. To ensure subtlety, try to wait for 15 seconds before mimicking their action.

Finally, understand the pitch is not about you and how much you love the product or service. This is about them and why they should love the product or service.


Closing the sale is the final process where the value is exchanged by them making payment in return for the product or service. This is the most important step as there is no sale without closure and it’s the point we’ve been building all our previous efforts for.


As best practice in the sales field, develop a simple monitoring and evaluation model that allows you to track progress and make improvements as you progress. This should be periodical i.e hourly, daily or weekly.

Tracking will be the start of a sales funnel i.e a pipeline of customers arranged in order of their readiness to acquire the product or service. For example, a client who promises to purchase the service on Friday will be scheduled for a visit on that day with the single objective of closing the sale.

For salespeople who are just beginning on their sales journey, evaluating the results of their work during the first month can help define goals for the next month based on the project or business objectives. This will help with the professional growth of the sales person, as repeating the sales cycle exponentially could help one become a sales superstar.

Remember that actually delivering a good product and service is essential to the growth of your business. This is not just about selling. You want them to refer you to other clients as well. Your work does not end with closing the sale but by ensuring that the customer is happy with whatever they’ve paid for.

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Managing Rejection in Sales

Managing Rejection in Sales

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Post co-written with Amina Islam

“Not today.”

“Nice, but no thanks.”

The reverberating sound of a slammed door.

As much as you try to tell yourself to stay positive, hearing a series of no’s one after the other when you’re trying to sell something can be disheartening at best and soul-crushing at worst. As mentioned in a previous post, it’s important to keep your attitude buoyant and your self-esteem high through your sales journey. So how best do you not fall into a pit of despair through a career in sales? What are some practical ways of doing that according to social science research as presented in Dan Pink’s To Sell is Human?

Use interrogative self-talk

Self-talk is the internal chatter that provides you with a running monologue throughout your day. It’s a well-known technique to pump yourself up every morning by standing in front of the mirror and saying positive affirmations such as, “You can do it!”

But research has shown that interrogative self-talk like asking yourself, “Can you do it?” happens to be more effective that declarative statements like, “You can do it!”

This is because asking yourself a question unlocks a part of your mind to answer it, thus providing you with ways on how the task could be carried out.

Tally up your No’s

Once you understand that every no gets you closer to a yes, you’ll find value in keeping track of the “no’s” you receive. Imagine you’re walking on a path, and every no is just taking you a step closer to your destination. Alternatively, use another reframing technique, where it becomes your goal to actually collect 20 no’s per day. That way, you can mentally fool yourself into getting excited about each no since it was your goal. But this does not mean that you should do things to sabotage your pitch intentionally. At the end of the day what you need to understand is you control your sales pitch but not the actual results of that pitch.

Hit the right ratio of positive to negative emotions every day

Studies have shown that people usually flourish when the positive to negative emotions hit a ratio of 3 to 1. So for every one negative incident, find — or orchestrate — 3 incidents that add positive emotions to your life. That means after every no, you might need to make an effort to connect with a friend who usually makes you laugh, or watch a funny Youtube video, or engage in an activity you’re passionate about. Other ideas to stay positive include keeping a gratitude list or going out for a jog as that would naturally flood your system with endorphins.

Rewrite the Story in Your Head

There’s a quote that says, “It doesn’t matter what happens to us. What matters most is how we react to what happens to us, and how we choose to internalize it.”

It’s always best to translate rejections as being temporary, specific, or external (Mental Framework 1) rather than permanent, pervasive or personal (Mental Framework 2).

Let’s say you’re a sales person who gave a pitch and the client not only passed but was rude in the process.

If you were to internalize it using Mental Framework 1, you’d say, “I really messed up my pitch (personal), I completely lost my skill for selling (permanent), and all clients are impossible to deal with (pervasive).”

However, a different interpretation of the same experience could be, “My presentation could have been better, but the real reason he passed was because he didn’t have the budget (external reason). Also, the client was rude because he was having a bad day (specific), and even though today was not a good today, tomorrow I’ll be better (temporary).”

Understand Your Why

It goes without saying that it’s important to sell something you really believe will cause a positive impact in the lives of your customers. Your enthusiasm about what you’re selling must be genuine and authentic for it to catch on. So understand why you’re selling what you’re selling.


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How to Use the Science of Influence to Close a Sale

How to Use the Science of Influence to Close a Sale

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Whether you’re trying to sell someone a pair of shoes or why they should invest millions of their hard-earned cash into your business, you’re in the business of moving people from point A to point B.

In other words, you’re in the business of influencing.

Think of it like magnetic induction.

Unless you skipped physics classes — or slept through them — you probably know that magnetic induction is the production of a voltage across an electrical conductor in a changing magnetic field.

Your job is to induce an emotion within a person so they take action.

You can use your words.

You can use props.

You can tell a story.

You can give an elevator pitch.

But whatever you do, you can tap into the social science of influencing others as mentioned by the author Robert Cialdinni in his book, Influence.

  • Reciprocity = People are more likely to give back to others the form of a behavior, gift, or service that they have received first.
  • Scarcity = People want more of those things they can have less of. That’s why offers like, “2 pieces left in stock,” get emphasized on ecommerce websites.
  • Authority = People are more willing to follow the recommendations of someone to whom they attribute relevant authority or expertise.
  • Liking = People are more willing to buy from people they like.

Once you understand all that, you might want to modify your pitch so it has one or more of these elements. For example, you would build a relationship with a potential buyer and give value to them first — for free — before even attempting to make a sale. However, whatever you say in your pitch must be honest and ethical. For example, you shouldn’t say, “You won’t find something like this in the market,” in an attempt to show that your product is scarce unless the scarcity of the product is true. Nowadays, the customer has more power than they did in the past — thanks to Dr. Google. They also can ruin your reputation faster thanks to social media.

One more thing to remember is that you can influence someone positively or negatively. I’ve had such an experience within one of the members in my sales team whose negative influence impacted the rest of the team. Even though she performed well, she created negative stereotypes about certain demographic segments, and influenced the rest of the team to avoid them. This impacted the team negatively as other sales members wouldn’t approach specific customer segments. However, upon leaving the team, sales went up overall and among the segments she was avoiding.

So whenever you’re getting ready to go out into the market and sell, prepare a sales pitch and try to integrate elements of influence like reciprocity, scarcity, likeability and authority.

Co-written with Amina Islam


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The Ego-Tripping CEO

The Ego-Tripping CEO

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When I read the founding story of Moovit, I found myself intrigued. Moovit is a free public transit app and urban mobility data analytics company that was founded in 2012 by Roy Bick and Yaron Evron. Yaron was an expert on the public transportation industry while Roy was a technical prodigy. They came together with the aim of improving the experience of commuting within cities. When the two founders self-assessed, they realized that even though they had the industry expertise and technical talent, they were missing the experience of someone who knew how to build a business. So Yaron Evron contacted Nir Erez — a serial entrepreneur — and not only did they bring him in as co-founder, he was appointed CEO of Moovit[1].

What intrigued me was the humility of the initial co-founders to not only admit they needed help, but also relinquish the reign of their own startup to someone else when they recognized they did not have the experience of actually building a business.

In Demystifying the College Dropout CEO Myth, I posed the question, why is it that our kids drop out of college, build a startup and think they’re going to be the next Mark Zuckerburg without recognizing how much work it really takes to build a real business? And given the same situation as the Moovit co-founders, would our young CEO’s admit they don’t know what they’re doing and give up running their own business to someone else?

The sad thing you see within the startup ecosystem is how many decisions are taken by one’s own ego. Ego can be thought of as the inflated sense of self. Affirmations such as, “I am the best,” and “I don’t need anybody’s help,” hint at having a huge ego.

When you look at the natural progression of life, something interesting happens as a person matures. Let’s call this person Eddie. At some point of Eddie’s life, he starts to realize that a lot of the beliefs and perceptions he has collected across the years are not exactly his so he starts to shed them one by one as they go through an existential crisis. What ensues then is a sense of internal emptiness, which he tries to fill with materialistic things, big titles and positions.

If Eddie were a CEO in charge of a startup, he’s more likely to build and run his startup around his ego, which becomes a recipe for disaster. He exhibits arrogance where he doesn’t separate his identity from his opinions. Anybody who disagrees with his opinions automatically disagrees with him, and because he finds his self-esteem challenged, disagreements turn contentious.

Also, since he is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s opinion, he puts a natural ceiling on his growth as well as his team’s and by extension, his startup’s. New ideas that do not originate from him get shot down immediately regardless of how good they are.

His ego also makes him competitive in an unhealthy way so he would spend more time trying to destroy someone else rather than building himself and his startup. And because a big ego tends to co-exist with low levels of self-esteem, he tries hard to appear bigger than he really is by making others feel smaller, so he’s both patronizing and derisive.

Last but not least, he lives from the outside in, sometimes acting without integrity and compromising his own highest values to keep his polished image intact. This drives him to always take credit when things go well, attending all the award ceremonies and talking about his story and his leadership skills. It also makes him shirk responsibility when the startup is not generating as much revenues as the board wants to see, trying hard to blame others — the market, his employees — for messing up.

Unfortunately, that is no way to run a startup or even live life. What ends up happening is it becomes hard to hire great talent for the startup because who would want to work with such a tyrant? It also becomes hard to get the best out of the people who are already working there, which usually leads to mediocre performance.

And the startup ecosystem is so brutal already without the added challenge of operating within a continent with limited capital resources. So CEO’s must focus on living life from the inside out, quashing their ego in the process. This means internally defining your value and living in alignment with them day in day out. This also means you realize that you carry an inner richness within you that demands to express itself by creating something that goes beyond the ego. Sometimes this requires sacrificing short-term success in pursuit of excellence.

Co-written with Amina Islam




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How It Takes a Village To Build a Winning African Startup

How It Takes a Village To Build a Winning African Startup

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Cellulant recently stole the limelight in the African startup scene when it bagged 47.5 million dollars from Rise Fund. A company for Africa by Africans, in Africa, it started as a music ringtone business that completely transformed to become a digital payments platform serving 140 million people across 11 countries.

Recently, I had the honor of listening to a talk given by Cellulant’s co-founder and Group CEO Ken Njoroge at Nairobi Garage. It was one of those talks I wished every young African aspiring entrepreneur could hear. His story was very inspiring not only because of what he said, but also because of what he did not say.

He did not drop any foreign names that have become popular when some entrepreneurs talk about their background. There was no mentioning of Harvard, Stanford, Merrill Lynch, McKinsey or PwC. Instead, he talks about Nakuru’s Menengai High School, Strathmore and University of Nairobi.

His story is as local as it gets.

Another thing that struck me was how he did not say, “I single-handedly built this business.”

Instead, he acknowledged all the people who helped him along the way, including family, friends, staff, even landlords who wouldn’t get their rents on time. In other words, he exemplified the idea, “It takes a village to build a company for Africa by Africans, in Africa.”

Ken started two businesses, the first being a web development firm called 3mice which he later sold, and the second is Cellulant. So what does it take to make it as an entrepreneur in Africa?

Concrete Foundation/Solid Value System

The concrete foundation hinted here goes against the mainstream cultural narrative young entrepreneurs might hear such as, “You have to be connected to the right people. You have to come from the right tribe. You have to be comfortable with being corrupt because it’s the only way to make it in this country. You have to have studied abroad. You have to have enough starting capital.”

Instead, Ken talks about how he was raised by a single mother, how he didn’t have a lot of money growing up, how he dropped out of University of Nairobi, and how he started both businesses with no capital.

The concrete foundation, instead, was the value system that his mother instilled within him that focused on hard work, thoroughness at work and respect of others. He quoted her as saying, “Never let the amount of money you have in your pockets determine what you can and can’t do, or who you are.”

This helped him cope with the challenges of being an entrepreneur as he could mentally separate his sense of self-worth and ambition from the reality of having little money at the beginning of the startup. And because he grew up without money and was thus not used to the comforts it could bring, he was okay with having no money for a while.

What him and his co-founder, Bolaji Akinboro were not okay with was giving up or corruption. As cited here, “Right from the outset, we have adopted a strong stance against bribes. We believe that innovation wins the day, not bribes.”

Other values they built the culture with were honesty and transparency with everyone, whether it was their own staff, family, business partners or companies that owed them money.

This does not come easy when someone is in a position of leadership because everyone looks at them as though they have all the answers. Yet sometimes they don’t. This sort of vulnerability is one of the four pillars of courageous leadership according to author and research professor Brene Brown, with the other three being clarity of values, trust and rising skills. In her book Dare to Lead, she defines vulnerability as the uncertainty and risk that comes with emotional exposure, and while popular opinion might view it as soft, it’s actually brave.

It’s not always Unicorn and Rainbows

Raising an eye-popping amount of 47.5 million USD in capital without a white co-founder inspired a lot of excitement, since the next big investment during the first half of 2018 among African startups was Branch at 20 million USD according to a report by Weetracker. But while that result attracts so much awe, looking under the hood shows the amount of hard work that went into achieving it. They had to compile a list of potential investors — 60 in their case — do their homework on who made decisions, prepare and make pitches, fail, find out what didn’t work so they could go back to the drawing board and repeat.

Two years and 400 pitches later, they received only 1 yes and 59 no’s. This makes you realize that persistence is a much-needed trait if you’re going to be an entrepreneur.

Know Your Why

And what usually feeds this persistence is a strong why, a strong reason to continue despite all the obstacles that exist in your way.

For Cellulant, it was the recognition that this startup’s story was bigger than the co-founders and their own personal egos. Cellulant is all about being a really transformational force in the continent, reducing poverty, changing every element of the traditional cultural narrative when it comes to entrepreneurship in Africa.

Focus on What Matters

Ken’s final advice to entrepreneurs was not to get caught up by the hype of the most recent technologies but to instead focus on the things that matter. The things that won’t change, like understanding the problem you’re solving in the market, and focusing on building and delivering a high-quality solution that’s better and cheaper than the competition.

Focus on going into the market and getting paying customers to validate your idea. That’s what business is really about. It’s not about the money or the recent lifestyle that has become a fad nowadays.

His story paves the way and offers hope to millions of Kenyans who subscribe to the belief that what it takes to make it in Africa is corruption, or fancy foreign names in their educational and work history.

Thanks to @ALX , Nairobi Garage for facilitating this

Co-written with Amina Islam


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Anatomy of a Sales Pitch that Wins Every Time 

Anatomy of a SalesPitch that Wins Every Time

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As much as we admire athletes when they win a championship, it’s hard to imagine the amount of rigorous training they undergo beforehand. Whether with a coach or alone, a lot of effort goes into priming the mind and preparing the body for a major league.

There’s a Spartan warrior quote that says, “Sweat more in practice. Bleed less in war.”

This emphasizes the idea that success happens when preparation meets opportunity. You might be wondering, but this is a sales blog, what does this have to do with sales?

A lot, in fact.

Imagine you’re in a corporate sales pitch. You’ve confidently presented the product or service you’re trying to sell, highlighting how it’s the panacea for all your potential client’s pain points. When you reach the Q&A session, someone asks, looking totally unconvinced, “How is your product better than your competitors’, XYZ?”

Now imagine being asked that question without having an inkling of a clue that those competitors even exist in the landscape. With your confidence burst, you would be stumped, and might start babbling nervously, ruining the pitch right there and then.

Before you can go into any sales pitch, you need to be prepared. This involves knowing the nitty-gritty details of the product or service you’re trying to sell as well as doing your research on your potential client. Not only does this involve a complete understanding of their pain points, but you must also specifically tailor your solution for them.

Additionally, you would need to anticipate the questions they might ask. This step might not be so easy to figure out beforehand without much experience trying to sell or having another person’s input. But you can still manage this process by collating a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) list that you update after every sales pitch.

Sometimes salespeople have a bad habit of speaking in jargon to potential clients. This is especially true for salespeople in the tech world. They get all technical, throwing terms and abbreviations that the average layman does not understand. They might do that inadvertently — because they don’t know how to speak any other way — or on purpose — because they want to sound smarter than everyone else in the room. Whatever the reason, you need to drop this habit and speak in their language instead, not yours. For example, if the people facing you are corporate finance guys, you might want to talk about the impact your solution would have on the bottomline. Or if they are part of the corporate social responsibility team, you might want to emphasize all the social impact of your solution.

Another recommended technique is to show them a physical prototype of how your product would work — if applicable. This would add to the pitch as it would give them something to hold in their hands, rather than a theoretical solution or a powerpoint presentation.

If you’re trying to sell an experience rather than a product, you might want to include them in the co-creation of the solution. The process of building it with you would give them some sense of ownership over it, and it would make them more likely to want to see it through.

More importantly, if you’re presenting, keep your sales pitch to the point and framed to answer the main questions they would have;

● What are the pain points they’re experiencing?

● What solution are you providing?

● Why are you — and not someone else — well-suited to provide this solution?

● Most importantly, how much would they need to pay you for it?

Also, make sure you practice enough in safe situations — among your work colleagues, friends or family members. You can also prepare in front of the mirror so you can be more aware of your body language. You don’t want to be caught biting your nails nervously during a sales pitch.

One practical way to control your nerves is to know in your mind that your body undergoes the same physiological reactions when you’re anxious and when you’re excited. So when you start to get nervous, just tell yourself, “I’m not nervous, I’m actually excited”. It also helps when you are very familiar and comfortable with your clients, which means visit them more often before the main sales pitch.

The main mantra to remember if you’re trying to be a great salesman is summarized in the following two lines…

Sweat more in practice.

Bleed less in war.

Co-written with Amina Islam



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