We’ve previously talked about what it takes to make “the leap” from employee to entrepreneur; an empowering milestone that is often accompanied by a feeling of excitement and confidence. The Leap is certainly an event worth savouring but the journey ahead is likely going to be impervious, as Vusi Thembekwayo recently stated: “It is always clear in the beginning, messy in the middle and obvious at the end”.
Most startup founders launch a venture off the back of a big spark, niggling certainty or revolutionary idea. Yet, that brilliant hunch is only as valid as the entrepreneur’s ability to execute and get things done with relentless momentum under conditions of extreme uncertainty. To turn an idea into something groundbreaking, entrepreneurs need to form a crystal clear long term vision while constantly making short-term operational decisions. Something groundbreaking = hunch + intention.
Here comes the “messy middle”: while there is clarity around the idea and final goal, what is unclear at this point is the “how and when”. What’s next? How do I grow? Where do I advertise? When do I hire? These are just a few of the dilemmas that every entrepreneur faces. Some call it ‘the art of execution’ – the ability to turn a vision into a set of actionable steps, orchestrated to position the venture in a crowded and complex ecosystem with limited resources, while delivering value to customers, finding product-market fit and building brand equity.
We would be lying to you if we said that there is a secret recipe for this. Instead, we spoke to six startup entrepreneurs and leaders across West Africa in agritech, e-commerce, fintech, and insurance, collected a series of tactics that helped founders turn a brilliant hunch into a groundbreaking venture. While no-one can pull up their sleeves for you, we’ve done the next best thing and distilled their insights into a series of recommendations here that have made the lives of other startup founders’ easier.
- Get a Co-Founder: Find a friend or an acquaintance who may share a similar vision to partner with or co-found the new venture, or indeed complement your skills and talents. It’s going to be a long journey – consider having a trusted companion on your side. We advised entrepreneurs to do this in our previous piece, The Leap, where we discussed how individuals make the transition from being an employee to being a full-time entrepreneur. Having this trusted partnership will not only give you a soundboard for all your ideas but will also bring to you a whole network that you previously did not have access to.
- Focus on your Customer: Regardless of how great you think your business idea is, it is not worth much if you don’t get buy-in from the customers you want to serve. To do this successfully, you need to zoom in on your customer in the first place and identify their pain points before you even start developing the solutions that will remove or alleviate those pain points. This kind of initial focus is one of the most important things a startup founder should have in order to create a successful venture. “One thing I really learned from the…course is that customer development is the centrepiece of everything,” said Fortunat Diener (founder of AVEC SAVE AG and Graduate of the Zurich program in Switzerland) who is currently setting up his business in Ghana. “Start with that and end with that.”
Many startup entrepreneurs frame their business ideas in a solution-first way and thus end up building solutions that make sense in their minds but do not effectively solve the problem(s) their customers face. Entrepreneurs are more likely to suffer this pitfall when they build fully-fledged solutions without testing their ideas over and over again. Sometimes, entrepreneurs get sidetracked by the front end of social media and their own popularity and lose focus on building the right product, which often includes the least fun parts of making their venture grow. Richard Adarkwah (Founder of Insurerity and Graduate of the Accra program in Ghana), advised founders to “…focus on building a good product and actually be able to sell, rather than being popular on social media, [when] your books don’t show good sales.” Ayo Dawudo (Founder of Loystar and Graduate of the Lagos program in Nigeria) added, “early-stage startups also develop the key relationships needed to sustain their product in the marketplace.”
Quite simply, figure out who your customers are and what problem(s) they face, then you can build a solution that works. What that solution is will often not be obvious in the conception stage, but excellent customer development will help guide you to it eventually.
- Pitch your Business: Put your business idea out there, to further refine how you gauge the market and its response to your products/solutions. The ideas entrepreneurs often think about when they try to solve a problem are conceptualized in their minds, with many hypotheticals and assumptions about their customers, products, etc. which may or not translate into the real world. Put together a business plan and apply to pitch competitions to present your business model to a panel of investors/mentors for feedback.
As a startup founder, this is something you should do often, and to different kinds of audiences. Not only will you get feedback on your business and product from a diverse set of viewpoints, but you might also get lucky and kill two birds with one stone: winning a cash prize at a pitch competition. Don’t just do it for the money though – take it as an exercise to practice pitching to diverse audiences, and refine your idea. The more you pitch your business, the more you are able to recognize its deficiencies that escaped you before, thus helping you continuously hone your business idea and model in a way that is responsive to the market you are looking to serve. Being in a program that allows you to make and refine your pitch is highly beneficial in this regard, as Yutaro said, “…I realised the benefits of going through [the Founder Institute program] especially in structuring a pitch deck and presenting it.” Nail your 60-second pitch.
- Find your Tribe: Join a community of entrepreneurs to share resources and collaborate to build a strong business model. This could be a hub, co-working space or bootcamp. Starting a business can feel like a lonely process, especially when entrepreneurs hunker down in their proverbial basement working alone at odd hours to build their products/solutions. This can quickly lead to startup entrepreneurs feeling overwhelmed and unsupported on their entrepreneurial path. Surrounding yourself with people who are on a similar journey will be life-changing for your mental health, inspiration and creativity levels.
- Upgrade your Skills: Enroll in a course to build your specialised competencies or brush up on the basics. To be a founder, you should have a strong understanding of how each element of your startup operates. It is a good idea to take classes around the basics of marketing or finance, for example, but when it comes to specialised knowledge, as a rule of thumb, focus on reinforcing your strengths and outsourcing your weaknesses. Be intentional about the courses you take.
- Join an Accelerator or Incubator Program: Entrepreneurs join startup incubator and accelerator programs for a defined period of time to help shape their business idea, build products/solutions and find product-market fit while operating in a controlled environment. With so many factors to keep track of and fine-tune in starting up a scalable venture, many startup founders struggle to structure their process, and soon become overwhelmed with everything being thrown at them. The safe space of an incubator or accelerator allows founders to simulate their business ideas with proven methods and experiment with other methods, without the additional work of creating the structure from scratch. Nana Prempeh Agyeman, Founder of Grow For Me and Graduate of the Ghana program, summed this up during our conversation with startup founders last month with his remark, “as I went through the FI [program], I realised that it was like an MBA program, with the structure and regimen needed to build a successful business if only you follow through.”
In addition to providing regimen and structure, accelerator and incubator programs are good curators and aggregators of mentors across multiple sectors. A good startup accelerator or incubator program will probably not be a cakewalk, because starting and running a successful startup venture is not easy, and so it is always a good idea to find and connect with mentors who are leaders in the sectors you want to start your venture in. When you join such programs, be ready to let your ideas evolve because they almost certainly will. Cameroon’s Stephanie Kingue, Founder of Dwelner and Ghana graduate, and one of the startup entrepreneurs we heard from advised entrepreneurs in incubator programs to “be open-minded to benefit fully from the mentors and also from the different teachings available.” Learn from others who have done it before, have put processes in place and walked the talk. Your journey will be far easier when you do.
The key learning that emerges from this is that while you hustle to get a product to market, you should not stop focusing on your personal growth and on growing the support network around you because that is where the greatest opportunities will come from. We hope these important insights on how accelerator programs have helped founders navigate the ‘messy middle’, will further help you think about how you transform an idea from a brilliant hunch to a groundbreaking venture.