Nairametrics| I have been thinking about this topic for some time now. In fact, what got me to think is the use of the word “Start-up”. What does that mean? This word appears to be exclusively used to describe early stage technology companies. So, you hear entrepreneurs say, “I run a start-up”. With this expression, you are expected to know that it is a technology business, not a salon or a bar (as if those are not start-ups themselves). On the other hand, if you hear, “I run an SME” then it has to be some woman baking cake or trying to set up a food business. Nobody thinks technology.
But before I go on, I will like to state categorically, like I have always alluded to, that the rules guiding tech entrepreneurship are not different from those guiding SME operations. I know that tech founders project this “larger than life” image, but the truth is that no one truly is.
A recent tweet from one of Nigeria’s most experienced technology entrepreneurs, Sim Shagaya, summarized this bias:
What then is Entrepreneurship?
According to a Harvard Business School professor, Howard Stevenson, “Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.” This is an interesting description of the concept of entrepreneurship. Interestingly, Howard didn’t limit this concept to technology entrepreneurs only. The woman looking to start selling food by the road side, who has no coolers or table to set up with but instead uses the pavement, is an entrepreneur.
The boys who cannot afford to rent shops and decide to sell in traffic are super entrepreneurs. Those traders whose shops were demolished at Oshodi but went to Yaba to start again are solid entrepreneurs. So, it is not an exclusive cult of people in Yaba, wearing tee-shirts and jeans, etc. It is not a big boys club.
Examining the Support Structure Around Tech Entrepreneurship
Technology entrepreneurship to me appears to be that spoilt baby crying over chocolate. In the scheme of things, only little things work against them. They have some organised support structure around them. They are able to raise money from different sources including an organised (maybe somewhat organised) angel network. There are incubators and accelerators (in fact, every bank is now building an innovation hub), VCs focusing and specialising on various stages of the company lifecycle, corporates willing to listen at the sound of “Machine Learning” and “Artificial Intelligence”, regular meet-ups to talk shop, etc.
In addition, tech entrepreneurs in Lagos got their rents paid for under the Lagos Innovate program by the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (“LSETF”), while on the other hand, the environment ministry of the same government will demolish shopping buildings, seize the wares of street traders and leave them with absolutely no support.
With all the support structures around tech entrepreneurship, these entrepreneurs still whine and whimper like that annoying baby about how difficult it is to do business in Nigeria and how customer acquisition is hard, instead of focusing on solving the actual problems of the customers. Rather than focus on building solutions that consumers will love to use, they focus on building more confusing apps that my cheap Tecno phone has no space for.
This is however, not to tar all technology entrepreneurs with the same brush. I love a few of them, and I believe they are solving real life problems rather than just building tech for tech’s sake. However, an overwhelming percentage of them only want to be within that circle of “tech entrepreneurs”.
Where is the Support around Non-Tech Entrepreneurship?
By non-tech, I mean “start-ups” that are not building mobile apps or leveraging Telco data for lending. I mean that mallam trying to set up a side hustle alongside his full-time job as a gatekeeper. I mean that retired nurse trying to set up a pharmacy store or that retired teacher trying to start a preschool. I mean that former chef at Eko Hotel trying to set up his own fast food joint. That recent graduate of Music, trying to set up a recording studio and a music college. Where is the support for these people?
Yes, I know that there are a few organisations trying to do a few things like FATE Foundation, and maybe Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Program (“TEEP”), depending on who you ask. In fact, I am struggling to come up more with examples.
Rather than support this vibrant entrepreneurship spirit, we are determined to kill it. Some Yoruba words (forgive me if I murdered the translation) – “Satan, if you cannot assist me, restore me to my previous state” This is my word for what we have right now.
The principle of success in running any business (start-up if you like) is practically the same. Like Mark’s mom, who rented a 2 room apartment to start her school. She was the teacher, principal and administrator with just an assistant teacher. She steadily grew that business from 1979, and kept it alive till today with over 1,500 pupils.
Maybe Mark can share if his mom raised from external investors. If she made that pitch or she attended any start-up pitch competition. Maybe Mark can provide context if she left her business for 3 months to attend some accelerator program “in the abroad”. Maybe Mark can confirm if she had a pitch deck that contained the buzz words – Runway, Burn rate, Customer Acquisition Cost, Customer Lifetime Value.
I believe that she just focused on executing her business, steadily growing the numbers of students, while maintaining great quality education.
Is this the best she could have been? Maybe not. But when you have built your 38-year-old business, you can ask me questions. I believe we all know companies that have raised millions of dollars and have died within less than a decade of operations.
Imagine she had access to the support structure that today’s entrepreneurs have. Imagine that she raised just a million dollars.
Maybe tech entrepreneurship is overrated, maybe…