Hiring your own boss and swallowing your pride

Why would you do that?

As a young entrepreneur there are many challenges; both the challenges that an experienced entrepreneur has, and the challenges that you face as a young businessperson in a world where seniority still dominates as a property required to be respected.

Yesterday, I was told: “If you think this way, you are selling yourself short”. Well, that may be the way it seems to outsiders, but seniority and experience are often not characteristics that you can make up for with skills and wit. When sitting at a table with potential customers, investors or partners, I have noticed that these individuals are more at ease listening to- and accepting things from someone who shares their level of experience and seniority.

Out of this learning, my co-founder and I decided that it would be a great idea to search for someone who was much more experienced than ourselves, to lead the fundraising process, the strategy and the expansion of the business. We thought that especially in an industry whereby the success of the company depends a lot on the relations it has with African governments and large corporations that firmly depend on hierarchical structures, it is of the essence that the person handling these relations has done so extensively in the past. Not only is it difficult to establish a powerful position between all the giants, it is even harder to do so when the cause you are doing it for is completely new and has barely proven itself.

So far we have been proven right!

It was an ambitious plan, as we could not be sure that anyone with the required experience would be interested in our business. However, as true believers in our idea, we started asking around in our networks. As with any search, what you are looking for is often in the place where you weren’t looking and it appears as more of a coincidence than anything else.

We had been working remotely with a skilled English language expert to convert our mediocre proposal writing into masterpieces. She has helped us to recently win two grants, totaling over $200,000 in funding. These grants will be used to study the best practices in sharing weather data with smallholder farmers, and will focus on ways in which we can increase yields through mobile communication, including other agricultural data sources.

While we were close to giving up our search for a CEO, her husband had been reading over our proposals. He had been working for Japanese Tobacco International in the Democratic Republic of Congo, leading the setup of their aviation business and a few perishable goods factories as part of an expansion strategy. (Un)fortunately, due to the uprising and unrest in the Congo the markets became too insecure, and he left his position at the company. He moved to Sudan where his wife received a job offer, and he was looking for a new opportunity which would require all his experience and enable him to learn even more.

It was all a huge coincidence, you may say we were lucky.

“Luck is with the foolish”

In Dutch we have a great expression which reads “het geluk is met de dommen”. I personally believe that outside of war, poverty, and disease, people all are blessed with a similar amount of luck, both good and bad. However, those that are successful are the ones that trust that when they are unlucky, they will soon be lucky again, and therefore keep working hard on their goals.

Setting yourself up for success:

While many have questioned our decision to bring someone into the company so early on to take the lead, we have thought deeply about the consequences and how we can mitigate the negative while ensuring the positive. These were the steps we made sure to follow:

  1. The ambition to make our company successful had to be apparent immediately
  2. Accepting that the goals of the company were set up by others, and that the candidate would understand that it was the dream of the founders that he/she would be working towards (I had myself also not come up with the idea so I knew it was possible)
  3. Analyse the candidate to ensure we will continue to have the level of freedom in our roles, respects our skills and history within the company, and be humble (my co-founder taught me to appreciate this trait in people)
  4. Set up the relationship such that the power of the founders and the board of directors remains intact
  5. Make it clear that our primary goal is to have impact and that while revenue drives growth and keeps investors happy, it is only a means to achieve the impact

So far, things have been going excellently, as our selected candidate met all our requirements. Our strategy for expansion has been fully developed and will become apparent to the public sooner than later. We are still on schedule with our fundraising and should be opening up an office in Nairobi, Kenya in early 2017.

Article by olliesmeenk

I was born in the Netherlands but raised in Tanzania. My primary interest is in modern business, with a tendency to prefer working on technical concepts. I launched a Kickstarter campaign for my product called SODAQ Moja in 2013, and now started my own enterprise which can be found on www.kukua.cc

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