Wendy Bampton and Scott Cowan attending the 2018 African Legal Awards
I am tired of reading glamourous start-up stories. A twenty-something jumps out of bed one day having a light bulb moment, resigns from their soulless corporate role and secures investment from the wonderful angel investor who they met over an almond flat white. They effortlessly build their product over the course of the next few months and launch it, with a trainer-clad team, and are an overnight success. They raise their series A and B within two years and receive countless tech awards. They play ping pong at 11am most days and sometimes lie on the office sofa to refresh their tired minds. Some prefer to sit in “thinking pods” and, working Mondays?... Not necessary! Flexibility is everything...
If this is your start-up story, then, fair play! For most of us, however, it is far from reality. In my blog today I want to share the parts of building a new business that most people simply do not see. What founders are often too scared to admit (because they are too worried they may be seen as weak or failing)...it is insanely difficult.
Building a start-up is relentless, panic-inducing, makes you question every decision you take, wakes you at 3am most nights and leaves you feeling very isolated. You may be asked, as I have, when you are going to ‘get a proper job’ and everyone, I mean everyone, has advice for you. Most of it contradictory and very confusing.
Africa Legal was launched in April 2018, but that was far from the start of the journey. There were years of - minimum viable products; testor platforms launched to the market to solve clients’ pain points but that fell short; striving to understand our market; building our network; and, then, working in cultures we had not grown up in. Sometimes it also means starting the journey believing you have the right partner on board and then admitting, once again, you got it wrong. It can also involve taking on consultancy jobs and self-funding as that illusive seed investment feels further and further away.
My parents are huge fans of the phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ and, sitting here writing this, I know they are absolutely right. I’ll be honest, I don’t fancy repeating the last few years but I would not change them. We did finally secure seed investment and, in just over nine months, Africa Legal has had 50,000 visitors of which over 70% are living and working on the continent. We have maintained gender balance across our users and had the opportunity to promote female leaders and the importance of the youth development in the legal industry. Both incredibly important influencers for Africa’s future success. We have reached that ever important revenue generating milestone and are able to boast a client list that includes the likes of Hogan Lovells, Thomson Reuters, University of Cape Town Law@work and Manokore Advocates (part of DLA Piper).
So, why wouldn’t I change these last years and make the journey a little easier? We listened, we learnt and we understood more and more about our market’s pain points. We developed a much clearer idea of what our technology needed to do and how to put together the seemingly five billion piece jigsaw that is building a tech-enabled business. We understood the importance of a clear brand identity and story that develops over the long term. We became more and more passionate about the insatiable thirst for learning and the desire of young African professionals to better themselves and the passion to truly make a difference and to leave a legacy.
In 2019 we have a very clear plan to execute which includes another larger funding round. We are now under no illusion as to how much energy, commitment and belief it will take to reach this year’s milestones. Thankfully, we do so with a growing team both here in the UK and on the continent, a very supportive investor and a community who believe in our product and aren’t afraid to give us feedback to allow us to continually improve. We can’t always do things as quickly as we would like (we don’t have a Google-sized workforce just yet!) and there are key gaps we need to fill but we are super excited about building the African Professional Services Group in 2019 and sharing the next phase with you.
If you are thinking about working in or building your own new business these are our top tips.
You have to be passionate about the market you are working in and clear about the problem you are trying to solve.
If money is your only motivation - it is not enough and be assured there are easier ways to make it!
You will work harder than you have ever worked, probably for less money to start with. If you are after a 9-5 this is not it!
You will receive lots of advice, most of which is hugely welcomed but can be distracting and contradictory. If you don’t have a clear plan and clear goals, and don’t sense check these are aligned to your market constantly, you could follow the wrong advice.
You will make mistakes and probably lots of them. Don’t be afraid to admit them and learn from them. They are likely to be some of the most important lessons you will ever learn.
Set KPIs and goals for the year, for the quarter, for the month and for the week. There is a huge volume of work, a lot of which is not revenue generating and you need to keep on top of all of it and still make money to stay on track
Some people will want you to fail, will try to take advantage of you or will be against you. You can’t control everyone and everything but you can control your response to it.
There is no room for egos. You are likely to do your own admin support, be your own IT and HR director, accountant and FD. Be prepared to get stuck in and know when the right time to outsource comes so you can focus on the core business building activities.
Get as much sleep and exercise as much you can and try to get down time. Obvious but easily forgotten.
Finally don’t forget to celebrate your successes!!
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