Starting up is hard! It really is, and most people don’t understand how difficult it is to create real value. The fragility of early stage ventures in their ambitious quest to create some sort of value. I think it is one of the biggest things that inexperienced investors and first-time founders get wrong and I do not blame them. We have sensationalised entrepreneurship and glamorised the idea of being a founder, an employer who works at his own pace with flexible hours, who builds an app and lands billions of dollars. When in reality it really is hard and a great many fail and fall. I would know, I have plunged a couple of times myself.
The process of starting up is about finding or creating value that a known group of people are willing to pay for, and then creating the best possible means to deliver that value. To build means to have an idea, and put in the work in validating that idea and turning it into a product. Then building a business case and testing out the different models around said value as it becomes a startup. The final and most difficult part of building is to then scale that model and “value” packaged in a “product” so as to generate revenue and attain profitability. At this point, the startup becomes a business. It is also important to note that each of these four stages of starting up are equally important.
So it is not all gibberish and talk, start-ups do have the ability to create immense value and solve some of the biggest challenges that our societies face. They just have to solve a real problem, and create real value. The recently held ICT innovators showcase in Harare and Bulawayo served to bring together, celebrate and encourage those that are building real solutions for the African context. From Energy and sustainable agriculture, to on-demand services, hardware development and educational services. Entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe are stepping up and rising above the noise to create enduring solutions to our age old problems. Unfortunately, not all striving “idea people” do create real value. The Zimbabwean startup ecosystem is marred with these pretenders who have deviated from the true path of enterprising in the belief of the common lies that they tell. I have come to identify 6 types of these false innovators through my experience in working with entrepreneurs through the TechVillage and more recently the ICT Innovators Showcases, they differ in bravado, diction and dialect, but they all are much to do about nothing.
The “Capital First” Idea people
Start-ups are about being frugal, doing what you can where you are with what you have, and building the most minimalistic version of your product. Capital should only come in to scale a product that has some traction, some usage and maybe customers. The problem is that entrepreneurs want to build the shiny nice looking product, before they even solve the problem.
The “Me Centric” Innovators
A great number of inventions were built to solve the inventor’s or innovator’s own problem, which is great, but if it is to become anything more than a hobby, then it has to be validated and has to appeal to a significant number of other people as well, those who will become part of the target market. Start-ups need to be built on data driven decisions, not on founders’ assumptions and baseless “gut feelings”
The Over-Protective Loafers
Truth be told, there is nothing new under the sun. In my experience, every time I come up with a “new” idea, I am merely 6 months ahead of everyone else. So if I do not build in those 6 months, surely, someone else will, and that someone might be a well-funded large company. The same company that we blame and accuse of stealing from the defenceless entrepreneur. The best defence, and the cheapest way to protect your ideas, is to execute, build and launch.
The App Crazed Millennials
Apps will not save the world, they might be the hip and in thing across the pond in Silicon Valley, here in Africa, the narrative is very different. Entrepreneurs spend precious time and money on building apps and platforms, forgetting that they are not the value customers want. They are only the means of delivering the value. It’s necessary to validate the solution, even in the most unscalable ways, and then find scalability of said working solution in the Technology that is disrupting our daily lives.
These are great orators who have stumbled on what they think is the next big thing, instead of actually building the product, they spend time at pitch events, pitching ideas and using “Facebook likes” as measurements for growth. They invest money in flashy t-shirts and trendy wind-wavering banners instead of building the actual product. They have spoilt the plot a great many entrepreneurs, for when its crunch time and investors ask the real questions, they show up with nothing.
The “self- entitled” commentators
Entrepreneurs need to realise that no one will care about your idea or product, until it solves their problem. Investors are not obligated to invest in anyone, no should they for no one deserves a trophy for coming up with an idea, not when entrepreneurship is an extension of the human existence, nor should anyone expect or bank on someone else for their innovation to sail through. Start-ups are agile, and must be able to work around the challenges they face daily, and not “tools down” and wait for politicians to change the law.
What hurts the ecosystem even more is that these 6 types of pretenders, then taint the entire ecosystem, and shut doors and nip opportunities that the real innovators so direly require, because there are there, those who have braved the pessimistic comments from bloggers and ignored the nay-sayers. Those who believe in the beauty of their dreams and look up to a brighter future. Those who build in Zimbabwe for the region and the continent, those local solutions with regional applicability, because if it works in Zimbabwe, surely, it will work anywhere else. Those that we need more of in this country, that we will see as they step up and innovate to build the future that they want.
I believe that to truly build innovations that will disrupt industries, start-ups need to huddle together and find ways of collaboratively working together, as each grows. The Innovator Showcases were the first step in bringing entrepreneurs together, the onus is on them to self-organize, strategize and integrate into a formidable disruptive force. We call it collaborative brilliance at the TechVillage and believe that the next industry level disruption won’t come from one aggressively growing startup, but from a group of start-ups that leverage on each other’s strengths to create a cumulative wave, big enough to change the game. Start-ups need to stop actively competing, and focus instead on simply building more enduring value for the customers, instead of all-out war, founders will discover that there is more benefit in turning potential competitors into partners, if not customers. This is the TechVillage way.
I originally wrote this article for the Potraz Post. A Telecommunications publication in Zimbabwe.