First Startup. First Flop.

First Startup. First Flop.

You never really know what you're doing when you start working on your first idea. You write down the name on a piece of paper and it sends chills down your spine, or at least that happened to us.

It's taken time for us to get over this and re-envision this idea again. We wanted to share the humor, the pain, the excitement, and the pure idiotic mistakes we made when building our first startup. We’ll be writing about this over the next few months in a series of posts.

The Saga of Big Africa

I was always told to dream big, with Big Hairy Audacious goals, and the entrepreneurial spirit ran in our family. Being a Zimbabwean, finding ways to solve problems was in my blood. I took a course at university on entrepreneurship with a professor who was still in the business of franchising restaurants all over the world. I wrote a business plan that was 120 pages long and got his thumbs up—later finding out that not many people in the class actually finished their plan, so he was just happy that I knew enough words to fill this gigantic stack of paper.

The thing that he didn't know was that I was writing this plan for real. It didn't make sense to me that I would waste time, precious sleep, and energy on a plan that I didn't intend on following through. So I took it very seriously—I mean very seriously—and when I was done, I knew it was airtight.

I remember walking with the freshly bound plan through the spring gardens of my university with it held loosely in my right hand. I flipped through it a couple times and took another glance at the overwhelmingly promising financials. A voice in my head told me, "This plan is so incredible that this professor will probably quit franchising restaurants, stop teaching, leave his wife, and come on board to execute this plan with you."

See. I went overboard with my excitement.

The professor didn’t give me money and he didn’t give up his job, but he did give me an A. The next term, I used the same business plan as my senior paper and so I had tons of free time to actually start the business.

Raising Investment

I met with a Wall St. banker in a tea joint. He loved tea and I pretended to love tea as well. This was a tech start-up—a website, an application—and it was going to connect the entire world to Africa in a way that no one had ever done. He knew about Africa and had done some trade deals there (later getting absolutely tanked by the bureaucracy and never coming back) and he really liked the idea. This was when Facebook started getting their massive valuations and Africa was starting to peep over the mountain of internet penetration.

This Wall St. banker wasn't really interested in the how, and so the business plan didn't light him up, but the vision did.

He asked me what the valuation is. I didn't have that in my plan, so I threw out a number. He accepted and then said he'd probably be able to find a tech investor that would come and collaborate with his investment. I didn't know what to say except, "This tea is good." I attempted to keep calm, but at that moment I could have been likened to someone who just won the lotto.

The first installment came through and this Wall St. banker, Ricky (we'll use this name), transferred the first batch of cash into our account. We had the developer ready, the lawyers ready, and the UX and UI creative team in the wings. We'd done our homework, but we didn't do it well enough. All of these guys lived in the same city and went to the same clubs and enjoyed the same drinks. At first it seemed like an easy fit, only one flight to see everyone. But later, when there were problems, this turned out to be a battle of 3 against 1.

Ricky was Type-A. Let’s call him Type-A Ricky. He connected us to these people and swore by their standards and values. I was half his age and still in university and so his recommendation seemed like a good path to follow.

Everyone always seems like they want the best for you and your idea when you're going to be paying them.

On paper we had the best team and they were also charging the best prices. To get a beta site working we would originally sink in $120K of our precious $150k angel funding. Then things changed dramatically. This is when we learned about service contracts and missed deadlines…

More to come. Next time:

  • What do you do when you have 1,000 CEOs and business people in a room and your international speaker decides not to come and fails to inform you?
  • What to do when you have spent over 6 figures on a project only to realize you’ve been bamboozled and it’s no one’s fault but your own?

(photo via jbodane)