I held a talk recently at Innovation Village's Founders Lab. The topic was my experience as a serial-entrepreneur (as we like to call it at Laboremus) and how you build an advanced tech company in Uganda. I thought I'd share some of my reflections with you, so here is a written version of my talk!
Earlier this year, Laboremus Uganda celebrated our 6th year as a Kampala-based tech company. It is weird to look back and think that this whole thing came together almost by accident.
It all started, like so many things, in a bar.
Sometime back in 2000-and-something I got to know Marius, a Norwegian guy who was working for his family's NGO (Fontes Foundation) in Uganda. We hit it off immediately and became great friends. During our many late nights at different kafundas around town, I showed Marius some of the tech projects I was working on and he shared my interest for the things I was trying to build. Then Marius went back to Norway.
But he remained interested in both Uganda and tech. One day he ran into an entrepreneur in an elevator at a conference. They hit it off instantly, and when the elevator reached the ground floor, they had decided they would open a software firm in Uganda. Random, but true, story!
They needed a local partner to help them set things up, and incidentally, I was the only person Marius knew in Uganda who could code. The rest is, as they say, history.
So how do you build an advanced tech firm in Uganda? A tech firm that is supposed to supply software solutions to a global client no less. Well, here are my tips:
Step 1: Find yourself some crazy co-founders
It will be a really bumpy ride so strap in. You will need some crazy people if you are going to make it through the rollercoaster that is startup life. Pick them carefully, not everyone with a good idea or money is a good co-founder. Your co-founder(s) should inspire you in tough times, and be there to celebrate the good times
Step 2: Have a vision and get going (Tugende!!).
There is too much talk, especially in Uganda. You need to start doing the work, and not waste time on the talking. When we started Laboremus Uganda, we knew we wanted to do outsourcing work for European clients. It took us less than a month from when we started talking about the idea until we had started setting up an office and recruiting people.
Step 3: Build an amazing and awesome team.
Do not compromise on teamwork qualities and attitude when you build your team. At Laboremus, we don't hire know-it-alls who want to do everything by themselves, that's not how you build a good product nor a good team.
Hire senior developers to be the core of your team, they have experience and will guide your mid-level and junior developers. Follow up by building a pipeline of junior developers. No one (!) is going to build juniors for you. The sector is too young and the education system badly equipped to produce the developers you will need tomorrow.
How can you afford to build juniors and seniors? We found our niche through donor funding. The Norwegian Development Agency has supported our training of juniors through grants, while we have built competence, exposure and experience for our mid-level and seniors through an exchange program developed by NOREC through which we send our developers to Norway. We have also been a partner with Canadian Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to get access to skilled labor for free. Do the research, find your niche and make the most of it!
Step 4: Reach for Nirvana.
Customers want high-quality software that does everything. Until you start talking about the budget. They want everything, but at a cheap cost. This has proven to be an impossible proposition. It's not profitable and not scalable.
Instead, make software you can resell many times. If you don't sell products, then build with reusability in mind. You should not build a new login-screen every time you make a new product.
It is like the concept of "Nirvana". In coding, you reach nirvana when you deliver a product to new clients again and again without changing a single line of code. That is the goal. But even 50% nirvana is a good goal!
Step 5: PMs are the guardians.
The mind of a normal developer is often chaotic. There are too many ways to do the same thing and too many new things to try out. If you leave her to her own volition many projects will never be finished. That is why you need project managers. They wake up in the morning to get things done! You do not need experienced project managers, you need smart, organized, structured, and dedicated people. None of our PMs has studied project management. Build processes to help structure the way you work, make sure everyone understands the processes. The PMs are the guardians of your processes.
Step 6: Build a culture.
Be about something other than money. Have fun and believe in what you are doing, it is infectious and makes people want to work with you. At Laboremus, we have adopted a hybrid of Norwegian/Ugandan culture. The best of both worlds!
You will, for example, find it really difficult to find the MD if you came to our office looking for one. He shares a desk with three other people, and when he's not there he is hanging out at the foosball table with the rest of the team.
Step 7: Nurture leadership.
Give people the freedom to be self-accountable. At Laboremus, everyone is accountable first and foremost to themselves. We don't have time and resources to make sure that people do what they are supposed to, so we give them the freedom to deliver in their own time. My experience is that people flourish when you give them space and opportunity to. Nurturing the leadership qualities in everyone, not just management, creates an environment that fosters continuous growth in people.
Step 8: Run your company as a professional business.
Let's be real: Companies exist to make money.
However, when we started Laboremus with a team of 3, the third person was an administration and finance officer. You need to have sound financial accounting expertise to make money and keep your books in order. If you do not do this, it will come back to bite you.
Step 9: Evolution is everything.
We started as an outsourcing firm, but over time we evolved to a 50/50-model, and these days less than 50% of the work we deliver is exported out of Uganda. We always wanted to work locally, and as we both we and the industry has matured it is now possible on a scale that was not that there when we started out. So, never stop innovating!
I hope my tips will be useful as you embark on, or continue, your startup journey. Good luck and remember to enjoy the ride!