Launching A Start-up (My Experience)
In previous years, I have helped my relatives in Nigeria with their applications to Universities in the UK. I was the go to guy in the family, to sort that type of thing. Before my co-founder and I finally relocated to Nigeria, we considered a few ideas, StudySearch being one of them. In the end, we decided to focus our energies on UniSmart so we launched a mobile discount platform for Nigerian students.
I’m not entirely sure why we didn’t initially give more in depth consideration to StudySearch. I felt that it would only be a side hustle, especially as the idea only stemmed from what I was already doing for family and friends pro-bono. Besides, at the time, e-commerce seemed ‘sexy’, so we rolled with UniSmart.
In January 2014, a week or so after making the big move to Nigeria, we launched UniSmart. We had not secured venture funding at the time, I had sold my car, rallied my family and invested my savings into this start up.
Whilst building UniSmart, we were connecting with university students everyday and we constantly heard the same thing “Once I’m done with my BSc / NYSC service, I will complete my education abroad”. This initially got us thinking about how many Nigerians study abroad, and I also learned in February 2014 about how a family friend had run into some trouble applying to study in the UK through an agent. These factors inspired my co-founder Taofeeq and I to begin seriously researching the study abroad market in Nigeria. Through our research and speaking to people, we learned there were many obstacles for Nigerians seeking education abroad. One of the main sticking points was finding country specific information on courses and universities abroad, and secondly was the cost of applying through an agent.
We recognised this as an opportunity and, looked into what role technology could play in solving some of the problems we had discovered. We couldn’t understand why it was so hard for Nigerian students to find information and apply independently or why some agents charge so much, so we started putting together some designs for what would be our minimum viable product.
Savannah Fund Accelerator
Before relocating to Nigeria, I had been building a relationship with people at the Savannah Fund. In April 2014, following numerous Skype calls and meetings, we were invited to join the Savannah fund accelerator in Kenya.
A day or so after I arrived in Kenya with our lead developer Angus for the three month program, we had a meeting scheduled with Mbwana (Managing Partner) and some of the other mentors. This was to give an update on where we were with UniSmart, and to set some targets.
I spoke with Taofeeq, who continued to work in Nigeria, about the update and we resolved that we did not see UniSmart as our killer opportunity. We decided to be open with Mbwana, and express that it was a more compelling route for us as a team to create a solution to the problems that Nigerian students encounter in applying to study abroad.
I remember the conversation, and the surprised expression on a few of the mentors’ faces. In the end, they trusted us to decide what was best, and supported us in deciding on the name StudySearch and setting clear targets to achieve.
Communicating the vision to our Investors was the easy part, the months after were the most emotionally taxing. Despite their help and support I always got the impression that behind the scenes some of our mentors were unsure of our decision. It felt a bit like our team were viewed as the “unserious” startup in our class because we had changed ideas. Perhaps it was all in my head. Nevertheless it impacted my approach to the process. I felt like an underdog and I had extra determination to disprove any doubts in our product and my teams ability to hit our targets successfully.
Not having a live product initially was difficult, as mentors, journalists, entrepreneurs and investors came through the accelerator to meet “Africa’s upcoming entrepreneurs”. We were in a position where we had to give them the long story of how we had just changed ideas, and didn’t have any of that magic stuff called ‘traction’. I remember every press article that read “UniSmart Raises seed round” feeling like a dagger to my heart.
Most of our time as a team was spent focusing heavily on product, and during the 3 weeks it took us to build StudySearch 1.0 we barely slept. But on the 31st of May we launched to the world.
Meeting Carey Eaton
Having a live product meant we were at least able to give mentors a demo and talk about initial user engagement. By far, my favourite mentor session was with the late Carey Eaton of One Africa Media. He seemed to have great knowledge of our market and he gave our team great references for offline education recruitment business. I remember how he positively challenged us on our ideas about the International education market, and how we could use technology to solve some of it’s big problems. After the session we learnt that Carey was interested in our next round of financing and this gave our team a confidence boost. It was the first bit of external validation from a mentor.
Upon reflection, the accelerator experience was great for our team and for myself personally. We had some awesome highs and lows. From feeling like underdogs and having no traction, to building a product from scratch and coming in the top 3 in SeedStars World Kenya.
Post accelerator was again difficult, I had burnt all my personal cash, and due to various factors we hadn’t entirely closed the funding. I knew that we really had to focus on generating revenue through paying customers and understanding our business model. Taofeeq and Angus focused on developing our product and I totally immersed myself in speaking to students, universities and agents. Although I had prior knowledge of the market, each new interaction always brought fresh insights and perspectives, which helped us in figuring things out.
Funnily enough, our first paying customer reached out to me through Linkedin commending StudySearch, After a few conversations and a meeting they signed up and have been instrumental in recommending StudySearch to other customers. We closed the funding round and continued growing through 2014.
Just before the new year, our team got together to to deeply consider and collate our company mission, core values, and roadmap. They were influenced heavily by everything we had learnt from listening to our customers; students, parents and universities.
Amidst all the specific problems, we know that to the people we assist through StudySearch, the bigger picture is that, a quality education matters. It matters for prosperity, for growth and for the individual. A good education enables the individual to develop skills, build networks and access opportunities for a better future. The hope of a better future is by far the most important factor Nigerian students and their parents (sponsors) consider in making the decision to study overseas.
We decided that no matter what we do this year, whether product development, recruiting or selecting investors we will have at the forefront of our mind the ‘bigger picture.’
This post was first published on Frederik’s blog