How To Speak Startup in Africa

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Many a times have I sat with various people across myriad entities we engage with locally in Namibia and in broader Africa and have been met with incredulous stares followed by ‘Say What Now?’ at the language that we employ.

If you work in the tech startup space (or have recently binge watched HBO’s Silicon Valley), you will notice that people speak with terms and abbreviations which might lead you to wonder if programmers have applied Zip compression to the English language while speaking.

In Namibia, and I suspect most of the emerging economies around the globe, this lingo tends to leave even IT managers of large scale firms scratching their heads. That being said, there is a lot to say for tech startups in Africa creating their own set of flummoxing abbreviations but let’s leave that discussion for another day.

However, The Tech Guys is here to demystify startup lingo into a more common lingua franca. The tech startup nerds in Africa, after all, are worth trying to understand as they’ll probably be the integral puzzle piece for African prosperity in the 21st century and beyond.

So, without further ado, I give you How To Speak Startup(Try not to be too serious about it….seriously though.):

Tech Startup – An unfunded group of people with an idea that potentially solves a problem using technology. They probably don’t sell or fix your PC’s or do email server installations. Not to be confused with your workplace IT helpdesk.

Code – what software engineers/programmers do.

Disrupt – To make a previous way of doing things look bad by using technology to do it a new and vastly better way.

MVP(Minimum Viable Product) – A prototype of your startup idea, that usually is little more than a Powerpoint presentation.

Acqui-hire – A strategy for acquiring talent pioneered by Google in the mid-2000s that happens when a bigger company thinks your team is good but your idea is hilariously bad. Also called a “signing bonus.”

Failure – A bad thing that has recently put on a pedestal as something to be celebrated.

Cashflow Positive – Someone gave us a dollar.

Pivot – What happens when a company realizes its course of action is not living up to expectations. (See also, Failure.)

SaaS (Software as A Service) — It loses money.

Pre-Money Valuation – A number you made up.

Post-Money Valuation – A number that you made up alongside your VC with the addition of some cash. Your burn rate is probably too high.

“I work in PR.” – I am, in fact, in possession of several journalists’ email addresses.

Exit – Exits come in two different flavors for entrepreneurs: good and bad. Good exits happen when you’re “killing it,” your company hasn’t killed you yet, and another company comes along to buy yours. (See possibly, acqui-hire.) Bad exits are another way of saying you failed to disrupt much of anything besides your VC’s portfolio performance.

“I’m a serial entrepreneur.” – Person who had two ideas, both of which failed.

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The Space – Because calling the field in which they’re operating an industry, vertical or even genre is too hard, entrepreneurs like referring to their company as being a player in a given space. They especially like doing this when they know they’re in a crowded market. We don’t know why they do this either.

VC – 1) Venture capitalists raise money from wealthy individuals and institutions and dump lots of said money into young companies in exchange for a cut of the company. 2) An institutional dealer of pharmaceutical-grade Opium. (See also, Opium.)

Opium – OPM, or “other people’s money,” is an incredibly addictive substance to entrepreneurs that’s rarely respected or missed until it dries up.

“We’re doing great.” – We are not doing great.

SF / The Valley – 1. The place you refer to when convincing government officials that investing in tech initiatives is a good thing. 2. A place that VC’s and tech luminaries talk up as the greatest place on Earth that you must move to if you’re from anywhere that isn’t San Fransisco or The Valley.

“We’re growing 500 percent week-over-week” — Last week we had one user, today we have six.

“We’re not currently raising capital.” — We’re currently raising capital.

UI/UX – A portmanteau of UI (“User Interface”) and UX (“User Experience”) often used by design-challenged entrepreneurs when referring to the aesthetics and usability of their product when actual understanding of good design principles is fundamentally lacking. Used in a sentence: “Our Push for the ‘Find My Goat A Date’ app is crushing it because of our design wizard who is slinging some hella dope UI/UX.”

“We’re a design-centric organization.” – We don’t know how to code.

Non-GAAP Profitable — What companies that are very unprofitable like to claim. The idea that non-cash costs don’t count is usually the sort of sickness you see here.

“I’m the business guy.” – (See: Growth Hacker.)

Gravity — What The Tech Guys is trying to escape using maximum thrust. (Yes, we are going to build rockets.)

Growth Hacking – Sales, marketing and associated activities, but with a label that incorporates the word “hacking,” because nontechnical people want to call themselves “hackers” too.

“We’re seeing great gross margins, and so are investing in growth given our strong, SaaS unit-economics.” — We lose money.

“We’re stomping on the gas pedal, given our strong SaaS unit-economics, and are actively seeking additional capital to power our sector-leading growth.” — We have lost all our money and need some of yours, please.

“We’re Killing It!” – Your dreams and investors’ dollars are probably being killed.

We hope this helps you navigate your encounters with tech nerds or wannabes.

This is a modified version of TechCrunch’s Alex Willhelm and Jason Rowley’s 2014 article with some adjustments to locally contextualize things ;-)!

StartupBus Africa 2014 getting ready to kick off!

 

The StartupBus programme was founded in 2010 in the US by  Elias Bizannes on the premise that “Entrepreneurship cannot be taught but we believe it can be learned”. The idea is to put around 40 multi disciplinary entrepreneurs on a bus in a given locale and have them build a company in three to five days after which they pitch their business models/ ideas to a panel of judges and one company gets chosen for funding/acceleration. The big payoff is the networks created by participants who go on to utilize their skills and new found connections back at their respective places of residence and/or business.

Startup Companies
Companies started by StartupBus alumni.

Alumni of the StartupBus competition have spawned some notable startups amongst them Instacart which just recently secured 8.5 million USD in funding from famed Silicon Valley tech VC, Sequoia Capital, Branch which was recently purchased by Facebook for 15 million USD and Sterio.Me which has already partnered with schools across Africa to roll out its pilot programme to help students access educational content over mobile.

Fast forward to 2014 and StartupBus competition is now present on three continents with over 200 participants, but we would like to home in on the StartupBus Africa programme. The first StartupBus Africa competition kicked off in 2013 with a southern African leg touching down in Harare in Zimbabwe  and Joburg, Bloemfontein, Cape Town in South Africa. This year the competition is aggressively expanding, enlisting a whopping 160 entrepreneurs and will include the following countries on the bus routes:

  • West Africa:
  1. Lagos
  2. Benin
  3. Togo
  4. Ghana
  5. Ivory Coast
  • East Africa:
  1. Kenya,
  2. Uganda
  3. Rwanda
  4. Tanzania.
  •  North Africa:
  1. Morocco
  2. Tunisia
  3. Algeria
  • Southern Africa:
  1. Zimbabwe
  2. South Africa
  3. Botswana
  4. Namibia
Startupbus Africa
The Buspreneurs on last year’s trip.

Last years StartupBus Africa competition spawned Workforce a mobile construction labor hiring platform, funeral.ly a funeral management app and Sterio.Me a free educational platform to help teachers engage more with their students through an SMS activated audible quiz. With this years expanded bus routes and many more entrepreneurs there should be many new exciting startups coming from African soil.

On top of their outstanding entrepreneurial skills, the participants bring sound knowledge in IT, web design, new media and business development. They will form interdisciplinary teams and work on different projects during the journey, with focus in 3 key areas: energy, healthcare and education.

StartupBus Africa
The StartupBus process.

 

At least half of the buspreneurs come from Africa and because we believe in the entrepreneurial energy of young women, we strive to have 50% of female buspreneurs on each bus.

Namibia!

To make sure that the bus reaches Namibian roads we need YOUR help. There are several sponsorship options for your organisation or company to become partners in StartupBus Namibia. Please click here get into contact with us or send an email to [email protected]

 

A chat with founder of MXit, Herman Heunis.

Recently we caught up with Herman Heunis founder of Africa’s biggest social network MXit which now has over 7 million active users. Having made his successful exit from active duties at MXit in 2011, we asked him some questions regarding what it takes to succeed as a tech entrepreneur in Africa today.

TG: You left Namibia for Stellenbosch in the late 70s, how was it being a programmer during that time?

HH: Some background, I was born in Namibia (Rehoboth), my parents had a sheep farm near Kalkrand (My grandparents and great-grandparents were all from Southern Namibia). I matriculated at Jan Mohr in 1976 and in 1977 I started a B.Comm degree at Stellenbosch University. In those years computers filled entire buildings. The 1st time I worked on a computer was in 1977 at Stellenbosch University – Computer Science 101. My career as a programmer started in 1980 whilst I was doing my compulsory 2 year National Service in the SA Navy.

TG: How did you come upon the original idea for MXit? Was it a flash in the pan moment or an iterative process?

HH: It was an iterative process. In a nutshell, the very original idea (root) of MXit was an Astral SMS-based game – I believe it was one of the very first Massive Multiplayer Mobile Game (MMMG) in the world. It did not work due to a number of reasons but the main one, lack to find a sponsor for SMSs. An integral part of the game was communication between players. After several metamorphoses we dropped the game idea and focused only on the communication part – that worked extremely well. Years later we introduced several gaming platforms on top of the communications platform.

TG: What were your biggest challenges as a tech startup in Africa?

HH: Many. Lack of human resources (software developers) was the biggest challenge. Funding, affordable and stable internet bandwidth, unstable platforms (and lack of expertise), the press, mobile operators, etc.

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TG: What in your opinion are the main characteristics a tech startup founder should have?

HH: Perseverance, Passion (for tech), Visionary, Disruptive(Rebellious ?)

TG: There aren’t a lot of tech startups in Africa that have reached the kind of success MXit has, do you think there is a specific reason for this?

HH: Timing was perfect and I had a fantastic team. The word “failure” was never an option.

TG: Is there a particular technology that excites you which you would like to see more innovation by Africans in?

HH: Most technology excites me but currently Energy (solar, batteries, fuel cells, etc) is on the brink of major paradigm shift. I think personal wearable devices, monitoring and recording all sorts of data, will be huge. In Africa we might not have the leading (sometimes called bleeding) edge R&D capabilities, but we surely have the in ingenuity to utilize these inventions and take it to another level.

TG: Do you believe that there is an emerging identity of the African tech user or do you think there is a general global homogenisation due to the critical mass movement of technology adoption around the world?

HH: Strangely I think we have a combination of both right now but that will (should) eventually disappear as the tech space (internet access, devices, user savvy etc.) in Africa gets on par with the rest of the world. Then there are more practical issues such as legislation, e-commerce, language, etc. that tech startups need to consider.

TG: Location is always touted as a major component for tech startup founders to think about when deciding to set up, should African tech startup founders be more wary of where they set themselves up in your opinion?

HH: Tricky question – I think starting up is one thing, building/growing the business is another. Access to infrastructure, HR, users, funding, etc. are important – if your location does not have these, you might have a problem. Having said that, some tech startups will depend more on the ideal location than others. Building a large social network on mobile is different to patenting a new type of battery. Coming back to MXit, I think the fact that MXit started in Stellenbosch was a good choice – access to University graduates, access to funding, access to bandwidth, very large potential userbase (with featured phones) and we knew the mobile Operators landscape pretty well.

I think the mistake we made was to stay in Stellenbosch only, too long. My opinion is that we should have moved our head office in 2007 (2 years after we started) to San Francisco. Maybe we could have been the biggest social network in the world today (bigger than Facebook)? Why do I think it was a mistake? 100 times better access to funding, 1000 times better access to software developers and great NETWORKING opportunities with other similar companies.

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TG: MXit is Africa’s largest social network with over 40 million users worldwide and as a firm employs more than 150 people now, when you made your exit in 2011 did you have misgivings about leaving?

HH: When I started MXit – there was no exit plan. I started MXit as I was passionate about technology. The ride from 2004 to 2011 was very tough and selling a company that you have started is traumatic. Fact of the matter was, I was extremely tired and burned out and staying on as CEO was not in the interest of the company. MXit needed new blood and new energy.

TG: Do you think more African tech founders should be building their startups with exit strategies in mind?

HH: I do not. Cannot do harm but the question is, are you doing it for the money or because of passion?

TG: You have said in previous interviews that you saw your strength in founding rather than managing large companies, does that make you a serial entrepreneur? Are there more ventures for you on the horizon?

There are no ventures on the horizon right now. Am I a serial entrepreneur? I don’t know if starting 2 or 3 businesses makes you one?

TG: What advice would you give young Namibian software developers/ tech entrepreneurs?

HH: Do as much research as you can possibly do. Ask yourself the question, how will my product/service be different. Will it be chat worthy – will people talk about it?

Surround yourself with likeminded, honest people. A startup is not for sissies – doing it solo is tough.

TG: Do you still visit Namibia? Do you have any hopes for the tech sector there?

HH: We visit Namibia many times a year. Recently (13 Dec 2013) I did the Desert Dash 24 hour 369km Mountain bike race from Windhoek to Swakopmund, solo. In October I cycled from Noordoewer to Swakopmund. We go to Kaokoland on a regular basis to do photography.

If you ask an optimist if there is any hope – the answer will always be YES!