Startup lessons from Culture Shift Zimbabwe

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Culture Shift Zimbabwe team

A team at Culture Shift Zimbabwe

I’ve been meaning to post this since the Culture Shift Zimbabwe hacking event a few weeks ago. It’s a lessons learnt post to just note the things that tech entrepreneurs, developers and other such tech people should not keep in mind when coming up with new solutions.

The Culture Shift was different from other events we’ve been involved with in the past in that it sought to do exactly that, link techies to people that have enormous experience in a specific sector and have business problems that tech can address. With previous Jumpstart events, it’s basically techies looking to solve problems generally; some real, some imagined. That there still comes out some really brilliant ideas nevertheless is purely a result of an unwavering “if it were your money to be invested in the startup, what would you ask” principle by the judges.

Back to Culture Shift lessons, here they are in point form:

Having industry experience is an absolute. The experience doesn’t necessarily have to be as a player; it can be as a big passionate fan of it, or through close relations with insiders. Trust is an important thing, and if you’re an unknown, no one trusts you.

One could argue of course that being part of the old industry means not thinking out of the box enough to disrupt it effectively. And that’s indeed true. We just found that networks and trust still matter a lot locally. Introducing a new concept to an industry without an industry insider backing it (or explaining it to their peers) can mean that the idea never sees the light of day. Or that it does but no one uses it. Or that people come to use it but the content owners (for certain types of startups) refuse with their content.


The Openbook team for example was able to work with industry people to understand quickly how the writing and book publishing food chain works locally, what pains writers have to do with, how piracy works in the industry, and more importantly for their solution, why writers of certain types of books find no value having them published locally. There were also some interesting knowledge like the fact that writers actually do not prefer to self publish as this would send the wrong message/perception about them in the industry. Add to all this, the fact that local writers’ associations were now a phone call away, and one made by their own.

The nature of the event allowed all teams to have this rich individual and institutional memory base to tap from. The event created an atmosphere of trust that you’d not get just walking into some office to pitch an idea.

Focus on something simple and doable then do it. You can add other complicated stuff to it later. I’ve never seen Getting Real applied so effectively. You’d see a frighteningly complicated and fat we’re-here-to-solve-all-problems idea stripped down to a clear one-minded achievable. And you’d see the whole team converge and understand in simple terms that one thing they’re working to deliver. And they’d know what to do next to achieve it and how they’d know they’ve done it. It was great to watch.

Nothing beats visuals and video at explaining. Your mission may be clear and one-minded to you but if you still can’t put into understandable form to others (partners, investors, potential customers) then it’s still far from simple. Visuals & video force you to simplify and tell the story clearly. I frankly didn’t know we could easily get such talent locally to produce such great explainer graphics and animation in such a short time. Big eyes and Openbooks all did great at this.

These are the things that I noticed. If you were at Culture Shift or attend other such geek events, you probably have other lessons to share. Please share in the comments. Of course none of this means that the winning teams will definitely become successful ventures. Success or death depends on a lot of other things. It’s the beginning of a startup journey on a different path at least.


  1. vaGudoguru says:

    I remember the Openbook guys from the ZOL Startup Challenge where they were sliced and diced by the judges. All credit to them for going back to the drawing board and refining their idea and making it good enough to win the top prize here. Well done to them and all the best to them and all the participants

    1. Taf Makura says:

      Thank you very much, we have really put in A LOT of effort and thought between the two events and its nice to have someone recognize it. We have also put up a website at where you can find more about what we are doing, we’d love to keep you in the loop as we develop our idea further if you don’t mind entering your email on the “Get Involved” form on our homepage.

      1. vaGudoguru says:

        Cool website. You are great lesson in perseverance!

  2. tomheicks says:

    Great article Kabweza! Always great to hear about local progress. I came back into Zim recently and it’s abuzz with ideas.

    From your article though, I am getting the idea you may have found that networks and some sort of experience contribute a lot to a great solution. Specifically: “Introducing a new concept to an industry without an industry insider backing it (or explaining it to their peers) can mean that the idea never sees the light of day.”

    How was this discovered? Most innovation models I know don’t quite pay much attention to this. Was Whatsapp backed by some people locally to gain such traction? iTunes, Amazon, etc are platforms that grew not because they had insider backing, rather they got insider backing because they are solutions that worked. Did Facebook have insider backing to work at Harvard?

    Real solutions work not because of how well linked up someone is, they work because they address a problem.

    The internet has changed this sort of thinking and that is why today, a kid in a dorm room with no contacts to start from can launch something more revolutionary than the guys in suits with briefcases of business cards.

    The inside backing one needs, is from the user. For innovation to occur, much of bureaucracy has to be gotten out of the way.

    I still find myself leaning a lot on “a good product” sells itself. Not dismissing some sort of networking and politics entirely but i think for the young entrepreneurs they need to know such things respect the status quo and if you need to be innovative, build on your naivety.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Looking forward to your reply and future events.

    1. Insider backing here doesn’t mean only an insider that’s active on the inside. it’s one one that realises that things can and should change and has enough knowledge of how the things actually work. In other words an experienced person.
      Companies like Amazon and Apple had to have heavy industry knowledge in order to disrupt the traditional models. They had to sign on content owners and to do that they had to understand the food chain, where and how to cut certain elements out, what to not mess with etc… Facebook had insider knowledge to succeed at Harvard and the other colleges. As students they were insiders themselves; they knew the system (social networking) that they wanted to improve.

      True, at the end of the day, the solution succeeds because it addresses a problem and not because of the networks. However with specific reference to startups targeting at making old systems work online (e.g. selling music, books) networks in the old system help significantly for content.

      Indeed a kid in a dorm room can revolutionise an industry, that is why I say in the article

      The experience doesn’t necessarily have to be as a player; it can be as a big passionate fan of it

      The point here is that if you’re passionate enough to solve a problem, then the knowledge and experience you have, in many ways, make you as good as an insider.

      1. Taf Makura says:

        I must agree with @tomheiks on this one. While insider information is important, an insider isn’t. Internationally start ups rely almost entirely on industry wide reports, statistics and pure metrics coupled with multiple consultations at multiple levels of that industry more than they do on any one individual from any particular industry. The obvious danger with giving too much influence to a single individual from an industry at the early stage of a product is that it may begin to serve only the interest of that individual’s context. It is also dangerous to take for granted and form a product around what just one individual says about an entire industry based on their own experiences and context. Lean start-up evangelist Eric Ries often says don’t listen to what your target users say about your product, watch and measure how they actually interact with it. Only when an MVP is completely finished do lean start-ups often bring on board specific individuals and experts to test and endorse the product. The challenge with having one insider come into a team early on and attempt to represent an entire industry as a board member or company director is that you won’t move ahead until they are happy that the product suits their individual needs and perceptions at the expense of all the other user who are not represented. They can authoritatively paint a very bleak picture of anything they are not personally in favor of or familiar with. Experts are ideal as consultant/hired guns that are brought in briefly at different stages in different forms as the product takes shape so that a balance is reached at the discretion of the creators.

        After all, disruptive innovation is usually a result of looking at a problem from the outside-in. Relying too much on existing information and perceptions from one or more industry ‘experts’ may lead to a product that conforms to and reinforces a lot of the existing status quo. If as a start up up you approach you product as something that has no chance to change the world and should therefore be safe then go home, because your idea is not worth pursuing. Tried and tested is all too common! All major innovations I can think of had one thing in common. iTunes, Amazon, Basecamp, Twitter, Youtube, TVs, Flight, The Light Bulb, The Personal Computer etc. The experts all said it would NEVER WORK…. Imagine if all these team had these ‘experts’ on their teams early on.

        1. Lots of straw man points in your response I started wondering if you read the comment you’re responding to. experts? directors? influence? shareholding?

          on the other point, usable research data is hard to come by locally. The few there are generated by some NGOs…

          1. TafMak3000 says:

            That was my comment up there. LOL, Sorry for going off topic, I’m just drawing from my experiences. Unfortunately in Zim it seems Directorship, influence, shareholding and ultimately power appears to be what it all comes down to when you engage experts in a project be it developers or industry experts, which is very unfortunate I think. “What’s in it for me? is something you’ll hear thrown around a lot by people you wish to help, believe me!” I’ll be happy to share a couple of my experiences in the last two years where this has played out over and over again. In all cases we ended up ditching the projects after outsiders completely lost confidence in what we were doing. It is to that extent that I agree with @tomheicks. If engaging ‘experts’ in order to gain links or skill within an industry threatens the direction and momentum of the project itself, then I’d say ditch those experts/insiders for a while, Build an MVP with your assumptions however wrong they are, then, only then can you start engaging multiple ‘experts’ to test them. Doing so too early may derail your entire project because you will have little bargaining power and you will only get the attention of the smaller fish, who will take your project as an opportunity. People will flock to a well thought and presented idea even if some of its assumptions are wrong. Lean Startup.

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