Ben Mmari: Lessons (12 of them) learnt from a failed African startup.

The power of failure often goes understated. There are hundreds of quotes on the subject but one that sticks in my mind is Henry Ford: ““Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” And in all honestly, where would the world be if inventors such as Ford, Edison and more, had believed in the notion of failure. Below Benjamin Mmari talks about his first failed startup Quweza, and the lessons (12 of them) he learnt from the experience. – Stuart Lowman

By Benjamin Mmari*

Do we as Africans embrace failure in our culture?

I don’t know, but what I do know is that if you have not failed at least once in your life (from whichever continent/country that you may be from)  then you are definitely not attempting enough new things.

Startup-Mistakes

The truth is that we all fail at one point or another. Let’s face it, we fail in business, we fail in relationships, we fail financially, we fail emotionally, we fail at competitions, we fail at resolutions and sometimes, we even fail at failing. Yes, you will fail, but instead of beating yourself up, you have to understand that the worst type of failures are the failures that you don’t learn anything from.

This is all perfectly summarized by Nic Haralambous in the following excerpt from an article of his:

“Fail a lot. Fail often. Fail at love. Fail at sex. Fail at socialising. Fail at making friends. Fail at work. Fail at business. Fail with family. Fail with existing friends.

Fail. But do it quickly and learn a lesson.

If you don’t learn something every time you fail then all you’ve done is failed. If you learn something, then you’ve grown. Every time you grow and learn and fail, you get better at figuring out how the hell to succeed.”

Thanks for the wise words Nic, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Startup

My first official technology business venture was through a company I co-founded called Quweza. We had ambitions of targeting the education industry. “Simplifying administration, empowering education” , that was our first slogan… quite catchy right? With our initial plans to infiltrate the Swazi market with a well crafted silver bullet SaaS product that would revolutionize schools across the entire country. Yes, soon after the idea was conceived we had accepted the fact that that we were going to be filthy rich, and very soon too.

Things started off great, we had an ambitious, multi-faceted, highly enthusiastic team. We noticed the gap in the market, and we convinced ourselves that there was a market in the gap. In one of our earlier meetings we even projected annual recurring revenue of about R19.2 million a year, this was before we even sat down to talk to a single user or potential client. Why didn’t we, you ask? Well we didn’t have to, we knew exactly what they wanted, duh! At this point in time we didn’t even have a minimal viable product (MVP), actually at no point in this journey did we ever have a minimal viable product, why? Because at this stage of our technology business careers we were not fully aware of what an MVP actually was. As a complete and utter 180 degrees from MVP-ness, we had become best friends with scope creep (“Hey guys, I think we should also add this before we go live…”). During this journey we were still to master the art of testing products on the market, we were still learning the magical ways of being a “lean startup”.

The real reason we started

In our defense, what we really wanted to do with our lives was build kick-ass products, take them to market, make clients happy and make a decent profit.Yes, hands down, there is no doubt that we were very passionate about technology, software and making a difference in Africa. Unfortunately, the truth is that we were just not honest enough with ourselves about the approach we were taking and the actual idea that we were working on. For about a year or so we worked vigorously on the product, planned our entry to market, projected our financials, gathered for physical meetings, hosted skype calls, searched for funding and even entered a competition (it was quite fun making that pitching video). We continued to do ths without any form of deep honest retrospection up until the breaking point where we got to the point of realization that things were actually just not working out, we were running out of time, we were running out of money (we made a lot of personal financial investments into this), and we still hadn’t validated the market yet, we were miles away from testing our initial hypothesis.

For what it is worth, we did not go out without a fight, we did manage to secure one client. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to sustain us, so we had to call it quits before we were sucked in any further… R.I.P Quweza…R.I.P.

The silver lining

On the brighter side, this venture was by far one of the most important experiences of my entire life to date and all the lessons that I learned throughout this journey have formed a key part of the foundation of all my business decisions and mentality going forward.

Below is a list of lessons that I have learned from this challenging business journey.

  1. Don’t get caught up in the Startup hype

I used to rap in high school, everyone was rapping in high school.

Was I a great rapper? No, but i did it anyway..why? because it was cool. Startups are cool too, it’s kinda like rapping, you get money, you get groupies and you get fame and fortune. Yes, it’s cool to say “I’m a part of startup xyz”,but please, don’t start a startup for the wrong reasons. Find a problem, solve a problem. Don’t invent a problem. Don’t get caught up in the startup hype.

“It’s not about idea, it’s about making ideas happen” – Scott Belsky

  1. Family doesn’t equal business

One of the early mistakes I made when I was part of Quweza was to assume that family would be quick to purchase your product.

If I had the chance to do it again I would go as further away from family as possible. It can get very tricky very fast, when dealing with family and business, especially in the early days. If you do want to get family involved, rather turn to them for funding and hustle hard to get startup capital via angel investments or no-interest loans (or better yet no-loan loans #freeMoney). Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that they will be your first paying clients.

“Business is business, friends are friends, family is family” – Somebody

  1. Don’t fall in love with the idea

I come up with ideas all the time, no really, me and my business partners came up with ideas all the time.There is nothing wrong with producing multiple ideas, the issues arises when you fall in love with the idea itself.

Don’t fall in love with the idea, that is kind of like staying in a bad relationship because you are in love with the idea of being in love. Validate the idea, test it in the market, receive feedback ASAP and then decide whether or not to continue with it. Try your best to detach yourself from the outcome.

My problem is that I fall in love with words, rather than actions. I fall in love with ideas and thoughts, instead of reality. And it will be the death of me.”- Delaney Ebstein

  1. Don’t focus solely on the technology

Look let’s face it, I am a techie and I have long accepted it (“Hi my name is Ben”…”Hiii Ben”). I love code, I love programming, I love building things that work and I absolutely love seeing my ideas come to life, it is truly exhilarating.

However, this was another major issue because I used to get so carried away with all the coolness that I was building (new functionality, automated scripts, API integration, optimisation tweaks etc) that I completely disregarded the possibility that from a product/business perspective this might not have been as useful and “cool” to anyone else besides me. This happened during my time on Quweza, we coded a lot! We built a number of cool features and functionality. But we did not validate enough, we just kept stroking our tech-centric Egos.

“Look at what we just built, customers are going to absolutely love this” Meanwhile back at the ranch, nobody even knew the brilliance that was sitting inside our repository.

“The genius,I think, is in the modelling, rather than the technology… because it’s no longer a programmers game, it’s the person who can take the progamming and turn it into money…” – Herman Chinery-Hesse

  1. Minimize the fake work

Fake work, fake work, fake work…bane of my Entrepreneurial existence.

The funny thing is before you are aware of fake work, you are convinced that it is real work. And then as soon as you are aware of it, you realize just how much time you waste doing it. Yes, every venture you undertake will need fake work, but please, minimize it as much as possible and do it as soon as possible.

What is this fake work, you ask? Setting up your website, designing business cards, attending events, entering for competitions, having team meetings, the list goes on and on and on. There is nothing wrong with attending events, but if you are attending them just for the sake of being there, without any clear purpose of what you want to learn and who you want to meat, then you might just want to reconsider. As a startup founder you should go there to learn and network (thankfully we got that right), not just to pose and post photos up on Facebook.

When you are building product, focus on building product, don’t get side-tracked by things that are not the main goal. Especially when you have not validated anything to begin with. Validation and testing are a priority, your product is The Work, everything else is fake work.

“Fake work does not count and will still get you a failed startup no matter how intensely you do it.” – Sam Altman.

  1. Say no to elaborate and detailed long term planning

Yeah, we went overboard here.

As I mentioned earlier, we did a lot of planning. You would swear we worked for a multinational billion dollar corporation. We planned for years in the future, before we even received a single cent in revenue. This is really just more ego stroking. Look, when you have no product, when you have no clients and when you have no revenue, please tell me – what plans are you making? We wasted time planning for futures that did not exist, don’t do that. In the early stages of a tech startup you are not even guaranteed of what tomorrow holds, yet alone 5 years from now.

“Writing plans make you feel like you are in control of things you can’t actually control.”- Rework

“Projections are bullshit, they are just guesses.”- Jason Fried

  1. It’s all an untested hypothesis

Remember, It is all an untested hypothesis, and it is your job to test it.

We had a hypothesis but we didn’t do much testing. Also we didn’t regard it as a hypothesis, we regarded it as Truth, we were just waiting for the market to realize it as well.

            “The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” – Eric Ries

  1. Get out the building

I recently wrote a post on this  basically you should remember that you don’t know what people want, you might think you do and even if you have a pretty good idea of what you think they want, you really won’t know up until you attempt to figure it out with those actual people.

In our early days we did do some user interviews (problem interviews) and we gathered a lot of useful information from them, but this was done without showing anyone our product or having anyone external to us offer constructive criticism on the work we had done so far.

We spent a lot of time giving ourselves feedback and judging our own ideas in isolation, this was not healthy in the long run. Firstly because we were not going to be users of our product and secondly, it is really hard to make accurate judgements from the inside of something that you are emotionally and financially vested in. So please, do yourself a favour and get out the building, unless of course all your clients (and revenue) are inside this building with you, then by all means. stay just where you are.

“There are no facts inside your building, so get outside.”- Steve Blank

  1. Be data driven

One of the fundamental issues with not being driven by the data is that you end up  making emotional and subjective decisions, based on how you feel at the moment.

One of the major turning points in Quweza was when we pivoted from developing a full blown school admin system, to developing an analytics platform. Why did we do this? Well we figured that it was better for us to focus on one vertical aspect (grades and analytics) of the education industry instead of trying to do everything (the incumbents, Fedena and Staffroom were already doing that). Rather do one thing and do it well is what we thought, and of course this is great advice, that we still abode to today. But the issue is that we made this decision on our own, this insight did not come from user feedback, it did not come from surveys it did not come from interviewing schools, it came from ourselves. If you are going to base all your key decision based on how you feel at the time, you are setting yourself up for disaster.

“What matters is having forward momentum and a tight fact-based data/metrics feedback loop to help you quickly recognize and reverse any incorrect decisions.”

–       Steve Blank

  1. Figure out what you are trying to solve first

One of the reasons why we could ‘pivot’ so easily is because we did not have a well define problem that we were solving.

What are you solving? Why are you starting a company, why are you building a software product? These are questions that you should be able to answer in your sleep, these are questions that you should be able to respond to without second guessing yourself. With Quweza, we knew we wanted to build great software, we knew we wanted to make lives easier, we knew it was in the education industry, but we didn’t have a solid problem to tackle and that is a major warning sign.

“Ideas in general need to be clear to spread, and complex ideas are almost always a sign of muddled thinking or a made up problem.”

 – Sam Altman

  1. Ship, ship ship

Seth Godin’s book – Linchpin –  changed my life.

He says you should ship, don’t wait for perfection, don’t wait for it to be ‘ready” just ship. Take your idea out into the world. Ship your shitty product, get it out there, get feedback, iterate, make it better. One of our biggest mistakes is that we took way too long, We had big plans yet we didn’t take out the minimum viable product to market as soon as we could, we just kept building, planning and projecting. Waiting for the perfect time.

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

– Reid Hoffman

  1. It’s ok to fail

It is ok to fail.

Yes you have told everyone what you are working on. Yes you have worked tirelessly for months and months, yes this has been all you know for as long as you can remember. Yes to all these things, but yes to failure as well, it’s ok to fail.

Had we treated it as an experiment from the beginning we might have realized that we were failing a lot sooner, in fact maybe we didn’t even fail, maybe we just got too tired and gave up. Either way had we gone in knowing for sure that it is ok to fail, we would have let go a lot easier and a lot sooner that we did.

“Fail. But do it quickly and learn a lesson.

If you don’t learn something every time you fail then all you’ve done is failed”

– Nic Haralambous

Look, business is not easy, running a company is not easy, starting a startup is not easy (it’s almost as hard as trying to understand women). But it has been done before, a lot of people have succeeded and a lot more people have failed. Quweza from a business perspective was a failure, but from a life perspective was a major success. Nothing can compare to how much we learned on that journey. It might not have made a dent in the startup scene, but it made a huge impression on our lives and careers.

The death of a giant

In our final Quweza meeting we sat down and had an honest discussion with ourselves about where we were, what we had accomplished and what to do next. During this meeting I realized that one of the reasons that made it so hard to call it quits was that we had invested so much time, money and effort up until this point. It is like running a marathon and then wanting to quit when you are half-way  through, except we were not half way and there was no finish line.

We had a lot of great code, we had beautiful user interface, we had detailed user stories, mock designs for future work, we even had Slack integrations for our website and web application (you know it’s real when you have Slack integrations). We had tonnes and tonnes of research, on the education industry (local and international) as well as some R&D projects using technology such as NFC (near field communication) and biometric scanners.While writing this post I just remembered that we actually started work on a mobile app as well. On top of that we had our loyal client that we were planning on building a long term relationship with. But we were tired, tired of working without a plan, tired of working on a solution to a problem that was not very well defined, tired of continuously postponing our “Go live” date .

The way forward

As I said earlier, we love building great things, we love technology and we love making a difference. We were a truly fantastic team (that’s actually what kept us together for so long) and we are great at what we do, we just needed to work on projects that were a lot more well defined and had much shorter release cycles. We were well clued up on the lean startup methodologies, we had increased our tech knowledge ten fold, we had built a strong network of entrepreneurs , software developers, designers and VC’s. We knew how to get the fake work out the way and we had learned the downfalls of not doing enough testing or getting out the building. We were clued up on the local South African startup scene and we had done a lot of research on successful companies from the rest of Africa.

With all this said, it is clear to see that our passion was not in education, it was in technology, software, business, Africa and ultimately making a difference in the world, and this is exactly what we are focusing on now. I can think of multiple scenarios where we have used each of the above mentioned points to propel our current business forward at quite a remarkable pace.

Conclusion

So do we as Africans embrace failure in our culture?

I don’t know the answer to that but I hope it is a resounding yes

In closing I will make my final two points:

  1. Remember that this is Africa (TIA) and a lot of the main stream media that we are exposed to focuses on the western world and how things are done there. That is great and informative, but we are in a completely different market do you should make sure you are aware of that, because it will significantly impact the way you do business.
  1. A lot of the media and articles focus on the big startups, the funding rounds and the magical Unicorns, the Facebooks, the Googles, the Amazons et al. Again this is great and informative yes, but remember that for every success you see, read or hear about, there are 10 failures being brushed under the carpet. Go and learn about those guys, they also have interesting stories to tell.

Worthwhile reads:

  1. The lean startup – Eric Ries
  2. Rework – David Heinemeier Hansson , Jason Freid
  3. Hard Things about hard things – Ben Horowitz
  4. Start with why – Simon Sinek
  5. The dip – Seth Godin
  6. Linchpin- Seth Godin
  7. Sprat to catch a mackerel – Raymond Ackerman
  • Benjamin Mmari is co-founder of Simplimantis
(Visited 33 times, 1 visits today)