Ghanaian Bright Simons is one of the continent’s more successful social entrepreneurs. In 2007 he founded the mPedigree Network, a company that uses mobile and web technology to combat the sale of counterfeit products in Africa, most notably fake medicines that result in hundreds of deaths each year.
Using mPedigree’s software, companies can label their product packaging with a random code hidden beneath a scratch-off covering. Once revealed, consumers can SMS this code to a toll free number, and instantly be notified whether the product is authentic or fake.
In addition, the company has developed an innovative business intelligence offering, which can provide valuable insight into consumer behaviour and supply chains in Africa.
Simons defines African entrepreneurs as “hustlers with a mission”. How we made it in Africa asked him to share some of the lessons he has learnt in entrepreneurship over the years, and his advice to other business people looking to grow sustainable enterprises in Africa.
1. Good leaders love creating leaders
“You know you are really on the cusp of leadership when you begin to derive joy from the success of those who you once considered followers.”
He added that business leaders should make it their priority to allow their employees or subordinates to become leaders too. And the best leaders will be those who feel a sense of victory from this achievement.
“Being in awe of your followers is the single most important pinnacle of achievement… It is to be able to share the leadership burden and to take delight in the achievements of followers when they finally become leaders.”
2. Heroes are required
According to Simons, one of the things that helped grow his company is the presence of what he calls “heroism”. He defines this as employees who do exceptional work, not simply for their own glory, but for the overall glory of the team.
“I think we are heavily investing in building this attitude of heroism, of people rising to the occasion… that has been really important for us.”
3. Have a clear brand
One way entrepreneurs can create heroic employees is by ensuring they have a clear brand. According to Simons, many entrepreneurs often do not place enough emphasis on developing a clear brand, and this is something that he has struggled with at mPedigree as well.
“I have learnt a lot from having a brand that most people still don’t get,” he explained. “But a clear brand is very powerful because it’s actually not [just] how you get your customers, it’s also how you get your cheerleaders and your employees. Your employees are the most sensitive to the brand.”
He added entrepreneurs need to be able to communicate the company’s purpose clearly, to ensure that employees understand what problems they are solving, and why it is important they are solved.
“It’s about getting people to think, ‘Damn, this can’t stay the way it is, something has got to change.’”
4. Align employee dreams with entrepreneurial mission
Furthermore, entrepreneurs should also be able to answer why an employee would want to work towards their dream, highlighted Simons. Those that struggle to do this, will struggle to attract the right talent.
“If you can’t sincerely answer that you believe you are offering them the best chance of realising their personal vision, by asking them to participate in a collective vision… then I don’t think you have any business being in entrepreneurship.”
He defined entrepreneurial leadership as the ability to build an organisation that others feel fulfilled being a part of – either intellectually, emotionally, or morally. “So if you cannot think of your mission in terms of how others will find fulfilment in that mission, I struggle to see how you will grow your business… People must see your mission as the canvas against which they can draw their own successful mission and find fulfilment in it.”
5. Ask the right questions
“I think innovation is very much the ability to ask those questions that nobody thinks are important… And sometimes problems exist because people are asking the wrong questions.”
Simons said he encourages his team to look at problems with fresh approaches and ask different questions about them. For example, instead of continuously asking what the solution is to a particular problem, why not ask why the problem exists in the first place, and why is a solution important? Asking different questions around problems enables innovative thinking.
“And I think a lot of people get bogged down because the old questions that drove them from day one still drive them. It is about looking for new questions, and that has been extremely important as a source of innovation for us.”
6. Delight customers
It is not enough to just provide customers with a service or product, entrepreneurs should look at “delighting” them.
A lot of businesses view their customers as unchanging, noted Simons, and therefore simply aim to satisfy their current needs. However, services or products that “touch them in a way that changes them”, will do very well.
“The idea is that when you come up with a service that can be profound, it has an effect on the customer and they change slowly, they evolve.”
7. Don’t rely on venture capital
Simons advises entrepreneurs not to build their business plan around the possibility of venture capital investment. “If you are building [a business] to attract venture capital in Africa, then I think you are wasting your time.”
He explained that venture capitalists seek big exits from businesses that can grow within a short period of time, often over a five year period.
“And because a lot of African businesses, given the nature of our market, are slow growers, you are [likely] just not a good fit for venture capital. Some businesses are slow growers; they take 10 years, and then they grow rapidly,” he explained. “So don’t make venture capital a major aspect of your planning.”
8. Customer engagement from the start
It is not a business until you have someone willing to pay for its service or product, emphasised Simons.
He cautions entrepreneurs from spending too much time trying to perfect a solution before they are even in the game. Rather engage customers from the start, even if means taking a few angry calls from dissatisfied customers.
“If you are spending a lot of time trying to convince judges of innovation competitions [of your product or service]… as opposed to somebody who is going to pay even a penny for it, I think you are in trouble.”