My colleagues would say I was super quiet at the first internal meeting. They wouldn’t be lying. Usually when I get a new job, I spend the first few days observing team dynamics, mode of operations and absorbing information generally. This allows me determine true reporting lines, how to prioritise tasks, the company’s focus and if I have made a mistake by joining the company. It wasn’t any different here.
What I really liked was how things were explained along the way, without me having to ask. There were also other meetings dedicated to getting me up to speed, explaining company goals and why we were adopting certain strategies. This made onboarding very easy. It’s difficult not to feel like you are doing important work when you are included in the big picture.
As we left that first meeting, all I could think about was how failure was not an option.
One thing that impressed me was the team’s insistence on knowing what my personal goals were and how the company’s objectives fit in. We did it when I resumed and at the beginning of this year. In the year after, we have had many more honest conversations, primarily aimed at making sure we are all on the same page and everyone’s head is still in the game.
In February 2019, I wrote about working remotely in Lagos. Being in a remote-first company has taught me the importance of responsibility and reliability.
While I am fine with the solitude as I am introverted, I’ve had to adjust to being in constant contact with my team. I’ve also learnt that motivation to get work done will not come from heaven. It comes when you actually start the work.
These days, the only battle I have is to get to my workstation. Everything else happens after.
What I found difficult — and how I have adjusted.
The first few months were not funny. Many times, I felt like I wasn’t in control of my time. Infact, there were real issues around:
Being spread thin, and always wanting to be up to date on everything immediately. This led to being busy, not productive. Productivity in this context refers to how many tasks were actually completed. This translated to time management and prioritisation issues. These days, I work hard to dedicate myself to one task at a time.
Admin work: The sheer volume of calls and emails alone was drowning. However, I realised there would always be a billion things to do and got more intentional with better time management.
Verbal Contribution & Taking Action: When you’ve worked in structures where you are assigned tasks, proactivitybecomes a pipe dream. Here you are trusted to make the best decisions for activities within your purview. PS: Part of this trust means you know when a Partner’s involvement is required.
Time had no boundary: The line between work and life was blurred for some time. To help with this, I invested in an at-home workstation so my brain knows that sleep and work are two equally important and distinct activities. We are getting there — most days, I have to play Rain Sounds or Enya to prompt myself to sleep.
Focus:My biggest lesson in learning the power of focus was when I read 62 pages of a book in 45 minutes with my phone on DND. Time moves slower and things get done faster when you focus.
Power and Internet issues
What has helped me
Putting my phone on DND: I found that I lost control of days where I focused on messages and emails first thing in the morning so I started blocking notifications. The Samsung Focus Mode is also a good alternative. I don’t do this everyday and some numbers can still get through. If you are a PM, project manager or healthcare professional though, this may be a bad idea.
Batching tasks: Before I started doing this, it felt like all my time was spent on only emails and calls. These tasks are now conducted on specific days and times.
Eating later: I’m not big on breakfasts, especially because food can be distracting. I usually eat around 4/5pm.
When I made the decision to leave banking for the startup life, some thought I was going crazy. The biggest question was why I was leaving stability and a “sure” monthly pay for a tech company they weren’t sure would meet salaries at the end of that month. I’ll admit that for most of these people, startups weren’t more than manifested wishful thinking doomed to die in a few months. Now my friends call me “tech sis” and my mum has said I’d explain what I do to her one day.
I don’t tell this story to inspire. This is my journey. Not all of us will be tech bro or tech sis and that’s fine.
Venturing Out (pre-2013)
I’ve always felt a critical disconnect between the first 19 years of my life (when I got my BSc) and the decade I’ve lived after. Pre-grad, all I ever heard was how young I was and how everything would be perfect.
I fell for it.
A little back story, I first wanted to be a lawyer, but went for Economics in Unilag — maybe I wanted to be like my dad who had studied and taught Economics before his role at the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN) and subsequent passing away.
My eyes cleared when I went for NYSC (2012/2013). There, I was thrown into teaching at a secondary school that had less than 20 students total in all six grades, got toasted by village boys I had 5 years on and was inundated with calls to register for the Nigerian Institute of Management (NIM) certificate exams.
First Job (2013)
I started out selling. First I sold books and then plots of land with a real estate company.
It didn’t take me long to realise how much I hated sales. I simply hated convincing people to buy something and having my salary/performance review depend on their decision. Soon though, colleagues felt like family and I stayed for more than a year. On the flip side, I noticed how interesting I found creating a deck for the company (without being asked) and sourcing more effective lead generation techniques.
PS: I botched a panel interview with an investment bank in VI in April 2013, right after NYSC. Final stage interview and the CEO thinking I was nervous complimented my handbag to put me at ease. I appreciated that gesture and it told me how good the workplace culture would be. E pain me sha but it was clear why I didn’t get it — they needed technical knowledge and relevant experience.
I stalked the person that got the role for the longest time on LinkedIn. Lol.
The “This can’t be my life” syndrome (2014–2015)
Around this time, I got on JarusHub and even contributed articles on knowing oneself and making the best of sales jobs here and here to the platform. JarusHub rekindled an old interest in Finance, so I gave myself the next assignment — send cold emails to as many investment banks as I could find online.
I had left my real estate sales job around the same time without a new job in the pipeline. My only plan was hoping that a family member would pity me and refer me for a new job. I was at home for 5 months before I got a role at Nigeria’s longest surviving indigenous bank.
By 2017, when I had gotten serious about seeking a change, my format had changed. I drew up an Excel of companies I wanted to work in, and went after HR and decision makers in those companies. LinkedIn was the way this time and I only sent emails when they directed me to. Surprisingly, response rates were way better here than in 2014 and I got very good leads as well.
Dealing with Rejection (Never Ends)
Going through my old emails and it’s clear that 2014 was my year of sending cold emails. It was also my year of multiple rejections.
A rejection from a telco in that year was the one that hit me the most. It was the one I thought I had in the bag as many of my suggestions had been used in my group’s presentation at the Assessment Centre. No — it was not KPMG.
The second happened in 2018 — an investment bank that I really wanted to work with. The deal breaker was my 2:2 grade. In some companies, I wasn’t even allowed in the door because I had a 2:2.
Do your best in school kids. Second Class Upper and First Class degrees look nicer on CVs. They also make the journey easier.
But this was 2018 and 7 years post-graduation. I decided that wasn’t going to rule my life anymore.
Certifications and Progress (2014–2018)
At one point I got it into my head that certifications were the only way I could make any tangible progress. I hated Accounting with a thorough passion and yet between August 2014 and December 2016, I registered for ICAN, CIBN and ACCA (paid GBP 😩). I never sat for any exam.
None of it felt right.
ALAT was launched when I was a team lead at Wema Bank’s contact centre and finally, I felt some excitement. I saw the move to Victoria Island as moving to the land of opportunity. Even as a mainland babe, I knew that all the interviews, opportunities and corporate events were happening on the other side of 3MB.
Breaking into Tech, Networking and Shooting Shots (2018)
ALAT dialed my curiosity up and the lull I had felt hitherto left. These were the early days and things were moving fast. The technology was now in my face. I was responsible for finding out what was going on and making sure we solved problems. Even my WhatsApp status updates quickly became about things I found interesting in tech, innovation and fintech, not bants from IG and Joro. Moreso because at the time, one of my mentors told me no one would take me seriously if I kept posting such silly stuff.
By 2017/2018 when I decided to test the waters again, I had 3 opportunities in the pipeline — 2 product management roles and a Customer Support role at TeamApt. What is interesting is that leads for the two roles that weren’t with my current employer had come from LinkedIn/shot shooting. I nearly shut the door on one of them because of the low self-esteem I had from having a 2:2 degree and being an outsourced staff. My exact words were:
“Please tell this person that I am an outsourced staff here, not a full staff and please let me know the brutally honest feedback.”
These were Lola’s replies to my insecurities at the time.
My next words were:
“I don’t have energy again ni. Getting dismissed because of that or because I had a 2.2”
Even though they were things I already knew, hearing them from somebody else further validated them.
I went with the Customer Support opportunity at TeamApt and oh what a new world that was. What really struck me was how fluid one’s career trajectory could become and how much of an edge specific technical skills could give you.
Surrounded by software engineering genius, pretty soon I wanted in. I tried learning to code, chose Python, no joy. It was exciting but was a ton of work that my lack of a (Computer) Science background wasn’t going to help. I had seen this play out in real life.
By August, I had an opportunity to join the HR team and I took it. Tech recruiting was eye-opening and all through that year, I delved deeper into the tech startup world. I was dead-centre now.
Curiosity got the best of me and on December 28 2018, I reached out to Yele for the first time. You know the rest.
Two other things that didn’t help me were that I was unknown in the universe and I lacked specific technical skills. The second meant that I wasn’t going to be rushed on LinkedIn the way developers usually were. To solve the first, I realised I had to create more content than I consumed — especially since I always shied away from events.
Vision is always 20/20 in hindsight and here are some things that helped me along the way:
I had a mentor and sponsor: I once wrote about mentors but this video by Carla Harris does justice to why you need a sponsor. I won’t sit here and tell you I got lucky and finally figured stuff out myself. The truth is things got better when I got a mentor and sponsor.
I stopped overthinking: Call it fear or self-sabotage, but there’s a spirit that whispers negativity when you finally get the opportunities you’ve been looking for. Just remember that the worst case scenario is that you gain the interview experience. Also, there are people less qualified in better roles so spend more time doing than worrying.
Have an image of your “future self” in your subconscious: A clear image of your destination makes the journey more bearable, trust me. It also gives clarity as you now know what it takes to get that coveted role.
Refine your process: Sending cold emails (the way I did 6 years ago) led me nowhere. While it is a numbers game, push for quality more than quantity. Remember to find smart ways to gain visibility.
Surround yourself with like minds: If your closest friends aren’t on the same wavelength as you in terms of ambition and ginger, you are already screwed.
Give back: Soon enough, you will be flooded with job offers or opportunities, never decline them without recommending at least one person.
“If you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson is that you can change your path if you do not like the one you are on. No one has this totally figured out. For me, it’s been Customer Support, a sprinkle of Product Management, Recruitment and HR, and now Investments.
A few days ago, I shared a link that allowed people send me anonymous messages. The truth is that some of the people who sent their thoughts have never met me in person or worked closely with me. There were however indicators on which they based their assumptions. For example,
I had a serious face when they saw me in passing, therefore I must be unfriendly.
They never saw me at crowded events, therefore I must be antisocial.
I am ~6’1″ when the global height average for women is 5’4″, therefore I must be intimidating or unapproachable.
I frequently posted tech startup related content and they had heard of me therefore I must be smart.
Someone said he thought I was rude, no evidence or reason, it was just what he thought.
Thoughts, sentiments, intuition and second-hand gist. When does evidence and first-hand experience come into the equation?
We subconsciously apply the same assumption strategy to startups.
“X recently raised $abcM, therefore they have a great business model and anyone who hasn’t raised as much will fail.”
“Y has joined A startup, therefore they will succeed.”
“Z startup has won awards therefore their idea is valid and scalable.”
Sole focus on externals means that I can bluff anyone to submission — if I choose to.
Fundraising and increasing valuations have become de facto indicators of a tech startup’s financial wellness, growth and future success. Valuations determine if you are a unicorn, decacorn, hectocorn or not. Undisclosed amounts and your firm is shrouded in mystery. High and it is assumed you are thriving. Low or not growing astronomically and it’s assumed you are bound to crash and burn.
Over-optimistic initial valuations can turn unicorns into unicorpses.
A Tale of Startups
The story of Theranos is one that is overflogged but reminds us of the importance of due diligence and the inevitable consequences that come when we don’t pay attention. Even though the company raised $700M (some sources quote >$1.1B — Yes, 1.1B American Dollars) at a peak valuation of $9B, it failed because the product did not work.
E-scooter startup Unicorn and Token, a startup that presold payment rings for $249 back in 2017 were plagued by the same problem — non-delivery of products. Unicorn’s CEO in an email wrote “We are so, so very sorry.” He attributed the company’s failure to loan repayments and covering marketing and advertising (Facebook ads) costs which left little for production and deliveries of the scooters which were ordered at $699 a pop.
Monitor monthly burn rates anyone?
At the core of (ad)venture capital, investors want to turn a profit.
If you watch the Series Bull, S4E2 opens up with founder Whitney Holland pitching her water desalination technology to an investor audience. She promises that they are working to scale the technology to cater to municipalities. She ends the pitch with “my tech team tells me we are only 90 days away” and then proceeds to drink water filtered during the live product demo ON STAGE. The investors never stood a chance. They were in.
The next scene shows an exchange with her CPO/CTO (later turned whistleblower) who asks why she has promised investors 90 days when they both know the technology wasn’t likely to scale to promised volumes in maybe 90 years. She tries to wave off his concerns saying it is the stress talking and asks what new gizmo or talent he needs her to get to make it happen. He responds by saying, “you keep taking people’s money, promising them the moon and I’m supposed to be your Neil Armstrong and give it to them and I’m telling you I can’t.”
Not every problem can be solved simply by adding enthusiasm.
What I love about the Skully co-founders is that they were on the same page albeit the wrong one. Don’t know the story?
Does anybody monitor anything once the cash is in?
This “bad boy” collaboration was absent with Roadstar.ai. In what is probably the saddest startup story I’ve ever read, 1 of 3 co-founders allegedly received kickbacks during fundraising, deliberately hid code (bear in mind this was a self-driving start-up) and falsified records. The CEO and CTO fired him but in a crazy turn of events, the investors fought back stating that Zhou — Chief Scientist was fired without their consent and letting him go would be detrimental to the interests of the company. Next, the board “discharged” the CEO and replaced him with CTO. Of course by now, investors simply wanted out. By March 30, they were looking for new acquirers after procedures to dissolve the company were initiated and a $90M investment fund was frozen. Current valuation is less than 0.1 what it used to be. They had so much potential but alas.
In crypto startup Wala’s story, sources told CoinDesk that the CEO allegedly spent funds from 2017’s $1.2 million initial coin offering (ICO) on travel, a posh office space and expensive equipment. According to them, the company also lacked a revenue model and quickly expended resources.
Everyone’s looking for an easy way to grow, but there’s no shortcut for solid business principles.” — Anonymous
Move fast and break things? I think not.
Pre-Investment Due Diligence (DD) 1. Run independent DD. That X just invested in Y startup or A referred B to you doesn’t make them foolproof.
2. Have your own investment criteria.
3. Voice out issues you may have with the deal or founder to your team — even if everyone else thinks you are crazy. Even when the concern isn’t a deal breaker, it helps your team know what to be ready for. Best case scenario, you get to say “I told you so.” Worst case, maybe you are crazy. Sometimes all you have is intuition — get proof to back it up.
Analysts and Associates, speak up.
Tools of Titans touches on how Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz beat up each other’s ideas in front of newer hires. This encourages newer hires to talk about possible pitfalls they see as well.
Post-Investment “DD” (More Due Diligence)
Man up when you discover fundamental flaws eg a product that isn’t working or cannot work at scale, a revenue model destroyed by new government policies, co-founders running amok with exotic automobiles, women and luxury accommodation on company dime.
Are they fulfilling orders? See Token, Unicorn
Are they hitting predefined milestones?
Is money unaccounted for?
Are they having issues with customer acquisition? Building distribution networks?
And more importantly, how can you help?
I would also find a mass migration of talent or key personnel interesting. According to Business Insider, CFO, Henry Mosley was fired from Theranos after asking questions about the reliability of the tech and the honesty of the company in November 2006. Theranos went on for the next decade without a CFO. How this was not a red flag for a company valued at $10B is beyond me.
“The billion dollar SaaS company I joined is a ticking time bomb of technical debt. We can barely ship anything. The CTO sugarcoats the situation to the CEO, clients and investors. If only someone thought to ask the engineers…”
“Big companies do surprisingly little due diligence when making $100M+ acquisitions. They often regret mere weeks after the acquisition closes when they realise they can’t reuse any of the software, the business is a lot less solid than it seemed, and the talent a lot less talented.”
Bring more than Financial Capital to the table
In case you’ve forgotten, you have skin in this game. The only way you hit it big is if one or more of your portfolio companies exceed expectations. What good is your network if you can’t make asks that give your PCs a better chance at survival?
Building a company is hard. Sometimes all that founder needs is for you to check on them. Remember how you felt when your (rich) parents never showed up for Open Day, PTA or Visiting Day? Yeah. Unfortunately as a parent, the only way you know that your child fell ill or is having issues in school is by showing up and asking questions.
Every time a founder tells me that an investor is giving them close marking after investment, I laugh. Some term requests for investor updates as micromanaging and I follow up by asking if they can leave someone to run a business with $10K or $50K and never ask “how far?”
Especially for first-time founders without any corporate or operational experience, if we are being honest, you aren’t 100% sure what you are doing. Please don’t refuse help. So…
Put your investors to work
Your investors have networks that can open doors. If they don’t, they probably shouldn’t be on your cap table — especially if you are a Nigerian startup. Make asks. After all, they are sorta your employees. Remember, every opportunity that you are looking for is a person. Don’t be shy to run non-equity/sales deals with them also.
2. Always take the call.
3. Drop the attitude – you’re really not as smart as you think.
Draw up periodic investor reports
This is for your startup as much as it is for your investors. Be as honest as you can. Again, investors are in this as much as you are. You won’t know how well or poorly you are doing until you draw up that doc. For early stage companies, monthly is best. You can always drill in when producing internal docs.
Keep up with the numbers
You will experiment a lot as a startup and monitoring metrics will help you measure success, failure, growth or decline. Are you using data to your advantage? Are you using it to build a smarter product, service, feature?
“For every metric, there should be another ‘paired’ metric that addresses adverse consequences of the first metric.”
– Andy Grove
Have a product that works
This goes without saying.
Have defined pathways to profit.
Stop building companies that twerk for investors. Are you just “growing and expanding” or building a sustainable business? If your only USP is freebies, discounts or lower transaction fees — CBN recently gave us all a Christmas hamper here, what is the plan because this is just a market penetration strategy and Uber teaches us this lesson everyday.
View yourself and your startup through the eyes of a stranger
Are you building a company that you would consider acquirable?
I honestly believe that we are in a tech VC bubble that will inevitably burst. The ones that will be left standing are the ones that have hacked sustainable, profitable and transparent growth.