This post is a continuation of our series on our first startup called Big Africa. It examines the rise and ultimate failure that we experienced over several years of building an idea into a company pan-Africa.
Back when we were building Big Africa (2009), internet penetration was below 20%. We were spending all of our money on local developers and had no budget for anything else.
Internet was new in this part of the world so a lot of people didn’t have email. We had to sign up our new users for Gmail and Yahoo Mail accounts before they could even get on our online platform. It was laborious with internet speeds slower than dial-up. And with the power cutting out regularly, it was more like a nightmare.
At this time, the most innovative Zimbabwean developers were creating landing pages with one or two information tabs and that was it. We were on a mission to save the world, and in the meantime destroy ours. We wanted to help the needy, clothe the naked, give food to the hungry, and give struggling Zimbabwean developers work.
We had worked with the best of the best in the USA and got nothing but huge invoices, great design work and bad advice. So we went the other extreme.
The End In Sight
Local techies were smashing on keys developing the new website. You should know that this was iteration four, version 4.0. We had three failed attempts earlier in our short, little lives. Today, those developers tell me they didn’t know what they were doing. Wish I would have listen to my instincts.
Back then, I would walk into my office and ask to see the updated code schedules. Then I’d look at the timelines. After that I would be told that the open source system we chose wouldn’t be able to integrate a new functionality, so we couldn’t do anything about it. This meant hours and hours of development time had been wasted. All I could do was say, “Are you sure?”
I got batted down so quickly with a “Yes.” – “Okay,” but inside I knew something wasn’t right.
When the fourth iteration started plummeting at terminal velocity towards destruction, I panicked. We needed this new Series B funding so that we could get some breathing room.
After four attempts to custom make this application, we pivoted strategy one more time and defaulted to a business directory. We had inside information that OPIC and USAID were interested in helping fund an online directory for Africa.
We started to hustle. In 21 days, we had the largest directory listings of African companies than any other platform. We used our last dollars to hire people to do nothing but populate this white label application that we just re-skinned. I felt like a complete charlatan.
With a mighty hand we knocked and knocked on the doors of capital funds. I even went to see the VP of EXIM bank in DC to no avail. The end was in sight and I started to see the writing on the wall.
The wool had been pulled over my eyes. I’d believed the techies who said it could be done. I’d believed the investors who said the current idea sucked and needed to be re-skinned (three times). I’d lied to myself. We never should have spent all that cash developing an idea that wasn’t proven.
I couldn’t sleep for months. I’ve been repaying investors for years. Where did we go wrong? I think we went too big too quickly. We didn’t need a huge capital infusion to build development that early on. All we needed was a working beta site that could prove our concept. We never got there—too many cooks in the kitchen too quickly.
I felt like a lone lion who'd just made a kill—the hyena piled on me and I had to leave everything I’d worked for behind.
How would I have learned all this if I hadn’t gone for the kill? I wouldn’t have. So I’m thankful I went through it all. I lived through the depression, the guilt and the shame of failure. I’ve encountered massive failure first hand—I wouldn’t wish it on anyone and yet I encourage everyone to try it.
I’m still not a tech guy, I don’t know code and I can barely read a Gantt chart, but I think I understand what went wrong. It wasn’t that internet’s bad in Zimbabwe. It wasn’t that I couldn’t code it myself. No matter how good your development team is, if you haven’t proven your concept, it won’t work.
Prove your concept first. Build your version 1.0. Then raise investment. Trust me on this one...
(photo via dbygott)