Michael Chiwere and Tatenda Nyamugama, the co-founders of Zimall
Tech startup entrepreneurship is associated with a lot of things; from innovation to huge paydays when that one solution goes through a series of funding rounds. This is, of course, assuming your idea is bankable and are willing to put in the right sort of work into your startup.
There are other things that are never discussed in detail. From long working hours, countless cases of doors slammed in your face, disapproval from people around you and the eleventy million things you have to figure out as a new age entrepreneur. These aspects are glossed over whenever people talk of making it as a startup.
We decided to get an inside perspective on some of these issues from local startups who understand some of the challenges in running a Zimbabwean tech startup.
Our first conversation was with Michael Chiwere and Tatenda Nyamugama, the co-founders of Zimall. Some of you might recognise the name Zimall as one of the local online retailing platforms that have seized the opportunity created by online payments and the internet to carve out a name in Zimbabwean e-commerce.
Started in 2012, the online retail platform has undergone several changes as the team made changes to solve some problems in Zimbabwean e-commerce which include payments, delivery, product guarantees and relationships with distributors. In the following Q & A, they shared some perspectives on the challenges behind tech entrepreneurship in Zimbabwe, and what they are chasing.
What are the three biggest challenges that you’ve faced since you started?
Running a business, whether tech or any other sector always has its challenges, and it should be noted that doing it in an economy like ours is even more difficult. As Zimall, not only did we have to face the tech related challenges, like choosing the right platform and tools for our system, ensuring security and safety of user data. We also had to face the usual challenges every other business encounters.
One of the major challenges we faced as a startup was capital. One may easily dismiss this and say that you do not always need money to start a business, true, but money should never be left out when planning your business. With the nature of our business, it was very difficult to start and keep our business running without funding. Our business’s success heavily depends on marketing. The business requires advertising of products and services on a daily basis and without that, no one would ever know that we exist. It took us close to a year to start making meaningful sales, and if we had funding for marketing, it would have taken us a much shorter time.
The issue of funding did not only affect our ability to advertise. A business’ success also hinges on the team. When we started, it was just two guys who had just graduated and had zero experience running a business. We had no marketing skills, no sales skills, no business management and many other important skills required to run a business. There was no money and therefore we could not afford to hire people to fill in those important roles. We had to learn all those things on our own. It is still a challenge even up to today as we do not have all those different skill sets within our current team.
If you could have offered yourself some advice when you started what would it be?
Don’t start a business based on assumptions. When we started, we made a lot of assumptions without actually taking some time to research and fully understand our market. When we started, we were then hit by a lot of unexpected outcomes because what we thought we knew about the market turned out to be the other way round.
If someone wants to run a tech startup in Zimbabwe how much work should they be ready to put in?
Starting a business requires time and dedication. Even millionaires work overtime to see their projects succeed. Startups run by people working part time hardly succeed. You have to be there every step of the way to ensure the business succeeds. Remuneration only comes when the business has started making meaningful transactions and holidays only come when you have built a team that can work even if you are absent.
How is tech entrepreneurship viewed by the people around you like your family and friends?
The way people appreciate your business always depends on your background, where you come from. The first thing towards appreciating a tech business is understanding what the business is all about. Unfortunately for us, our families have little understanding of the tech business and for them to fully support us was not easy. However, the key to getting family support is communication. They need to be updated on what you are doing, and occasionally inviting them to come and see where you are working from and showing them the achievements you are having.
Have there been any sacrifices that you’ve had to make as an entrepreneur that you think are relative to Zimbabwe?
Sacrifices are always made in business, however, it’s difficult to really say some were only relevant to Zimbabwe. In the beginning, the major sacrifice was time, working Monday through Sunday and with no pay. There are many other sacrifices and improvisations, but can be hardly pointed as only specific to Zimbabwe. For example, before we had a motorcycle, we would use public transport to make deliveries in Harare so as to keep the delivery cost low.
How have you handled team building? How big an issue is it for Zimbabwean startups?
Building a team is just as important as building the product itself. Now given the fact that in most cases as a startup you do not have capital, it means you won’t have money to pay the people you put in your team. Also given the current economic situation in our country, it’s almost impossible to get anyone to come and work with you without getting paid, with the hope that the business will be successful one day. Since we could not afford to hire people and at the same time we could not get individuals to come and work with no pay, we had to find advisors instead. We would consult different people with different skill sets to help us deal with all aspects of the business, from handling finances and accounts, marketing, legal foundations and general business management.
What will be the definition of success for your startup? What are you chasing? What’s that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
Profitability is what defines success for us. We may, of course, enjoy being labeled as one of the best e-commerce businesses but without profit it’s all in vain. It’s even illegal to operate a bankrupt company so making a profit is our goal. However, as people coming from a tech background, we would also love the bragging rights of having contributed to the e-commerce sector in Zimbabwe.
Are there any skills you think have made your entrepreneur journey easier that others need to pick up?
Throughout our journey, we have never stopped learning. We attended some business courses at the University of Zimbabwe and continue to do a lot of other courses online. We do not all need to learn the same things however, we
strategically choose courses that improve our skills in our respective roles in the company. However, as a tech-based company, our programming skills from the university certainly paid off. It is, therefore, important for one to do a business which uses a skill one already has. For example, it’s very difficult for me to start a legal advice firm because that’s a skill I don’t have. Skills we truly believe every entrepreneur should have are leadership and personal effectiveness skills because being the boss requires you to be able to lead yourself before you can lead a team.
Is there any other area that you want to disrupt or seek opportunity in?
(Michael) Personally I am a scientist and I love experimenting with gadgets. I’m always on the lookout for newtech innovations, breaking them down to learn how they work and how I can improve them. However, my main aim is to find and adopt a tech innovation that can change our country.