2019 was the best year of my life, because it is the year I figured out that that my team and I were going to build a google sized multi-billion dollar business out of Kenya. But what made it even more exciting was that, so would 100 other people I know. I came to this conclusion when I realized that all one had to do to build these kinds of businesses, in this time of ours was to learn how to deal with storms and play only positive sum games from here on out.
In early 2018, on a lovely Saturday night I checked the system accounts to see how lending was going and concluded that it was going to be a good night of business. I love tech companies; you can make money even in your sleep – that’s why I founded one. When Sunday morning arrived, I noticed that I had a message on my phone notifying me of suspicious transactions on our business account. I went and checked and all the money was gone. I knew business was growing well but not this well and I immediately knew we had been hacked by a cybercriminal. A few months later we also realized that we had been hit by a racket of sim swappers and gamers. It was painful.
“What had we done wrong? We had followed every precaution in the book? Was it an internal job? How did they get in? I cried and laughed at the same time. It must be a joke, right?”
Every successful entrepreneur knows this feeling. The moment you realize that all the eggs you ever had in any basket had just been taken away from you. You know that moment in movies when they show disorientation by drowning out the background noise and the character can suddenly hear their heartbeat? It feels exactly like that. The room spins, time slows down and everything seems like a dream. In entrepreneurship I have learnt this is a more common experience than one is mentally or emotionally prepared for, and I finally realized why successful entrepreneurs have a Zen like attitude to life. They have broken down the art of decision making to a science by using a formulaic method to analyze problems. They realized that one must learn to be introspective and learn to recognize the three things that make them irrational; Ego, Bias and Fear. The problem with the decisions clouded by one of the three are that these decisions are usually irrational. They do not have logical end or origin.
“Successful entrepreneurs quickly realize that business is not just about numbers and spreadsheets and fancy looking decks. Business is about people and relationships.”
In my last article (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-black-african-founders-dont-raise-money-part-two-kevin-mutiso/) I talked about the zero sum game and positive sum game. Business is about people and relationships. Every supplier, government official, security guard and customer, is a human being. Human beings are flawed, human beings are aspirational, human beings have feelings, human beings have ego and human beings want to do good. Every Kenyan who has driven a car has been stopped by a Kenyan policeman. We all have different stories, some of us end up in a jail cell in 20 minutes while others are let free by giving something ‘small’ but there is that one time one is let off the hook with little or no punishment. Those that are usually let go, attribute it to getting the policeman on a good day. I disagree. I have a friend who has never paid more than 2 USD as a bribe to police and all he does is that he greets the police officer in the warmest possible way, without seeming fake. He then usually apologizes and gives a story that the policeman may relate to, such as: “the reason I did that illegal u-turn was because, I forgot to pick milk and bread that my wife had sent me for and you know how Kenyan wives are nowadays I may get beaten and the children must eat…” and the policeman who is also likely a husband and father, chuckles. He tells me, that once you get a human being to smile, they are unconsciously telling you that they have lowered their guard and now you can make a case as to why you need to be let off with a mere warning or a slap on the wrist punishment.
I think that because 2019 has been so tough for many business people, many entrepreneurs like myself have come to various conclusions. My main conclusion was that the days of zero sum game are almost over. Zero sum players are those that mainly made money by creating inefficiency in whatever market they played in. We all know that business that usually gets deals because they undercut their competitors or pay off the procurement officer. These kinds of entrepreneurs usually do not focus on the quality of the product and thus, rarely iterate or improve it. They basically try to hold-on to an existing model for as long as they can. Several examples including Kodak can be used to illustrate this. However, positive sum players are always trying to figure out how to make the product better for the consumer. They want a win-win scenario where there customer chooses them rather than forcing themselves down a consumers throat.
In 2020 there is a major shift that will happen and the consumer in Africa will for the first time have access to several choices and that ability for a consumer to choose means that the only way to be the product picked is to have the best product, and zero sum players are going to have to start from scratch because they have never learnt to iterate or improve. Positive sum players know what works, and what does not and why they do not work. These little nuances will give a new burgeoning African entrepreneur unprecedented opportunity like never before.
“WE CAN FINALLY COMPETE WITH THE CARTELS.“
The major change is a technological one. 2020 is the year Africa will import more smartphones than feature phones. This sudden shift in technological access will connect nearly 600 million people by 2024 that had no access to the internet let alone a regular newspaper. If you live in a city like Nairobi it may not seem like a big deal, but I want you to remember the first time you got a smartphone, you downloaded WhatsApp, and then Instagram and you immediately started following your favourite musician, footballer or as in my case basketballer. Do you remember the moment you realized every time you did not know the answer to something, google gave you pretty accurate results? Some of us even began carrying our smartphones to class to get those extra credits. Do you remember when you could finally stream your favourite episode of your favorite show, minutes after it had aired in the USA? I argue that this discovery will happen to someone 2 degrees separated from every African every day for the next five years. The average age of the continent is less that 20 years old and thus, it could even be in your own home this transformation shall occur.
This new access means that for the first time all the entrepreneurs, diligent employees who run a business line at a corporation who have been positive sum players in the market will have access to this market and will build great businesses built on trust, collaboration and fairness.
If everyone of this 600 million buy your product twice a year and you make a profit of 1 dollar, you will have a 1.2 billion dollar business. Even in America, that is a huge business. 2020 will be the year these multi-billion business will emerge and the products you are about to interface with will blow your mind. They will be built for Africans by Africans.
As a result, we at Alternative Circle are pretty excited about the coming months and years because we have always been a positive sum company. We have made several mistakes, avoided some pitfalls, we have been conned and stolen from, we have lost money due to naive decisions. However, the only way we survived the storm was by appealing to the human element of our different stakeholders and conveying our ethos and vision to them. Some of my team members went a few months without salaries, our suppliers gave us a moratorium on payments owed to them for some time and my shareholders extended a loan. The thing we do differently is to share both good and bad news to everyone in good time and because all decision makers are humans, they gave us a chance. We have also been learning and improving. It is time to grow.
It is our turn now. Do not squander this once in a lifetime opportunity. At the very least, as my favorite rapper Jay-Z says, “Do it for the culture!”
Credit: Kevin Mutiso
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