12 months a startup - Here are lessons I'm taking into the future
Confession: My liver failed me to hit 'publish' on this post in January. Till tomorrow, I'm still second-guessing my choices. But here goes...
My last blog post was in 2017.
My thought at the time was: My next blog post would be one in which I would explain the concept behind the business I just co-founded. And then boastfully declare to the world how we achieved great results in 3 months. Then, stand at a pulpit and point fingers at people that 'this is how to seed a startup'.
At the end of 3 months, the thing never show real promise. At 6 months, there was promise but reality was setting in. Month 9, shit was real.
The time it started to hit me, was when my wife and I decided that the safest and most practical thing to do, to avoid any future stories that touch, was to move the family out of our fancy house to a smaller flat that we feel confident we can sustainably afford from the passive income we have. And then, my wife graciously agreed to put her car on Uber to help. Then alarm bells started ringing when the studio was running out of funds and I wanted to place a piece of property we have on the market just to fund it.
Yes, shit got real.
Now, I respect all you startup people. I will not be writing twitter posts to abuse you again. At least, not so much.
In future, I'll probably attempt to chronicle the concept behind 2i Labs, the journey, why it hasn't seemed to work (yet), etc. For now though, I just want to share some of the personal lessons I have learnt and I hope to apply in 2019 and beyond. At least, those lessons that I will be holding myself by.
1. Make money first, do good later.
We started a business that wasn't designed to make money. It just wasn't the objective. It was meant to 'do some good' and be so efficient at it that "investors will come". In hindsight, this is not the brightest of ideas. Na persin wey don chop beleful dey organise party. As we shopped around our progress with potential offtakers, a lot of the conversation centered around 'how much is your MRR?'. As we trained a batch of developers and started paying them for an internship out of our pockets, and their (promised) sponsors were not paying, it became clearer and clearer that cash flow was king. So, my first note-to-self: Make money first, do good later!
2. Simpler is better than complex.
Our business model was so complex that explaining it was like explaining JAMB maths to your 1-year old. You could try, but it would be hard. There was no easy way to say 'we do X, we sell it to Y for $Z'. Going forward, personally, I think I will become a better advocate of simple. Whether it's user experience, architecture, business model, pricing, whatever. Simple is better.
3. Be upfront about co-founder dynamics.
It's all well and good to team up because 'I like you', 'you like me', 'we all believe in this idea'. But it's absolutely necessary that co-founders agree from the onset what specific value each person will bring to the table, what work they would do, what exact personal sacrifices they will make. And when. These things need to be verbalized early on, debated, agreed and then written down. And signed. And then, for bonus marks, don't just allocate equity like that. Vesting is your friend. Make everyone's stock vest over time as the value they committed to is realised by their direct effort.
4. Things almost always take longer than you planned.
"In 3 months we would have clarity". Na so. No... in 3 months, you won't have clarity. In 3 months, you may not even have a product. Who knows, in 3 years, you may still be going round in circles looking for Canaan while the pyramids are winking at you from behind. So, have a plan A, Plan B, Plan C and a readiness to wait it out.
5. Iterate like a madman.
As I go into 2019, I don't plan to waste too much time on a play that needs change. Once you see the early signs, think forward by a few moves, tweak something. I think on this one, we actually did quite well. We were always 2-3 moves ahead of what was coming and we were making changes really fast. For instance, as we quickly realised that doing software development consulting was a distraction, we X-ed it very quickly. As we found that the training/internship programme will not be sponsored, we X-ed it quickly. So, we'd do more of this going forward.
6. Be fair, be good. It may pay you back.
See, I said 'may'. No guarantees. But you'll go to bed feeling better about yourself. For me, knowing that my core values of productivity, fairness and near-zero-tolerance for BS still remained intact helped me to keep my sanity. And helped to make sure that the few hours of sleep I got each night were a little restful.
7. Focus. Focus. Focus.
2018 taught me that personally, I am not great at multi-tasking. And I cannot run a business that has too many directions. The amount of texting and driving I did in 2018 ehn... I'm surprised Kiki still has a Daddy. At some point we were executing up to 16 projects and chasing another 7. Software dev shops would love 'a problem' like this, but mhen... that's not a strength I think we possessed. Also, on the team side... I'm still on the fence as to part-time team-mates and if it works or not. But as a lesson leading into into '19, we would be working almost 100% with full staff who have employment contracts and wear the company Tee. Everyone has to focus. And no, you cannot do everything. Or help everyone with their ideas.
8. You will curse. A lot.
LOL. This one caught me off-guard. I cursed more in 2018 (both in my brain and out loud) than I did when I was Skeeny - the aspiring rapper in Uni. At the beginning I felt bad. Pastor Adeoye would have turned in his grave, yuno. But after a while, I embraced it. Fuck it! Just curse if you need to.
9. Family is key, make time.
Totally failed here. Should try and fix up in 2019. In 2018, I became much more distant and absent-minded at home. No time for small talk or 'Disney Just Dance' again. Every time my 8 year old said 'Daddy, you are always on a call', a thousand needles pierced my skin. Every time I wake up in the morning and I realised the last question my wife asked me before I slept off was 'how was your day?' and I remember I just grunted something useless and slept off, a volt of guilt goes through my wires. Everyone who's done this before says that's not a good thing. Fix it.
10. Only a few people will tell you your baby is ugly.
On this one, I'm quite grateful for a few people like Ekechi and Charles who found a way to say... "Mr Man, this thing is too complex, do something you can more easily win at". The lesson here is to be ready, as you try more things in future, friends and family who don't want to hurt your feelings will mostly encourage you. You need a balance of encouragers and folks that would force you to think again.
11. Don't sell yourself short.
Fuck free work. Fuck Mr Nice Guy. Charge a fee. Let people know very quickly what your time is worth. Once you identify that value will likely not change hands, cancel the conversation very quickly. There are too many people out there looking for how to do their work at the lowest possible cost and as humans we all like the number zero. Don't do shit 'for exposure' for anyone.
PS: Also, note that until you get 'alert', they are not yet an investment partner or a customer. Keep looking, don't commit to anyone who hasn't committed to you.
Okay, I'll struggle to practice this one, but by Jove, I'm going to try.
12. Leverage your 10,000 hours.
Don't discard it. What areas have you already put in enough time and experience and built an acceptable network? Leverage that instead of starting from ground zero again. If you are a footballer who hasn't yet hammered playing football, don't switch to hockey because you (stupidly?) believe you are an all round great athlete. Chances are, that you are not. You've just been lucky to be at the right place and right time in the past. For instance, the brand and Interswitch machinery that made Quickteller successful wasn't created by you, it kindof was just there for you to wield. :)
The lessons are in no way exhaustive, I have only tried to articulate the ones that have been sitting in my subconscious for months.
In the spirit of these lessons and particularly the last one, in 2019, I will no longer be expending my energies on 2i Labs. It will most likely be going into 'zombie mode'. Sigh.
In its stead (more like out of its ashes), the team will be refocused on OnePipe; one of the ideas we incubated while we operated as a venture studio. It will be a company that actually has plans to make some money. OnePipe hopes to be a platform that makes it easier for fintechs to partner with banks, larger corporates and agent networks. I am also writing this blog post to sort of hold us accountable. To know that myself, Solomon and the team that has committed their career to this now have to stand up straight and go for it. Also, to take away our chance to cop out too easily. That whole 'wait till you have the results to write a boastful blog post' thing is not so necessary. Now, we are putting ourselves out there as we are. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, fuck it.
In any case, like someone said, we are all stabbing in the dark and hoping to hear a scream.
Yep, that's my disclaimer.
The good part is that now, we have the benefit of the lessons above to guide us. And a handful of contracts in hand. And a committed (though young) team. And we are playing in a field we understand. And we have some months of runway to start with. And we have the raw grit and business development network of Mayowa to tap into. And a pair of progressive partner banks and a Telco to start with. I'm positive this one could work.
Here's to wind at our backs in 2019.
Solomon, Ola, Samuel, Hussein, Adeola, Victor... Let's go for it!