On Twitter, I am best known as a curator of African tech news and in general as someone promoting tech entrepreneurship in Africa. In fact, many think I am a blogger or a journalist. What many don’t realize is that I am also a successful tech entrepreneur.
In 1999, I set up AppsTech to provide enterprise software solutions, primarily around Oracle technologies. I started with literally no money and despite my best efforts, never raised any funding. I was a woman tech founder. I was a Black woman tech founder. I was a Black African woman tech founder.
Although those might have been external factors, my race, gender, or national origin were never a part of my equation. I lived in a self-created bubble in which those elements didn’t matter and I went about my business as any white male would have, oblivious to the reality that surrounded me and the challenges before me. It honestly never occurred to me that it might be any harder for me than any of my fellow startup entrepreneurs.
Lesson One: Your reality is the one that you create in your mind, not the one that others create for you.
Because I was not conscious of how difficult this was, I could be bold. And bold I was. With very little savings and no financial backing, I set out to build a global multi-million dollar business.
I spent the first two weeks doing nothing but writing my business plan. Because I was writing it for me, and not for bankers or investors, I could be completely honest. I was able to lay out my weaknesses, market risks in a very bare, truthful way. Then I could think of strategies to counter these. As I did this, my business model changed significantly from what I first intended. Over the years of course, it changed some more.
Lesson Two: Having a personal business plan is very effective. When we pitch to investors or customers, we want them to drink our Kool-Aid. It’s important though, to realize that it is Kool-Aid and not to drink it ourselves.
So I realized by developing my plan that the type of customers that most purchased my offerings were multinational. That meant that I also needed to be a multinational. How a one woman company becomes a global business can be resumed by one word. The internet.
I built the company’s web site and it was available in both English and French. I spent days studying the web sites of companies like Arthur Andersen, PwC and CapGemini and mimicked the look and feel. The site wasn’t very nice but in those days, neither were my competitors’. I couldn’t yet afford an office but I did get a virtual business address I could use on the web site and on a business card. I didn’t include a title on the card. I wanted the flexibility of being the CEO when I wanted or just one of the engineers if the situation warranted. I might have been a one person business but I presented myself as a global corporation.
Armed with my new business cards, my new web site, I spent a couple thousand dollars going to an industry conference. During that conference, I landed my first customer. A multinational. Of course, they had no idea that I was a one-woman machine. And they didn’t need to. They needed some technical advice that I knew I could provide.
Lesson Three: Fake it ‘till you make it but never sell more than you can deliver.
I used all of the revenue generated from that client and invested it in my business. I rented an actual office, hired a part time assistant. I never used any of those funds to pay myself. In fact, I was homeless and couch-surfed for two years before I finally got my own place. In the 17 years I have been in business, I have always paid myself last and have never had the highest salary in the company.
But couch-surfing wasn’t just about saving money; because I didn’t have a home, I could focus entirely on my business. I wouldn’t leave the office until at least 2:00 AM. There were absolutely no distractions; there was absolutely no comfort.
Lesson Four: Comfort is your enemy. Be prepared to make huge sacrifices.
As I mentioned before, even though I was a tiny business, I was global from day one. Every single tool I purchased to run my business had to work from anywhere. In a world where the word “cloud” still defined something you could look up to in the sky, I only bought software accessible over the internet. We were one of Salesforce.com’s early customers. Also, each individual I hired, from my assistant to my technical and executive team, had to have worked or lived overseas and speak at least two languages. So where my like sized competitors were focusing on the small local customer, I had my eyes on the more lucrative global market. And because everything was designed to be global from the very first day, I didn’t have to pivot years later and develop a global strategy, change systems and staff. Global in one location with four employees is actually the same structure as global in ten locations with hundreds of employees. Global is a way of thinking.
Lesson Five: Design your business structure to address the largest market you can, not your current state.
There were several aspects to our business model which were unusual at the time and helped us sign some very large deals within our first few years in business. One of them was that I personally hated bureaucracy. I still do. I have an intense dislike for paperwork and administrative procedures. What I came to realize was that so did many of my customers. When a bureaucratic multinational company is faced with a bureaucratic multinational supplier, the purchasing process and the delivery of services becomes complex and bogged down.
So I tried to simplify the process. I basically productized services. So rather than sell so many man/hours or man/days with different rates for different people, I created packages that customers could choose from. For instance, support contracts had traditionally been per “seat” or per person on the contract. We proposed three different levels of a support product that never specified who, or how many would provide them. Not only did this greatly simplify the purchasing and delivery process but it also allowed us to scale. Since we weren’t paid by number of consultants, we could build efficiencies to reduce labor costs on customers and spread our resources across multiple contracts. In the US in 2000, this was innovative.
Lesson Six: If the product or service you are providing isn’t innovative, your delivery of it can be.
Of course, I couldn’t have done any of this without a fantastic team. I sought out the very best minds in the industry and sometimes courted them for months before they would come on board. As often as possible, I tried to find the brightest in the African community. Congo, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Sudan, Cameroon, and more were all represented at AppsTech. This in addition to China, Korea, India, France and the UK. Most of them were much smarter than I was. Although some were obviously intelligent, they didn’t necessarily have specific industry experience. One of my very best hires for example, was a political science major with absolutely no Oracle and little IT experience. But I loved the way he carried himself. I hired him on the spot. As a Client Relationship Manager, his ability to navigate difficult personalities was key. Another guy had a degree in veterinary science. He too had no Oracle experience. But he spoke five languages fluently including Russian and Spanish. If he could learn foreign languages so easily, surely “speaking” SQL wouldn’t be a stretch. He went on to get multiple Oracle certifications and was one of the very best members of our technical team.
Lesson Seven: Hire the very best or train the very brightest
Within four years, AppsTech had seven offices across three continents and customers in over 50 countries. We had generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue. By the time our model caught on, we already had established ourselves as the market leader. We had weathered the tech bubble and had seen many of our competitors, even some a hundred times our size, disappear. Profiles in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Computer World, Fortune Magazine and many others.
The epitome of success. We were unstoppable. Or maybe we weren’t…. But that’s for another post.