Builders and Talkers: The Fallacy of the Grant vs Investment Debate

A bunch of people are talking about where the money comes from that funds the tech startups and/or the ecosystem in East Africa’s tech community:

Most of the people talking haven’t actually built anything – they’re media, analysts, investors or grant-giving organizations.

A few are entrepreneurs – and I’m not talking about the type that thinks that is a sexy title and who wave around a CEO business card – I’m talking about the real entrepreneurs, the ones who are in the trenches, finding the right talent, securing funding, battling it out for clients, and shipping solid product. Too few of the voices we hear are of this type.

The debate is skewed. You’re told that money is evil if it is free (grants), that it’s only pure if it comes from an investor (angel, seed, VC). That if you get grant money that it will take you off focus and derail your business. Sure, this is a danger. It’s also a danger that you get a VC who gives you money, and who doesn’t understand the market, our region, or something else about your business and forces you to go off focus and derails your business as well.

The truth is, that as a leader of a company, your job is to decide what is the “good” money and “bad” money. This isn’t some academic or theoretical issue, it’s real life or death decisions that you stake your company on. When you can’t pay payroll and have to take a loan from the bank at 24%, you’ll take it to keep the business alive. When you’re starting up you might go for those piddly $15-25k grants that everyone seems to think grow on trees (but don’t). When you’re at that stage where you have real success, but now you need to expand much further, you’ll deal with the slick-talking VCs in order to work out the best deal for your future. It’s just how it works.

This argument of grant vs investment money is a false dichotomy – neither is pure. As a leader of my own business, if someone offers me free grant money that I believe is in our best interest, I will take it every day of the week. I measure it in the same way that I would if a VC wants to give me a dodgy deal – I refuse it.

If it was easy, everyone would do it

As a tech entrepreneur in our region, be objective and pragmatic. Be wary of pundits, analysts, investors, NGOs and anyone who hasn’t built something of their own. The entrepreneur life you’re signing up for means you’ll work harder, sweat more, stress more and feel both great euphoria and defeat. It’s hard, grinding work, and those who push hardest, longest and the most creatively win. And if you win, the prize is big, so it is worth trying for.

Everyone has an opinion, but few have tried, and fewer have built something that succeeds. Your job is to think bigger, and more creatively, and to boldly aim for success. Few have the courage it takes to go this route, so remember that and make sure the person you’re talking to actually has the qualifications worth your time to listen to.

However, do listen to those who have been there, they are the rare ones who have made it through the battle lines and won, seek them out. The best mentors are rarely found in the institutions that have the money. A few investors have been there and have the experience, not many. Even fewer on the NGO and foundation side.

Here’s a better idea. If you can build your company without taking investment money, do it. There’s a fallacy in thinking that you need investment or grant money at all. Instead, try to do as much as you can, get as many clients as possible, grow fast, build a great product, and then only when you actually HAVE to have it, should you go for any other outside money.