On his maiden visit to Africa last year, Jack Ma promised to support African tech startup founders. This year, he delivered on his promise. Through a partnership with UNCTAD, they took on startup founders from Africa for the Alibaba e-Founder Initiative Fellowship. These totaled 80+.
From conversations with founders that are part of the program, some said that the program has been very beneficial. Apart from changing their business models, they have gone on to make significant internal changes in their startups.
I had a sit down with Nielsimms Sangho, the founder and CEO of Intership, one of the startups selected for the program. Intership is an e-commerce startup from Uganda. It won the 2015 Seedstars Kampala.
Niel, together with dozens of other African tech founders, made the trip to Hangzhou in June this year. There, they not only saw first hand what Alibaba is but also closer one-on-one engagements with the founder, Jack Ma.
In conversation with Niel, he walked me through some of the key lessons he learned. Some he has already started implementing while others he is looking to put in place with time. Below is a summary of the lessons;
1. Think Long-term
Jack Ma is usually quoted speaking of how he wants Alibaba to transcend him. The former teacher says that he wants it to span three centuries. Thus, it is not surprising that Niel points out long-term thinking as one of the key lessons he learned from the fellowship.
“This is the thing I liked with Alibaba,” Niel started, “they have to understand that maybe we will not even see the results of what we are trying to change.” He added that Jack Ma “was very comfortable saying, ‘maybe I will not benefit from what I am trying to push forward, but I am still willing to do it’”.
When the fellows met him, Ma told them the same thing. He emphasized that although they have to survive, they should also aspire to be a part of something bigger. “So finding that balance is the trick,” Niel pointed out. But said that it is his current aspiration.
2. Collective Activism
Another key thing he learned is the need to work together or in unison when it comes to issues that affect all the founders. “We want to begin having this discussion with the government,” he said. This stems from the fact that governments aren’t paying attention to the value of e-commerce in their countries as well as on the continental level.
But beyond that, they haven’t also realized that there are support structures necessary to support it and other industries.
“E-commerce works in a triangle; People have to be able to pay and there has to be logistics, then, again, you have to have people to give the product,” Niel pointed out. Before emphasizing how important the role of the government is in building the above.
“For some of those things to happen, you cannot leave out the government,” he says. Adding that people should not sit back hoping that the government will act. Implying that founders need to come out and engage their respective governments.
“If I make noise alone, no one will listen to me. But If I make noise, and you make noise and others make noise, if we make noise together, the government will say, ‘you know what, what if we do it’. So we are supposed to be our own unity.”
However much startups maybe competitors in their respective vertical, Niel thinks that these should always leave room for working together. In the end, he believes that this will lead to greater economies of scale as well as fully realizing the market potential.
“That is what Alibaba did, and that is why Alibaba is big,” Niel singled out Alibaba’s moved to start supporting their competitors. Alibaba reached a point where they were so far ahead with technology, and they had left everyone. So they got that technology, and they put in the computers and said use.
In fact, Niel says that if you work at Alibaba for more than 5 years, the company advises you to get a job at a competitors place. This is because they want everyone else to grow. In the end, it leads to building the economies of scale that benefit everyone. For example, if companies worked together to bring to life a cashless economy, all would benefit from it.
But also, when it comes to selfish interests, Niel says that no one likes monopolies. Not government, not even the consumers. Take the example of Microsoft. Bill Gates strategically invested in Apple in the 1990s when the company was at the verge of collapsing. What Gates looked at was avoiding being a monopoly. Because then, you’re looked at as a bad guy.
4. Think Data
Although Alibaba is known to many as an e-commerce company, Niel says, that isn’t the case. “Alibaba's business is data,” he emphasizes. Pointing out that they gave them a book which shows that Alibaba owns more than 30 companies. “But all these are focused on data,” Niel said.
Alibaba is doing that because they want to learn how the customer behaves as much as possible. “Jack Ma's vision was to understand the Chinese consumer,” Niel says. But, to achieve this, he knew that data had to be at the center. So, they built this big data engine called Alimama.”
Alibaba isn’t alone. Uber, Amazon, Airbnb, Netflix and all 21st Century companies have data at the heart of their existence. “Because of that, they now push out stuff that is customised to the user individually,” Niel sums it up.
5. Obsess about the customer
Most often when one is starting out, they are advised to start with a problem in mind, not the solution. Yet, it is not uncommon for many founders to do the vice versa. Niel says that customers are at the center of Alibaba. And, he advises that one should develop a product that is almost an extension of the customer’s life.
Yet, according to Niel, this goes beyond just having good customer service. Rather, it requires putting the customer at the center of everything. “Jack Ma told us one thing, that ‘look, when we sit in a meeting, we put an empty seat and that’s for the customer’, Niel says.
“[Customer service] is important, yes, but even in the process of writing the first line of code, ask yourself if what you’re working on is something that someone would look at and actually use,” Niel advised. “At the core of every meeting, of every discussion, of every design process, the customer should be at the center,” he added.
6. Company culture and purpose
When one starts a startup, there usually are many opportunities that might show up along the way. These might lead to founders veering off. Additionally, things might get hard along the way leading to one thinking that perhaps they need to change course.
Niel says that in all this, the key lesson he learned was sticking to the purpose and why you started. “Of course, the first thing, like I told you is mission, vision, and values,” he said. The key question to ask himself and the team is “why are we here and how do we get to where we want to get.”
He adds that knowing what to do is not enough. You must also know what you shouldn't do. “[We also have to know] what are our no-go areas, what are we going to do for sure, what are we never going to do for sure,” he pointed out.
Though it is not enough that only the founding team knows this, he has learned that this has to permeate the entire company. “Those things, if you know them every day and they are stuck in every employee,” he says, “then you know you’re on the right track.”
“They can be on the wall and what, but it is one thing to live like that,” he cautions.
Normally, founders are focused on the KPIs. This implies that as long as an employee is delivering, they won’t mind if they are delivering the right way.
Niel learned that it is key to find out if how these employees are doing things is how you would like them to. Which points to the company culture. “I think what would be valuable to people over here is if you know what you are doing, no matter if you are seeing results,” he says.