And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
– William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
This acts as a prelude to what will hopefully be a long series. Written by 4 guys working / worked in 4 startups. 2 have been runaway successes, one is struggling and one is a closed story – flopped. Experiences vary from good to real ugly in startup life, which will form a basis for this blog. Here’s to startup life!
I am no racist, narcissist nor nationalist. I neither subscribe to bureaucracy, meritocracy nor kleptocracy. I am just an avowed communist. For the record, I am a Kenyan techie working in a startup, fairly good relations with our investors, good at what i do and have made lots of mistakes and misjudgments, like any other person has. Maybe I should have done better and studied political science, and today I would be at the Hague defending Kenya before the Association of State Parties as to why the victims of PEV should suffer silently, but does the politcos care? Straight NO! Story for another day.
The debacle at Angani has taught us a thing or two about splitting roles, complementing each other and perhaps picking investors (or rather investors offering you money when you are dead broke and simply cant refuse, or should you refuse and with time retreat back to your ocha and farm some spinach on your mother’s kitchen garden?). The initial founders at Angani have been magnanimous enough not to make any snide comments like normal Kenyan’s would, I tend to think they were professional to the day they were robbed of their “chick”. Never easy giving up your chick to the latest cahuna in town simply because they have cowboy boots with shiny silver spurs.
Lesson of the day, being founder means shit when you have no money (Read European / American Pension funds owned by some senior citizens in Berlin, Amsterdam, London or California that the investor convinced s/he can invest in this next big thing in Africa). Next thing you know, you will be unceremoniously dumped into the pitch darkness of Ngong road (Wish I could afford one of these Japanese imports) and your only solace will be accompanying the thuggish cops soliciting bribes from motorists with non functioning brake lights at china center, but is this better than a misleading, malicious board?
After slugging it out alone or with your co-founders (having foregone great job offers at Safaricom, Google Kenya, Cellulant, etc) you come up with a prototype that works great. Long nights of debugging, panics and compiling and you are ready to test it. Your naivety shows you it’s best to get a partner that can provide some funding and some corporate connections to drive your product even faster.
Day 1, you meet some “investor”, with no tinge of bias, i dare say an investor in a Kenyan tech’s mind is an American or European, may be middle aged, condenscending and a know it all (I have no ill feelings whatsoever). They just moved to Kenya last month, or live in Europe but know a great deal about M-Pesa (Is it even a Kenyan innovation?). They have a million ideas about how you should develop your product (they are never tech), scale your market (never lived in Africa) and grow your team. You demo and they fall in love. And the kicker, they offer you an investment deal and suddenly throw in all the big terms: Customer acquisition, shareholder loans, EBITDA, pre and post money…….. were we supposed to know this at Chiromo? New terms, and in my haste of looking sufficiently brilliant accept a % giveaway for some measly dollars and a board seat.
Day 2. Shit gets real, money is meant to be spent, which it gets to be. Remember Russ Hanneman in Silicon Valley season 2? Worse, they have an idea on what your product should focus on, leave alone the fact you were offering cheap mobile based loans to Kangemi residents and they now want you to open a mini-Bank in Westlands (Is this still my business?). The investor also has ideas how you should spend your cash and he has the perfect people to offer you legal services (never mind your Langata neighbour is an associate who offers to do the work at 40% the cost). You spend your Friday’s making merry (You suddenly know how Capital Club looks like, despite looking out of place in faded, frayed jeans and a sweatshirt), weekdays coding like hell, weekends in a drunken stupor wondering how and where this is really going.
Day 3. The big question comes. When is your next fundraising? Its always about when you are next going to cede more shareholding to “investors” that they will refer and “scale”. Let alone you had hoped to make some money in your startup while making some social or economic impact in your beloved motherland. The relentless emails asking about round 2 and round 3 fill your spam folder. The pitches are always about extrapolating numbers (prompted by your very professional board), “Oh we drank 10,000 cups of coffee, never mind your startup is full of native kenyans who never really consume coffee, but who cares, your board is happy. Woe unto the pension funds.
You happen to be the lead developer, CFO, career investor pitcher and labour relations expert. You spend endless hours presenting pitches to “funds” from Europe and California, 99% of whom never get back to you, iterating and refactoring your code to fit the investors “vision”. Are we on the path to an “Angani Outage”? You silently wonder. You go home to your wife/girlfriend/empty apartment and try to explain yourself but you can’t find the words. You say a Novena, play a wannabe Mozart (aided by an android app) on your daughter’s piano and resign to watching Narcos, maybe Pablo Escobar will give some motivation to move to Colombia and come up with a new drug in Bogota for sale in Miami.
Till next time, watching The Good Wife and wondering, perhaps I was meant to be a lawyer? You fall back to your cushion, family, the only real connection you can relate to. Is all else, vanity? Richard Hendricks at Pied Piper, I so relate right now!
Newton’s third law of Physics: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.