by Brad Magrath
8 years ago my brother and I had a vision that entrepreneurship, mobile technology, unreasonable innovation, and working with awesome people could fundamentally change the African Transactional Landscape
Everyone told us we were crazy - no one starts a Fin Tech Business in Zambia. You will be eaten alive by the big companies, we were told, the regulators will never allow you, no one will trust you, no one will give you money, there are not enough talented people - I could go on and on about all the reasons we were given for why we would fail
Since we started more than 2,5 million Zambian adults have trusted us and transacted over a $1 billion dollars on our platform; we have created over 1,000 entrepreneurs and paid them over $10 million dollars in commissions - and 70% of these same entrepreneurs are women under the age of 25 years old. Today we have over 1.5 million active 90 days users and over 1,500 active agents
What is important to remember is where we started from because they were humble beginnings. I saw Sipho Phiri's name down as one of the speakers today - Zoona started out by renting one room from Sipho 8 years ago. My first desk was home made - I went to Bauleni and bought 20 clay bricks and then I went to Kalingalinga and bought a door and I put the door on top of the bricks and that was all the furniture I had in my office for 6 months
To make our time well spent for you, I thought I would share some fundamental truths that I personally believe that have guided me in challenging times.
My first truth: Be FULLY committed
When you sit down and have bacon and eggs for breakfast the hen is involved (it lays the egg) but the pig, well the pig is bacon, it is truly committed… I believe that to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be the pig rather than the hen - truly committed and focused. Committed in passion, energy and time. You can not play at being an entrepreneur - it is full time and all consuming - people often say to me that they want to start a business but it is just not the right time - it is never the right time but sometimes you just have to jump in and learn to swim.
Our team have sweated, bled and sacrificed to build Zoona. It did not happen by luck or accident. It emerged and grew through hard work, resilience and commitment. You may need a lot of things, including luck, but sheer effort is a non negotiable
My second truth: Your first hires will set your company culture
I believe that for the entrepreneurs here today: your ideas (as just ideas) are worthless. In fact, raising money is not your biggest challenge. In Africa today no one will invest in an idea and to be honest no real investor will sign an NDA. Capital and investment flows to one type of business and one type only - business with a proven track record of winning and ones that have a great team. So you should only focus on two things - your customer and delivering value that customers will pay for so that it can enable you to generate revenue and cash and talent. The critical success factor in your business will be your first 10 hires; they will define both the culture and set the tone. One of our first employees and now our CEO and partner took 50% of his wages for three years and every month put them back into the business to buy shares from us
My Third Truth: It's not just what you do, but what you DON'T do. Focus!
I believe the greatest threat to the entrepreneurs here today, is totally in your power to control and remove as a threat. In simple terms it is our inability to focus - truly focus with razor-like discipline. This is a threat for three reasons 1) we see opportunities everywhere, we are like a kid in a candy store - thinking “i can do that, I can do that…” 2) we try and assimilate risk by doing lots of different things - thinking if this one fails, maybe this other one will work but 3) all the research shows that if you try and do 10 things you will fail at all of them, if you try 5 you might do one or two with average results, exceptional results are only achieved when you try and do less - in doing less you achieve more. We built Zoona focusing all our attention on this one business, in one market and with one simple product - we removed complexity and opportunity and adopted relentless focus. My advice to you is focus on one business, focus on who you customer is and focus on what do they want. You need to put that stake in the ground.
My fourth truth: Be GREAT at one thing that matters to your customer
I believe people spend far too much time thinking about how big something can be and not enough time in the trenches proving it will work. The only person in your world should be your customer and your focus should be understanding their needs and pain points and working with them to solve them. Every industry has a choke point - one thing more then anything that unlocks real customer value or solves real customer pain points. Understanding that one thing and then with relentless focus absolutely owning that niche is all that matters. Your key driver must be to commit to being 10X better then anyone at that one thing that matters most to the customer and then you own the industry. At Zoona that one thing was customers that wanted a seamless simple ability to cash in and cash out - so we focused on owning that experience and being 10X better then our competitors at that - our mantra was to deliver a customer experience so that they never bounced at a green box - or in layman terms, that they were always able to cash in and out in a simple, quick safe way. We deliberately did not compete at advertising or promotions - or even price - we relentlessly competed where it mattered most and that’s where we won the battle and why we were able to grow.
My fifth truth: The obstacle is the way
I believe nothing great is ever created or built when things are easy - scarcity and necessity are the mother of innovation and invention. So yes, as Zambian entrepreneurs you can honestly say you are not starting your business in a hot spot of entrepreneurship but you can use it as an excuse or flip it on its head and use it as motivation. Environment has such an impact and we are in a harsh start up business environment here but take that scarcity and own it, use it as your drive - people have built far greater things in far tougher times, and this same struggle and resilience is your advantage— when we started Zoona everyone would ask with surprise - why did you start Zoona in Zambia and then we would say we are from Zambia and they would go, ok that makes sense, as though the only reason we would start here is because we were from here. We rather took the approach of proactively and deliberately changing our environment - not just for us but our agents too. When we started we soon realised our agents could not raise the necessary working capital to start and run a Zoona Booth. So we pivoted our business to provide them affordable financing options, to set them up and get them started.
Again, after some time, we realised that the agents’ social and economic environment were putting undue pressure on them and that were “dipping into their business tills” and taking money out of the business to meet the day to day pressures of life - putting their business at risk and our capital investment at risk too - but rather then retreat we focused on the real problem. So again we changed the environment - by this time we had a whole bunch of historical data on our agents and most importantly a transactional history of whata good agent would do on day one, week one, month one, month six, year one and year two. So our data engineers starting building algorithms and generating cohorts that could predict from day one the trends as to if an agent would one day make it and be profitable - once we had this data we were able to make a commitment to our young agents … we committed that as long as they stayed within our performing cohorts we would invest in all their short terms costs so that starting a business could also meet their needs and keep their own personal, family and life environment in balance.
My six truth: Focus on the customer rather than the competition
I believe in today’s world and in the future David will always, always beat Goliath. The speed to be able to understand customer pain points and turn them into insights and actions and solve customer problems will be the winners. The speed at which you make things 10X better for customers will be the critical success factor - and speed includes agility and the ability to constantly pivot your whole organisation to move with disruptions and changing times. Speed is an outcome of an agile and change responsive ecosystem. Traditional big business have too much technical debt to move quickly or effectively - but my key advice to entrepreneurs who want to take on the big dogs - do not go and disrupt their existing business or they will try and eat you (and they can) , rather go and invent what is not yet there and then they will never ever catch up with you. At Zoona we always focus on attacking the core customer problem and not the competition - we are fundamentally committed to baking a bigger pie, and leaving all players in the value chain whole and rewarded. We foster win:win relationships and not win:lose
My Seventh truth: Be brave enough to try, and sometimes fail
I believe until we learn to embrace that failure is a stepping stone to success and that failure should be celebrated and shared we will never be brave enough to truly grow. I appreciate we live in scarcity and failure can be costly but we need to move from assimilating risk and to truly celebrate the tall poppies - those that win but even more so those that were brave enough to try, and fail. None of the first four business my brother and i started are still around today, but through those failings we learnt our most valuable lessons. One of the investors who gave us $ 4 m in 2012 shared that the battle scars: both business savvy and humility he saw in us through those tough times were key to him giving us the money. The entrepreneurs most likely to succeed very rarely do so with their first venture - so when you fall, fall with integrity and then get up and start again, and the next time be smart enough to make new mistakes - and remember mistakes prove that you are trying.
My Eighth truth: Through failure and success, keep learning!
I believe that when you fail you are not as bad as you will feel, but equally when you are winning you are never as good as you think you are. "One day chicken, next day feathers.” I have met some incredibly successful people and each and everyone of them have shared the following characteristics: they were humble, they were sincere, they had empathy and they listen with real interest. Good people doing good things, can win. So as your reach for the stars keep your feet on the ground - as an entrepreneur you need to constantly grow and most importantly always be learning. I used to think starting a business was difficult but often all it required was resilience - you either kept going or quit, there were very few other options. As Zoona has grown, my role has evolved and it is far more complex and challenging - I have to grow 10X as a business leader just to keep up and stay relevant as the business grows
My Ninth truth: Believe in yourself and don't be discouraged by doubters
One of my favourite quotes is: "Those that danced were thought crazy by those that could not hear the music” - I believe that all the Entrepreneurs here should celebrate the music that is bopping in your brain and to understand that not every one can hear it. This important to understand - because once you understand this you will not get despondent when everyone tells you that you are crazy - your family, your friends, your bank manager - when people cannot see your vision and business dreams. Rather then be discouraged - celebrate your journey.
I was told a story once. A teacher asked a bunch of young kids if they could sing - everyone said. yes. In their early teenage years, about half said yes and by their late teens the numbers dropped. By adulthood only one or two people said they could sing. Over the years children were told they can not sing and they began to believe it. I is the same with entrepreneurs, we are told it is too risky or irresponsible or that we will never win - never forget that fundamental belief in yourself and do not let doubters discourage you
My Tenth truth: have a clear purpose
I believe in businesses with purpose - those that are built to make a difference and have a positive impact not their environment. It is incredibly tough to start a business so I would challenge the young entrepreneurs here today to chose ones that you can believe in - and even more importantly will attract great talent to join you. In today’s world the very best talent want more then just a job; they want to be part of something, to make a difference and they want to be empowered and challenged to own their contribution to something real and that has impact. At Zoona every employee has share options and if asked nearly all them would agree that our purpose, "to help communities thrive", is what attracted them to us and keeps them with us.
My final thoughts: it's fundamentally about relationships
People often talk about what will change - I will share one thing that I think will not change: the importance of relationships. So to close off today I would encourage everyone to build and foster relationships, to build an entrepreneurial community and share stories. I look forward to listening to stories from some of our successful entrepreneurs here, and more importantly hearing the dreams and aspirations of our new breed of entrepreneurs who still have to go down the exciting journey of building their businesses.
I was tasked to answer one question: What is the one thing you absolutely need to achieve entrepreneurial success - there are lots of things you need: skill, resilience, hard work, humility, luck but the one thing you absolutely need to do to achieve success - is to start. So be brave, and be bold, and start.
About Brad Magrath
Brad Magrath is co-founder of Zoona. As an entrepreneur he is committed to having a positive impact on Africa by designing and building customer centric solutions that use technology and entrepreneurship to increase and improve financial services inclusivity