Building A Nigerian Startup vs. A Startup from Nigeria

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Why is it very rare for Nigerian startups just like their “company” counterparts to grow or dominate beyond Nigeria?

I could easily answer that we don’t generally think beyond our country but the question is why? and how can we overcome it?

I may have stumbled upon an answer. Hiring.

A conversation with a Facebook executive crystallized it for me.

Whenever I interact with a top executive from the big 3 software companies (Facebook, Google, Microsoft) I always ask “when are you opening an engineering office in Nigeria or Africa? Because we are tired of your ‘sales office only’ approach.”

I am usually given canned answers like “we will, soon” or “we have engineering only in USA “ — a lie. This was until Chris Cox broke it down to me.

Paraphrasing him:

When we open an office in the US, we look for the best talent that can work there. That means we have a pool from the whole of the US to pick from (which is massive). Similar to when we open an engineering office in Ireland/UK — the whole of Europe is the talent pool. It would be hard to open an office where the recruiting pool is only Nigeria or Kenya”

That conversation was an aha moment. World-class companies looking to hire people go for the best, period. Where the talent is situated is immaterial.

Nigerian startups have in general placed a mental border on their market and hiring of employees which may have placed a cap on their ambition. They are building Nigerian companies rather than global companies that happen to be domiciled in Nigeria.

I don’t know why this is the case, but what I do know is that there is this mental siege I feel whenever I am in Lagos vs London or the Bay Area. I cannot seem to understand it but it seems once you are “in the abroad”, you see things in the context of “Africa wide” at a minimum. You see the continent as a unit that should be conquered vs seeing at best, Nigeria when you are in Lagos.

I once said, in the US, you struggle to excel. In Nigeria, you struggle to survive.

In San Francisco, it’s heads down, planning world domination. In Lagos, it’s navigating traffic and purchasing diesel that’s top of mind.

In a tweet a while ago, I wondered why companies that intend to conquer the continent restrict their hiring pool to at best just Nigeria.

I think hiring outside the “Nigeria bubble” is one thing that companies can do to jump-start thinking outside the bubble. The foreign employees join their bubble and we have a bigger thought space.

Diversity of thought and experience is quite important to build a formidable team — assuming you want to be the very best in a top league.

Asides the additional benefit of diversified thinking that broader diversified hiring can bring, it gives you access to new and unique talent that is not available down the road.

I cannot help but think what would have been if Taxify started out in Nigeria. Three years later with its 25? year old founder and ~2 million dollars raised, it may have been planning to expand in maybe Port Harcourt vs. the real Taxify that operates in 22 cities. You might think this is theoretical but some of know how much “Nigerian Ubers” have raised in trying to win Lagos.

Maybe the fact that Markus comes from Estonia which is a country of 1.4 million people made him realise that being an Estonian company was not a realistic option. Or maybe having Skype and TransferWise act as Northern star Estonian startups that went global motivated him think global from day one?

Would Konga after raising almost $100 million (process that number again) still be a Nigeria only company if it were founded in say Nigeria and London?

Andela and Iroko are two companies that epitomise the ‘ideal’ Nigeria based international companies I’m theorizing about. I have decided not to consider Nigerian banks and service companies like Victor Asemota’s Swifta. As for Interswitch, dem be chairman. Andela and Iroko both of which have Nigeria has a very key component of their business and office setup,“looked” International from day one.

Their hiring in their early years reflected their intention. I also think the fact that one of the founders in each of the companies had strong “outside of Nigeria” networks helped put a broader team with a more international outlook.

It may be that their founding and frequency of their founders being outside Nigeria inadvertently played a key role in the early international outlook, so it may be one of the rare correlations that have become causation.

I don’t think it is easy at all. Jason alluded to that and I think it was more difficult for him because he was the “first” of our era. I doubt it should be as difficult if another company is trying to do the same. It is why we should have conversation.

I am actually seeing progress in this “beyond Nigeria” thinking. SureGifts are operating in Nigeria and Kenya. This new batch of Ventures Platform startups has 2 non-Nigerian startups that are asites the brilliance of their talent, are providing interesting perspective. I am also seeing it in a Fintech startup that has gone beyond the typical local hiring. they are amazed at the talent that has been so close, yet so far.

In summary, I think Nigerian (and African) startup founders should start thinking globally from day one and their hiring should reflect that from the beginning. The earlier a company does that earlier it avoids being an organization that has been purpose built for Nigeria and would find it hard to adapt when it needs to.

Jesse of OMG Digital walked into the Paystack office yesterday and I got to learn they are fully in Nigeria and Ghana. I’m sure French speaking Africa will come soon. I was glad.

Just the way I like it.

PPS: This post also forms the basis of what I see as the Yaba conundrum. I’ll try to articulate my thinking about that soon.

Written by:  Oo Nwoye, founder of Fonebase Labs, a Nigerian technology company. We built https://callbase.co to help you set up a call center in 5 minutes.

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