My Journey from Dev to Venture Builder

The 1 Line Description

Key lessons on Business Strategy for developers looking to build ventures.

When to use it

When considering the transition from developer to startup founder.

Key Ideas

*This is a short written summary of a talk Nzwi gave for the Tech Leadership Cape Town Meetup group in Feb 2022. The full 1hr talk is available here.

Today's theme: 5 Questions that led me from Developer to Venture Builder.

First, a bit about me

  • We (Founders Factory Africa) are now up to business number 45, after just 3 years.
  • I became an author by accident. I was approached by a German Publisher to convert my thesis into a book. It's since seen some really great traction.
  • For the Global Young ICT Leaders award we were flown to South Korea for an incredible "tour of the tech". What stood out for me was the City's command center where IoT devices were monitoring the city in real time - everything from water levels to street lights, to walk-ways that generated solar power, and more.

Some of my passions: Off-roading, Bass Fishing, Football (Arsenal)

I'm also super excited about the evolution of "Digital Assets"', so follow me on Twitter if you'd like to stay in touch with this new reality, as it gets built in front of our eyes.

5 Questions that led me from Developer to Venture Builder

1. How to get free Satellite channels? 

In the mid 1990's I was fortunate enough to have access to a Windows pc in my home. My parents bought a Satellite dish, but didn't sign up for the primary Multi-Choice decoder. I discovered through the internet that one could legally access free channels from all around the world, so I spent a ridiculous amount of time figuring out how to configure the decoder we did have, to get access to these free channels from all around the world. Often even for channels when I didn't understand the language. It was just really fun learning to do it.

With that in mind, I'll introduce you to the late Forbes Kucherera, "The Fisherman".

  • Forbes was a serial entrepreneur who built up a fleet of commercial fishing boats on lake Kariba and in Mozambique. He'd managed to climb up the value chain, and was packaging the fish himself and selling directly to the retailers. He was a really smart man.
  • He also had a number of livestock farms.
  • We belonged to the same church denomination where the church decided to broadcast sermons across the world in a wider variety of different languages.

  • Forbes being the generous man he was, he sponsored a number of these download sites. They needed someone to configure the decoders, and so we became an unlikely team. For a couple of weeks we were travelling around Zimbabwe configuring decoders for various churches around the country. I learned so much on that trip and was hooked by the entrepreneurial bug.
  • I remember how surprised the church elders were that I was going to be the technician. I also remember the surprise and awe from many of the congregation. I was only about 11 or 12 years old at the time. Thanks to the confidence Forbes placed in me, I felt confident in myself and was able to solve the technical challenges.

My initial question then, thanks to Forbes, had changed in scope: 

  • ^ This was my first insight into the power of technology to improve the world.

2. How to Code? 

  • I was fortunate enough to attend Anderson High School, in the middle of Zimbabwe.
  • Like most schools they had (unpaid) work programs, where I was enrolled in the laundry department.
  • Luckily though, we had a computer lab, and a friend managed to get me into a new job in the lab.
  • There was only 1 desktop connected to the internet, and I was sure to make great use of it. When I was 15 I started applying to universities in the US, because I knew this was the one place where good coders were at the time. --> Selected to go to Walla Walla University in Washington State. (Far away from the capital, which I initially thought I was going to.) The Computer Science program was very good and I got a great foundation in the field.
  • I also got a lot of opportunity to travel the country and play Division 1 Football.
  • The most difficult class I took there was the Algorithm class. We all had to stay a week after end of semester to complete the tasks we'd been given. We all had to collaborate to get it done. The course was just 6 questions for the entire semester. We learned so much about problem solving with this pedagogy.

Ultimately what I really learned from my university experience.

  • I was 16 when I started varsity. It was a massive culture shock.
  • Having to solve these types of algorithms really shaped me into who I am, and empowered my ability to engage with people from all different walks of life.
  • I had a policy of hanging out with someone from a new culture every semester.

3. How to get a job? 

Time now to introduce you to Dr Malan De Villars.

  • He gave me my first opportunity in the "corporate world".
  • He was a true thought leader. His team started manufacturing the first artificial heart valve on the continent.
  • What stood out for me was how he built businesses. He'd identify a very talented individual and bring that person into our offices and give them a desk and a laptop and start mentoring them.
  • I worked with him for over 2 years, during which time he built another 3 businesses, while still growing his own bio-tech business.
  • I was reporting directly to him, and worked with some of the other entrepreneurs as well as we used tech to optimize their businesses.
  • This was one of the key things I learned from him. His ability to enable others to build good businesses.

Another interesting person I got to learn from: 

  • He built conversational platforms for blue chip companies and government departments. (DSTV, Mercedes Benz, Insurers, ...) 
  • He had this incredible ability to identify trends and spot opportunities.
  • We worked together on building some interesting AI platforms. There was a ton of ambiguity in the space. What I learned from him was a willingness to be brave as a first one out of the gate in a new area.
  • ^ this is a picture he took of me when we visited the Slack offices in San Francisco.
  • His business, SmartCall, basically built the prepaid mobile supply chain in South Africa. They had exclusivity for a couple of years prepaid services.
  • I worked for him at Smartcall and what always stood out for me was his humility, despite incredible success. He'd exited for R1.6bill to Vodacom, but one could never tell just looking at him that he'd been so successful.
  • My line manager at the time saw how I was progressing and formed a bridge between myself and Mark. He began asking me what I wanted to do next. He was the one who opened up his networks and helped me start my first business. I'll always be grateful.

This question then became: 

  • Having worked so closely with great Founders I got to learn so much from them. It made me so interested in how to assist founders to build great businesses.

4. How to build a business?

  • ^ this is how I felt when building my first business. Like something had just gone horribly wrong. It felt like a train smash in those early days.
  • ^ this was my first business. (Mobitones) 
  • Mark managed to hook me up with the largest mobile network operator in Zimbabwe, to start adding value added services on their platform.
  • We were basically retailing games, images, ringtones, text, and the like. I was one of the first in Zimbabwe to do this. We got around 100 000 subscribers but internally I still felt like a failure, simply because I hadn't taken cashflow timing into consideration. The operator paid suppliers after 90 days and I struggled with this.
  • Another problem was that I just didn't know what good looked like. 100 000 subscribers in such a short space of time is actually really great, but I just didn't know it. For me success was having a lot of money in the bank.
  • This was a good early lesson for me.
  • I learned quickly that I needed to do more. I used to take a lot of pride in my tech skills, but realized that I needed to learn more on the business front.
  • I initially had an attitude of not needing to learn the business stuff, thinking that I could get by with just the tech skills.
  • So I went on to learn a lot on the business front: Business Models, Dealing with government officials & bankers, how to deal with talent, ...

One of the things I did when I was working on my own businesses, was to ensure that I got involved in other businesses as well, sometimes even just as little more than an observer. Once I was a buyer, I'd help with anything that needed to be done, just for the opportunity to learn how businesses run, even ones that weren't tech-centered. I may at times have spent up to 50% of my time learning from other businesses.

I started out just wanting to build a business, but I learned instead how to be agile.

5. How to build a business that scales?

  • I applied for a role with his team, which I didn't get. I quickly realized that Bongs was a master strategist and a great thinker. For years I kept checking in with him to learn from him stay in touch with what he was doing, and learn how to answer this question: how to build businesses that scaled.
  • When he started the journey of building Founders Factory Africa, he was looking exactly at this question!
  • We provide more than just funding. We provide tailored support for what the startup needs.
  • What's really stood out for me at FFA is the team. In most businesses there are silo's, but not so in our team. I'm regularly working with so many different types of people. The ability to reach out to (say) an Investment manager, or a product lead, and pick their brain, has been tremendously helpful.

This is some of the support that we as the engineering team provide: 

  • This kind of tailored support I think has been missing in startup support. Often there is just a small knowledge gap in how to put in the right foundation, to be ready for rapid growth.

My initial question has since evolved once again: 

  • The business in itself is a product. If it's not of interest to investors, survival can get very tricky.
  • The kind of inputs I've received on this new question have been so enlightening.

6. A Question I'm asking right now: 

  • Blockchain tech is one of my key passions. If you've got questions, reach out and let's chat.

Participant Questions

What was the best business you've worked with? 

I'm currently working with an NFT marketplace opportunity, who have already proved tremendous success. Being passionate about this space, I am of course a bit biased there.

What's been the most challenges business you've worked on?

One out of West Africa where the team wasn't motivated to bring on board enough tech talent. It's changed the way I've approached building since then.

Have you ever had mental fatigue, and how did you overcome it? 

I definitely have. I try and cultivate interests outside my work which I can retreat to when needed. Staying fit and healthy is also very important for me. The tech space requires a lot from you, and you need to stay fit and healthy to cope.