In Part 2, I talked about the difficulties we faced with the agents. We also struggled to find a profitable business model and hence pivoted a few more times. I also covered our COVID19 sojourn and how we tried our best to navigate it. After struggling to find a consistent revenue model, we knew judgement day would arrive.
JUDGEMENT DAY ARRIVES
I had collected what I thought was an All-Star team. Our failure to foresee how long a technology startup takes to mature in Uganda or anywhere else really proved fatal. We had a meeting once with CK Japheth (Founder of The Innovation Village) and he told us about the 1,000 day startup rule regarding time it takes to find a repeatable and scalable business model. I have since found out that within three years, 92% of startups failed, if you want to be more optimistic, technically speaking, only 8% of startups are able to survive in the first 1,000 days since their inception. CK was brutally honest in that meeting on the challenges that lay ahead and what we needed to do. The meeting left us deflated, but we knew deep down, he was correct. And that realization meant that we were doomed. How do you prepare for an 800m race and then at the 700m mark, you are told it’s 42km.
We had used inexperienced coders and we just couldn’t keep the bugs away. The app crashed more frequently than we breathed in. We fixed and fixed it, but day after day, it crashed. This is when I learnt the importance of having a coder on the founding team. We had to pay the coders for every upgrade/downgrade. For every single fix. The coders really sucked us dry like vampires.
All of this was happening while we were running out of cash. After about 9 months with no tangible and consistent revenue, judgement day arrived. We were back to being stone broke. We borrowed some money to keep the ship afloat, but it wasn’t helpful. The makers of the Titanic thought it could never sink. But I think I had more confidence than them that Twekobe was failure proof.
The worst bit of it all is the team. It’s all fun, games and optimism in the start. But when the hard times hit, you can start to smell blood. With no path to revenue, and no cash to burn while we figure it out, morale was low. I am an extremely hard worker, but I started having 10 hours of nights sleep. It was really stressful trying to figure out what to do next. (For some reason I don’t understand, I sleep so well when am stressed). As a leader, it was my job to figure it out. I think the rest of my team had had enough. I had personally spent 3 years of my life trying to build a startup. I had missed my entire early twenties.
So we decided to take an indefinite break. Everyone turned to survival mode. We had to pay rent, move from here to there etc. We decided to all first focus on making some money, stabilize life then return to Twekobe. But it was obviously a move like the bands do. You know those all boy or girl bands that take a break? They never reunite. Everyone instead pursues a solo career. Even couples that take a break, they never really go back. I knew it from the day we separated. I don’t know if my cofounders knew it too.
My 12 Takes From This Journey.
- We were young & extremely inexperienced when it comes to startups. We had the zeal, the dreams and hopes, but we really didn’t have a firm grasp of the basics. The simple things eluded us. Do the simple things well like managing the finances and taking calculated risks well enough. They will set the tone for the harder things.
- I learnt that direction is better than speed. You want to blitzkrieg? That’s fine. But where are you “blitzkrieging” to? Until you can answer that, forget about blitzkrieg. You better off running like a tortoise.
- First figure out survival before you can think of thriving. This is logical, but to us then, it wasn’t. It didn’t really cross our minds to survive first. We just wanted to start from 100 and go to 150. But who was going to get us from 0-99? We didn’t think about that.
- Do not pause your entire life for the sake of a startup. Why? You might need to pause it for a long, long time. During my 3 year battle to build startups, I barely had a life outside a startup. I barely dated or went to social events, I barely watched movies or anything. It was startup after startup after startup material. Learn to take a break, but don’t quit. Ohh, you really need to keep your life.
- When they say 9 in 10 businesses fail, it’s not just a phrase. It’s really tough. Startups are the pits of life. Like Kisadha Malinzi told me in a WhatsApp exchange, “ It’s tough, but you will survive.” Well his prediction of survival didn’t really come to pass, but tough? Oh, he was right. Nothing prepares you for the startup world. You need to get there to understand it. Am not scaring anyone, but the truth has to be told. Entrepreneurship is not about interviews on CNBC Africa or Forbes 30 under 30, its more of interviews by clients who don’t really care about you and prospective partners who can’t even pick your calls.
- I don’t buy the whole follow your passion analogy. Sometimes, you just have to get the job done. But it helps if you actually love something. Well you can love what you do, or do what you love. But if you do what you love, the better. With Twekobe, I asked myself “how did I get here?”. I did love what I was doing, but I wasn’t doing what I love. Even as much as I wanted to get the job done, because it was my job, doing what you love is the most fulfilling thing you could ever do.
- You are not special. Like CK Japheth told us ( I keep on referring to this meeting), “Every entrepreneur thinks they are God’s gift to the world.” Well, we found that out the hard way. This was why we threw logic and caution to the winds sometimes, even for obvious things. We really thought we were failure proof. Yes, we did.
- Plans rarely go according to plan. Even with meticulous planning, it’s highly unlikely the startup will follow that script. But plan. If possible, plan up to the end. But don’t delay starting just because you are still planning. That is procrastination.
- The Pandemic. Starting a tech company in Africa is hard work. It becomes even harder in a $30bn economy like Uganda where 1GB of data costs shs 5,000. Now combine all this, and in the middle of a pandemic. Real estate was hit really hard. People were home for months and rent was the last thing on their issues of concern. Most of our agents used to get on average 5 clients a day pre-pandemic. Post lockdown, this number went to 5 per week. One day, we went to see some of our agents and found them playing LUDO( a popular board game here in Uganda) on a Monday morning! The thing is, with startups, you don’t truly know what will kill you. There is a lot of uncertainty.
- Your mental health will be tested severely. Running a startup is akin to eating glass. Your mental health will fluctuate from 0 to 100 and back with the frequency of volatile stock on the NYSE.
- I always told my cofounders that, “You can never defeat the system from the outside.” How I wish I took my own advice. We wanted to build a startup in Uganda, but we decided to stay away from the heart beat of the startup scene in the country. You need all the support you can get when building a startup, but we decided to isolate ourselves. One of the 48 Laws of Power ( A book by Robert Greene) is, “Never isolate yourself.” Couldn’t be any truer.
- In Africa, opportunities are immense. There are many companies in the West that can be replicated here. We wanted to build Zillow. But unlike in the West, you might be required to build an entire support system in Africa. For example in the USA, there are exams one takes to get a license to become a real estate agent. All Zillow had to do was build the technology. This might not be enough in this part of the world. In Uganda, everyone is a broker. We had to build a whole agent academy to even come close to having verified & tech savvy real estate agents. This is a story for very many startups on this continent. Consider it.
All in all, it was a great learning curve for my team and I. We made good memories that will last with us for a long time. Twekobe was our chance to take on the odds and the world. We learnt the good things about ourselves and the bad things too. I have also grown tremendously as a leader. The first few months were tough to live with the fact that we didn’t get to achieve what we set out to do. But the more I focused on the positives, I started getting a smile on my face.
My cofounders have since moved on. One left for the finance world while another picked up the trade world. They moved on faster than I did. I revisited my childhood passions. Besides doing startups, my other passion is writing and researching about them. I decided to go back to Journalism school on the weekends while becoming the high priest of tech, startups and investment news in Uganda and Africa as well. I write a newsletter on substack (jnlubwama.substack.com) about startups, technology and investments. I realized I knew too much and it was time to share this knowledge. It was time to do what I love.
I don’t regret what happened. I actually feel privileged to have gone through this while young. The lessons I learnt will stay with me forever. Like they say, experience is the best teacher. I have a bachelors degree in “startup-ology”.
I want to thank Jonathan Kayemba. He introduced me to the startup world proper way back in 2017. Can’t really forget the words of wisdom that I got free of charge from Maxime Deudonne (Safeboda) and CK Japheth(Innovation Village). A special shout out to my two cofounders, Emmanuel and John Paul and our two coders, Joshua Kasasira and Emmanuel Onen. I know how demanding I am and how hard I drove everyone to give their best. I am an A Team player and I forced each one of you to become one because it was the only way you could survive. But you don’t forget those you went to war with. We emerged from the war scathed, but alive. And the greatest bonds are built in the valleys, not at the peaks.
To me, the entrepreneurial journey is like a woman falling in love. You meet your first boyfriend and you think you are going to get married and have kids. Then you break up and find another one after sometime. You think you are smarter now and you have learnt from your mistakes, but that relationship also ends on a sour note. Then you meet another man, and things click. Same analogy with startups. You do your first one and you think, this is it. A year or two in, you realize it was never it. Then you start another having thought about all the lessons you have learnt. Things could finally click on your 3rd or 4th or 5th. The founder of Hulu got his break on his 6th. But just like falling in love, sometimes, you never get your break at all. It’s the reality of life. But never quit.
We wanted to build an African version of Zillow, starting in Uganda. We instead ended up with zero. I am looking forward to moving on to the next phase of my life in media.
Jonathan Ntege Lubwama
CEO & Cofounder, Twekobe.
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