Beauty Contest Entrepreneurship

As we live to our billing as the most entrepreneurial country in the world, a disturbing trend is cropping up in Uganda that in my view should be addressed hastily. The advent of numerous entrepreneurial support initiatives over the past decade was a very welcome move considering that they are playing a big role in changing mindsets of the youths from merely being job seekers to job creators through provision of solutions to the marketplace.

Numerous youth hubs have cropped up largely supporting technology entrepreneurs with a few extending to the agricultural and other sectors. In terms of impact, there isn’t much to be proud of yet, but one cannot undermine the positive impact they have had so far.

These hubs are modeled around similar setups in other countries like the USA, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya among others. They offer relatively cool workspaces that today’s youth would feel comfortable in and try to appeal mainly to the urban elite.

Hackathons

A few years back, we got into the trend of competitions which were dubbed Hackathons. These competitions have their benefits considering that they enable teams come up with ideas in a limited span of time with the potential of growing them into bigger business implementations. These events culminated in the announcement of “winners” who usually walked away with a cash prize. Some of the problems this approach created were;

  • Target entrepreneurs whose aim was always to come up with implementations that were only good enough to win them the hackathon cash prizes. They could then live on the income attained for the next few months as they plotted for another hackathon. Two or three wins in a year would guarantee them more income than their salaried peers with 8am to 5pm jobs.

  • Misguided entrepreneurs. A number of youths that participated and never got into the prize bracket always felt that their innovations were not worth it. This in my view was the worst perception that they ended up leaving with. There are many reasons why an innovation would have failed to enter the prize bracket top among them being the quality of judges on the panel.

These hackathons were also occasionally flawed in their execution with a high tendency of the organisers to model them along exotic yardsticks. You would always hear statements like, “this is how they do it in Nairobi.” One of the most obvious shortcomings was usually in the panels of judges as well as mentor selection. A good number of them used to be career corporate employees with high flying achievements whose experience in the entrepreneurship hustle outside their air conditioned offices in Kampala’s sky scrapers was nothing to talk about.

Many young lads had their egos crushed merely because the so called experts had failed to see the business opportunity in their ideas. I once had to counsel a young man who thought that he’d reached the apex of failure due to his inability to get the panel to see the kind of business opportunity he had set his sights upon. It’s at this point that I reminded him that the most promising entrepreneurial opportunities are never visible to just about anyone. If people could easily see what he was seeing, then they would have already rushed into that business opportunity too.

Venture Capital

From hackathons to Venture capitalists, Angel Investors and the like. The fad lately is seeking funders for business ideas. Borrowed from the west, where moneyed people with idle trust funds are looking for opportunities to grow them, the craze lately is for innovators to seek for funders. Matters have been exaggerated by reality shows like Shark Tank which encourage innovators to turn into beauty contestants.

This is how I have seen it pan out; An individual or team come up with an idea, they then embark upon making a working prototype. Once this has been achieved, they then begin focusing more on conforming to a checklist of deliverables that will make their innovation attractive to venture capitalists.

Now I’m not saying it is a bad idea to target funders, my problem is with the pre-occupation by the entrepreneurs to focus on how to be the most beautiful idea or investment around with the sole aim of attracting funders as opposed to pursuing market viability. I keep hearing of pitches for venture capital again modeled around the Silicon Valley matrix which are not really ideal for our local or even regional markets.

A number of innovators have evaded pursuing ideas that have a higher chance of offering value to their local communities simply because they are not attractive to venture capitalists and instead opted for over hyped but locally irrelevant solutions. It makes one wonder whether it’s possible for one to develop a killer solution for a foreign market without having had the experience of doing something tangible for a local or regional market. Such stories in my view are very few and rare.

This trend is what is slowly turning our young entrepreneurs into Beauty Contest Entrepreneurs. In this approach that is being preached widely, all that matters is one’s affinity to attract funders. I’m afraid to say that based on the stories I have read about people with regrets after having worked so hard to attract venture capitalists in their nascent business ideas, we are treading a wrong path. Focus shouldn’t be on the beauty of the enterprise but rather on actual delivery on the market.

Andy Birol, a reknowned business writer once said that, “Turning to venture capital for money to grow your business is sort of like going to a bar looking for someone to marry. The longer the night goes on, the clearer it is that most people you meet have short term objectives. To find capital, just as you would find a spouse, follow the same advice. Focus on your own success and the right people will buy into you for what you are, not who you might become.”

It’s not too late though to reverse this trend since most of it is going on in the few elite patronised hubs centered largely around Kampala. We need to rethink the models of entrepreneurship that would work best in our environment as opposed to lifting in a copy-paste manner whatever has been done elsewhere and expecting to superimpose it on our relatively unique business environment.

Some of the things to consider going forward include;

  • Emphasising practicability of innovations or business pursuits. Rather than be satisfied with a few media articles and TV interviews which offer that one minute of fame, the entrepreneurs need to be ready to dig the trenches and ensure that the consumer votes with his/her pocket for their service or product.

  • Originality. Those into mentoring or even training these entrepreneurs need to move beyond using text book knowledge and come up with processes and ideas that suit our business environment. These could be entirely original approaches or modified. Why would you for example let an innovator pursue an innovation whose success is overly dependent on adoption by the Government of Uganda? Anyone who has reached adolescence knows too well the twists and turns (for lack of a better term) involved in doing business with our Government.

  • Think globally but act locally. Now I do know that most of the innovators have these grand plans of being the next Bill Gates, however, it starts by acting locally before one can win over the world. Mark Zuckerberg started off by designing a meeting solution for fellow university students before the idea rolled out globally. The rest is history. You cannot expect a Ugandan innovator to become a Mark Zuckerberg overnight. They need to act locally amidst their global thinking.

Its in this regard that I really want to shout out to the following guys whose innovations I find very practical to the local market with a possibility of going regional or even global;

Safe Boda – A boda boda service that has redefined the way we publicly use motor bikes in Kampala. Complete with a Phone App, one’s experience using their service only keeps getting richer.

Yoza – A dry cleaning service that utilises freelance local labour. Those of us who are allergic to the hefty bills of the proffessional dry cleaning services as we know them, Yoza gives us an opportunity to achieve the same goal at a much lower price point. Through their Phone App, one can reach out to numerous individual service providers and get the right bargain.

James Wire is a Small Business and Technology consultant based in Kampala, Uganda.

Follow @wirejames on Twitter

Email lunghabo [at] gmail.com

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