UniSmart: Thoughts on the Accelerator

By Frederik Obasi  |  May 15, 2014


To be totally honest, I never planned on or even wanted to be part of an accelerator when I started UniSmart. I knew a lot about accelerators and even had the opportunity to join a company in UK that was part of a popular accelerator, but I turned it down to move to Nigeria and focus. I have nothing against accelerators but I just didn’t feel like I needed to be part of one.

I pitched to Mbwana directly and that was my first contact with Savannah Fund. At that point, I planned to raise money without attending the accelerator. Mbwana connected me with Malaika (principal and mentor) and after an initial Skype meeting, we met in person for drinks at the Eko hotel in Lagos. There, we discussed many things but one thing that stood out was the way she communicated the value of being part of Africa’s leading accelerator aside from the money.

Meeting Malaika in Lagos was the first time I really considered joining an accelerator. After the meeting, my co-founder Taofeeq and I decided we would give it some real thought, so I started researching accelerators. The ultimate key that changed our minds was identifying what we didn’t know about growing a startup and identifying how we could learn these lessons in the quickest time possible. When researching more in detail about Savannah Fund, it was clear that deciding to accept an offer would give me that opportunity to learn and learn fast.

Frederik Obasi, right. Taofeeq Alabi, left.

Frederik Obasi, right. Taofeeq Alabi, left.

I don’t want to write too much about the benefits of the Savannah Fund accelerator program specifically. I believe it is a startup founder’s job to research that for themselves. But in a broader sense I will outline the biggest questions I had about joining the accelerator and some of the thought processes that led to our decision.

Who are these guys and are they legit?

Legitimacy was very important to me. I wanted to know first if Savannah Fund was open and transparent about what they have done and what I can learn from them. I didn’t want my startup to be a guinea pig for some ex-bankers, MBAs, daddy-money-type guys that want to be investors because they thinks investing is cool and have no experience growing a company. I have nothing against accelerators founded by people like that, but personally, I just don’t feel like they are experienced enough to learn how to grow my startup quickly.

Does it work for the company?

For us, this question was more important because I would have to move to Kenya for the accelerator.  At that point, we were understanding our users more and had just brought in a pretty good developer named Angus. We also had some exciting plans for various products. So, we had to ask ourselves if moving to Kenya for 3 months would slow us down. I have always been the more growth-oriented guy but my co-founder Taofeeq is less intense and likes to focus on one thing at a time, letting me take the lead.

We decided we could make it work for the company if one of us stayed in Nigeria. Taofeeq was very involved with the on the ground activity–speaking to students and universities–so he stayed and had to take on more responsibility. So far, it’s been working out great and Taff has stepped up.

We were never going to sacrifice the progress we were making if we didn’t believe the accelerator could really grow us. More importantly, we are running a heavily tech-influenced startup and if we can’t work remotely, then we just can’t work in this day and age. At times, especially in Africa, big business is done face to face and not over Skype or email, but as long as one of us stayed it would work.

15% equity for $25K is quite big

If you know much about other accelerators in America and Europe, then you will probably view it that way. The first thing to consider is that Africa is not Europe or America. Some basic and fundamental issues we experience in Africa don’t even exist in other continents. As a few examples, poor connectivity (it’s a technology company), poor educational systems (who are you going to hire?), lack of data (how you verify or research your market), open and widespread corruption (especially us Nigerians, no one wants to do business with crooks), poor online payment infrastructure (how you collect money from customers) are heavy considerations for investors. These things mean that as a startup in Nigeria and Africa, you are nearly guaranteed failure from an outsider’s perspective. Honestly, if I was an investor, I would probably want even more equity.

More importantly, you have to think: Have you hit a product-market fit? Have you verified the market, gotten a proven method of making money, and is it time to step on the gas? If you are not at this stage or not very close to this stage, then your startup could still very much benefit from a solid accelerator program, because you are still concerned with solid traction and learning about the full process.

Thus far, the Savannah Fund accelerator program has helped me get into the mind of an investor, helped me be honest with myself, given me confidence that I’m not crazy and a true sense of accountability, and enabled me to meet some great people that I would have probably not met.

In conclusion, I leave you new founders and young people with a vision with this: we will definitely succeed one way or the other, and we know that because we know how much we want it. We don’t need anyone’s approval or backing. The question for me is all about time. Maybe I could learn everything on my own by making my own mistakes but a wise man learns from other people’s mistakes.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator says:

“A start-up is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a start-up. Nor is it necessary for a start-up to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with start-ups follows from growth.

If you want to start one it’s important to understand that. Startups are so hard that you can’t be pointed off to the side and hope to succeed. You have to know that growth is what you’re after. The good news is, if you get growth, everything else tends to fall into place. Which means you can use growth like a compass to make almost every decision you face.”

Joining a good accelerator program should help you optimize for super fast growth. But choose wisely: it’s your future and not the accelerator’s.

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