Being an entrepreneur is difficult. Being a successful entrepreneur is even more difficult.
As we gear up for the 2nd Accra Startup Weekend taking place this weekend (November 16-18, 2012) at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, the question on every participant’s mind is undoubtedly: “How do I build the next successful startup?”
To answer this question and lay everyone’s mind to rest, I sat down with the CEO’s of three successful startups here in Ghana: AdsBrook, Dropifi, and Saya. Derek Bossman, David Osei, and Robert Lamptey, respectively, had a lot to say about how they became successful, the lessons they learned along the way, and the advice they would give to those just getting their feet wet.
Though each of them had very different experiences and challenges, I was not surprised to find that their advice revolved around five main themes:
1. Solve a problem.
Don’t try to build the next big amusement app, instead focus on finding a solution to a problem. If you settle on solving a real problem it will serve as its own motivation; “it will keep you going when you’re at your lowest,” says Robert.
David posed the question, “people want to work on the next big idea, but is there a market for it?”
That’s the question to ask yourself when deciding on which big idea to run with. If you develop a product that alleviates a pain point for someone, then you will have a market – then, as Robert so eloquently stated, “you can sleep in a mosquito ridden office and not mind.”
2. Welcome criticism.
Ok, let’s be real. Nobody welcomes criticism. We are not born with a burning desire to be criticized. However, learning how to graciously accept and appreciate the value in negative feedback is an incredibly useful, even essential, skill – especially for an entrepreneur.
Robert’s advice is to “test, test, test.” From the very beginning, Saya got out of the building and asked everybody for their feedback. They returned to their office, modified their product, and went right back out for more feedback.
In fact, not only should you be accepting feedback from others, you should be constantly questioning your own assumptions and judgments.
“Don’t be afraid to back track, because the ‘pivot’ is one of the most important things in a startup that could save your life;” says Derek, “otherwise it’s sort of like sticking with a sinking ship.”
For David, when he was choosing his team members for Dropifi, he looked for people who could “learn and unlearn very fast.” He was looking for a team that could part with an idea and change gears based on what did and didn’t work.
3. Create a strong company culture.
The importance of a strong company culture is a lesson that entrepreneurs often don’t learn until they’re too far gone. It’s much more difficult to change an organization’s culture than it is to instill one from the beginning.
When it came to hiring new employees, David quickly realized that he needed to find “people I can communicate with, not just people who are smart – otherwise I can’t teach them.”
Derek also felt the same pains when his company grew to a size where he could no longer handle all of the sales by himself. “We hired people into our company to fill a need but not a lot of thought was put into what sort of culture we wanted to engender. We didn’t take into account the effect of introducing new people into the equation. We were freestyling,” admits Derek.
Freestyling may work initially because in a smaller team of deeply invested people it’s easier to let the group dynamics figure itself out. But when you add another person the dynamics will inevitably shift, and if there isn’t a clear set of expectations and guidelines the culture could quickly devolve.
4. Choose the right language.
I don’t mean deciding between Spanish or Chinese. Programmers naturally have a bias towards the programming language that they know best. However, the language you know best may not be what works best for the product you are trying to build.
When Dropifi was first developed, it was built on Ruby on Rails, because, well, it’s what they knew best. They realized that it was not scalable and switched to another language that the team was comfortable with, Python. It took them about three months of going back and forth before they finally realized that the best language for their product was Java.
Saya, on the other hand, knew that its target market was users of feature phones. This meant that the team had to build on J2ME. Robert remarked that “the reason we haven’t seen any competitors pop up is because building for feature phones is difficult. No one is building for feature phones anymore, everyone is focused on iOS and Android.” Robert found himself sifting through code that was written in 1993! Why? Because they knew that J2ME was the right language for their product even if it wasn’t the easiest one.
5. Don’t forget the business stuff.
This last piece of advice is near and dear to my heart. As a teacher of business concepts, I have a tough time getting my students engaged in my lectures.
Introduce any tech related topic and they are all ears but start talking about business strategy and I can see their eyes start to glaze over. The problem here is that everybody can immediately see the value of the tech lectures. After all, if you don’t know how to code, you can’t build a product to begin with. On the other hand, the business knowledge doesn’t really come into play until well after the product has been developed.
In other words, the value of business concepts doesn’t fully expose itself until it’s time to sell the product, and then suddenly it becomes completely relevant.
As David beautifully summed up, “Before we all had this thinking that technical abilities are awesome, but you realize that the business abilities supersede the technical abilities. It can take one year to build the product but that’s it, then the rest of the time is spent selling the product.”
There you have it, the 5 nuggets of wisdom that every successful entrepreneur wishes they had known and that every aspiring entrepreneur should take to heart.
Now go forth with your awesome solution to a real problem, confident that you can succeed.