How can we collect and use data to build better products?

Better data, product design, and everything in between
Better data, product design, and everything in between

“How do we collect better data to build better products? “

This may seem like a simple enough question, because data in itself is a base form. Data is either valid or invalid, but how do we then optimise to collect, and make use of data?

My idea of better data in the context of product design and marketing is based on experience trying to build a technology business in Nigeria. In developed markets, data has been collected for decades at least, which allows creators build better products. Where data doesn’t exist, it’s arguably easier to collect than in Nigeria.

An example is something as simple street/house numbers. These are things taken for granted in the developed world, and even in parts of the developing world. But in Nigeria, house numbering is pure chaos. Yet, this is an integral part of the logistics and fulfilment system. While Amazon is trying to launch drone deliveries in America, depending largely on existing numbering and GPS systems, Konga literally had to build their own postal service. (What would be interesting is Konga’s data on how many times it takes their delivery guys to identify a home to deliver to, and how they do that.)

This inherent chaos is our system is not an accident. If I may borrow the word, anyhowness is a real thing. But we need to build products and services, irrespective of this chaos. And we need data to make these products/services work well, because without data, our products and services cannot operate optimally. So how do we get better data?

I was recently speaking with a technology team at a top 4 bank, helping redo their service design for Internet banking, and we were stuck on whether certain fields on their interface should be displayed at all. Bankers are fun people to work with – they had filled their software with fine banking language, like ‘liens’, ‘facility’ etc, and we’re unwilling to make changes.

So I asked: why are we making these changes?

They answered: because we want our online banking services to appeal to younger customers.

Me: How many young customers understand these big words?

Banker: They do!

Me: I don’t. And I’m not very stupid.

Banker: Well…you should.

Me: Ok, but more importantly, how many of your users, statistically click on those sections of your website, or use the service?

It emerged that it was less than 5 percent, maybe 2%. Less than 5% of users accessed a feature, yet we were fighting over it being front centre.

This is the problem. It’s a bigger problem than not having data. Understanding the place of data in the design process is the bigger problem.

The era of assuming when you build, customers will use it just because you have built it never existed. Only Apple gets away with that, and that’s because Apple understands great design better than all of us combined. Since we’re not Apple, we must behave like we’re not Apple.

A website design for example, is more than just wireframe and new CSS tricks. It’s not carousels and new HTML5 widgets. Designers must see themselves as the forerunners of intelligent service design. This means they can’t work alone.

Design is a destination which describes the entire customer journey in one location. Hence, if the design doesn’t not understand and properly capture the customer journey, and how the customer interacts with the brand, then the design product is a failure.

We must remember though, that collecting data for product design is not rocket science. Especially for people who already own their platforms, the data is there already. You probably have already collected enough, or could with minor adjustments. The challenge is in asking the right questions, and being honest to self. “What am I currently doing right? Where am I failing, and how can I improve?”

Over the last couple of months, we’ve designed various data collection models. The most successful ones have been those disguised as products.

It is very interesting that if we look at things differently, we could completely change the way we see data collection (and their applications to design), mostly from sources which are not very obvious to the user. How do viewing patterns on iRokoTV help Nollywood create better films (which score in the market)? This was an unstated, but critical observation, casually dropped in a recent blog by Jason Njoku.

The gaming industry is an example of where data is currently being harvested, with meaningful real life applications. The new Kim Kardashian game could deliver valuable user behaviour data to hotels, TV and entertainment producers, Candy Crush could help study addiction and compulsive behaviour, and law enforcement could do very interesting things with Grand Theft Auto data. It could be argued in gaming that building a great product is not an end in itself, but the beginning.

This is indeed the experience we have had over the last couple of years at Anakle, but the last 15 months have been the most interesting. While I was out being notorious for building the Bride Price app (again, I didn’t build it, Ofure’s team did), our servers were quietly collecting various kinds of data (which was one of the reasons the app was designed in the first place). We were lucky to have a few million interactions to play with, and when the various data points were reviewed, the emerging patterns provided very interesting feedback.

For example, returning female users tended to score higher marks in the quiz. Does that tell anything? Imagine that a user had scored N200,000 in the first taking of the quiz, then returned to take it – the pattern was that most returning users ended up with higher scores. What were the most popular skin tones in a given location? What image of themselves did users see in their minds? But these are the more obvious pieces of information users left behind, without filling any forms.

Most of the data we collected is currently helping our team design a more serious, real life services, and we’re approaching the product design with a lot more confidence than we did months before.

For our advertising team servicing clients in various industries, it is an advantage that we are able to predict user behaviour. While hypotheses are good, real data allows us to walk into battle with a more significant amount of confidence.

Users don’t have the time to fill our surveys, and most times, when people actively fill surveys, they are more inclined to put their best foot forward. I believe we would find more valuable data by hacking passive user activity to collect real life data. Of course nothing I am saying here is new. Silicon Valley perfected this model decades ago. But in Africa, we need to get started too, as a mainstream model.

What else can the Kim Kardashian game do (aside waste your time?)

kim-kardashian-hollywood

I would begin by thanking Kim K for attracting your interest to this otherwise boring blog about data and product design. Kim K is indeed mentioned somewhere in this blog, but this is mostly about data, product design and many things in-between.

How do we collect better data to build better products?

This may seem like a simple enough question, because data in itself is a base form. Data is either valid or invalid, but how do we then optimise to make data better?

My idea of better data in the context of product design and marketing is based on experience trying to build a technology business in Nigeria. In developed markets, data has been collected for decades at least, which allows creators build better products. Where data doesn’t exist, it’s arguably easier to collect than in Nigeria.

An example is something as simple street/house numbers. These are things taken for granted in the developed world, and even in parts of the developing world. But in Nigeria, house numbering is pure chaos. Yet, this is an integral part of the logistics and fulfilment system. While Amazon is launching drone deliveries in America that depend largely on existing numbering and GPS systems, Konga literally had to build their own postal service. What would be interesting is Konga’s data on how many times it takes their delivery guys to identify a home to deliver to, and how they do that.

But this inherent chaos is our system is not an accident. It’s not easy to make deliveries because we don’t have house numbers, but because we’re largely a disorganised people. If I may borrow a word, anyhowness is a real thing.

But we need to build products and services, irrespective of this chaos. And we need data to make these products/services work well, because without data, our products and services are cannot operate optimally. So how do we get better data?

I was recently speaking with a technology team at a top 4 bank, helping redo their service design for Internet banking, and we were stuck on whether certain fields on their interface should be displayed at all. Bankers are fun people to work with – they had filled their software with fine banking language, like ‘liens’, ‘facility’ etc, and we’re unwilling to make changes.

So I asked: why are we making these changes?

They answered: because we want our online banking services to appeal to younger customers.

Me: How many young customers understand these big words?

Banker: They do!

Me: I don’t. And I’m not very stupid.

Banker: Well…you should.

Me: Ok, but more importantly, how many of your users, statistically click on those sections of your website, or use the service?

It emerged that it was less than 5 percent. Less than 5% of users accessed a feature, yet we were fighting over it being front centre.

This is the problem. It’s a bigger problem than not having data. Understanding the place of data in the design process is the bigger problem.

The era of assuming when you build, customers will use it just because you built it never existed. Only Apple gets away with that, and that’s because Apple understands great design better than most. Since we’re not Apple, we must behave like we’re not Apple.

A website design for example, is more than just wireframe and new CSS tricks. It’s not carousels and new html5 widgets. Designers must see themselves as the forerunners of intelligent service design. This means they can’t work alone.

Design is a destination which describes the entire customer journey in one location. Hence, if the design doesn’t not understand and properly capture the customer journey, and how the customer interacts with the brand, then the product design is a failure.

We must remember though, that collecting data for product design is not rocket science. Especially for people who already own their platforms, the data is there already. You probably have already collected enough, or could with minor adjustments. The challenge is in asking the right questions, and being honest to self. “What am I currently doing right? Where am I failing, and how can I improve?”

It is very interesting that if we look at things differently, we could completely change the way we see data collection (and their applications to design), mostly from sources which are not very obvious to the user. How do viewing patterns on iRokoTV help Nollywood create better films (which score in the market)? This was an unstated, but critical observation, casually dropped in Jason Njoku’s last blog.

The gaming industry is an example place where data is currently being harvested, with meaningful real life applications. The new Kim Kardashian game could deliver valuable user behaviour data to hotels and popular culture products, TV and entertainment producers; Candy Crush could help psychologists study addiction;
and law enforcement could do very interesting things with Grand Theft Auto data. It could be argued in gaming that building a great product is not an end in itself, but the beginning.

This is indeed the experience we have had over the last couple of years at Anakle, but the last 6 months have been the most interesting. While I was out being notorious for building the Bride Price app, our servers were quietly collecting various kinds of data (which was one of the reasons the app was designed in the first place). We were lucky to have a few million interactions to play with, and when the various data points were reviewed, the emerging patterns provided very interesting feedback.

For example, returning female users tended to score higher marks in the quiz. Does that tell anything? Imagine that a user had scored N200,000 in the first taking of the quiz, then returned to take it – the pattern was that most returning users ended up with higher scores. What were the most popular skin tones in a given location? What image of themselves did users see in their minds? But these are the more obvious pieces of information users left behind, without filling any forms.

Most of the data we collected is currently helping our team design a more serious, real life product, and we’re approaching the product design with a lot more confidence than we had a few months ago.

For our advertising team servicing clients in various industries, it is an advantage that we are able to predict user behaviour. While hypotheses are good, real data allows us to walk into battle with a more significant amount of confidence.

Users don’t have the time to fill our surveys, and most times, when people actively fill surveys, they are more inclined to put their best foot forward. I believe we would find more valuable data by hacking passive user activity to collect real life data. Of course nothing I am saying here is new. While some of us are only waking up to the perversity data in the design process,  Silicon Valley perfected this model decades ago. But in Africa, we need to get started too, as a mainstream model.

You may have noticed the rambling nature of this blog. I noticed too. I haven’t blogged in a while and the rust is obvious. I will try to do better in the coming months.

 

Presentation tips for entrepreneurs…and everyone else

This will not be a typical post from me. And no, I’m not a life coach, or any kind of coach.

Credits: whitehotcenter.com
Image credit: whitehotcenter.com

A couple of months back, I attended a pitch even at CCHUB and remarked how entrepreneurs needed to learn presentation skills. As of then, my thinking was that there are many resources out there that local ‘presenters’ could read up and self help. Well, I decided to write up a few tips of my own, when I witnessed a particularly horrible presentation from a guy with a decent product who really should have made a sale on the merit of the product, but lost the pitch on account of an presentation quality.

So here’s my made-for-the market presentation tips for entrepreneurs. How does one make a good presentation in these parts:

Invest in a very sharp suit.

Research shows that good looking people are more likely to be hired at interviews – we can advance that and say sharp looking people get more attention. No, seriously, buy a suit. You have to look the part; look like you belong.

It may not ultimately win your pitch, but you are better off if your audience spends more time admiring the cut of your lapel than getting turned off because you look like you don’t belong with the money you’re pitching for. By the way, this is a $100 problem. If you can’t invest that much in your appearance, you client probably shouldn’t trust you with his money.

If you do invest in that suit, there no need to spoil it by not wearing the right belt – I’ve seen way too many people wear great suits and spoil the picture with a raggedy looking belt or tie. Please don’t. Rather than wear a silly tie, lose the tie completely. It’s in vogue anyway. Sensibly sharp colours are great for ladies, but I’m not sure my style guide is adequate for all genders, so I’ll let that slide.

Invest in non-cheesy ice breakers.

Most people who are coming into presentations where you’re asking for money, or trying to sell a product, come with a prefabricated NO. Your job usually is to turn that no into a yes. A great way to begin your presentation is to warm things up, in order to get your audience to relax. An on-the-spot joke is often a great idea, but of course that joke should be that, a joke. Any icebreaker which reflects negatively on your listener is an unnecessary yellow card. Self deprecating jokes work great if they’re actually funny. Better your audience laughs at you, than at the boss at the head of the table.

Pretty presentations work.

Remember that 100 slide presentation which showed your product idea in great detail, and would leave no doubt in the mind of the audience by the time you’re done? Well, it’s time to ditch it. Spend some time to compress your thoughts into a few slides – go heavy on bullet points, quick data and visual aids. Keep the colors pretty. (I’m a big fan of minimalist presentation slides, and would recommend that everyday.)

That truck load of text your audience really needed to see? Well, that’s why you’re standing out there. Talk. Present.

If it really bothers you, prepare two presentation decks – one for the presentation, and one to give to your audience after you are done.

Keep eye contact. 

Let’s assume you were trying to sell an idea or product. The most important people you would want to talk to are: i) the guy who signs the cheque, and ii) the guys who can influence to get the cheque signed. Identify these people quickly an drake sure you keep your eyes focused on them at least 60% the time. You are not presenting to a room full of people, you are presenting to a few people who need to get you where you want to go. Yes, you need hallelujah moments when you speak to the entire room, but keep your focus on the important people.

Build participation

Remember that marketing book that said the best way to sell is to keep your customer interested? The 1120 pages may have seemed like bullshitting, but they were right. Engage with your audience. Get them to become part of your pitch. Use local illustrations, draw parallels and explain in simple language which allows the audience to go beyond understanding you to seeing your perspective. Use questions and activities to build interaction and engagement.

If your customer, the boss, takes it upon himself to explain part of your product to one of his staff who seems ridiculously slow, or if one of the influencers (remember them?) volunteers to explain to the boss in office vernacular, you are on track.

Keep it sharp

No, a super long, fact laden, stat heavy presentation won’t leave everyone clear about what you have to sell. It’s a little worse than that long deck you were asked to trash. Keep your presentation short and to the point. If anything is going to keep you going for long, it should be your audience asking interesting questions.

Know your stuff

See what I did there? I kept the most important tip of them all for last. And yes, it is what it says. Know your stuff. If you get your sharp suit, break ice really nice, build a colourful deck and kept all the eye contact in the world, without knowing what you’re talking about, you probably should get your butt kicked out of there.

I admit, not every pitch will result in a sale, but if you make a really good pitch, you will definitely get noticed. No, I’m not going to count the number of times we’ve been offered more than our team asked for, or got job offers, on the back of good presentations. Kindly make your own suggestions in the comment section. Thank you.

The World Needs Her Autobots

autobot_transformers_1440x900An emerging trend I’ve noticed over the last year and half is that entrepreneurs and startup owners are sneering at people seeking paid employment. It’s rather ironic, this turn of events, considering that a few years back, parents and family usually sneered at kids who thought to start businesses, or threatened to disown children who turned down paid employment for the improbable ‘attraction’ of being a business owner.

Entrepreneurship fundamentally is embracing uncertainty, and the average entrepreneur may sneer at the endless routine  of paid employment. The average banker, for example, represents a human bot, doing the same thing over and over again, day after day, week on week, year on year! It is that endless routine that helped make my mind up about going into business – and I was one of the lucky ones who had a pretty interesting job.

Then there’s CCHUB. I remember once going to CCHub to find a developer – my thinking before then was that if there was a  place to find good developers, it would be the hub. Maybe I misunderstood what the hub stood for, or what the hub people thought about paid employment, but after my visit, I felt a little pity for the concept of paid employment and it’s adherents – the bots. The guys at the hub all seemed to mentally spit at the thought of working 9-5 (and more) jobs.

So what’s really wrong about having an autobot job, especially considering the most common flaws of startup entrepreneurs?

  • If we all became entrepreneurs, who will work for our companies?
  • The average entrepreneur often lacks true brick-and-mortar business skills, and needs to be guided or supported by trained managers – where would the managers come from if everyone became a startup owner.
  • Often, the glamorous stories of entrepreneurship conveniently skip those months where there’s no revenue, the zero account balances and the debts to family and friends. Because the market is very volatile, and support systems are lacking, the average entrepreneur needs a family structured in a way which has that support of a regular pay check, when one partner is running a startup.

One of the things I’m very sure about is that the fours years I spent in and out of paid employment help build a foundation for how I currently run my business. If I didn’t learn anything positive in my last job, I did learn how not to run a business, and how not to treat the people who work for me. My last job taught me management, at no cost to myself, and there was no way I would run a team where people are happy (most of the time) to work with me. There are clear differences in the way I run my team, and the way my close friends run theirs, and this is clearly down to our experiences in jobs we had or did not have.

I’m currently sitting here, typing out a blog, deliberately giving the silent treatment to a logistic staff I called up to talk to. I learned that from my former job – say 10 words, and let it sink in with silence, only broken by the sounds of a keyboard.

Steve Jobs was one of the greatest CEOs ever, but he was one of the worst managers who ever lived. It needed autobot managers to keep his team moving and working, because working with Steve made “working in a living hell” the kindergarten of horrible job experience. But he was smart – for the most part of his second coming at Apple, he hired great managers. The best CEOs are probably the ones who are smart enough to hire great staff and managers or who have had experience in autobot jobs.

Recently, I was reviewing the career of Sim Shagaya, founder of Konga.com and DealDey. He’s one of Nigeria’s leading start founders, and one of the few guys Nigeria’s smaller startup CEO would close up shop to go work for. He also has a very impressive CV, don’t let me tell you, check out his LinkedIn. We love SIM because we think he’s cool. But once in his life, the cool Sim was an autobot!

The world is defined by CEOs, but run by managers. A world without it’s autobot managers will be a world full of really angry or depressed people. This is because most startup CEOs are really shitty managers of people. Managing people is a skill that rarely comes naturally, and one of the best ways to gain management is through traditional employment.

It is great that we are beginning to build a startup culture in Nigeria, and young people are aspiring to start and grow businesses, with less protestations by their families. It is also important to note however, that not becoming an entrepreneur is also a very valid career path. I also think every entrepreneur should try working for someone else – the experience is invaluable.

Being an entrepreneur is cool. Very cool. Nothing beats that feeling of seeing something one started from nothing grow into something. That feeling is rather difficult to top. But nothing tops (negatively) that sinking feeling at the end of a month which had no revenue, knowing not where money is going to come from. Startup culture is often a swing between heady highs, and hopeless lows. In the midst of so much uncertainty, of emotional extremes, the world needs her autobots to keep things going smooth and calm like.

And hey, the Autobots, if you really think it through, are the good guys. Life could be much worse, in a world where we also have Decepticons.

GTBank Responds: We know there are challenges, but we are improving

Listen to your customers: they often know where you’re going before you do – @levie

Just over a month ago, I wrote a blog post about how not to destroy a great brand, it’s subject: GTBank. It was easy – the flaws were there, customers had been complaining and it didn’t seem there was much being done by the bank to fix the problems. I probably should not have put that post on my personal blog – suddenly, hundreds of people were visiting my blog everyday, reading, sharing and leaving comments on a blog that had previously just been there as my sounding board.

In hindsight now, it was inevitable that I would get a call from GTBank concerning that post. It only took a month to happen. This post is mostly about that call, and the events that followed. It also is probably the most difficult I have ever written.

The first time I visited the GTBank head office, I expected at least a mild air of hostility from the their communications team. The day before, I had called my lawyer as soon as I got the call from GTBank’s representatives, to be sure that we are ready with a defence, should we need it. However, there were no threats. The communications lead was very businesslike, almost nice. I’m not sure what the team thought about me when I walked in, but if they felt any animosity, they did a great job of masking it.

Straight away, the lead went on to tell me she has read the blog, and held no grudges, as she understood it was written by someone who meant well for the bank. Next on, I heard a five minute introduction to how GTBank works, the commitment to quality, the QC process and how customer complaints are handled. In the end, I realised they must know about all the troubles the bank has – and they confirmed this. “Yes, the bank understands the issues, and is working on them”, they said.

The summary of the opening presentation was that:

  • GTBank is already aware of all these issues.
  • They are glad the customers hold them in such high regard.
  • They did not expect the amount of growth they had in the last two years, and obviously, that’s taken a toll on the banks resources, and they’re currently working hard at fixing the shortfalls.
  • Taking down the 3rd party transfer from Savings accounts, for example, was a pro-active security measure – it just was not communicated properly.
  • The internet banking platform is currently undergoing major improvement work, and should improve user experience and performance as soon as the changes are implemented.

When I got the call from GTBank, I didn’t only call a lawyer and my advisers, I also prepared a presentation which laid out in very simple language the source of my disappointment with the bank, how some of the issues may be fixed. To tell the truth, the presentation savaged GTBank services, and had a line that effectively said the new website is “absolute nonsense”. The presentation ended with a little final statement – if it was hoped somewhere that the blog post will be taken down, that it was not going to happen, because that would not solve any of the problems highlighted in it. Luckily, that point never came up, as far as I could hear.

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In the end, the team went line by line through each of the issues I raised, and addressed them. Obviously they had prepared for the meeting, but that in itself bought my respect.

Before my meeting ended on Friday, I had requested my hosts to please send me detailed summaries of their improvement strategy, what they are currently doing to improve services, and the the numbers to support those activities. On Thursday evening, I got an email with the subject “Thank you”. Thank you was a reference to GTBank’s appreciation of the customer’s (me) comments, suggestions and recommendations, and was followed with a deck of information on how GTBank is fixing service quality (only excerpts shown).

Over the last two weeks, I have had two meetings with big communications people at GTBank, exchanged a couple of emails, and even had discussions on fixing some of the problems the bank has. Best thing I can say is that GTBank seems to understand that gaps exist in their services and platforms, and if their teams are to be believed, they are working to fix the problems. I also think they believe in constructive criticism. There are potentially thousands of reasons why my post went viral, but I have come to think, for the most part it was because many people who complain about GTBank truly love the bank and would love it to succeed.

In 2010, the world was introduced to a new brand management strategy by Steve Jobs. After reading that story, I realised that there’s no better way to promote one’s brand than getting full on with customers and stakeholders and addressing their issues. After my meetings with GTBank, and the subsequent emails, I found more reason to respect the brand. They may not have addressed all my problems, and my friend still has outstanding internet banking issues to deal with; but I am just one little customer, and top level GTBank staff spent hours to convince me that the bank was doing it’s best to improve services and banking platforms.

The questions on customer experience and quality of service remain. I know now what GTBank’s plans for the future, and hopefully they can communicate these better to their customers, but how soon are those changes coming in?

I was privileged to meet a guy from IT, whose ideas told me that the bank is thinking right along the same directions as I was thinking, in terms of technology (I can’t resist saying that our UI guys are a little better than their UI guys), but how soon are these changes coming on stream? GTBank is seriously working on staying ahead of the market with their Internet Banking platform, but how soon will these changes happen?

Of course, being a big bank, stuff takes a little longer to get done, approved and tested. But maybe the management could create special R&D silos, which have direct access to the decision makers, so they don’t get caught up in the bureaucracy. That’s what Steve Jobs and Jony Ives did at Apple, which built up a 10 year advantage in product innovation.

A focus group would be great for GTBank too. In my head, GTBank is not a bank – it’s a brand, built on great banking products. Often times though, a successful product team could get stuck. This is where a focus group helps. Feedback and ideas could be crowdsourced from people who love the brand and would love to see it succeed. And the cost of this could be as expensive as a few cups of coffee and open communication channels.

———-

On Tuesday, the 20th of November, I took a ‘trip’ to GTBank Ikoyi to make an FX deposit (hint: I shouldn’t have to ‘source’ for FX and pay into the bank. Why can’t I buy from the bank? CBN?). Of course I wasn’t just there for a transaction. This was my first time back in a GTBank branch my meeting at GT HQ, so I was looking out closer than normal. First thing I noticed was that I did not recognise any of the guys I knew at the branch, but there was no queue in the banking hall, as the staff were getting around very busily.

The customer care desk was no longer where it used to be – instead, there was a single desk with a self service desktop computer on it, for internet banking. Cool, I thought, except it looked rather random the way it sat there, and could have done with a decent potted plant on the side to give it character. I went straight to the pay counter, where I was next in line for service. My turn came quickly enough, but I had forgotten my FX account number. The customer care lady didn’t smile, but she helped by telling my to just write my current account number and all will be well. It was. I was done in less than 3 minutes.

As I was leaving, I noticed that there was a recessed hall to the right of the entrance, where a decently sized customer care desk was. The bank had apparently expanded the customer care desk, and people seemed to be getting served rather efficiently. I only wished the hall was more obvious as I walked into the bank earlier. Like having a really bold sign that tells me I can get help ‘here’.

I see here how GTBank is trying to improve the experience in banking halls. It could be better, but I hope whatever the bank is currently planning and doing to improve the experience of customers, it does quickly. The customers who truly love their bank will appreciate it.

————-

Because I also had to deal with a lot of random people asking if I was writing so GTBank would ‘pay’ me, and probably will have to answer if this post was paid for by the brand, I must clearly state that I was not paid then, and haven’t been paid to write this follow up. If two cups of coffee qualify as payment, then maybe I have been paid, otherwise, we could all treat this as a conversation between a brand and a friend.

So Jason Njoku got $8m. Now you want to make yours too?


Jason Njoku
Yep, that's him. Copyright http://faraitoday.com/

A few days ago, we got news the Jason Njoku and the Iroko Partners team for $8m in funding. First question a close friend asked was “What are we building? In fact what are you going to build?” I have heard this same question in different forms over the last couple of days. Now I have a question of my own.  Actually, I have questions?

  1. Must you build?
  2. Why are you building?
  3. What are you bulding?

To put these questions in perspective, I’m mostly asking: now that you want to do your own startup because Jason Njoku got $8m in funding (and you want to go get yours too), what exactly are you thinking?

I’m not going to go into the whole argument of what to or not to build, there’s EContent and Afrinnovator for that for that.

I’ll want to point out that Njoku/Iroko did not begin in one day. You just don’t get up to build something because of Iroko – it’s great to feel inspired, and indeed we all are, but there’s a name for jumping in that excited, inspired state to build ‘that app’ just because – it’s called suicide. Maybe there’s a softer name. Maybe it’s knocking your head in with a wooden mallet, which is sure to put out your lights for at least week and half, but it’s just not the thing you’d like to do.

There’s at least a million things to think about in order to build a successful app or startup. You won’t and can’t figure them all out in a day. You will need to put a decent, emotionless amount of work into the thinking process. You’ll need the equivalent of a ballistics resistance test on your idea before you even begin building – you take the idea out to the shed, setup a firing range, unload a few magazines of lead into it. If it survives, take it out again, do same with a business hat on. If it survives, then maybe you can start building.

Why is the business idea so important? In all of this hoopla, it should not be forgotten that Njoku didn’t sell an app or a complex, built up product. What he sold was an idea, a business plan! If your app or idea does not cut the business mustard, you are not going to see a dime. Because the funding is NOT free, funders will need to know that they will make money from their investment – I’m going to emphasize this, funding is AN INVESTMENT. This is why Njoku isn’t closing down his street for a major owambe anytime soon.

Here’s a few thoughts if you’re sure you are ready for that startup.

Be ready to not make money – yet. In fact, be ready to lose money. It’s important to not think your startup will magically start making money from Day 1.

Recognize the local environment. A tip on this is that the biggest impediment to monetization of apps and startups in Nigeria is payment systems. Ask any business minded developer, or startup owners. Until a mainstream payment solution is available for those little payments you need to collect from your app, most apps will not be profitable. Unsurprisingly, the big problem the Iroko team is still trying to nail is the “monetization problem”. The monetization problem has NOT been solved yet!

What to build? You could begin from where you know, where you have strong background knowledge. If you grew up in Alaba, think Alaba. If you know SMS, think SMS. You could then work it backwards, from the known to unknown. Of course this is not the Law of Moses, but it’s a bit of common sense.

Read. It is possible someone may have thought about that bright idea you have and walked away. Do you research. You just may find why the person walked away, or crack the kink that drove the previous idea owner off the land.

What this blog isn’t saying is for you not to build your app or startup – that’ll make me an effing idiot, you see. What it is saying is, think through it before you begin. Don’t do it just because someone else did, or you want to make money like Iroko Partners. Do something ridiculous, that actually makes sense, and maybe then, you can ask Jason how to get funding.

Nigerian technology bloggers: A search for relevance

Image credits: Seyi Taylor

For the record, I’m not a tech blogger, or any sort of classified blogger for that matter. However, yesterday, I inadvertently got mixed up in a conversation revolving around a Nigerian tech blogger who felt more than a little insulted by being excluded from the CNN list of Africa’s leading tech voices on Twitter. I won’t go into the details of the story, but my imperfect take on the matter follows below.

As the biggest market in Africa, depending which indexes you believe, we Nigerians tend to assume leadership of almost any issue on discussion across the continent. We are a nation with a big population and even bigger potential to do great things (whether we do go on to do great things is a matter for another day). We love the fact that we’re the largest internet market in Africa, and that our mobile telephone market is the largest on the continent, as well as one of the fastest growing in the world.

Make no mistake, bragging rights is great stuff, and is great for innovation in my opinion, but the rights to the stuff that matter in the telecoms industry is one we have not got a firm handle on.

The leadership of Nigeria in the telecoms market notwithstanding, Nigeria is NOT the leading country in terms of technology innovation and emerging technology startups. The size of Nigeria’s telecoms market is based on the sheer purchasing power of its 160 million population, and this doesn’t translate into leadership in innovation in the spinoff startupshpere which is associated with other emerging telecoms markets around the world .

So in other words, as concerns the matter of technology and innovation, we’ve not arrived yet. This is not saying we’ve “carried last”, but we definitely aren’t top of the pile.

So how does this relate to tech bloggers and relevance? Simple: if we’re not the biggest technology market in Africa, it’s likely that the leading ideas people, or thinkers and influencers may not be from our shores, notwithstanding what we may think of ourselves.

Honestly speaking, I have tried but failed to remember when a Nigerian technology blog delivered really hot industry news to me, long before anyone else knew. My thoughts on whether this is because the average tech news day in Nigeria is slow, or that I’m generally cynical depends on my daily mood, but I’ll just say it comes down to “e no dey, e no dey”. So how is a technology blogger relevant if all I get is old, rehashed news that I’ve already heard, read, digested and moved on from? How do I respect a ‘top’ tech blog which does not have any unique insights on emerging tech events? How relevant is a technology blog, whose enduring  claim to fame is the founder’s oversized sense of entitlement?

On the question of relevance in itself, I would like to think of the relevant blogger or “Twitter voice” as the guy who always has the scoop in his area of expertise. Say, if I want information on what’s going on in Kano and the general Nigerian North, I would most likely check up @dawisu. General info on politics? That’s @eggheader. Am I worried that this new tax code looks funny? That’s a discussion I’ll be taking up with @doubleph. And then there’s @toluogunlesi who’s mouth (or handle) is in everything, and @tejucole who’s likely to reduce the mundane details of our daily existence into “small fates.” That’s relevance to ME!

Two days ago, one of Nigeria’s top three telecoms brands was launching their “3.75G” network in Lagos and I waited to see the news break on Nigerian tech blogs or on Twitter. Nothing happened. My honest expectation was that there would be leaks in the blogoshpere about the impending launch, and leading tech bloggers would be at the event to cover it, but that did not happen – at least as far as I could see. So if a ‘major’ industry is happening and Nigerian tech bloggers aren’t covering or reporting it, what exactly are they supposed to do? Peel news from TechCrunch?

Relevance is when the industry respects and recognizes not only your existence, but your importance. If you have not been given priority pass to an industry event (not conferences, but A brand events, launches and briefings), if you’re not quoted by industry leaders as first rate authority, if the people who REALLY matter do not contact you for information, then just maybe there’s some ways to go towards being as relevant as we would like to think we are.

So if our bloggers feel a need to lay entitlement claims at the doorsteps of international media organizations (who, by the way, are not the leading voices in technology), isn’t it a basic requirement that they at least be relevant? If a Nigerian (read Naija) blogger is really badass, and gets snubbed by international press, I’m sure the Nigerian people will defend their own (not that we need validation form outside to prove our worth). But until our bloggers arrive, make we humble small.