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Balance the hype and potential with the reality on the ground [U-Start Africa]


“Build a business not a product”, “build the right networks”, “think long term and exercise patience” and “be amazing while you do it” — these words by Keet Van Zyl of Knife Capital and Rapelang Rabana of Rekindle Learning at the recent U-Start Africa conference summed up both the event and the entrepreneurial experience for me.

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Every successful entrepreneur that I have met in the last five years, has in their own way — most times through trial and error — worked on a sustainable approach to their business venture. This was a pretty constant refrain throughout the conference, with seasoned entrepreneurs reiterating that getting funding for your idea should be third or fourth on your checklist. “Funding is an accelerator, not a problem-solver”, said Rabana.

Read more: Knife Capital announces final call for Grindstone Accelerator 2015 intake

Building a solid platform for growth should also be a core focus. According to Van Zyl, this is especially so if you are aiming to build traction with investors. It was also pointed out that entrepreneurs should remember that investors are people and they first and foremost invest in the person behind the business. After that comes the business model, with their observations about your ‘partner universe’ also playing an important role.

Good investors look at who the key players are in your business model. They pay attention to the essence of what drives your vision and what fuels your passion.

Understand your business from the ground up

You don’t have to have an MBA (yes it’s a feather in your cap), but knowing what questions to ask, who to ask, understanding the landscape in which your target audience operates, the ability to spot a problem and look for solutions, knowing who to partner with — ultimately, not doing everything, but having the ability to gauge what you can realistically do, will take you the distance.

Read more: Are we beginning to over-indulge, over-romanticise and over-glamorise failure?

Another key lesson to come from the conference is that in Africa, entrepreneurs need to balance the hype and potential with the reality on the ground. That means you shouldn’t just look at global models but pay attention to great execution on the ground and models that have been proven to work in Africa. As Mike Butcher of TechCrunch Europe pointed out when he visited Cape Town a couple of years back, entrepreneurs need build Silicon bridges. The aim shouldn’t be to replicate, or build a product/solution for an audience that does not need it, or has three different versions of it. At all times you need to think global, but act local.

Amid the sexy, media-hyped world of startups, one thing that often goes missing is the point that there will be times when you need to be a “boring director” and work on compliance and governance. As the members of the legal panel pointed out, there is no joy in having to kill fires and lose momentum, when you could have prevented the crisis by seeking legal guidance from the start.

With all the solid advice flying around one message remained constant: Go big, be amazing, be bold and inspiring. Don’t hold back.

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