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Series V

Building the future in tertiary education.

Nigeria as a Case Study.

This week on Series V, we explore some factors that should be considered as entrepreneurs seek to build edtech companies that will bridge the gaps in Africa’s tertiary education space. Please forward to a friend and share on your social media. We love to get feedback and suggestions, you can send them here.


Public domain pictures

Media reports in Nigeria have recently shocked most with the news that 1.8 million candidates who registered for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) jostled for about 850,000 admission slots in Nigeria’s university system.

With the population of Nigeria forecasted to exceed 400 million by 2050 (from about 180 Million today), it is quite clear that we cannot build enough lecture halls nor dormitories to prepare Nigeria’s workforce for the future. In thinking about solutions, we reckon that technology enabled — Open and Distance Learning should feature prominently in Nigeria’s education mix. Leveraging technology presents an opportunity to expand borders, scale reach, improve quality and maintain standards.

To build this future and capture value from their effort — Edtech entrepreneurs and the various stakeholders they collaborate with should consider the following;

1. Design with the local environment in mind. When designing our technology systems we must take a radically user-centered design approach. We must of necessity consider the peculiarities of the local environment where these users exist. How do the intended users currently access content? What technology interface do they utilise? What is the impact of power outages on how they interact with ICT? What is their income level and what impact does this have on how they use ICT? One of the biggest insights that will immediately jump at you from this exercise for instance is the need to compress content to the barest minimum size without losing quality or perhaps chunk the size of video lectures.

2. Provide multi-channel learner support. It is essential to provide a duplicity of easy to use and easy to reach support channels. Your users are going to need it. From experience, these channels should include; social media support, email, toll free lines and on platform chat. It is also usually best that access to these support channels are themselves embedded within the learning environment.

3. Don’t ignore the lecturers. While an increasing number of the learners are digital natives, the facilitators or teachers are mostly digital migrants. Do not ignore them! To ensure adoption, provide maximum support and create a user-friendly interface that is easy for them to comprehend. It is also critical to ensure incentives and rewards are properly aligned and this most times will require deep institutional changes.

4. Incorporate Quality Assurance Process in design. One of the paradoxes of ODL is that the goal remains to provide learning online or remotely without compromising on quality. It is therefore essential that the systems we build and implement have non-burdensome mechanisms for monitoring, assessing and evaluating quality on an ongoing basis.

5. People, process and policy over technology. Often times we obsess over the shiny new technology, but the reality is that people, process and policy trump technology every time. It is critical that we build our technology interventions around; defined and accepted processes; optimised people behaviours and journey maps; and enabling policy frameworks. During your system requirements gathering phase, the needs of the users should determine the structure of your system and not the other way around.

6. Focus on the use cases for all ODL stakeholders. In building your technology ODL system you will benefit significantly from obsessing on what users would actually do with the system. Users here include; the students, the university, the lecturers and the regulator. In thinking about this, we like to utilise the “Jobs-To-Be-Done” model developed by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in 2007. Professor Clayton argues that “Most companies segment their markets by customer demographics or product characteristics and differentiate their offerings by adding features and functions. But the consumer has a different view of the marketplace. He simply has a job to be done and is seeking to ‘hire’ the best product or service to do it.” By anticipating the jobs our several stakeholders actually want to get done with their ODL experience, we are better positioned to design the appropriate ICT interventions.

7. Avoid over featuring on the platforms. Do not create a complex system. Make it simple, make it easy, make it plain. Avoid too many modules; too many buttons; too many pages! Focus on only relevant modules that satisfy the immediate need of the user and iterate as you go. As the saying goes “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.”

8. Build for scale. Considering the pent up demand and rapidly increasing population, give room for expansion.

9. Encourage investment in ODL — ICT by promoting contractual sanctity.To encourage more venture capital or private sector investment in ODL we must of a necessity ensure we protect the integrity of contractual agreements and avoid personalisation of agreements based on the administrative tenure of university systems. Investing in technology enabled ODL is a long term endeavour and we must encourage investment in the space not discourage it.

Again, remember that by 2050, Nigeria’s population is forecasted to exceed 400 million — that is double our current population. We simply cannot build enough hostels or classroom halls to educate all our youths.

See you next week,

V.


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Series V

The Matter of Exits

Today’s edition is a based on an edited reproduction of a tweet storm by Kola from a few weeks ago. We would love to know what you think?

— over to Kola


Pixabay

If today, you are active in the African startup ecosystem, then you need to give some thought to the matter of exits.

Recently I had a very interesting sit down with an aspiring micro fund manager to share from our experiences at Ventures Platform. This was the 3rd of that kind of meeting in less than a month. On this occasion like always, I wished him the best and offered our support.

Then it got me thinking.

As we continue to see an increasing number of micro funds, accelerators, syndicates and VC funds come on stream in this market, all looking for alpha — the thinking of all these brilliant people needs to start shifting to “exits.”

When you raise outside capital for a fund, long term performance (exits / liquidity) matters alot. In this market we aren’t or perhaps, “haven’t started” seeing much of this desired outcome and this should be a cause for concern or at the minimum, create some anticipation.

Fund managers and other actors must burden themselves with this puzzle.

How do we create liquidity and orchestrate the exits that are urgently required to ensure the air in this balloon we are inflating isn’t suddenly let out. How do we better build high growth companies that can produce the exits and liquidity that keep market momentum going like a rolling snowball.

We don’t have all the answers yet; but we suspect that a few things matter in this discussion;

  • What venture funding model is most optimal in Africa. What does the “Wakanda Venture Model” look like and how does it need to differ from the Silicon Valley model?
  • Should alternative forms of capital returns, like dividends or profit-sharing, be an option?
  • How do we get more corporates involved to drive M&A activity downstream?
  • How might we sustainably explore the possibility and promises of blockchain and ICO’s?
  • How might we curate our portfolios such that we create strategic alignment and generate greater value?
  • How might we strengthen the size, depth and quality of our customer markets so scaling companies don’t contend with glass ceilings of growth despite our large populations?
  • What is the place for secondary listings and public markets?

There are many questions, and not enough answers. But it’s obvious that what got this ecosystem here, won’t take us further.

We’ll be interested to hear your own thoughts and hypothesis on exits in Africa.

See you next week,

V.


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Series V

Networking Should Not Look Like Networking

Last week in Series V, we published a half-fictional essay about startup founders and mental health in partnership with Justin Irabor. You can still catch up past editions here.

Please forward to a friend and share on your social media. We love to get feedback and suggestions; you can send them here.


If you watch a lot of movies, you probably already have a subconscious guide for if you go to jail: find the biggest guy in jail, and beat him up. Don’t ask why — these are rules. If you can beat up the toughest guy in jail, you become the new toughest guy in jail and no one will bother you after that.

(Unless, of course, someone new who watches a lot of movies gets jail-time.)

This idea is problematic because it seems to be conflating biggest guy with toughest guy. Appearances, as we know by now, are often deceiving, and so if you’re looking for the toughest guy in a room, sometimes it may not be the 90kg tattooed guy lifting weights with a mean scowl in the corner, but the bespectacled bookworm practicing his transcendental meditation during prison lunch break.

Understanding who the toughest guy is — and not relying on the flawed model of appearances alone — is a valuable skill to have in jail, but it is crucial to have in business.

Consider networking events for example.

A recurrent rookie mistake we find people making is pitching to someone who looks like the biggest person in the room, and finding themselves frustrated when the expected progress is stalled. It’s very common for random people to walk up to random people at events, make small talk and exchange business cards. You can often watch them tick a check-box in their heads: yep, ‘networking’ has occurred.

Someone once said that ‘networking events are opportunities for desperate people to exchange business cards with equally desperate people’, and very often we see this play so obviously in broad daylight. I was recently reminded of this when Anand Sanwal, CEO and co-founder of CB Insights observed that most of the events he has ever spoken at [on behalf of CB insights] have been of no value to the business. His is the most recent example of this problem I remember; whatever ‘synergy’ or ‘opportunity’ you get from attending one of these things is bound to be more the result of entropy than a feature of the ‘platform’.

See you next week,

V.


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Series V

Human Compilation Error

Today’s edition was produced in partnership with Justin Irabor. It is a half-fictional essay about startup founders and mental health. We think you’ll like this one. As always, give us feedback about the newsletter here, and please share. (Catch up on past editions here.)

Bruno Jide was 21, fresh out of school and looking to make an impression. As a result, he was an overeager, overexcited bunch of nerves; he resumed work early and closed late and always wanted to take on more work. He was only three weeks in.

It was December, 2012.

The company was close to closing up for the year and the entire team was huddled together in the largest room in the building (it had a poorly-stocked bar in the East-end, but no one ever drank from it). The room was splashed in a lazy blue pouring out of the projector overhead. The CEO was putting on his strongest act today; it was the regular talk — 2012 in review, highs and lows and plans for 2013.

Bruno was on the edge of his seat. He loved the CEO. He was learning to speak like the man, laugh like him and throw smart quips when he entered a room — just like the man. So far — and unbeknownst to him, he had only so far succeeded in making his colleagues loathe him further.

The talk was over in 25 minutes. No one said a thing. The entire house stared balefully at the CEO. He prodded, any questions?

No one said a thing. Bruno was alarmed. This was a brilliant, beautiful talk. Why is no one saying anything? In his panic, he raised his hand and asked a question, any question, to communicate his personal engagement. The CEO answered, but his heart was obviously not in it.

‘I am disappointed in every one of you,’ he said afterwards. ‘That the youngest and newest member of this team should be the most engaged. I expected better.’ He stormed out, abandoning the projector and his notes.

Bruno flopped against his seat, appalled. How could his team mates be so cold and uninspired?


In early 2014, a handful of people tuned in to watch an interview. A young, CEO, a different one from the one Bruno worked with in 2012, was on air and giving obligatory answers to template questions: what is your business model? How do you provide value? Challenges? Projections?

The man was nervous; it was obvious that he was camera-shy: he smiled a lot from one corner of his mouth, and tended to begin his statements with “uh, yeah.”

‘Let’s talk about your company culture,’ the interviewer asked.

The young CEO smiled weakly. ‘Funny you should ask that,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really given much thought to what our culture at XYZ is. On the spot, I guess I’d say the people I work with have overtime come to perform under a lot of constant pressure, and people have been known to work round the clock. Everything is measured, and if you cannot deliver, you probably will be without a job soon.’

He paused tensely, then chuckled. ‘Wow, that does sound terrible now that I think about it!’

And the interviewer laughed noncommittally.

The Atlantic, in 2014, ran an article titled ‘Tech Has a Depression Problem,’ giving an interesting anthropological viewpoint into the high-pressure life of startup founders in Silicon Valley. Since everyone in the tech space wants to be seen as ‘successful,’ a ‘thought leader’ and an inspiration to everyone else, the article explained, many founders weren’t being completely honest about their mental health.

“The notion that you can be vulnerable, the notion that you can share a weakness, those are antithetical to the great CEO archetype.”

One evening, after a particularly harrowing seven-hour stakeholders meeting, the results of which saw team members brutally cut off and people’s confidence in the entire company becoming shaken, I sat at my desk that night, too tired to go home.

The office was almost empty. The CEO was probably home.

I wrote him a private message: ‘Hey.’

He replied almost immediately: ‘Hey.’

‘Are you okay? Today must have been tough on you.’

‘LOL. No one has ever asked me that.’

And I waited five minutes before typing, ‘so…? Are you okay?’

‘Part of business,’ he responded. ‘Nothing to it, really.’

And we never spoke of that day, ever again.

I have flirted, almost wistfully, with the idea of a ‘cyborganization’, the ‘ultimate tech team’, where HR becomes effectively redundant — no one is dissatisfied, there is no need for team training because every team mate who needs to level-up in a particular skill will be self-motivated enough to look for tutors to help them catch up.

In this set up, the need for human maintenance and support is a non-issue, because humans are merely (and unfortunately) important ingredients in the truly important design: to ensure that the tech is just perfect, features are released on time, and scaling is done right when it is needed and everything is an oiled machine.

The ideal tech team, I wrote, would prune itself automatically:

Planning and troubleshooting is easier because anecdotal instances are hastily dismissed in the face of shitloads of data. Plan-to-action time gets faster and can actually be measured and optimized in real-time! Iterations are minimized, and the process of evaluating a team is easier — just download one or two things and you can easily know your star players and go to work on the team members lagging behind.

The only problem with everything I wrote is that it is utterly stupid. What’s worse, I am not in the minority of people that think — either actively or passively — like this.

In an episode of Mr Robot, where Elliot is faced with the daunting task of hacking a secure location, his allies say it is ‘impossible,’ because the system cannot be breached.

Elliot asks about the security detail, and his team mates inform him that there are five people in charge of security, to which Elliot says ‘I already see five bugs in the system.’*

He breaches the system, we find out later, by leveraging on information about the individuals that made them vulnerable.

The typical tech startup has a founder (or if you are lucky, a founder and a co-founder) running a flat hierarchy system.

Objectively, it centralizes command at one point, then disperses it uniformly along the team so that responsibility is shared strongly, team values are communicated coherently and everyone is always plugged in.

Subjectively, however, it is the perfect set-up for a CEO’s neurosis, narcissism and downright psychopathy to be dispersed rapidly down a chain. When startups like these have a ‘culture,’ it’s usually slanguage for a homogeneous collection of people acting and behaving along a narrow range of attributes that please one person only — the founder/CEO.

And along comes groupthink.

I met Bruno for the first time ever in 2015. He was older and wiser, and he could retroactively understand what had happened in that room in 2012. It was quite simple: the team had been sold dreams and incentives, but never seemed to ever cash out on the incentives. According to him, they had slowly come to realize they were being manipulated by the sheer charisma of their employer — and they started to see, to their horror, that they were stuck in a dead-end job.

It was nothing to go ‘whoop’ for at an end-of-year team review meeting.

In an employer’s market such as is the current set-up of the Nigerian tech scene, where many young people are trying to ‘break into’ the tech space, employers tend to be choosy and craft recruitment methods that may sometimes border on the ludicrous.

What is more interesting is this: it’s not a bed of roses when you eventually start working at a tech startup.

The founder faces pressure from investors, and that pressure can coalesce into unreasonable deadlines and KPIs and soon the entire ‘culture’ is a toxic one, where everybody’s putting out fires and doling out blame. The celebrated ‘fluidness’, the lack of structure, can easily become a HR disadvantage as things become even more vaguely defined with reassignments and ‘strategic realignments’.

Focus on the product is usually the call in the mist that founders tend to resort to when things get awry at the team level. As team members experience burnout and begin to get disillusioned, the founder may decide to employ the unpleasant shortcut of ‘cutting off’ the ‘bad eggs.’ This provides temporary respite, but shortly after, the hitherto ‘key players’ soon become the new ‘bad eggs’ and the circle goes again…

Debugging code is simple. Adding new features to your product is sexy. There are press releases and interviews that come with doing these things. Figuring out team dynamics, really understanding that people are people, and that you cannot ‘hack’ the process of effective team relations, that’s a thankless job.

But it is important work.

Motivational speeches get old quick, when they aren’t backed by results. Your trademark CEO’s smile might keep the public enthralled, but the people who work with you 24/7 will get tired of it and will need stronger values if they must remain committed to what is essentially your personal vision.

The tech is sexy. But what about the people?

See you next week,

V.


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