Dear Local Startup, know thy market

My entertainment in the last week was provided by the witty twitter exchanges between Mark Essien and Marek Zmysłowski, founders of hotels.ng and Rocket Internet’s Jovago, both claiming their companies to be the better online hotel booking service. I have committed to using both services and writing a public review, but that’s a story for another day.

During the twitter exchanges during the week, many responses were thrown in from the sidelines, some backing my brother form Ikot Ekpene, and a small minority, Marek, Rocket Internet’s new boy. But the funniest of the side shots was this Sunday piece by Oluwole Leigh, who took a very satirical pen to the local vs. foreign conversation.

If you have not read this very funny story about Bankole, Mark and Jason’s visit to the tech industry’s favourite babalawo, you probably should.

The most interesting part of that story for me is almost innocuous, as it was subliminal. Right after the SPARK team left the babalawo’s home, there was a knock on his door. The babalawo asked who it was, and the response was a very assured Marek, who answered “Emi ni , Emi Marek ni…” (I believe that’s Yoruba for “It’s me, it’s me, Marek”).

Why does this one sentence stand out?

A few years ago, I had a short stint as a product manager, and one of my tasks was helping foreign business partners berth their products in the Nigerian market. Of course that also meant entertaining opposite number product/export managers on their (mostly first) visits to Nigeria. One of the most outstanding things I noticed was how much they knew about the country, without ever having set foot on Murtala Muhammed. They always had more data, tended to understand the local purchase patterns, and never seemed as lost in Nigeria’s complexities as I had been made to expect. Worse still, they were armed with more experience in a global market.

After my first export manager meeting, I spent the following months acquiring data on the Nigerian market. I was probably never going to have as much data, or resources as the foreign export managers, but I was determined to not be ignorant. The information I found helped us ramp up our contract values by over 500% in just over 13 months.

But that experience had taught me to respect Johnny Foreigner in the Nigerian business scene, which is why the story Marek’s “Emi ni , Emi Marek ni…” response really struck me. Its no longer surprising finding the random foreigner who understands the African market more than us locals. The average foreigner gets to Africa, spends time traveling around the continent, seeing the market, and understanding the foundations, while some local CEOs spend most of their time peering through the sales pipeline. Some of us locals often assume that because we were born here, we understand the market better. Well, that isn’t always true.

It’s not a given that living in a house means we know where the rat holes are. The reason the housekeeper often finds the rat holes, even though they’re strangers in our homes, is because they spend more time peering at the hidden corners of the house.

Oluwole Leigh, in his satirical story, also inadvertently highlights the attitude of many local startup founders, who spend more time trying to be alien to our local markets, to match Silicon Valley, while the oyinbo guys spend more time trying to understand the market. Reality is that looking and sounding the part will never equate to understanding the market we’re trying to capture.

So, instead of employing interpreters in our own market, we local founders need to start responding to the call of “who is there” with an assured “Emi ni. Emi founder ni

Disclaimer: No egos were harmed in the writing of this blog. All characters are reference in the context of their characterisation in Mr Leigh’s story, and have no reflection on their actual position in the local market. Any similarities to real life dispositions is highly regretted. This blog is in no was a reflection of my opinion on either Mr Essien or Zmysłowski’s attitudes to market development.