The uncharted path of an entrepreneur

From the outside, it appears as though some people have it all figured out, managing to succeed in just about everything they do. However, the reality of the situation, is that they are all failing fast and succeeding in learning from the experience as they go on. Notable entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Brian Chesky doing incredible work right now, are all first-timers and they have had to sift through the rubble of products or services that work for their companies and those that do not.

Very often, people begin new businesses with a very faint idea of what they think the outcome will be, even with the help of informed decisions based on trends and existing data. We always seem to forget that our ideas, no matter how great they appear on paper, will be tested in the real world. When I was about to get married, I remember vaguely someone asking the question “what do you know about marriage?” My response at the time was simple, “I don’t know anything, I will figure it out as I go.”

Many start-ups, especially those in emerging markets, are largely unaware of what tomorrow will bring and this is not because they are totally oblivious of the realities and choose to ignore them. The belief system is often very simple – just get in, things will even out. Entrepreneurs like myself currently operate in a market without existing frameworks, no blueprints and, probably the worst bit of all, the only way to survive is to trust and follow your business intuition.

When Konga opened formally for business on the 10th of July 2012, we started out with categories we thought would help us hit a home run, categories that would possibly give us a leg up in the market. We were wrong. We had no idea what we were doing really. The company started out by selling beauty and personal care products in addition to the baby, kids and toy items, the rationale was simple; get the women, who incidentally are the drivers of household spending to be interested in your brand then upsell them on other categories. Simple. It turns out, that wasn’t the case, though the two categories we started out with did quite well, we scored better with the electronics category; mobile phones, laptops, etc. About two months into Konga’s operation, the Lagos State Government placed a ban on motorcycles. Nobody could have anticipated this. We had just invested in about 20 motorcycles and to watch them become dead assets on arrival was rather unsettling. How do you navigate through an issue like this? How do you properly serve a market that still has logistics problems plaguing it? You have to figure this out yourself and trust your gut as there are no existing models to help new businesses and companies within this type of system.

In November 2013, we pioneered Yakata — our own adaptation of Black Friday —  the first of its kind in Nigeria. We had planned, prepared and drawn all our projections estimating that at we would get quadruple of our regular traffic at best and we could not have been more wrong. On the day of the sale, something interesting happened, between 9 AM and noon we had beaten our estimates and traffic grew 16 times, nobody saw this coming, consequently, our infrastructure fell over. Even though we had toiled and planned, we still weren’t prepared for what could hit us and we still didn’t know what we were doing.

Yakata 2015 has come and gone, like every other one before now, we have interesting tales. Around August this year, we started moving towards the paradigm of microservices, Konga, before this, had been running on the monolithic Magento system and while the product has served us well, we had also stretched it beyond its capacity. It only made sense to decouple it and break it down into microservices; order service, inventory service, catalogue, notification, wishlist, seller ratings, etc. We decided to move away from PHP and go the Node route, there was a little bit of uncertainty, no one in the team had experience-running Node under high traffic, but we went ahead nonetheless. In the end we found out that the Node system outperformed PHP with the same resources. Our services, running on our busiest days (Yakata) of the year, didn’t flinch for a second. It shattered all our previous assumptions and made us increasingly confident in many other things.

Google created Buzz, Wave and killed it? Why? You know companies don’t kill a product that’s excelling in the marketplace. Fab, though defunct, never started out as a flash sale company, shockingly enough, it started out as a dating site for gay men. The company pivoted when things didn’t quite pan out well for its original purpose. If Jason, creator of the site, had any foreknowledge, I guess he would have created a flash sale site from the get-go. Amazon pulled the plug on Fire Phone not because the Fire Phone was killing it in the markets, but because the phone performed below par. These are all examples of companies trying, failing and learning from experience.

It is easy to look at those you admire and get overwhelmed, especially if you look at what they have achieved in comparison to yourself, this can quickly and very easily cause you to retire into your shell. The amazing CEO, operations expert and that manager of top companies you see now and admire didn’t get there by understanding all that this new position will entail. They simply jumped into the deep end and believed that things will sort themselves as they go. We can only grow after we step out of our comfort zone and it is impossible to see all the troubles that really lie ahead. Jump in, because, we all don’t know what we are doing.

Personally, I’ve blown opportunities, not because it was my initial intention, but because I just didn’t know better. I’ve learned from it and made significant progress as an individual and a professional. My job consistently involves stepping out and going beyond my limit, doing things I previously thought I couldn’t do. I always don’t get it right, but I remind myself that those that did it before me probably didn’t know much, they figured it out. As such, it becomes part of my duty to figure things out and forge ahead, because, in all honesty we all don’t know what we are doing.

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