Monday, April 30, 2007

Journey of an Afropreneur: Focusing on the dream,

It's been almost 4 months since I made the leap into the business world and I've learned so much. Many times when I meet people they ask me what I'm up to and I tell them that I'm the Technology Director at a communications (web) company, they get all excited and start asking me for jobs (the good ones do that) the nasty ones just ask me for money, but what most people never seem to listen to or bother to hear is the challenges (financial and social) that are part of starting a business and getting it to actually make money.

I remember a few years back I had the opportunity to pick my friend Harry's(Startups In Kenya) brain on the important points of running a business. At that time I had no intentions or plans to venture into the unknown in fact I was content with "mediocre employment existence" and was happy getting a pay check and smiling for the boss and the clients who walked into the office. On the most important points I picked up from the whole conversation was the "Always have cash available (liquidity) for your operations, all the projects in the world will not help you if you don't have cash to pay your bills" that point stuck in my head through out the whole conversation and little did I know that a few years later I would need to apply it practically in a business I'm now trying to build.

Business has been quite slow almost non-existent the last couple of months and so our cash flow has really suffered. If you look at the bigger picture, the lack of cash for our day to day operations means that we can't focus on the issues that made as start this company. The way we've set ourselves up is that Product development is the core of our business, we build applications that we intend to sell and the only way to focus on that is to get one or two projects/clients out there to provide cash which will in turn fund the R&D aspects of product development. So far we've gotten a few good leads but nothing solid has come from it, any entrepreneur will tell you that leads/proposals don't pay your bills and a large number of them don't even translate into cash.

It's during times like this that one questions whether they made the right choice to leave the "comfort" and "security" (false comfort and security) of employment in order to pursue a dream and of late I have been pondering my decision. There is nothing wrong with doing this trust me, its human to question every decision especially the ones that radically change your life, and any entrepreneur will tell you they've been through this cycle several times some even go the step of filling out job applications, but what keeps me going is that currently our company is poised at the forefront of reaping the fruits of an ICT enlightened society and that change takes time. I'm not the most optimistic guy in the world actually I'm a very strong believer in pessimism but you there are times when I can't help but just believe in the dream. I can't help but think that even the most successful businesses went through times of drought but like the mythical phoenix arose to glory (sounds like a line from a movie).

The question is "What do you do when you feel like you can't go on?" well I'm no psychologist (Dr.Frank Njenga kando) but in my view its important to do the following things, they've helped me a lot:

  1. Read the mission of your company every morning when you wake up and at night time before you go to bed.It helps to remind you what your fighting for and living for.
  2. Goals and Results. Set the goals and always measure the results, just to see where your coming from and where your heading.
  3. Never be to proud to admit that the you need a break, after all building a business can be likened to running a marathon the pace at which you run is very important, if you sprint you burn out.
  4. Focus on the bigger picture and then break it down into the small pieces that help build the masterpiece. It's easier for you to deal with stuff when you break it down into smaller and manageable tasks.

There probably a few more other things you can do, and I do welcome my fellow afropreneurs to throw in their 2 cents on this. Success comes with blood and sweat and don't be fooled into thinking there is any other way.

Internet no more

I guess before I even go on I'd better explain the reason for my absence on this blog, nothing major just the fact that I no longer have an internet connection at home :-( why lord!why lord?!?..why.... guess it was bound to happen bearing in mind that I had acquired it in a rather sweet deal (No details will be divulged). I guess nothing lasts forever but it was great being able to access the internet from home and do all my work with minimal interruptions with the occassional down time. I can't wait for next year when the infrastructure will be up and running and costs will go down by as much as 80% (for once in my life I'm optimistic about a government driven initiative).

So now I'm back to the good old days of walking to a cyber cafe to get my mail and work, but I'm hoping that this loss of freedom and independence will not last for long. I'm not one to complain (actually I am), but I had the rather nasty experience of trying to attach 2 documents (PDF and Ms-Word) on saturday from a local cyber and "By the beards of zeus!!" the connection was terribly slow to the point that I just gave up, I actually left the place pissed of and the cursing but later on I realised hmmm.."Mate you'd better get used to this until you get another set up at your home" and that humbled me.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Dell laptop cracks on me

About a week ago I noticed a rather peculiar and frightening crack on the front right hand corner of my Dell Inspiron E1505 laptop at first I thought it was one of pens that had put a line as I was writing so I did what every computer owner does, I took a piece of cloth and tried to wipe it off :-)

Anyway I racked my brains trying to find out how the crack could have been caused but I couldn't pinpoint an instance where I had hit the laptop at that particular point but then again since 3 out of 7 days of the week I usually lag it around from my home to our company meeting place (Al's home) it wasn't unlikely that in all that movement I could have hit it against some surface. I was content in believing that until when I went to college today and met my classmate George who has a similar laptop to mine, in fact he bought his a month or two before mine, he was busy trying to read for the Artificial Intelligence paper we were to site for at 6pm and the first thing he pointed to was a crack at the exact corner where mine was also cracked, Coincidence?No, I don't think so...Could this be one of the weak points of the Dell Inspiron E1505? I'm not sure about that but a crack appearing on the same corner of two different laptops leaves a lot to be desired and I intend to investigate this further.

I'll post the pics of the crack soon

Comments are welcome :-) takes another tumble

With the recent IPO of a leading internet service provider in Kenya in the market I decided to head over to my favorite stocks information website to hear what the community had to say about this latest IPO (off late we've had several and it helps to feel the pulse of the common man) and boy was I disappointed to discover that the site is down again. This is the 2nd time this is happening in as many months and it makes wonder whether my friend Duke is serious with managing it as a business.

We all know that all websites have downtime but at least have the decency to inform users via a message of sorts like "Oh Shit!!..Down For the Count". I've sent Duke a mail and I'm sure he knows that the site is down, but in case he doesn't I'll shoot him a text message early in the morning (approximately 10am for me).

Update:The website is finally up which is a good thing, according to Duke it was a routing issue that he cannot explain. From a business perspective the team behind this app cannot afford for this to happen if they intend to keep a loyal following.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Journey of an Afropreneur: Changing the mindset

As technology director at our company one of my key responsibilities is to identify talented and eager web enthusiasts the objective of which is to train and mentor them in two key areas Technology and Business. As a company we are aiming to set a standard not only in the technologies that are used but also in developing applications that make business sense within this part of the world, what this means is that the people we identify need to be innovative not necessarily entrepreneurs but they must possess a degree of creativity and I'm sure you'll agree with me that in order for you set a standard innovation is key. I once told a techie that we don't want to reinvent the wheel all we need to do is find one aspect of the wheel that we can improve and make it work for this part of the world.

The biggest challenge I'm facing when it comes to the identification of these extraordinary people is the mindset that the IT community in Kenya has in general, I cannot speak as though I don't belong to that community but it does sadden me when I have a discussion with somebody and I realise that they have no true skill in what they do. What do I mean when I say "true skill"? well, a large percentage of web developers in Kenya (including designers and producers) have perfected the art of download,customise and call it my own, which though works when one is trying to learn cannot really be equated to a true skill.

I had a chat with one lady who said she was very good in production which basically means that she can translate a design into a fully functional HTML prototype, what this requires is skill in use of graphics packages, HTML and Javascript. I then proceeded to ask her if she could do a full CSS concept compatible across several browsers and she responded by saying that she downloaded templates and customised them (download,customise and call it my own). This kind of "skill" cannot be truly put to the test and is absolutely devoid of any creative process.

Taking the example of learning a programming language, Al had the opportunity to interview a developer I've known for a few years, upon explaining to him that the technology we aim to use is new and would require one to commit themselves to learn and apply the developer was quick to point out that he couldn't do this until he'd had a chance to look at the language. That kind of fear is borne out of a culture of non-innovation and reuse.

Africa and Kenya specifically cannot be empowered using technology when the mindset we have adopted is one of reuse rather then revolution. If we are truly to be the next frontier of untapped technology then we must strive to build skill and nurture innovation from the onset. I don't mean to belittle my fellow web techies but the era of plug and play must come to an end, there is nothing wrong with downloading an application to learn the code base but only true knowledge is acquired when I use what I have learned to build something on my own. If we are to mentor and build the coming generation of techies then our skills need to be strong. If we are to be truly the next source of technology talent then we must move past this mindset.

The aspiring developer, designer must see pride in innovation even when recognition from ones peers isn't forthcoming. I am always impressed by the story of Google and its founders, when they built their search engine the venture capitalists and other companies that were around at that time including Yahoo saw no need in purchasing the search engine yet this two guys stood beside their application because it was theirs and they believed in the innovation, that is what we need in Kenya. So what if everybody else is taking the easy way out, we must make the conscience decision that we will stand and be counted as the innovators and not as the imitators.

I hope this inspires my fellow techies and brings about change, if not then at least the voice was heard.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Journey of an Afropreneur: Exams the bane of my existance

This week and part of next week I'm sitting for my university exams most definitely a very tiresome and boring week. I've got five papers to do:
Entrepreneurship Skills (Did it today, glad it's over)
Ethics 2
Probability and Statistics
Artificial Intelligence
Accounting Information Systems

As you can see my life is filled with such joyous activities....:-(

Friday, April 13, 2007

Easter break, Car trouble and Just to much rails

The easter break came to an end on monday and for most people it was back to work on tuesday although I'm sure the thought on everybodys mind was when will the next long weekend come along so that I can sleep, eat, drink, dress up funny (the funky shorts you love to wear on weekends are unleashed) and scratch my battered up body, but for those of us with startup companies all it offered was a chance for us to totally focus on what we needed to do before the weekend came to an end.

I was to be out of town during the weekend so I made my internet connection available to Al Kags (he was robbed a few months back and the muggers happened to wander of with his wireless unit) so that he could partake of the pleasures and vices of the internet, that meant that for the 4 days I would be away I wouldn't access mail, check up on my favorite feeds and websites (Techcrunch, Guy Kawasaki, Mashable) which I was okay with you must be wondering why I didn't say I would be of Chat/IM well thanks to a wonderful application called Reporo ( I can chat on Google, Yahoo and MSN from my trusted Motorola L6 and that my friend is the power of technology considering that just a few years back we all had cellphones the size of Steve Madden shoes.

So while deciding on whether to go out of town or stay in the hectic city of Nairobi, I got a text message from my favorite group of ladies, they call themselves MindsEye Travels informing me that I had been excluded from the easter road trip aptly named RandaRanda. Needless to say I was dissapointed but since I'd been pondering for days whether I had the finances to part with the Ksh6,000 ($USD 87) the text message kindoff put my mind at ease, it saved me from having to tell them I couldn't make it and thus disappoint the people who were looking forward to seeing me. With my fate sealed I decided that whatever I was going to do during the weekend should not reach the Ksh6000 limit (the guilt would have killed me) so I holad at my "partner in crime" and we had ourselves a nice evening filled with drink and dance.

Our night of carousing landed us in the city center where we found other "like minded" friends who encouraged us to party until 3am. At this point I have to mention that our financial usage was low, no more then Ksh500 ($USD7.10), which was a very good thing. If I can be allowed to digress, a few weeks back I had a puncture on the left front wheel of my car and had replaced the wheel with what is commonly known us the "doughnut" as I pondered my next move. The "doughnut" is a small, yellow-orange, tubeless wheel that is meant to be used in an emergency situation, in theory you shouldn't drive with it for me then 4 miles but many people use it for weeks on end me included.

"Two came in Five left", that was the number of people in the car as we left the club. On the way home i began to notice that the car was dragging to the left side, since we were in a hurry all I did was increase the speed and occassionaly slow it down, all of sudden the car leaned to the left side and I realised that my spare wheel now had a puncture in the middle of one of the most dangerous roads (it's now very well lit but that doesn't change the fact that you can get robbed silly along the road). So this put me in my compadres in a rather precarious predicament, if we stopped we get robbed, if we continue we ruin the rim, oh what to do?? on oh yeah soldier. We snaked our way home and finally got to a petrol station where the nightguard did his best to chase us away so we decided to drive on all the way to my humble abode.

On the other end of town Al Kags was busy doing research and writing a white paper on Blogging as well as torrenting the hell out of the internet connection I had loaned him, I was to find out this over, never you mind that I had warned him several months ago about the practise and its implications on the account we were using, Damn You!!Curses!!Curses!!...

To think that just because it was an easter weekend work had to come a standstill was silly on my part, Al informed me that the CEO of a leading ISP in the country wanted to see us on thursday and would like to see the project we had been working on, that put the pressure on me to deliver so I had to boot up the laptop and start hammering on the ruby application. That put a damper on my weekend but what could I do? By the time we had the meeting on thursday at 10am I had been doing close to 14 hours coding and that wasn't fun. The meeting went well and a lot came out of it.