Some thoughts on the ZOL Startup Challenge

This is a Guest Post and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts and opinions of Techzim. We have a strong filtering process of what makes it to our blog and are confident that you’ll enjoy the article below.

This guest post was authored by David Behr. David is the founder and CEO of one of Zimbabwe’s largest Internet service providers, Zimbabwe Online (ZOL).

David Behr

Nearly 2 weeks ago, we had our first ZOL Startup Challenge final where 3 talented winners were chosen from a very strong field.  Since then the dust has settled and a number of people have made comments on the Challenge and process.  I thought I’d give some thoughts as the idea originator, main sponsor and one of the four judges.

Allen Mukwenha wrote an excellent critique on the 14th of September, and many of the comments were very interesting.  I’m glad to see so many opinions openly shared and discussed without fear or intimidation.  Allen’s key criticism was that judging criteria were not clear to participants – and he is absolutely right – in fact I’d say the judging criteria were not clear to the judges either!  To a large extent this is my fault and to fully understand this let me go back to my initial thought process of this ZOL Startup Challenge.


For a while I had been considering how ZOL can make more of a difference in the community – one more than just the cash value of what we already give to various community projects.  I also have a passion of entrepreneurs and startups – after all I started ZOL with one desktop computer and two modems!  I felt ZOL has good brand recognition and credibility and that if ZOL supported some startups it would be beneficial to raise their profiles and open doors that would otherwise be closed.  I had also seen a UK show called Dragon’s Den, and thought it was quite a fun idea – although that show has judges that really invest in the startups for equity. Therefore the ZOL Startup Challenge was part Corporate Social Responsibility and part commercial – however it is important to note that ZOL gave the prices without taking any equity or other stake.

I found the whole event to be very rewarding and really opened my eyes to some of the incredible talent we have in Zimbabwe.  My fellow judges also proved to be very insightful and asked probing questions. The TechZim team did a fantastic job in organising the event.  I really hope we can raise more funds and have a second round and perhaps the ZOL Startup Challenge can become a regular fixture on the Zimbabwe IT calendar.

I would like to address some of the specific issues that have been raised by comments on TechZim – such as the “31 December 2010” threshold date before which the business should not have existed.  This was never communicated to any of the judges and was never discussed at any organiser meetings – and in fact it was never part of the formal “Terms and Conditions” which continue to be displayed, unaltered, on both the ZOL and BarCamp sites.  It was mentioned in the Barcamp announcement, and went on to be wrongly incorporated in the the FAQs.  Certainly this was an error and would have disqualified not only the winner but possibly the two runners up too – as well as many of the earlier round participants!  To my knowledge no one was precluded due to this – and if someone did not enter due to this requirement I urge them to enter in our next round.

Questioning the teams about the idea being implemented before had nothing to do with uniqueness of innovation – in fact one of our judges coined the phrase “steal with pride” to indicate that we had no problems with someone gaining an idea outside of Zimbabwe, bringing it back home, modifying it for local conditions and launching it (assuming no Trademarks of Patents were violated).  Judges asked this question in order to see if the entrepreneur knew the competitive landscape and, if the idea had worked elsewhere, why it was needed in Zimbabwe (given the global Internet there is no point in doing a local version of many applications) and how the local conditions would change the ability to replicate the success.

Judges debated the key criteria including giving the money to the “most deserving” or “safest bet” or to teams who had not already had a “chance in life” – which speaks to the CSR nature of the competition.  In the end we felt the money had to go to the teams who would be most likely to succeed.  In fact the ultimate question put to judges was “if you had $10,000 in your pocket, who would you give it to in order to get the best return on your investment”.  Judges were asked to consider the backgrounds of participants so not just the “slickest” presentation won but rather try to balance it with all factors.

Ultimately this was very subjective – if there was a simple scoring mechanism to judge startups then anyone would be successful at Venture Capital – unfortunately it’s not that simple – even very smart people who do this full-time get it wrong!  The final decision was extremely difficult and caused a lot of heated debate amongst the judges.  Ultimately the judges had to make a subjective call, and we each voted for the top three and final winner – the majority decision carried the day (it was not unanimous, but there was a majority).

Unsurprisingly a lot of criticism has been laid at the door of the winner –  The major “complaint” being that they used a $15 theme template.  Did the judges know this? No.  Would it have made a difference?  Emphatically no!  In fact if they had spent $3,000 developing a “pretty page” when there was a $15 template out there it would have counted against them.  Cash flow or rather cash burn rate is critical in any startup and money should be spent where it makes the most difference.  Mukela is about a lot more then just a pretty web page. The theme is the easy part – it’s like the colour and design of your front door – what really matters is what is going on behind the scenes where Mukela have found an unfilled niche in the region, with a solid backend, great team and strategic partnerships.  People also seem to forget that is an integral part of Mukela.

Overall I am very happy to have launched this new initiative in Zimbabwe, and I hope we can continue it and improve upon the format with all the feedback we have received. I look forward to receiving more comments, but would ask you all to be constructive and not get personal. It’s impossible to please all the people all the time – especially in a competition that is inherently so subjective.

Well done to all participants for making such a great effort and especially to the winners – we expect great things from you to show you deserved the award.

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20 thoughts on “Some thoughts on the ZOL Startup Challenge

  1. Thank you for this feedback, though this would have come in handy at the beginning. Nevertheless, of all the things you have said i think the one thing that stands out as the reason for Mukela winning which is ROI, makes a whole lot of business sense and puts everyone at ease.  Cant wait for the next challenge.

  2. thanks for the clarification,can we diversify next time and put in at least two different categories ,cant wait for the next one   

    1. You can do what you want – but a startup takes a lot of work and effort – if you can handle two at once that is very impressive!  I wouldn’t suggest it!  The challenge is not a gamble and see if you can win – we like to see real thought and commitment.

  3. Thank you for the lovely response. The fact that you took the time to write this, shows how much you care for the startup competition. If you remember I did pitch on the day and your feedback was most helpful.

    I think at a conceptual level to future startups, things will definitely
    improve. let’s not forget this was the first of its kind in Zimbabwe
    and it’s only through such reviews and questions raised that we can all
    improve it for better.

    Personally speaking, I did not have an issue with the US$15 theme/price
    tag. I understand the seller may have been desperate or it may have been
    overpriced, such dynamics shouldn’t come into consideration. However, I
    feel most people didn’t understand the value-added to something that
    exists (close to) free for everyone to use. That I think was the core of
    the “modification” issue. Should there be a threshold to “commercial
    value” added to open source software if the focus is on business
    potential? If the open source solution is easy to replicate then some of that commercial value gets lost.

    Most of the pitchers (myself included) were under the illusion innovation would be valued
    more than commercial success. definitely is in business and
    their chosen niche might actually grow in a few years & I believe
    they’ll be well positioned. If the focus was on commercial success than
    technology in itself, and it made sense to the judges, then it was the
    right pick.

    I’m sure in the next rounds, the competition will have a universal eligibility standard and validation checks (maybe?) on eligibility of startups that compete.

    Overally, thanks for launching this initiative! I’m really happy to be involved and hope to partake in future ones!

  4. Thank-you David Behr, for your initiative and for stirring up relevance in the industry. Some people who say IT is just support and selling software will get good insight through such events. We can commercialise our skills. I also commend you for specifically thinking of how to assist those “whose doors are closed” though within them exists immense potential. Starting up an IT venture requires financial backing to for both operations and sustenance, enabling the techs to focus on the project without any distractions.

    I can’t say more than what you or others have said. Am in total agreement. You have made history.

    IMHO, I think deleting ALL those comments was a bit drastic. They are an essential part of history. Would it not have been better to delete just the offending comments? It would be nice to reference reactions in the future.

    1. Yes, I’d like to see some of the comments back – especially the earlier ones. They were useful!  Editor??

  5. ..David Behr you deserve a wikipedia profile, starting ZOL with only a handful of resources and now its a big thang. we have any writers around who can write for wikipedia, i think it will be interesting to have most of our distinguished Zimbabweans on this site. its funny how  American gangsters are profiled there when people like David Behr and many suucessful Zimbos are nowhere to be found.

    1. @542f7283b48cb438c156f7ddc2878358:disqus What makes Wikipedia such an effective and brilliant tool is that anyone can edit the pedia. You can create the articles yourself!

  6. @ David Behr (ZOL CEO) 
    This was great initiative. In order to do more in your next challenge, I was thinking if you have extra capacity, you could offer some free/subsidised 😉 hosting shared/virtual to anyone with a startup idea that requires servers. 

    I am thinking about something like a sandbox where people can try out stuff. This can be given to all those who enter the competition or be on an ongoing basis.

    Just an idea… 😉

  7. ok David, so you are saying if l have two desktop and a modem l can start a company as big as yours? lm impressed. l have fourteen PCs though one physical and others all VMs l think mine will be a bigger startup!

    But thanks David, l like your approach.

  8. David, thanks for the great article and for the wonderful initiative. The process is subjective but I think you did a great job in picking up the winners. I have thought about Mukela some more since I wrote my critique and I have to sat they are worthy winners. I hope you will continue the good work!

  9. You all deserve as innovators. David, again thanks. It matters not what the process was or how it went, but what matters most was that YOU ALL DID IT. This is the discipline in startups and innovation, JUST DO IT. Thats what Silicon Valleys thrives on. Now that you’ve done it, all aspiring innovators are thinking at a different level than before. they can see what is possible and have a small guiding light along the way.

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