Tag Archives: Strategy

The Deepest Watering Hole

2012-worlds-biggest-companies-profit

We tend to think of success in terms of visible growth. That’s not always how it works, it’s not always what you see that matters, and it can be deceiving to think so.

“The widest watering hole isn’t always the longest lasting. The deepest is.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I deal with my own organizations (Ushahidi and the iHub), as well as the startups that I come across. What we use to measure success can actually be a deterrent to real strong growth, growth that isn’t seen immediately, but that creates a much stronger organization and a better future.

An Ushahidi Example

For instance, with Ushahidi we set metrics on “deployments” of the software. Tracking this allows us to say things like, “Ushahidi has 40,000+ deployments in 159 countries around the world”, which is a nice marketing line. At first glance, that seems to be a good number to measure, and it is, but it should only be part of the overall definition of success.

A couple weeks ago we started to revisit our metrics, the numbers we track to see how we’re doing. To understand the real value of Ushahidi’s tools, while new deployments are good to track and are part of the overall picture, we find it’s much more telling how “active” each deployment is. This means how often it’s being used, how many new reports are coming in, how many new versus returning users it has, etc. It’s good for us to know if a deployment was “active” for a short time and then not be used anymore, or if it’s long-term. No judgement is made on that, as we know that sometimes Crowdmaps or Ushahidi are setup for spot needs over a short amount of time, and for long-term needs. Most importantly it helps us understand and differentiate between deployments setup for experimentation, with no use, from those that are useful.

In short, we get a better understanding of the value of our software when we measure “activity” than when we use a broad-brush metric like “total deployments’. We’re now in the middle of adjusting these metrics.

Elephants at the Watering Hole

Deeper Waters

The largest organizations aren’t always the most profitable, nor the loudest the most impactful.

FrontlineSMS is a small non-profit tech company that makes software for grassroots NGOs around the world. There are thousands of NGOs, in some of the most challenging places in the world, who are now able to use SMS messaging to better communicate internally and/or externally because they exist. They’re small though, with less than 20 people on their team and they’re not the loudest organization either, yet have had a massive impact on the world.

Lifestraw is an NGO that makes a device to clean water by sucking through a straw. They’ve got big money, loud voices and have a solution that seems ingenious and sexy at the same time. They’ve made a lot of noise, and maybe even have figured out a way to make money using carbon offsets (which I think is brilliant), but are fairly useless and don’t have much impact at all.

There are other examples, such as the size of the Wikipedia’s team and budget, and how they’re one of the most influential websites in the world. Or we could talk about how the startup Color raised a whopping $41m and fizzled.

In Kenya’s startup scene I think about how we get caught up in how much money a company has raised, but don’t discuss how much revenue they’ve brought in. We also tend to get sidetracked into thinking about how much something is written about in the papers and not looking at their user numbers or whether or not anyone outside of the Twitterati are using it. There will be discussions on how, “someone got funding, but there’s nothing to show for it”, meanwhile they’ve been building away on a backend for clients that the public doesn’t get to see.

We need to get into more discussions that are nuanced, ones that are beyond one-size-fits-call metrics and more on how we define growth and success.

The iHub in 2012: Freelancers and Presentations

iHub Advisory Board Retreat

This weekend the iHub Advisory Board met with the managers (Tosh and Jessica) to discuss the future direction of the space and what our focus should be for the coming year. The meeting was facilitated by my friend Peter Durand of Alphachimp Studios, who is in town as a part of the PopTech Lab.

The iHub Advisory Boards is made up of 5 people who come from the Nairobi tech community, and represent the community when important, or difficult, decisions have to be made. They are:

  • Riyaz Bachani, Wananchi executive, now in charge of Wazi WiFi
  • Josiah Mugambi, Co-Founder of Skunkworks, works at Nokia Siemens
  • Rebeccah Wanjiku, Tech reporter and founder of Fireside Communications
  • Conrad Akunga, Blogger, co-founder of Mzalendo and highly respected software architect
  • Erik Hersman, Tech blogger and co-Founder of Ushahidi

Looking at 2012

Our overall focus has always been that we should look to serve the tech community first, and that everything else would come from that foundation. As we stepped back to look at what’s happened in the last (almost) 2 years, we tried to identify what worked and where there gaps were.

We first worked through the a “business model canvas”, putting our minds together to find out if we all saw the iHub in the same way, and if what we were doing was what we should be doing. As you can see in the diagram above, we tried to list out all of our partners and community members, then map how we add and receive value from each of them.

A key point of discussion was how do we add value to not just the 250 green members who can come in and use the space, but also the serve the needs of the other 6,000 white members in the “virtual” community. We’ll have more thoughts and announcements on this over weeks and months ahead.

Going Deeper by Improving Freelancer Skills

We delved deeper into this, separating the types of individuals between the startup types vs the freelance types. One of the biggest gaps we’ve found is that there are many freelancers, some of whom are working on a startup on the side, but need the funds from their freelance activities to pay the rent.

Our questions became:

  • How does the makeup of the iHub green membership reflect different levels of what’s needed for projects to be done? In other words, are we diverse enough?
  • How can we help get freelancers more projects?
  • How can we help them become better at delivering on their projects?

In order to do freelance work, you often times have to team up with others who offer the skills that you lack. We’ve noticed that we’re primarily developers at the iHub, with some designers sprinkled in, but don’t have enough project managers or quality assurance types. So, our first order of business is to make sure we’re letting the people with these other skill sets know that they’re welcome to be a part of the iHub community too.

A gap that our sector has in Kenya is that companies who want to get a software project done don’t necessarily want to go with just any freelancer. We’ve discussed for some time the way the iHub brand can be used as a vector to find freelancers, but we’ve shied away from doing anything more than connecting people through the job board or through referrals.

The iHub is now looking into doing the following (and for this, we need some community feedback and help).

  • Standardize a process for clients to interact with iHub freelancers, using the iHub brand as a vector for business needs to be solved by the technology community.
  • Creating a way for developers, designers, project managers and QA people to collaborate and form teams to work on client projects. To be on the “shortlist” of freelancers, each would have to pass a test to make sure they are at the appropriate level.
  • Bring in a very specific and targeted type of mentoring and business skill training to focus on the individuals in this program, so that we can get a better culture of on-time delivery, communications and quality of work.
  • Put in place a system, upon project completion, for clients to rate the team, or individuals, who do the work. This would be tied to iHub member’s profiles, and anyone who under-delivers would be dropped from the pool of freelancers.

If you think you have the skills necessary to be on the initial shortlist for paid project work, and are a member of the iHub, let me or Tosh know as we think through this process. We’re looking for 5-10 people to explore this new area with us. Specifically, we’re also looking for a leader with great project management experience.

What YOU Do

As we stated at the beginning, the iHub is about doers not talkers.

Our final takeaway was on communication by the green members on what they’re doing. To this end, we’ll be putting together a schedule for each of the 250 green members to do a 5-minute presentation, followed by a 5-min Q&A. There will always be a quorum of the iHub Advisory Board present, as they’re the ones who make the final decision on who gets and retains membership. It will also be in front of the other community members who would like to attend so that there is a better understanding in the community of what each of us do.

We’ll subscribe a very tight template, likely 15 slides that automatically progress, much like Pecha Kucha (or Ignite talks). You won’t be required to give up competitive details, this is more for you to give us an overview of what you’re working on, how the iHub is helping with that, and where the gaps are that you need assistance.

Look for more details on this in the near future, and be ready to sign-up for one of the slots. If you don’t do a presentation, you will lose your green membership.

Final Thoughts

The iHub has been operational for 1.5 years and we’re about to celebrate our 2 year anniversary in March. This cushion of almost 2 years has allowed us to do a lot of experimentation, and we’re still in the process of gathering feedback from the community to get a better understanding of how the iHub is doing and what we can do better.

As that information comes in, we’ll do what we always do, and that is double down on what works and throw out what doesn’t. It would help us greatly if you take part in this feedback process, run by Hilda Moraa out of the iHub Research arm.

Finally, a HUGE thank you to everyone who makes the iHub possible!

Kikuyu Grass and the Macro / Micro Problem

Kikuyu GrassKikuyu Grass comes from East Africa, and is heavily used in sporting fields and schools around the world due to it’s hardy nature and ability to repair from damage quickly. It’s also tough, aggressive and spreads like a weed due to how it sends out long shoots. If you know this grass, you aren’t surprised to see one “runner” of Kikuyu Grass dropping in and out of the ground over a 20-30 meter area.

I like the analogy of Kikuyu Grass to discuss an issue that I see as a major issue in certain industries in regards to how technology solutions get critical mass and go mainstream, or don’t.

The Macro and Micro Problem

I call this a “macro and micro problem”, where you have to solve a big overarching issue of scale at the same time as solving needs for individuals at a very hyper-local level. This is a particularly difficult problem for bootstrapped startups to manage, because they don’t have the money or access to infrastructure to scale wide, even though they might have an excellent micro-level solution that individuals want to use.

There are two industries in Africa that I see this problem at it’s greatest, though I’m sure there are more; agriculture and healthcare. In both agriculture and healthcare you need to serve the finite needs of a farmer or someone who is sick or injured, yet it’s difficult to provide that any one solution to millions of people. Academically, you can do it, it’s easy to come up with a solution sitting in a room somewhere with a whiteboard. It’s also feasible to roll out a pilot project and make it work well in one area.

What’s difficult is replicating that same working idea at scale. This only gets more difficult as you take in the hyper-local technology demands and cultural context across a country. In fact, there are few organizations who have figured out how to roll out new technology at a national level, the best being large corporations such as bottling and soap companies, and of course the mobile network operators.

Let’s look again at healthcare. There are some great solutions coming out of the tech community for problems surrounding patient information, clinic and doctor information, medicine supply chain management, drug reminders and more. Some are at pilot stages, but none have critical mass at a national level. They simply can’t build the infrastructure fast enough, can’t market widely enough and aren’t trusted by everyone, everywhere yet. Can they do any of these? Yes, but it takes funding and great execution.

Examples from the payments space

The payments industry is on that has been able to solve this from both a macro-to-micro level, and also from the micro-to-macro level.

Macro-to-micro
The too often talked about mobile money solution in Kenya, Mpesa, is actually a really good example here. The product innovation came from outside the company, but the execution on it came from inside, as did the strategy to focus on getting thousands of Mpesa agents going all over the country. This focus on hyper-local agents solved the micro problem, and the national infrastructure and brand of Safaricom allowed it to proliferate and gain trust.

Micro-to-macro
PayPal began as a solution for small businesses or individuals (and grew largely through use on eBay) to accept payment via credit card, which was expensive or hard to do back in the early 2000′s. They were small, serving individual needs, but were able to grow their brand and scale their infrastructure to what they are today due to large VC investments.

Outstanding Questions

The question is, are there ways to solve this problem in healthcare and agriculture?

In agriculture, how will the Esoko‘s and M-farms of the world do it? Can they do this on their own, will it have to be take in by a larger company to hit critical mass?

In healthcare, will MedAfrica be able to get enough data and downloads for mainstream use? Will mPedigree and Sproxil be able to scale their counterfeit drug solutions?

I think these types of startups can, though some will have to broker partnerships with larger organizations, like the government or the mobile operators to do so. Each of them will also have to work very hard in order to meet the demands of putting a new technology solution in play at a large scale.

Like Kikuyu Grass, which has many touch points to the ground as it’s runners spread across and takeover a whole field, startups trying to solve problems in a big industry vertical need to have many local touch points as well.

The Israeli vs Silicon Valley Models for African Startups

Everyone wants to compare any up-and-coming tech city in the world to, “The Next Silicon Valley”. That idea is dead on arrival, yet we’re seeing many a reference to it in the media for places like Nairobi and Cape Town.

Paul Graham’s essay states this best (please, read the whole piece):

“What it takes is the right people. If you could get the right ten thousand people to move from Silicon Valley to Buffalo, Buffalo would become Silicon Valley.”

A model for African startups

Yesterday I spoke at Mindspeak, a monthly meeting in Nairobi where people in the business and tech fields talk about what got them to where they are. During the Q&A session after I spoke there was the recurrent question and comparison between what we’re trying to do with the iHub and how we see the increased critical mass in the Nairobi tech space, and if that was going to make us the next Silicon Valley.

That’s the wrong model for us. Instead, we should look closer at the Israeli model.

“Very often, local high-tech startups can’t find the funding here,” Mr. Glaser said. “They get funding elsewhere and ultimately move their locations from here to be closer to their investors.”

Israel already has a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, which leads to a strong startup culture. Due to geographical and political constraints, startups that create high-tech products and services are forced to look at their growth strategy early on. When a company starts gaining traction, they spin out their executive and parts of their operations to places like Silicon Valley, New York, Cambridge, etc, while maintaining parts of their operations in Israel.

We’ve seen the same with a South African tech firm. Yola (old name: Synthasite) moved first their executive team, then part of their operations, to San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, they raised an amazing $20m.

Of course, the Israeli Model, requires more than just up and moving half of your startup to Silicon Valley. That’s a simplified formula. However, it does serve as an indicator for what we should be looking at here. Instead of trying to grow the same ecosystem that took decades to develop in California, we should look at what works for us.

Key ingredients needed:

  • A network of investors, mentors and connectors in the bigger tech hubs of the world that help incoming African tech companies and help them take the next step. Most of these should be well-placed African diaspora.
  • A policy and legal framework in African countries that allow them to build and succeed/fail quickly so that they can take that next step globally.
  • Seed capital and incubation options for early stage prototypes and business testing in-country.
  • Teach entrepreneurship and leadership within the education system, especially at the university level.

You’ll note that none of these items can be done by just one entity, it takes a concerted effort by multiple parties, including investors, academia and government in order for both a high-tech startup culture to come into being and for success beyond a countries borders to take place.

Certain cities in Africa have the ability to pull this off, including Nairobi, Johannesburg, Cairo, Accra and Lagos. Others have a chance too, but these 5 have the critical mass that makes it more possible, though none of them are there yet.

Gmail Preview Starts in Africa

Reading about the newest feature in Gmail, called “Inbox Preview” from Google has made me quite happy today. You see, it’s got a lot to do with the “If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere” theory that I expounded upon first here and here.

gmail-inbox-preview

“Inbox Preview is now launched in Gmail Labs – while Gmail is loading, a simple, static preview of your inbox with your ten most recent messages is displayed. This will allow users like myself to be productive even before Gmail has completed loading.”

A perfect example

Basically, Google realized what slow connections were doing to people’s interaction with their email accounts. So, they sent in a team of engineers to work in cyber cafes in Ethiopia to test out where the bottlenecks were and to come up with a solution.

So, besides building in Africa to serve just African audiences with web specific solutions, we can see solutions coming from Africa that also serve the rest of the world. On top of that you can also use our continent as a testing and R&D grounds for new or improved services.