Kenya Startup

How We Got (or didn’t get) Our First Customers

Defining your customer base is tricky before you have completely defined your product/service. For this reason, it’s important your early conversations are full of questions and observations, rather than pitches for your idea.

There are a few things I think we did wrong in the beginning, so hopefully I can save you the trouble by sharing our learnings.

Definitely startups in Kenya may think about this in other ways than in the US or Europe, but I think most of these insights are fairly universal.

Your time is valuable (even if your product isn’t finished)!

Startups always think the hardest thing about getting their first customer is convincing someone to buy your service or product. But I think the hardest thing for startup founders to make their first sale is actually convincing themselves that their product or service has value.

I remember the early days in Nakuru – we didn’t have a developer team in Kenya, and had a very bare-bones MVP. In order to match clients to job seekers, we would go to our trusty Excel document, and Ctl + F specific skills until we found the right job seekers for the job. To us, it seemed ridiculous to charge for this service – two recent grads in an office, huddled over their computers, manually sorting through CVs and candidate profiles to find a match.

Duma Works - the best online recruiting platform in Kenya. Here I am hard at work in the Nakuru office helping job seeker in Kenya get connected to jobs.

At the time, we didn’t realize that even just using our time to find these job seekers was value – even if we weren’t using the fancy software we pitched clients on. The method was a bit different about how we matched people, but the results were somehow the same.

That is value, and you can’t just give value away for free.

Don’t just pitch – learn about your potential customer

Instead of having a conversation with our potential customers to learn more about their current hiring challenges, we just tried to push our product. We walked around Nakuru, scouting potential customers – from the small hotels on the outskirts of the muddy central market – passing out business cards, and assuming we would eventually get lucky and get clients.

Our pitch was – “You can find people through SMS! You don’t need to just rely on your friends anymore!”

We thought this was great, but is this a service everyone needed? Probably not. The super small shops mostly hire family members, as do companies operating in very informal sectors. Their entire basis of operations is informal, therefore their recruiting is as well.

Had we sat down to have a discussion about what their company looks like, how many staff, how often do they hire, what is typical salary expectation, do they have any challenges with their current way of doing things…we may have learned sooner who would be a good target client and who wouldn’t.

(As a PS – the best sales technique in general is to ask tons of questions and get the prospective client to open up…who knew? :))

This all is not to say that we don’t think a more formalized hiring process is beneficial to these small, informal shops. I believe they would be able to grow more effectively if they were able to hire higher quality people.

However, they are certainly not our earliest adopters, and since they have such a low ability/desire to pay – the sales required to get them on board simply wouldn’t make sense in terms of unit economics.

Duma Works visited the Nakuru Marketplace to explain to companies how to connect with qualfied job seekers more effectively

The Nakuru market – these ladies selling vegetables were certainly not our ideal first customers

Which brings me to my next point – Segmentation.

Segment, then sell

In our minds, all of the small businesses in Nakuru (and Kenya…and the world!!) were our customers. Every storefront in Nakuru, every vegetable stand, every individual person who ever needed a plumber to come fix their pipes at home…

Probably what would have made segmenting easier for us would have also been to understand that our customers would need to pay. Then, in our conversations with potential clients, we could not only ask – “Do you need this service?” But also – “Would you be willing to pay for this service?” Then, we could have assessed how many people were willing to pay, how much, and how much it would cost us to get them as customers and to keep them.

Eg.

(1) Assess who is a great early customer:

Low Willingness to Pay + Slow Adopter = Bad fit
Low Willingness to Pay + Fast Adopter = Good evangelist, bad customer
High Willingness to Pay + Slow Adopter = Bad fit (too high cost of acquisition in time/money)
High Willingness to Pay + Fast Adopter = Great early customer

(2) Gather all the great early customers and compare market opportunity sizes → Focus on the biggest opportunity!

…Easier said than done, and assessing market size for both current and potential is not a straight shot. But it’s a good place to start. If you want to learn more about advanced customer segmenting, check out this awesome post about how to quantify your customer segments.

You learn something new everyday!

Of course, during our slow testing period, we were learning a lot. I don’t regret all the days avoiding the sun, and asking mechanics to sign up via paper forms that Christine and I would later input manually. And it was good that this process helped us understand how culture, and time, and language, and meetings work in Kenya.

Duma Works old paper CVs helped job seekers get connected to job opportunities in Kenya

“Ungependa kufanyiwa CV mzuri free”? …VERY proper Swahili for “Want us to make you a great CV for free?”…Our paper sign up forms from Nakuru that have received many laughs from our current team members

But! Perhaps we could have come to a conclusion about our customer needs + core target market + value proposition a bit faster had we understood this initial sales process (for a pre product-market fit startup idea).

Side-point about defining value as revenue-based or user growth based

Maybe in the US & Europe where markets are flush with capital and there are startups exiting all over the place, there is less value placed on the startup’s ability to actually make money from clients. More value is then placed on the ability to grow and scale the userbase/network virally for revenue streams down the line in advertising or data etc.

Probably until the digital advertising space in Kenya is more mature, the value for Kenyan/African startups will be focused more heavily on revenue stream than userbase.

And! Until the general population embraces their “digital life” more, there isn’t a big enough customer base to make a B2C platform viral in most industries. Yes, Facebook, Twitter, and MPESA have spread like wildfire, but that’s about it. (And let’s not call MPESA a startup people, please.)

Just my two cents – I’m sure there are a lot of opinions about this out there – and go ahead and comment with yours!

Current mindset

So now, whenever we think about rolling out a new product, or feature, we think about who is going to pay, and who will be the most valuable client. I know that if I pay a sales guy $10 to get a client that only gives us $20 over their entire lifespan with us, that is less valuable that a client I pay $1 to acquire and has a lifetime value of $1,000.

This isn’t to say that I don’t value growing our network virally and getting the smaller, harder to reach guys on board. But they shouldn’t necessarily be your first customers.

We also ask tons of questions in every sales meeting we have, and make sure to convey the value we bring clearly and confidently.

Final point

Total addressable market is not just a slide you throw into your investor deck! It should be something that is always in the back of your head whenever you make any significant product/service decisions or developments AND when you are figuring out who your first customers should be.


These are my thoughts on getting your first customers and how to think about the whole process. I hope they are helpful! Please let me know via the comment section below if this has been helpful and if you have any questions.

This was our latest post in Founder Fridays, where we dig into the story of Duma Works and try to tease out some valuable insights to share. If you loved this, you can also read our last post on fundraising in Kenya.

Enjoy, and see you Friday kutwa! 😉

What it takes: How to get a job in UX Design

Mark tells Duma Works about how to get a job as a UX Designer in Kenya This week for Duma Works’ What It Takes series, we interviewed Mark Kamau, the Design Lead at the UX Lab (UX = User Experience). The UX Lab is the first agency dedicated to user experience design in Kenya, and Mark is the cofounder, so he had a lot of great stories about his journey and tips about how to break into the field. This interview is a bit longer than usual but definitely worth a read. For those who are reading on the fly, here is the TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read), but I would highly encourage coming back and having a look at the whole interview. *Especially* guys looking to score UX Design jobs and startup founders (not even just tech startups!).

TL;DR

  • UX Design is less about designing at your computer from the comfort of your home, and more about working with potential users in the field to step into their shoes
  • UX Design is a dynamic field of work, and you need to be driven by curiosity and observations about the to keep up
  • It is your attitude and ability to learn, not skills, that can determine your success

So Mark, tell me about your career path.

It’s been long, man. I have been doing this for 15 years, I’m no spring chicken.

I started out learning multi-media designs in a training program that focused on different design disciplines. It was a broad program – you learn design and choose what works for you. I studied quite a lot of front end design and development. Then I worked with design for print, and also a little bit of animations. That’s basically where I started with my studies.

Then, going into my career, I had to respond to design demand by seeing gaps in the design space, seeing the requirements, and seeing gaps that the client has. From there, I began working as hard as possible to deliver. That meant learning new things, always applying myself, getting out of my comfort zone to learn another aspect of design or the product development cycle that I didn’t know before, and just make sure I delivered.

I actually remember the first website we got the contract for. I was a shabby young man and I went to the Dutch embassy to pitch to do the design for their website. It was a big deal – a government institution portal of communication. I was pitching against companies with mile-long track records. They say you don’t get it if you don’t try… In the end, they picked us, and we worked with them day and night to make sure we didn’t let them down. That was my first foray into professional design work, and that was in 1999.

From there, I started working with more clients from here (Kenya) and abroad – places like Amsterdam and Berlin. I was always trying to learn and adapt to the market. I think that’s the name of the game – being as adaptable as possible and responsive to the environment. So it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing things – you just need to have humility to put yourself in constant improvement mode. You are as good as your last project.

Do you think your ability to travel outside Kenya helped?

Sure – I was able to see people in Berlin and Amsterdam using new techniques and design technologies to attract users….while people here were just focused on building a lot of applications. But In Kenya, they are not focused on design enough to get traction and people.

I feel like people build a product out of technical curiosity, and learning about problems and trying to make a solution that fits. The biggest challenge to their products is that their design process is basically non-existent. So I decided to do something about it – One day at Artcaffé, I talked to Erik Hersman. I want to set up a user experience/design place and I need a mentor – someone to give me advice. I showed Erik the concept. Erik said “Yea – come do it at the iHub” and he gave me the support I needed to start up.

It’s been a long long road with a lot of success and failure. Falling down, screaming out, getting up, feeling let down, the whole thing.

What made you first start getting excited about doing this kind of design work ?

Actually, that’s an interesting story. When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional footballer – I was on the Kenya national team and I was doing quite well. I actually thought football would be the way to sustain myself. But then there was a lot of corruption and I got frustrated. I was playing football one day and there were these Dutch girls looking for recruits to train in design skills.

The first time I interacted with design was in Nairobi through Nairobits. I was the first batch of Nairobits students along with 19 other colleagues. That’s where the design journey started. I went in, and that was the first time I had ever use a computer. That really fascinated me – that was in 1998. I took to design and then started building onto the training I got with them through courses here and there.

My self-improvement in design work has always been curiosity-led – seeing what I wanted to learn and then where I could learn it. And that’s what it’s been like from then. Then, I did some work, went to Amsterdam for a short few weeks, came back, and did it all over again. I actually went up and down to Amsterdam for a period of 6 years. I wound up in Berlin for assignments working for Digital Spirits – that’s a company that works with really high-end clients eg. Hugo Boss for compliance platform. That was my first exposure to real German-style work mentality.

Oh yea, what did you learn from working in Germany?

That is a funny story. The office was in the same building as the Kenya embassy – so the first place I went to work at in Germany actually had a Kenyan flag 🙂

I decided that these people have a bad image of Africans – that we’re incompetent, and we don’t keep time. So I decided to represent all Africans. I decided my shit was gonna be tight. So I get there and we start at 8 – I get in, sit down, turn on my computer. The first thing they ask me is if it’s genuine software. I said to them, what do you mean? Haha. They got a technical guy, told him to go out, uninstall everything on my computer, and then bought me all the software I needed.

The second day, I was at the door at 8 am. The boss calls me in and asks me why I am always late. I was like what do you mean? I’m here at 8am every day. Then boss told me – yea, you come in, make coffee, get ready, etc. and you only actually start at 8:15. So that was trial by fire. Germans work really hard.

I realized that there is a big “excuse culture” in Africa. When the power goes, you tell the client that power went. But that wasn’t acceptable in Germany – you just need to find a way and get it done. That is the one thing I learned that I feel we lack here. We are so easily driven into an excuse culture, and that hurts our ability to compete with the rest of the world. We should benchmark ourselves against the best. The difference is to have the mentality that no matter what, I need to get it done. It’s not an ethos here people embrace. It doesn’t matter if client is paying $2M or $2. You just need to get it done.

Can you give me an example?

A good example is yesterday a developer was coming for an interview. We were all in the room, we had all made time, and the guy tells us 5 minutes before that he can’t make it. This guy has mad skills but his work ethic is poor and that will affect the team and his reputation.

A lot of startups at the iHub also fall into this same trap. Actually, iHub consulting started up because there are a lot of companies who take people’s money and don’t deliver. That’s horrible – and it happens because we are ok to give excuses. So, getting exposed to the outside world has taught me that it’s not about money, it’s about mutual respect, and relationships. I mean, we also have an education system that is exam-based, but I don’t know if that’s the only factor…getting out of this mentality is an uphill climb for a lot of people.

And it’s not just about skills. I’m sure you’ve experienced this with DUMA – 80% of the challenge is just getting people to show up for the interview.

We definitely have that challenge! Tons of people we match to jobs just don’t show up. I never understand that..

Absolutely. I actually went to Tanzania at some point in 2008. I have had quite a bit of passion to change this mindset in people, and so I started doing a lot of training in Nairobi and Tanzania – mostly teaching young people what I was learning out there about work ethic. I spent 2 years trying to work with some people to set up the Kilimanjaro Film Institute. Initially, there were mostly foreigners teaching there, but like I said, I had a multimedia background, and these guys saw me and thought I could teach this work culture from an African perspective.

So now you run the UX Lab out of Bishop Magua. What would you say your major day to day activities are?

Like today, I just finished a UX design iteration a project with the MIT Media Lab. There was a documentary about the 1 male rhino left in the world, and the huge problems we have with poaching. So, one of the things we are designing together with iHub Consulting for World Life Works in Tsavo National Park is a digital system to help fight poaching amongst rhinos. See, in the park, there are fences, but the ranger has to walk a long distance before finding poachers or other illegal activities. So we are building an app that makes sensors ping when there is motion in the bush (by poachers). Right now, we are figuring out the communication system and how we can innovate on that.

For me, this project means that I go to bush and live with rangers for a week – I immerse myself into their lives to really understand their day to day and what their needs are for this app.

What people don’t realize is that there is actually a lot of UX work that doesn’t involve a computer. That is the misconception between UX (user experience) and UI (user interface). UX involves a lot of putting yourself in peoples shoes, going to their contexts and gaining empathy after which you use principles of UX and design together to solve these problems.

Another example – I am going to Kiambu (rural central Kenya) from Tuesday to Friday for a healthcare project with local community health providers. I will spend time in the clinics and local population to hear about their frustrations, talk to workers and patients, see what their problem is, and figure out how we can design solutions for that. Sometimes the solutions are not digital. The aim is not to build technology, but to solve problems in a way that is most contextually relevant.

We make paper-based solutions for farmers for example. On one project we were trying to find a solutions for small scale farming system to help local small scale farmers comply with standards from Europe – it’s a lot of regulation and lot of filing that needs to be done on a deadline. The most relevant solution to keep track was a custom paper calendar for the farmers in which they could keep track, schedule activities and such. The calendars were crop cycle specific. This it turned out, worked better for them than a digital solution. Further along, maybe it will make sense to move to tech, but at the moment, this is the best contextually relevant solution.

UX is about finding out what works for people in their context and then building for that. It’s really a process of inquiry and action. I think for a lot of designer think the process is basically – a client comes to the office, says they want this, and then you do something on the computer. That’s not the case at all. The client is not the user, and therein is my beef with this traditional design approach.

What is the skill you need for this job that you can’t live without?

I think for a UX person, it makes a lot of sense to be able to deal with people, be flexible, and be able to exist in different contexts. You need to be able to go out and mingle with people of different socio-economics backgrounds.

I was in Kisumu the other day for a human rights program, working with 100 gay prostitutes. They were hitting on me and I had to figure out what to do. I needed to connect with them, and make them feel that I respect them, so that I could have real conversations with them and really learn from them.

You also need to be passionate about a problem, and passionate about your work. I see a lot of designers come to the UX lab, and after one trip, they say it’s not for them. Why? Because it takes too much work, and the alternative of simply designing from assumptions is easier. Then, they decide to be UI designers so they can focus on computer based UI design. There is nothing wrong with that. UX, just like UI, is not for everyone. The only problem I have is when they call themselves UX designers without understanding or practicing UX.

For people interested in UX design work, check out www.uxafrica.co.ke which has some examples of the work I do. Hopefully they find it useful. (Editorial note – I checked out the site, and it’s really cool – you can read about some more UX case studies that Mark has worked on).

What are your biggest challenges with your role? 

Finding competence – competent people. The UX discipline is pretty new and nascent here. To illustrate this, The UX lab we have is the first of its kind in Sub-Saharan Africa. We do a lot of in-house training to grow the community. We could do much more if we had the capacity.

Also, there is a challenge making a lot of local organizations understand and invest in the UX process. They are often resource constrained, and the traditional approach seems cheaper and easier (in the end, this is not true). We need to convince them that spending time with users is important and that companies should be designing, not just building for them.

What skills did you have to learn when you took this job?

Oh yea, it was a big big learning curve – basically understanding this market and even the UX skills that are more applicable to Africa. Some techniques that work in Europe don’t work here.  There is a lot of adoption and understanding that I’ve had to make for this market. Learning all of these things have been a big learning curve for me. Especially since when I started the UX lab, I wasn’t an expert and there was a lot I had to learn myself. UX Design is a discipline that changes, and UX Design in Africa is different from other places. 

What tech tools do you use on this job?

I use a lot of pen and paper, but also Sketch, omnigrafle, Balsamic, Axure, Podoco, sketch as well as the design suite from Adobe – The most common tool though is my pencil and paper.

What advice do you have for job seekers about how to apply for a role in your field?

I think the number one thing a lot of companies look for is that people have the right attitude. Leave the skills alone – anyone can learn a skill. To have the right attitude is incredibly important – you need to be a go-getter, willing to learn, open minded and work well with people. That’s what I find, especially having worked with a lot of really skilled people, but really hard to work with. You’d rather have a semi-skilled person with a good attitude than a really skilled person with a bad attitude – A person that even if they are not ready – they still say “I’m going to deliver 100%’’. That is a mindset, not a skill, and one that one decided to embrace despite their skill level.


Thank you so much, Mark! I know you spend a lot of time in the field, we so we really appreciate you hopping on the phone and telling us your story. I know I learned a lot. Actually, the biggest learning I had was that anthropologists could make great UX Designers! 🙂 There’s a thought…

Anyway, thank you, reader, for taking time out of your day to read this article. I hope you learned some new things, and have gotten inspired by how important design is when developing any kind of new product/service. There is definitely a dearth of UX Designers in Kenya, so if you think this might be your passion, I would highly encourage to to pursue the field and achieve success by using the tools you learned from this discussion with Mark.

Here are a few things I think you should do now:

1- Sign up for Duma Works, (if you haven’t already), and you are looking to get connected to jobs.

2- Check out our post about how to pitch yourself in 1 minute. If you are looking to impress an employer, this is key 🙂

3- Leave a comment below! We can’t make this blog better without your feedback – What do you love about these interviews and where can we do better?

Thanks again, and we’ll have another What It Takes post ready for you next week. Get excited!

Fundraising in Kenya

I remember standing outside of our host family house in Nakuru, next to a cow and a few chickens, talking on the phone with a mentor of ours who would soon tell us that he wanted to invest in DUMA. At that point, Christine and I were huddled around the phone figuring out what having an investor would mean, and feeling both excited and terrified.

Competitions are King

As everyone knows, a startup cannot move forward without capital.

Because we started DUMA in University, we were exposed to many opportunities to win money with no strings attached. Sometimes the winnings even came in the form of giant cheques.

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DUMA began as a sah-weeeet idea in Startup Weekend, and we took home our first prize money – $750. YESSS. That got us server hosting, and led the way to many other competitions.

Incubation + Free Money = ❤

We were accepted in the spring of 2012 to join Princeton’s first accelerator program through the Keller Center for Entrepreneurship, the eLab. Given that the dream of many Princetonians is to follow their passion of consulting, the eLab needed to incentivize students to stay on campus over the summer rather than go to NYC for internships. They did so with a $4,000 stipend. That’s $8,000. Boom.

Thanks to student groups and entrepreneurship listservs, Christine and I were lucky enough to find out about a few competitions with Ashoka, Intel, and MTVu – which we then won. We even got a mention in Forbes!

With the $20,000 or so we had raised at that point, Christine and I bought round-trip plane tickets to Kenya. September, we landed in Nakuru in our new homes, to launch DUMA.

That’s when we got the phone call in the cow pasture and launched into the world of angel investors.

Calling All Angels

A few things we learned –

1- Company set-up – Angel investors are more likely to invest in US-based companies, so to all the Kenyan startups out there, if you are planning on raising money from outside Kenya, check out a Delaware C Corp.

2- Accredited – If you plan on raising from an institution (eg. VCs) later, you should make sure all your angel investors are accredited, so there are no complications down the line. A lot of crowd-sourcing platforms can cause issues for accreditation, so make sure to check into that before receiving crowd funding.

3- Stage – Angel investors come when you have an idea, but no real product (yet). They believe in your dream and are incredible resources.

For our seed round, we chose to raise with convertible debt. Convertible debt means that you are in debt – but instead of giving them back money, you can also give them back equity stake in your company.

As a note – you can also raise a seed round from a VC, but we didn’t – Cool Kahn Academy video here.

To Debt or Not to Debt

Startups often raise convertible securities (convertible debt or convertible equity, for example) when setting a valuation for your company is a challenge – usually when you are pre-revenue and can’t say – “Well, I’m making $100,000 a year, and typically startups in my vertical ie. e-commerce, hardware, etc. get 5x multiple for their valuation. Therefore, my valuation is $500,000.” (Not that I think early-stage startups should be valued only for revenue multiple).

There are a ton of articles about convertible debt online. You can find some here and here. Just keep in mind a lot of these articles are debating the merits of convertible debt in relation to giant rounds – millions. Your considerations will be different if you are raising $100,000.

Convertible debt is cool because you don’t have to set a valuation. But typically, you do put in a market cap, which you can read about here & here from people much smarter than me. It’s essentially a clause to make sure your convertible debt investors don’t get screwed with a $100M valuation and get 0.00001% equity stake in return for their early belief in you.

So that was our convertible debt round. We LOVE our angels. One, we met at that first startup weekend, one we met at Princeton through technology-for-development circles, and all are family of some sort. And they are super supportive.

Welcome to the Grant Life

At some point, one of our friends from Princeton (shout out, Eleanor!) told us about this awesome opportunity to apply for a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Challenge. This grant targeted companies that leverage SMS technology to help connect informal sector workers to jobs (hello, DUMA!). So we won, along with 9 other mission-driven organizations, and it was great.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 11.48.07 AM

For us, the grant was important because it helped us flesh out our plan for building our SMS-based screening test to pre-screen people for jobs. It could not have been better timing.

Real-time Update!

The next step of our fundraising process is ongoing. We are currently raising a series-seed round. That is a cross between a seed and series round in terms of documentation and legal work. We decided to raise from angels and family funds rather than VCs. The reason we decided not to primarily target funding from VCs for this round is because typically, VCs come in at a later stage, when you have solidified your growth model, and you also typically raise a huge sum of money from VCs (often minimum $1M) in order to grow super quickly. And they usually don’t want to put in too little money, because they want to get a big enough chunk of equity. That being said, certain VCs do put in money at an early stage, and at smaller amounts.

Given our round size and targets to hit from this investment, we weren’t ready for VC yet. So for a Series-A round, yes. And most likely, it will be to expand outside of Kenya.

Wrap Up

So that’s how raised funding! There are multiple ways to go about it but this is our story.

I had a ton of questions around fundraising while were were going through the process initially (and trust me, I still do). So if you are also someone with a lot of questions, write a comment and I’ll get back to you about my thoughts. I am definitely not a professional, so for anything over my head, I can refer you to an article from an expert.

Last Thought

And by the way – remember that you don’t need to raise capital all the time. There are tons of articles about how to raise capital online, but many from investors and VCs – you can see why they would want you to seek funding…right? If you can build an awesome product, get paying clients, and immediately start reinvesting profits into growth, you are good to go!

What It Takes to Be a Senior Business Advisor

Samuel speaking at a conference

Samuel speaking at a conference

This week, we interviewed Samuel Mwangi, from a large NGO in Nairobi. Sammy is a Senior Business Advisor and helps the enterprises this NGO supports to get their businesses “together.” In all honesty, I learned a lot from this interview because I, too, didn’t completely understand what it meant to be a Senior Business Advisor in an NGO capacity.

TL;DR

  • Having a science background actually helps you to become a better business person (scientific method, anyone?)
  • Being able to conduct cash flow analysis is very important, especially at first glance
  • The market is shifting to think less about what papers you have and more about what skills you bring to the table

So Sammy, tell me a little about your career background.

My whole career is based on a few things: As a scientist, I’m trained to think and find solutions to problems. As a development person, I am trained to identify gaps in society that need to be filled. As a business person, I’m trained to close gaps. So that’s how I see myself and my career. I was initially trained in botany and zoology, and then moved into getting trained in cross cultural communication and international development. I did consulting in the private sector in business development and supporting small entrepreneurs. In the end, I wound up in development. Also, I have been running my own businesses since I was 13 years old. Now being 32, I have 18 years of experience in business, and that has been my biggest gift.

What caused you to shift from science into development?

In my career, I started as a volunteer for one year in a Christian organization. Then, I did a course abroad in international development with that same Christian organization – an exchange program. That caused a shift because initially, I wanted to study Bioinformatics and system biology. But, through this experience, I became curious about using business as a tool for development – how can we use business as a tool to help bring people out of poverty. So that’s what I’ve been doing for my career life. Well, that and running a business on the side – that’s what you call side hustle.

What would you say your major day to day activities are?

Like it says in my title, I advise businesses – big and small. In order to do that, I deal with things like project management, business development with new companies, looking at the books to help them put together their records in better ways, linking companies to market, building business strategies, segmenting business ideas, giving people actionable points to focus on and achieve, and helping companies do financial analysis.

Sammy

What is the skill you need for this job that you can’t live without?

Whenever I look at a business, I can look at the cash flow and know exactly what is going on. And because of my experience, I know what works and doesn’t work for the business.

What are your biggest challenges with your role?

I think my biggest challenge is that I am a perfectionist. Sometimes, I push myself too hard, and push other people around me very hard, and have very high standards for how fast people should do things. My role depends on a lot of other people – interacting with them and getting feedback. So sometimes waiting for that all to come together is frustrating for me.

What skills did you have to learn when you took this job?

Oh I have learned how to manage people – how to give and receive feedback, how to give support to my leaders and team members and to act as a guide rather than an authority about where a project can go. I have also learned how to be humble and be patient both with myself and others. What else…I have learned how to look at cash flows, balance sheets, and conduct financial analysis more critically. That was a big one. I had to take time to read books and grow myself in that area as well since I had dropped out of an MBA course. I actually might go back to complete an MBA course at some point  to perfect my abilities.

What tech tools do you use on this job?

Microsoft Outlook is my best friend for planning of meetings. Of course Word and Excel. I use Excel for literally everything. Creating budgets, even note-taking sometimes. And hardware! My diary. That is one of my best friends. I like booking things into it and writing notes in it.

What experience (professional or academic) best prepared you for this role?

Science taught me how to think and be critical, and detailed. I love chaos and complexity because science trained me how to make sense of all of it – to create things out of messes, and I enjoy that. It also gives me a cutting edge because most people I interact with are trained in business. And so, my way of thinking is initially very different from theirs. They have knowledge that I don’t have, but I can be more critical and bring a unique perspective to things. Also, running small and large businesses myself helps me to also be critical and be very focused when I am analyzing a business, especially looking at the bottom line. I start from the bottom line and work upwards. 268 (1)

How has this job improved your professional skill set?

This job has really helped me for my next big thing. The types of people I interact with are very different and has helped me gain insight into food processing that I wouldn’t have gotten before. Through my job, I was able to get trained in the US in the food industry and meet a bunch of businesses over there. Seeing the structures they have in the US opened my eyes to possibilities we have here and increased my competitive edge.

What would be the next logical career step for you based on your experience in this position?

I think for me the next big thing would working at one corporation. That’s what I think would give me a lot of satisfaction in the sense that I can do focused business development for one corporation, and not many clients.

What advice do you have for job seekers about how to apply for a role in your field?

What I think is that the market is slowly shifting from looking at what papers people have to what people can be able to do. The trick will be seeing what people can do and then what gap the company needs filled. If you look at business people all around the world, they didn’t train in business. Most HR managers have degrees in psychology or sociology – degrees that are basically about interacting with people – but not only about HR. If you look at most CEOs of big corporations, you realize they have degrees in mathematics, physics, something not conventional. But they have been in the trade a long time and have become good business people. I think that value is the important part – people who can challenge themselves to apply whatever skills they have to find solutions. Not just people with papers in the industry. It doesn’t matter what you study, the point is that you can be whatever you want to be, just do it well.


Thanks so much, Sammy! I think this interview will be really helpful for people who are studying the sciences to think more broadly about their careers. I also think it will be interesting for people in the NGO sphere who have this thirst for growing companies, and have a business background.

Please comment with your experience in this role or with any questions in the comments section below, and subscribe to the blog to stay updated when we publish another interview. And as always, if you are looking for a job or are looking to hire in the NGO sector, please make sure to visit and complete your profile on www.dumaworks.com.

That’s all for now, folks! Stay tuned in for next week’s What It Take episode, where we will explore What It Takes to be a User Experience Designer (aka “UX Designer”).

Pivoting and What We Learned

I have gotten a lot of feedback from readers saying that they are interested in hearing about the various iterations of DUMA and how we got to where we are right now. It’s been quite the ride, but we did learn a LOT along the way!

View from our first

View from our first “office” in Nakuru

DUMA #1

This is actually part of our 10 minute pitch from TigerLaunch at Princeton in 2012 (before we moved to Kenya to launch)  –

DUMA is a social enterprise that combines the networking power of LinkedIn with the job-posting model of Monster.com, puts it on a cell phone platform, and brings it to the informal sector of Kenya.

After creating an account, someone sends an SMS to DUMA with their location + type of worker they need, and connect with someone that had been recommended by a friend. eg.

“Nakuru, Plumber”
→ “Congratulations, DUMA found 3 plumbers near you that have been recommended by your friends: Njeri – 0705040302; Peter – 0708041912; Mike – 0783142324”

To test this idea, Christine and I walked around different neighborhoods in Nakuru, accompanied by a painter who was only slightly flirtatious, to ask people how they currently find workers.

Our learnings –

Not a Pain Point – Painting (like plumbing, furniture-makers, and other mom & pop type businesses) is too informal to pay for a platform to find workers. For painters, and other small-time artisans, the pain of finding isn’t great enough. Plus, they need to see the painters’ previous work to determine their skill.

Efficiency not actually a value – Small shops don’t value efficiency in finding people, they value finding people who won’t steal from them or slack off. Therefore, using SMS to cut out the need to interact with people actually cuts out the first level of screening a small business owner does. As we were told several times: “I would need to see they person to see how they are.”

Peer to peer model needs cash to scale in Kenya – To build a successful model where individuals (not businesses) use a platform to find people, it is not scalable to conduct 1 million house calls to tell people about the service. Because of this, it requires a huge amount of money to build a credible brand and change people’s current way of doing things through traditional advertising.

Roadside stalls on the Bahati Road in Nakuru, Kenya.

Roadside stalls on the Bahati Road in Nakuru, Kenya.

What we got out of it: What we did build out of the platform from this test was the SMS-based component for job matching, and the referral network.

New Pivot: We discovered that the only time people have pain to find someone is when it’s an emergency or a time-bound task. Thanks to learning #4 above, we decided to look into matching people to motorcycle taxis.

DUMA = Uber for motorcycle taxis

Through DUMA, you can now find someone working as a motorcycle taxi that is near you, AND who has been recommended by a friend!

This was a fairly quick test as we soon found out that people don’t actually need this because there are motorcycle taxis hanging out everywhere and are generally trustworthy.

We upped the urgency and framed it as – “Find a motorcycle taxi that is near you, AND who has been recommended by a friend, AT NIGHT!”

We soon found that motorcycle taxis are scared to go to certain areas (especially at night) because they get hijacked. People would also need to put a huge amount of trust into DUMA to try this service at night…and we didn’t want the liability if anything happened.

What we got out of it: A highly specific location-based platform, with time constraints on the response time for job seekers.

…enter pivot #3

DUMA = Hiring sales teams across the country for marketing agencies

In Kenya, most fast moving consumer goods companies contract marketing agencies to do country-wide promotions. These promotions typically require hundreds of field sales people to set up booths or distribute products.

DUMA would use the DUMA social network to find sales agents across the country, even in small towns.

The big question for this model was not even who would trust us, but who would pay for this service. Here, we learned that:

Not the decision maker – Marketing agencies have set budgets they work with from their client companies

Reputation conflict – Marketing agencies do not set aside a budget to contract external recruiters, as that is one of their main selling points to clients

Corruption – Many marketing agencies are…how can I say it…not completely straightforward. We were propositioned multiple times to just cut out part of the workers’ salary from their paycheck. And I’m pretty sure that happens often even without DUMA in the picture.

Payment barriers – Workers are willing to pay for the connection, but collecting the money is a mess, and we didn’t feel 100% comfortable preying on people’s desperation.

Going around Nakuru industrial area meeting owners of factories to learn about their hiring needs for day laborers - this didn't work either because why pay a service to find you people when the people are already lined up at the fence?

Going around Nakuru industrial area meeting owners of factories to learn about their hiring needs for day laborers – this didn’t work either because why pay a service to find you people when the people are already lined up at the fence?

What we go out of it: A network of job seekers around the country, a few big customers on our employer list, and over 1,000 part-time sales people matched to jobs.

New pivot: …?

What is DUMA??

We were pretty frustrated at this point with job matching. So we did a huge pivot into building out a monitoring & evaluation software to sell to NGOs. We still have this platform as a value-add to some of our partners who want to monitor the job progress of their trainees or project participants, but it didn’t become the crux of what we do.

What we got out of it: A value-add platform for partners which simultaneously on-boards hundreds of job seekers at a time.

And finally our last pivot (as of now!)…

DUMA = Recruiting made simple for companies that want to grow!
At this point, we had moved to Nairobi, and had been in Kenya almost 2 years already. We noticed that many companies faced a problem screening for quality in candidate applications. With companies, they cared less about social network referrals for hiring, but they did care about quality assurance.

So we applied for the Rockefeller Centennial Innovation challenge and won! We were given this huge opportunity (and a fairly large grant) to focus on building out this screening.

Who we are now: The screening of candidates in an easy way is now what we stand for. You hate posting your job on job boards? Use DUMA. You hate going through a million unqualified CVs? Use DUMA. You hate interviewing candidates whose CVs looked good but they were actually faking it? Use DUMA.

Hiring should be a celebration! It means the company is growing and you can meet your company’s new “soulmate.” Leave the hassle at the beginning to the robots inside our computers.

Our new product team hard at work in the new Nairobi office.

Our new product team hard at work in the new Nairobi office. Note the balloon – celebrate hiring!

DUMA = Still changing

Obviously, we have been constantly shifting over time, and we are probably not yet done changing. With this post, I wanted to give a better picture of who we are at DUMA, and what pivoting over time means. Sometimes you don’t even realize you are “pivoting” until a few months later when it dawns on you that you are no longer targeting the same customers, and maybe even changing the value in your pitch. And sometimes you pivot back into what you were originally, but with a slightly different twist.

We actually use all the software we built for each pivot as part of the final product. Specific location helps for finding local field sales people in small towns, we use the monitoring software as a way to onboard hundreds of users at a time, and we still use the SMS software to alert and screen job seekers.

Philosophical mind dropping

I actually hate the word “to pivot” – it makes it sound as if the startup changing is very deliberate.

We actually had no idea that we were pivoting while we were changing our product. We would look back after a few months and say to ourselves – hmmm…our product has changed. Sometimes I doubted what we were doing because it seemed like we were losing focus, or didn’t know where we were going. I assumed when we pivoted, we were supposed to be in control and be deliberately pivoting with a focus and goal in mind. In actuality, we were just in a state of constant flux, testing new ideas and products by the market. Maybe it was harder for us because we had to understand Kenya as a market + how the product fit in to Kenya as a market.

But if you are feeling like your product is changing and you’re not sure when to end up, remember that “pivoting” is a key term that entrepreneurs use when pitching to investors to make it seem like they knew what they doing all along. In actuality, I doubt that it ever the case.

That’s all for now, folks. As always, please let me know what you think of this post and what topic you would like to see next time about our DUMA journey! I’ve gotten a few requests for how we got funding – if there are no objections, I might just delve into that in the next post, Friday kutwa. 😀

A Startup is Born

Open Minded Beginnings

There comes a time in your life, usually while you’re in the middle of pursuing a Bachelor’s in Chinese Language and History (with a theater minor, of course), that you decide that it is of the utmost importance to launch a job marketplace startup in Africa.

Myself and my co-founder Christine (though granted she was pursuing a medical career and a major in Anthropology) fell prey to this plot line somewhere in 2011 and haven’t looked back since.

There are different schools of thought about whether you should try planning out your life or not. Does a person wait for the right opportunity to come along, or does a person create their own opportunities. Eg. Does one wait for Mr. or Ms. “right” to come along, or does one scout out marriage potentials like it’s hunting season. 😉

Personally, I never had a clear idea of what I was going to be when I grew up. Sure, I had fantasies about opening a jewelry store called the Treasure Chest (with very curly script lettering), or turning into a fish (when I was younger I didn’t quite get the species barrier), but even when college rolled around, I still had no idea. So, naturally, I majored in Chinese Language and History, and waited to see what would happen. I studied Mandarin in Beijing and interned in consulting in Shanghai and was pursuing an interest in advertising, but hadn’t completely settled on anything.

This is why in my senior year in University, when I returned from Kenya, totally ablaze with ideas about how to connect my friends to jobs in their towns, moving to Kenya wasn’t completely crazy. My mind was open and my life plans flexible enough to conspire with Christine over Facebook about going back to Kenya after graduation.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 2.41.34 PM

Beatles, Friends, and Figuring it out

Let me just leave a philosophical mind dropping here – The way I see it, if I decided to attempt control over my future, it would be because I am scared to lean on others. Let’s face it – when something happens that you’re not sure how to deal with, you need to get advice. Whereas, if you control every step of the path, you know what to expect, can prepare yourself, and don’t need any faith in the goodness of others. That’s how I now deal with risk – I don’t know how to do this? Ask someone. I don’t know how to file taxes? Ask an accountant. I don’t know how to write a press release? Ask someone in PR. I don’t know how to design an investor deck? Ask another entrepreneur. (This is also why Nairobi desperately needs more experienced entrepreneurs as mentors and collaboration between startup founders – yes, we are making progress – but another story for another day)

I think that the beginning of every startup is a meeting of the minds. And you want as many minds as possible thinking about your startup idea – poking holes in it, supporting it, introducing you to more minds to poke more holes to build a higher tower. It’s like a giant game of Jenga (a game with a tower of wooden blocks where you literally remove blocs to poke holes and build a higher tower – pretty apt metaphor, patting myself on the back right now) and you kind of hope the whole time that the tower won’t fall.

For us, a team of 2 liberal arts ladies, who (obviously) launched our tech startup idea at Startup Weekend (as all liberal arts ladies do), we had 54 hours to build our tech prototype. I’m not sure our mouths were even comfortable saying “prototype” at the time…

But whatever! I get by with a little help from my friends.

Startup Weekend Success

At Startup Weekend, through sheer energy and excitement, we wound up getting a small team of computer science majors, plus mentors from what was then a very small and little-known startup, called Venmo. And we won! 3rd place.

Our room was also the best room (non-biased opinion). We had African music blasting and bags of potato chips everywhere. We even had a cheetah run across the screen on the home page and music in the background. (Listen to that song, which is apparently about prostitutes, here.)

old website

Everyone was having a huge amount of fun and was genuinely excited about building a platform that could help workers connect to jobs in Kenya.

Our Startup Weekend Team!

Our Startup Weekend Team!

Looking back, I think that collaborative attitude is what has propelled us along so far. We didn’t have technical backgrounds at the time, but we knew what we wanted to build and were confident we would have an awesome team to build it with. We were also pretty convinced that anything is possible with a bit of brain juice and team power.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 2.40.16 PM We not only left with $750 from Startup Weekend, but also the small seeds of a network of DUMA supporters who would follow the company to this day (and a Kindle Fire! Thanks, Twilio!). We then went on to apply to every entrepreneurship competition school offered, plus things like the Kairos Society and Echoing Green. We even got into the Princeton eLab incubator program that summer and worked with geniuses (Holla, Eric & Luke!!) to build our minimum viable product. These networks in turn lent us credibility and paved a way for our network to grow exponentially. And we honestly couldn’t have done it without them.

Again, I get by with a little help from my friends.

One of our first website designs!

One of our first website designs!

Moving to Kenya

We flew to Kenya in September 2012, once we had raised enough money to buy round-trip plane tickets – (remember, we were college grads with close to $0 in personal savings prior to any competitions), and landed in Nakuru for 10 months – a smaller city in the Rift Valley and about 3 hours outside of Nairobi. Yes that is the same Rift Valley where the first human is said to originate.

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the beginning of DUMA!

Lessons learnt? At the end of the day, if Christine and I hadn’t been open to a pretty significant change in our expected life course, DUMA might have remained a dream and we would be stuck behind desks at consulting firms wondering what could have been.

In Summary

DUMA now has an office in Nairobi, has worked with over 250 very happy clients, has matched over 2,000 people to jobs, and has received awards from Google and Rockefeller Foundation for Social Equity and Poverty Reduction! We are also now a team of 11 people, working single-mindedly to create a smarter job marketplace in Africa.

Just goes to show that the world can sometimes transpire against you and force you to succeed. Sure, you can plan for things. But most of the time, opportunities come storming through the door, knock you down, and if you’re lucky, force you to look around for other people to help you up.

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If there was any part of this post you want to talk about, or have me go into more detail about, please let me know in the comments! 🙂 And make sure to stay posted on my next post by clicking the follow button.

This was the first post of the series – stay tuned for “Friday kutwa” (the Friday after next Friday…in fake Swahili) where we will be diving deeper into one of earliest challenges – understanding the market.

Introducing Founder Fridays

This section of our blog is set up to provoke honest, insightful, and sometimes even funny conversations about the crazy awesome world of startups in Kenya. There are tons of learnings each founder has along the way, and I think it’s really important we share them – to learn from one another. The first Friday of every month, I will share a new story on this section of the blog – follow along and enjoy!

– Arielle