April 23, 2016

Expanding my Tech Business into Africa... The Early Days

In my last post, I wrote about the rise of AppsTech. A meteoric rise it was. With no funding, a young African woman had succeeded in building a global tech business.

We were profitable, had happy customers across the globe, and we had year-on-year growth of 200%. As we demonstrated innovation in the delivery of services, we also placed a great emphasis on innovation in products.

In 2001, AppsTech acquired a startup that had designed a mobile applications development platform. Their CEO was a Kunle M., a brilliant Nigerian entrepreneur who would become a key player at AppsTech. His startup became Mobile AppsTech. Kunle led the initiative and also joined our Executive Committee as Chief Strategy Officer. Mobile AppsTech won several awards, including from the State of Pennsylvania that gave us a spot in their incubator in Philadelphia. We wanted to scale this business fast as we were feeling pressure from giants like Oracle, who were starting to incorporate mobile development tools into their middleware.

As our CSO, Kunle was also working on AppsTech Africa, our vision to become the largest provider of enterprise software solutions on the African continent. We had sensed already in 2001 that Mobile and Africa were going to be big. We needed to figure out how to marry the two.

Kunle starts to court MTN, a South African telco that was expanding fast across the continent. They were our role model for expansion into Africa. More importantly, they had a mobile apps subsidiary that they wanted to get out of. We jumped at the opportunity.
The Thought Board in Kunle's Office

So while Kunle was busy negotiating with MTN, we were opening an office in my native Cameroon. Kunle thought it was a bad idea. Actually, he thought it was a horrible idea. For him, the country presented too many risks and not sufficient rewards. “The numbers don’t add up Rebecca.” Kunle agreed we should have a small office there but he didn’t think Cameroon should be the gateway into our expansion into Africa. But I was the group CEO and I won. I said this before but Kunle was smart. And I really should have listened to him. You’ll soon understand why.

We had already started subletting a small office in Cameroon to support our sales activity and had a staff of three. It made sense that Cameroon should be our regional hub. The country was bilingual French and English so it could support our expansion into both Anglophone and Francophone Africa. I also had strong ties there and I was sure that I could leverage my relationships with my childhood friends who were now decision makers as well as access my father’s extensive network.

Because of our “global from day one” vision, and because we wanted to scale geographically very fast, we had developed our own step-by step methodology for entering a new market. We had tested it in Canada, France and England and later in Ghana. So how hard could my own native country possibly be?

With the support of the rest of our executive team and a reluctant Kunle, I started to execute the plan. I registered the company, hired a country manager, rented office space and started the build-out. Some Columbia University MBA students followed me around for a few months, including to Cameroon and wrote their thesis on this experience which is available here. Pretty soon, we had pumped half a million dollars into this operation. Video of some of the construction is here

Fortunately, MTN’s local subsidiary in Cameroon launched an international RFP for an ERP system just a short time later. This was perfect. Most of our large customers worldwide were telcos. We were in the very first batch of Oracle certified e-Business Suite partners anywhere in the world and we had a local office in Cameroon. We were hugely qualified for the RFP. On the other side, MTN was the dream customer. They were growing fast on the continent, they were privately owned so we wouldn’t need to worry about corrupt government officials and we had already had an existing relationship with their parent company in South Africa. Even Kunle was excited.

What had propelled AppsTech to success was our unique delivery model. The project itself didn’t quite fit into this. One of our products was called FastApps for Oracle Financials which was a fixed price, fixed scope, fixed time turnkey solution. It worked for small business but MTN Cameroon was too large and too complex for this. So we ended up proposing a hybrid. A “FastApps” that was longer in time and more extensive in scope, but also had a fixed price with a formula on additional fees if the deadlines weren’t met.

We worked furiously on the proposal, responding to hundreds of technical questions and asking quite a few ourselves in order to better scope the project. We had huge competitors, all the big software companies had bid, including Oracle Africa itself. Our hard work paid off and we made it through to the next round (kicking Oracle’s a**).

Jean-Michel, our EVP for Tech Solutions and 6 other people including myself, flew to Cameroon to present the proposal and do a product demo. Internet was very unreliable so we had even traveled with our own server. Our offices were still under construction so we had set up in a suite in a local hotel and literally worked 24/7. Sleeping was not allowed.

The presentation went very well. We made it to the final round.

For the following two months, an MTN team embarked on a four country due diligence tour, flying to France, the US and Canada to meet with our staff, our customers and even our bankers.

This meant that each time, I, or another executive had to fly to meet them too. This proposal project was becoming a major distraction. In order to respond to the extensive technical questions, we had pulled several of our best resources to work full time on the proposal. We also had to build a prototype for the demo including a custom interface into a point-of-sale system called Lexys, the only online/offline French/English system we could find.

But the proposal project wasn’t just distracting my time, it had distracted my focus. Kunle started complaining but he wasn’t alone. The finance team started raising concerns about the cost of the proposal to our business, especially when added to the new Cameroon office and its construction budget overruns. Some of the non-Africans on the team started to question the whole Africa vision.

We had never had to devote so much time, so much effort, and so much money to any customer during the proposal process. I argued that this was a loss-leader, and if we won this project and succeeded in the delivery, MTN assured us that we would implement the solution in their other subsidiaries. This client was essential in our African growth strategy.

I wasn’t worried about executing the project. We mastered the technology. But what if we didn’t win? My real question should have been “What if we won?”

Next time, I will answer that.

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