On March 26th, 2016, under the direction of young visionary Tom-Chris Emewulu, SFAN brought their third Future Executives Business Breakfast Meeting to Accra with a focus on student entrepreneurship.
One of three main initiatives undertaken by SFAN, Stars From All Nations, the Future Executives Business Breakfast Meeting provides a space for talented your entrepreneurs to spark conversations with established investors, business owners, professionals, and other stakeholders.
With a keynote panel led by Elizabeth Patterson of Girl Child Education Ghana and featuring Ehi Binitie, Co-Founder and CTO of Rancard Solutions, Raindolf Owusu, Founder and CEO of Oasis Websoft, Dziffa Akua, Founder and CEO of Dziffa.com and Akua Baning, Community Manager at iSpace Ghana, these are DORODRUM’s 5 key takeaway’s from SFAN’s 3rd Future Executives Business Breakfast Meeting: Understanding the Student Entrepreneur.
1. ON YOUTH & FAILURE
Capitalize on your Student Status
Entrepreneurship at any age or career stage is risky business. As expressed most succinctly by Eric Ries, “a startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” By extension, an entrepreneur is an individual working within an environment of extreme uncertainty.
Starting a company while in school can help mitigate part of this risk and uncertainty.
“You can be bold, audacious, and totally foolish.”
For Ehi Binitie, enterprising while still a student at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology was critical in the creation of Randcard Solutions. “As a student entrepreneur, you have no fear. You don’t have to fret about the consequences of starting your business. You have no inhibitions, you’re never worried about a paycheck the way you will be later — it’s a fantastic place to be.”
In fact, by the age of 22 Ehi and his co-founder, Kofi Dadzie had built Rancard Solutions into a $250,000 USD company, “I thought that it was easy, that I’d be a millionaire by 23. And then reality happened, and it became really hard. Looking back, we never realized just hard it would be, and that’s what’s so great about the entrepreneurship journey.”
In similar situations, Dziffa Akua began her journey during her final year of undergraduate at the City University of New York and Raindolf Owusu in his second year at Methodist University College. Today, with a couple of bumps under both of their belts, one leads her own e-commerce platform, partnering with 40 suppliers in Ghana and offering 300 products to customers across countries and continents, while the other has been recognized by international publications as one of Africa’s most influential young entrepreneurs leading one of Africa’s most formative software solutions companies.
2. ON LEADERSHIP
Accept and Understand Yourself
“You have to learn to accept yourself and to accept that you are not perfect and that you will fall short in certain areas. As a result, you can then find people who share your dream and who can compliment your shortcomings.”
Bringing her insights as a community manager at iSpace Ghana — one of Accra’s leading co-working spaces — Akua Baning has met, supported and collaborated with her fair share of founders. “From my own venture when I was a student, and now seeing founders around me on their own journeys I’ve learned that you have to be prepared to review your own assumptions.”
Launching a loan product for her classmates while in university, Akua found flaws in her fundamental assumptions about her target customer base that forced her to revisit her business model and product proposition. “I felt pain when I there were defaults on repayments, with people I knew! But I felt pain mostly because of my passion and my vision. I see it all the time at iSpace; the people who are the most tied to their product are those who have felt the problems they are trying to solve most acutely. They feel the pain personally and build passion about it — which can be hard to revisit.”
On her side, Dziffa Akua’s personal challenge came in trusting her own vision and resisting pressures from outsiders in the infant stages of Dziffa.com. “At times, everyone thinks they’re an expert in your field when they actually don’t know what they’re talking about. You need to know why you started.” Quoting Malcolm X she notes, “a person who doesn’t stand for anything will fall for everything.”
Her biggest failure to date? Falling into a venture which was neither her own nor aligned with her vision.
“I was straight out of college and I didn’t know anything. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes. At one point, I spent $2,000 USD on a bag manufacture company that wasn’t even my idea. But this experience was so important to me. I realized that I had to get back to the drawing board, and couldn’t afford to be distracted.”
Out of college, without institutional support or family funding, it is from this failure that Dziffa returned to the basics with fortified vision for herself, “I didn’t have much funding to play with so I had to get back to why I wanted to do this, what I wanted to do, and focus on my platform and making my sales. Even if you’re not an expert, always remember that you, more than anyone else, know your product and your vision.”
3. ON TEAM BUILDING
Cherry Pick your People
In Ehi Binitie’s words, “Love your people.”
Illusive but indispensable, a good team can take you to the next level. Without it, you’re almost guaranteed to remain stagnant.
“There is a huge difference between leverage and leadership,” Ehi Binitie explains. “It’s the difference between getting someone to do something for you and having them love doing it. At Rancard Solutions, we love our people more than anything else — genuinely. I’ve found this to be the most powerful leadership quality you can have. Cherry pick each team member as though your life depended on them — because it does — and let them have a share of your success, of your stakes and of your pain.”
And yet, team building is often tainted and delayed by founders from fear of that fine line between assistance and hindrance.
With all the accolades on his resume, when asked about the one thing he wishes he could have learned sooner, Raindolf Owusu doesn’t hesitate in acknowledging the importance of his team. “I couldn’t do everything by myself.”
“In the beginning, I wanted to do it on my own,” he explains. “I didn’t want people around me questioning whether it was going to work. I wanted to be the developer, to be the financier, to do the marketing. Over time, however, we weren’t doing too well and after two years we weren’t making any money. I realized that I had to reach out — to the right people. Immediately, I opened up to a marketing consultant, who helped us sell our services to people. Getting the right people who believe in your mission and your vision is everything, and they are willing to go to the umpteenth level with you.”
In Dziffa Akua’s case, her business partner has been her most important hire; brining impartiality to a project that was otherwise very personal to her. “I brought on a business partner to balance my own objectivity to the product. They taught me to think as a business leader instead of as the customer. When I launched the platform in June 2015, I had 5 suppliers and 20 products, but no one was buying. I was too focused on the platform, on the template, on the design. I liked the products that we were offering, and it was only during a trip to New York, sitting down with our customers, that I got real feedback, expanded my products as a direct result, and brought on a marketer.”
4. ON CUSTOMERS
Find your Tribe
People don’t buy what you do it, they buy why you do it, making it critical to learn how to articulate your why.
In referring to the 5 stages of product adoption, Simon Sinek’s 2009 Ted Talk was used to open the forum outlining the importance of building a tribe of customers who believe in why you do what you do, and are willing to follow you through it: your early adopters.
“You can’t reach your early majority and begin to build out your market share until you’ve found your early adopters. These are those who are comfortable taking that risk, believing in your product, based on what they believe in the world. They are those who stand in line to buy an iPhone, and they are the same ones who spent $40,000 to buy the first digital TVs. They don’t do it because the technology is so great, they do it for themselves. They don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it — they buy your product because it proves what they believe and because of how it makes them appear.”
So, how do you find those eager early adopters?
On our increasingly digital continent, social media is often the first attempt at targeted marketing for mainly early stage ventures. Spend time understanding the value of different channels to reach your audience, without overlooking the impact of person-to-person communication.
Sitting on one side of the social media advocacy line, Raindolf Owusu notes the potential of paid ads, “You need to pay for ads, and pay to target your audience — you can ask your friends to join but they are not your target. A small budget will get you in front of your audience — it is a good tool to use but it’s important to understand it.”
For Ehi, context is still King. “Consider your options and channels based on the product that you are selling — consider what you want to sell, and who you are selling to before you spend all your money. Social media is great to get feedback from your customers and to drum up referrals, which are some of the strongest ways to acquire new customers.”
5. ON THE ART OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Otherwise Known as the Struggle
One of the most important topics of the conference — and one that isn’t raised nearly often enough — is the simple but difficult question of whether entrepreneurship is for everyone.
There is an attraction to the concept of entrepreneurship: the image of perseverance, persistence, and eventual success. But not everyone is built to become an entrepreneur.
Over at iSpace Ghana, finding herself amidst countless posts and testimonies about the hardships it takes to be an entrepreneur Akua notes that the trajectory is not one to be taken lightly and that it is not for everyone. “If you do not have stamina — it is not a bad thing — you can do something in another capacity, but it is not for you.”
It appears in almost every book on entrepreneurship, and most notably in Ben Horowitz’s chapter, aptly named The Struggle: working within a constant state of uncertainty, there are moments when everything that you are working for, and everything around you feels like a failure.
In Raindolf Owusu’s case, few members of his team knew of the efforts he had to make to keep Oasis WebSoft’s doors open in its infant stages, “Initially when we started the company we weren’t making money, and the only skill we had was software development. There were times that I’d travel to Uganda to work as a software developer for another firm. I would literally leave university to make a few thousand dollars to come back to my company. Everybody knew me as the CEO of our company, but they didn’t know that I was also working away to make money as a software developer at someone else’s company. Entrepreneurship is very hard, and most of the time, you are the only person who is going to believe in your own idea. So you have to build that skill of self-belief. That’s what people don’t tell you about entrepreneurship: it’s really hard and you have to sacrifice a lot to make it work.”
With 14 years of startup experience, Ehi Binitie goes further, in distinguishing entrepreneurship from hobbyism, underlining the fault in “build it and they will come mentality”.
“At the root of it, there is a misinterpretation about what this is. Many of us are actually hobbyists, who want to do something and keep doing it, and hope somebody pays us for it. I have hobbies but I am not under any illusion — that does not work. An entrepreneur is being a problem solver, someone who identifies a problem, thinks about a resourceful way of solving the problem, looks for resources to allocate to solutions to that problem, create value, and then gets rewarded for solving the problem.”
And yet there is room for the intrapreneur within entrepreneurship.
To be innovative does not necessarily mean being a stand-alone entrepreneur, and we should not overlook the importance of disruptors within larger, more stable organizations. “These skills that we have discussed are valuable, whether you are starting on your own or working for somebody. If I was looking for someone today, I would hope to find someone with this ability to smell out opportunity, to follow it, to find it and design a solution to it. Everyone should have that entrepreneurial skill. Whether you chose to follow it, or work on it with someone else. “
We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to.
In closing this article with the opening of the panel, we’re reminded of Todd Holcombe’s opening remarks, “We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to.”
At any stage of any company, we follow a brand, a product, or a service because of the vision and the values behind them. We follow those who lead not for them, but ultimately for ourselves. Reclaiming the why behind each one of our ventures is critical in defining the value that we are creating but also in understanding own roles as leaders, the people we want as our team members, and the audience that we are seeking out as our customers.
As Ehi Binitie succinctly states, “Build something useful and simple. The people who are the richest in the world solved very, very simple problems. The entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to solve problems and to be practical about it is for everyone, whether working for yourself or someone else.”
This article is part of SFAN x Dorodrum collaboration and was written by Nashilu Mouen