Remember DealFish? How about Mocality? Kalahari? The population of the Kenyan startup graveyard grows by the day. Quite literally. Today is one such day. A day one dream will die unceremoniously after only a few years of life as a reality. Anyone who’s worked in these startups will recount nightmarish tales of everything that went wrong. Robert Yawe wrote a very insightful piece on where startups go wrong. He very correctly says “the focus is wrong and too many egos stand in the way” and that we need to re-evaluate “where we are and what we are doing.” I’d like to add to that by saying we need to change how we are doing things. Specifically, the starting point, the process and where we fail the most – our expectations.
Let me start with a little story. A fairly successful blogger once had an idea on how to turn the Kenyan content ecosystem on its head. So he quit his job and began to pursue this dream. Before he’d finished serving his notice, an international company approached him saying they too wanted to do something similar. “Join us, and together, we will not only train you, but we will give you all the resources and training they needed to do this successfully, provided you prove you can do this.” This blogger was an idealist and was more intent on creating change than making some change. The offer was accepted and the journey began. Suffice it to say, our protagonist got all the exposure, worked on projects across the continent and made the company money.
Every few months, the question of whether or not the original dream would be revisited came up. Each time it was shot down until the question never came up any more. Years passed and this blogger stopped and took stock. The company no longer needed a local expert unless they were going to actually follow through on their initial promise. At this point however, the blogger, now expert, was quite dependent on the salary and despite being jerked around and blatantly being made aware that there was no intention to ever follow through, leaving was not a good option. The dream was dead before it ever became a reality.
Replace blogger with e-commerce expert or classifieds expert or app developer and you have the first category of dreamers. Those who sold their dreams for salaries. The second category however, are those who actually built something first. They would find themselves welcoming these big foreign investors to share a piece of the cake, and in many cases would trade the majority of it for a salary and shares. They’d face the same treatment. As soon as the company no longer needed local experts, they’d get a desk job or get a payout – most times both. They sold their dreams to see them become realities.
What we see however is that the failure of these startups usually follow the expert/dreamer/founder leaving.
It is important though to understand how the leaving happens; and it’s hard to discuss that without explaining why expats are a huge factor. None of these big online businesses you see in Kenya are Kenyan owned. Jumia is owned by Rocket, a German company; PigiaMe by Ringier, a Swiss company; OLX by MIH Naspers, a South African company. Even Ghafla briefly got bought out by Ringier and Robert Alai has an interesting story to tell about that one that I encourage you to read.
We’ve already seen articles about how expats earn 900% more than locals and the little action that’s been taken by government to change this. On the inside it’s even worse. Our dreamers/experts that I mentioned above, are the unfortunate scapegoats for this. They’re given big titles and big positions. They still however report to someone who generally has less experience, expertise and melanin. Yes, there are exceptions, but exceptions mean there is a rule. 😉 This boss of theirs obviously makes more money and has more perks, almost never understands the market – sometimes they don’t even speak the language. I don’t mean Swahili. I mean English. But they’re positioned as a resource to empower. Once our local expert has shared all he/she can or once they begin to rebel, money is shoved down their throat and they get escorted out of the building.
That expat situation is not exclusive to startups. Similar stories exist in advertising, NGOs or an international conglomerates alike.
I know this because I’ve experienced it first-hand in advertising, startups and working with international companies. That blogger from earlier, yeah, that was me. I feel bad because I thought I could change things and be that difference. I watched things go sour and latched on. Twice. The third time, however, I just gave up and walked away. I realized I’d began playing into the egosystem that ultimately fueled the demise of these companies. An egoystem is like an ecosystem but with egos instead of organisms. Basically, everybody in there is trying to prove their individual worth rather than build a universally beneficial framework.
This is why these companies often target dreamers and often waltz around like startups, when they are really million or billion dollar companies. Startups, to be clear, aren’t businesses, but as Yawe puts it “a temporary organization used to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” I learned this definition when I was once told I needed to prove my business model – online content – was going to be worth as much – if not more than – say online classifieds. Rather than a rat race, it turns into a personal, individually crafted hamster wheel on which you’re running to build something you’ll never own. The carrot dangled before you are mostly money and support, but the most important and most crippling one is ego. Some people begin to believe they can earn the million plus salaries the expats earn; some believe their shares will increase in value; some believe they’ll make a change; but everyone believes in themselves and therefore in the company.
You only realize it’s over when you realize it’s over.
After your infectious dream has spread to your teams, and now they are on their own hamster wheels to become who you think you are. Then one day you have to stand in front of hundreds of employees, like Raphael and Tunde did when they told their teams they were leaving the company they founded – Jumia.
Like I mentioned earlier, the demise of the companies usually follows the experts handing over to the expats. Robert Alai pointed out how only Majani knows what Ghafla! readers want and that’s why Ghafla! began to fail once Ringier got them on board. This is largely very true. The minute you handover the reigns to someone who was learning from you with a different background and a different dream you create a different reality. But dreams, like I mentioned are infectious. Not just for the teams, but also for the consumers of the reality. We’ve seen this with TV shows changing writers, restaurants changing chefs and car brands changing owners. It’s an international truth not an African exception – definitely not a Kenyan one.
This is why we need to change how we do things. If you are dreaming of something right now, decide what you’re expectations are.
If you’re the first category of dreamers above, you’re probably doing it for Kenya/Kenyans, so build that dream with people who share your dream in Kenya. Start small and be patient. Own it and see it through. Learn from experts like Yawe and don’t be greedy when choosing partners. Stay true to what you do.
If you’re the second type and are doing it purely for the business, learn from Raphael and Tunde, or Tom from MySpace. Know your worth in dollars and cents and make sure you get it. Sell your dream and go buy a bigger one.
Otherwise everyday will be like today where we say goodbye to another dream that turned into a nightmare.