Two Years as An African Start-up Mentor

©Fizkes |

At last, I find the time to pen down this article — a culmination of nearly two years of reflection and synthesis.

Let’s set the stage right. Following my graduation in Aerospace and Aeronautics engineering at KNUST, I ventured into the esteemed two-year program at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST). Post-graduation in 2015, armed with a seed fund of USD 50,000, my team and I embarked on realizing our idea — Flippy Campus. While it stirred discussions among university students, it eventually faced its demise. The details of this journey, however, are a tale for another time.

Fast forward to 2022, and my path led me to become a Technology Teaching Fellow. In this role, I assumed the responsibility of aiding startups in crafting technological solutions for the myriad challenges they encountered. This encompassed a diverse range of technologies, spanning Mobile App development, web development, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Cryptocurrency, and Cybersecurity.

The intriguing facet lies not solely in the technical support extended but in the wealth of insights gleaned throughout my tenure as a teaching fellow over the past 2 and a half years.

Cultural Diversity and Interactions

During my tenure here spanning several years, I’ve had the privilege of connecting with individuals hailing from more than 25 African countries. This exposure has immersed me in approximately 25 distinct cultures, necessitating adaptability and collaboration across a diverse spectrum. From navigating language variances to embracing disparities in food, dance, and communication styles — the challenges were both intriguing and enriching.

Consider the scenario of teaching Java object-oriented programming to someone entering the realm of programming for the first time, without English as their primary language. Additionally, the realm of food presented its own set of challenges, with encounters with unfamiliar and diverse cuisines.

A fundamental lesson that resonated with me is the realization that there’s often more than one way to approach a particular task. It’s essential to remain open-minded and receptive to learning from a multitude of sources. This openness not only fostered diversity in perspective but also significantly influenced the development of the businesses that were pitched.

Through firsthand experience, I’ve observed the wealth of differing opinions stemming from individuals representing more than 25 distinct African countries. This diversity has not only enhanced our professional interactions but has also contributed to a broader and more nuanced understanding of the various approaches and perspectives across the continent.

Navigating the Path to Business

Embarking on the journey of building a business is undeniably daunting. The process often commences with team formation, urging students to collaboratively shape teams of 3–4 members. Subsequently, each team delves into research, applying various models to conceive an idea that will eventually evolve into a business venture. However, this juncture unfolds the complexities inherent in the entrepreneurial process.

The initial excitement of a Eureka moment quickly gives way to a sense of vulnerability when sharing the idea with others. What initially seemed like a groundbreaking solution might be met with indifference or deemed unnecessary by potential stakeholders. It becomes apparent that perceived problems may not resonate universally, and sometimes people are content with the challenges they face.

Another layer of complexity arises when assessing the market’s willingness to pay for a proposed solution. The ‘maybe’ response introduces a level of uncertainty, leaving entrepreneurs to grapple with the ambiguity of potential acceptance.

In the African context, even if an idea is brilliant, regulatory hurdles or inadequate infrastructure can pose significant barriers. In such instances, entrepreneurs may face the tough decision of either shelving their idea or revisiting the drawing board to address infrastructure challenges. Navigating these intricacies underscores the reality that building a business demands resilience, adaptability, and a keen understanding of the market landscape.

The Paramount Role of Teams in Entrepreneurship

A prevalent wisdom in entrepreneurial circles asserts that ‘team is everything.’ Drawing from my accumulated experience, it’s evident that the trajectory of most businesses rarely aligns with the initial idea. In the best-case scenario, businesses may remain within the same industry but pivot to explore different avenues. In such instances, what endures is the essence of the team.

Several pivotal factors contribute to the transformative journey of a startup:

1. Dynamic People Dynamics:
The landscape of individuals’ preferences, incomes, and appetites can undergo significant shifts between the research phase and the product development stage. Regrettably, individuals don’t always communicate these changes. Hence, the true linchpin in this dynamic environment is not merely the idea but the resilience and adaptability of the team.

2. Policy and Regulatory Shifts:
The ever-changing terrain of government policies can substantially impact the feasibility of an idea. What might be viable today could face challenges under a new administration, particularly in the African context. In such instances, the enduring asset becomes the team’s ability to navigate and pivot when necessary.

3. Capital Challenges:
While some ideas can kick off with bootstrapping, others necessitate substantial financing from the outset. If the latter is the case, a startup might find itself compelled to pivot in the absence of the necessary resources to execute the original idea.

In the dynamic realm of entrepreneurship, where uncertainty is a constant, the team emerges as the stabilizing force, steering the business through evolving landscapes and unforeseen challenges.

The Challenge of MVP Decision-Making

A prevalent tendency among founders is the inclination to develop an all-encompassing ‘god app’ right from the outset. This often stems from the perception that incorporating all features is synonymous with coolness. Discerning the singular most crucial aspect of their business becomes a challenging endeavor. In certain instances, founders inadvertently measure their product against industry giants, overlooking the reality that these established players have honed their offerings over numerous years of experience.

The Crucial Role of Execution

Allow me to underscore a fundamental truth: having witnessed identical ideas pitched by different teams throughout the years, the divergent outcomes make one thing abundantly clear — the essence lies in execution. It’s not merely about the idea itself but how that idea is executed; the implementation makes all the difference.

Remarkably, I’ve observed identical ideas manifesting varied and extraordinary results when undertaken by teams with different compositions. The individuals you choose to include in your team wield significant influence, emphasizing the critical importance of team selection.

Equally pivotal is the impact of team leadership. The performance of a team is profoundly shaped by its leader. While the role and expertise of each team member are crucial, the individual tasked with harmonizing these diverse skills holds equal importance. The team lead not only guides but also shapes the execution strategy, underscoring their paramount role in the team.

In my reflections, I’ve arrived at the conviction that the success of a business is, more often than not, intricately tied to the team and, notably, the prowess of the team lead.

Common Pitfalls in Entrepreneurship

Throughout my years as a mentor, I’ve gleaned insights from various observations and interactions. Here are a few noteworthy observations:

1. Thinking Our Time is Unique:
Despite the ever-evolving landscape, some principles remain constant. Many startup founders struggle to acknowledge that others have attempted and failed before them. Instead of learning from past failures, there’s a tendency to dismiss them, assuming that the current era is different.

2. Perceiving Opposition from Everyone:
A recurring pattern among the 60-plus teams I’ve mentored is the belief that everyone is against them. While it’s natural to be protective of one’s business, it’s crucial to distinguish between entrepreneurial resilience and receptiveness to advice. Striking the right balance is essential.

3. Neglecting Business Prioritization:
Founders often find themselves captivated by the allure of technology, sometimes at the expense of focusing on the business itself. Understanding the nature of the business being built is paramount, ensuring that enthusiasm for technology aligns with strategic business goals.

4. Delaying Pivots:
Recognizing when a business is unsustainable or failing to address customers’ needs is vital. However, founders sometimes become so attached to their initial idea that they resist the need to pivot. A successful team understands the importance of adapting when necessary.

5. Embracing Remote Work Prematurely:
Effective remote work requires a deep understanding of how team members operate. Rushing into remote work before comprehending each other’s working styles can lead to team collapses. It’s crucial to establish effective working dynamics before transitioning to a fully remote setup.

Mentoring numerous teams in recent years has been a profoundly rewarding experience, offering not only moments of enjoyment but also serving as a transformative chapter in my life. Throughout this journey, I’ve forged enduring friendships, and I am optimistic that this is just the inception of even greater opportunities and endeavors.