Ray Charles and Silicon Valley
Back in school there was term we used to tell each other when to "move on" after a relationship break-up, we told the person to do a “Ray Charles”. What we meant precisely was that they should heed the lyrics of his hit song “Hit The Road Jack”. It also became a euphemism for telling people to get a grip and move on with life. Each time I hit an obstacle the first thing that comes to my mind is “Ray Charles”.
Bessemer Venture Partners is a well-known Silicon Valley VC company and they also have a great sense of humor. They acknowledge the fact that in Silicon Valley you can never always be right and they illustrate it with their “anti-portfolio”, a list of misses they made as they went on their investment journey. One notable one was Google:
Cowan’s college friend rented her garage to Sergey and Larry for their first year. In 1999 and 2000 she tried to introduce Cowan to “these two really smart Stanford students writing a search engine”. Students? A new search engine? In the most important moment ever for Bessemer’s anti-portfolio, Cowan asked her, “How can I get out of this house without going anywhere near your garage?”
What is important to note here is that they have a sense of humor about it as they have moved on and realized that “you can’t always win everything”. They have other notable successes like Skype and Twillio in their curent portfolio. Startup founders must also have the same mentality. Aaron Levie the co-founder and CEO of the enterprise cloud company Box puts this very simply in a tweet
Entrepreneurship: 90% proving others wrong, 10% everything else.
Successful entrepreneurs usually have astronomical odds stacked against them, and what separates them from others is the conviction (sometimes delusion) that they can surmount those odds. They work tirelessly at this 90% of the time. It is better to channel your energy and emotion towards making your venture a success than wasting it on trivial pursuits. In simple terms, “Hit the road Jack”.
Those two perspectives from “both sides of the table” above sum up why Silicon Valley is a unique ecosystem and according to Kingsley Idehen the founder of Openlink Software “One of the luckiest places in the world”. In a recent conversation I had with him in Boston a couple of weeks ago, he said that Silicon Valley is fortunate not because anyone purposely designed a place where really good investors and really great entrepreneurs meet to build great companies, everything evolved from a fortunate series of events. Serendipity and discovery is easier when the best of both sides of the table are in close proximity.
The Internet has however made this proximity an even less relevant factor when it comes to discovery and tools like Angellist have taken the lead in facilitating serendipity. Angellist is still not perfect but evolving, it has however succeeded in proving that discovery is possible by building platforms that depend on data rather than magic or alchemy. Techcrunch also has Crunchbase, it is a useful resource for background research in the community and their stories add to the repository of data. When data is used wisely, Silicon Valley’s success can be replicated anywhere.
While Silicon Valley is rapidly evolving and qualitative methods are being rapidly replaced by quantitative
metrics, Africa still lags behind.According to Bosun Tijani founder of ccHUB in Nigeria, we are still in the stone age. In most parts of Africa, we still believe that maybe successful entrepreneurs have some secret potion or shortcut to their success and we all try to emulate them, cry to them for help or even worship them rather than finding out the first principles and doing even better than they did.
Someone I know told me once that every 10 years in Africa there is a new set of Billionaires and his goal in the next 10 years is to be among the next group. He is on track, as he does not chase targets, he doubles them. He does this well because he depends on data and not magic. That is the spirit I admire.
The data is all around us yet we make blunders. We listen to narratives and form opinions without testing them for validity. I made a presentation at the recent MobileMoney Africa event in Lagos titled “Startup Lessons for Mobilemoney” and someone told me bluntly that those ideas in Silicon Valley will not work in Nigeria. I asked him how sure he would be if he has not tried or tested them? His only answer was “This is Africa not America, lean methods will not work here”.
Yes it is Africa but it is my hypothesis based on experience and I plan to continue testing my assumptions. His dismissal based on anecdotes did not make it less or more likely that the results of my tests would yield a particular outcome. My success in proving people wrong all depends on the data and my determination to gain validated knowledge.
The Nigerian Startup scene is a unique one, unique in the sense that there is latent opportunity but with very bad actors. I actually wrote a post titled “Rich Man, Poor Man, BeggarMan, King” based on Noam Wasserman’s bestselling “Founder’s Dilemma” and my observations of the Nigerian ecosystem. I decided against publishing it yet as too much has been said about one issue. Maybe I will still publish that post at a future date, but right now it just serves no purpose as too many sentiments emotions have been whipped up to frenzy. There is no need to go into the dramatis personae involved in recent events but there is something curious to note; everyone has an opinion but few (including myself) have facts.
Facts are very interesting as they can be presented in a variety of ways to bolster a weak argument or sometimes to try to defend one’s actions. According to Mark Twain, “There are lies, damned lies and Statistics”. Ultimately all opinions including those backed by “facts” are subjective but results do not lie. Results add to the pool of data from which people can perform experiments to prove or disprove hypotheses.
How well do we really know the Nigerian technology ecosystem? What data do we really have there beyond self-serving stories from entrepreneurs and lists from competitions that are glorified schoolyard pissing-contests?
“Hit The Road Jack”
My favorite Michalangelo Quote is “Criticize by creating”, indictments and observations about an ecosystem do not make a difference without contributing to its improvement. The problem with serendipity and discovery in Africa and to a large extent Nigeria is not with a shortage of talent resources or ideas, it is a data problem. I realized that Angellist and VC4Africa’s platform are aggregate platforms that serve a core demographic primarily and only have a peripheral utility to others who don’t fit into that demographic. A further level of granularity and context is required to facilitate discovery at the ecosystem level.
I have since registered the domains Afrigraph.com and Startups.ng and when I did them, my goal was to create platforms for discovery similar to AngelList for the aggregate African and Nigeria specific ecosystems. I became distracted and did nothing about those projects. I still believe such a platform is a good idea and a great mechanism for aggregating data for discovery purposes. I would like to now make it open-source by inviting others to join to make this happen. I will be providing more information about this initiative shortly.
I admire recent founder meetups organized by Techcabal and led by Iyionluwa Aboyeji of Fora. I praise Bosun Tijani and Femi Longe for the great work they have been doing and continue to do with ccHUB. We must move from anecdotes and talk to actual experimentation and sharing of results. That is what made Silicon Valley great. It was not the link-bait by tech blogs, founder battles or endless prattle in social media. It was serendipity and discovery; it was data. One story or a few stories do not define a great ecosystem; it is the aggregate results of people’s actions. We must keep producing results, we must move on.
There is a tweet from Bosun Tijani below which sums up all I have said above:
I read an awesome Medium article this morning titled “Accelerating Serendipity”. It is highly recommended.