Mike Quinn is a 2007-08 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA alumnus, he is also the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. With over 10 years of experience running a successful social business, Mike shares his hard-learned tips and experiences on how to get a purpose-driven venture started, built and scaled. This is the second article in the series, how to ‘build’.
In my last blog, I outline a three part strategy to starting a purpose driven venture:
Start by falling in love with a big problem
Pick the right co-founder(s)
Rapid prototype to discover product market fit
If you get that far, you are well on your way and should be able to raise investment. The art of fundraising is a topic on its own that has been extensively covered, including this excellent piece by Y-Combinator’s co-founder Paul Graham. In this article, I’m going to assume you have some capital and now it’s time to build. Specifically, there are three critical foundations you will need to put in place in advance of scaling your venture (which will be the third part of this series).
Build a Model
I used to falsely believe that innovating means everything needs to be new and unique. A more mature approach is to first research what other models are out there that you can learn from. As John Mullins and Randy Komisar wisely advise in Getting to Plan B, start by finding successful analog models that you can emulate, and figure out how to copy and adapt them to your market. When launching Zoona, we studied M-Pesa’s agent and money transfer model in Kenya and figured out how to adapt it to Zambia where it didn’t exist. It’s a lot easier to build off of someone else’s successful innovation than to start from scratch.
Conversely, it is also useful to identify
antilog models that are past their prime and explicitly define what you want to
do the opposite of. In Zoona’s case, this was deploying entrepreneur owned and
managed kiosks instead of branches as the banks and the post office were doing.
You will also need to figure out your growth levers, how you make money, and establish metrics and feedback mechanisms to track if your model is working. The faster you can learn and adapt, the greater the probability of success.
Build a Team
Your ability to build a motivated, aligned and high-performing team will make or break your venture. This is one of the most important jobs of an entrepreneur and ironically one of the easiest to screw up. When there is so much work to do, it is extremely tempting to hire the first person who walks in the door and leave her alone to sink or swim. I have learned that it’s much more effective to be purposeful and systematic every step of the way. Here is a checklist I use when building a team:
Do you really know what roles you need, and have you defined them as
clearly as you can?
What roles can you outsource or
make part-time to avoid taking on too much fixed cost?
Have you defined what values,
abilities, and skills (in that order of importance) are required for each role?
Do you have a clearly defined
Employee Value Proposition to attract the right people? (i.e. Why would anyone
want to work for you?)
Do you know where to find
potential candidates? (The good ones most likely already have jobs). Have you
looked within your organization?
Do you have a non-biased process
to assess candidates?
Have you thoroughly checked their
references to identify red flags and validate their track records?
Can you “try before you buy” by
starting new hires off as consultants?
Have you defined clear
30/60/90/180/365 day objectives and key results that will determine if the new
hire is performing?
Do you have a process to give and
receive regular and honest feedback?
Do you have a simple and effective
performance management system?
Do you have a process to identify
exit the wrong people?
The last point on identifying and exiting the wrong people is as important as hiring the right ones. A mentor once told me that the best recruitment firms in the world will only get it right 75% of the time, but the best companies in the world are those that efficiently deal with the other 25%. If you want to build a great team, learn how to compassionately offboard people who stand in the way of that goal.
Build a Culture
With the right people in the right roles, amazing things are possible. But for anything to be achieved, those people also need to exhibit the right behaviors, which is where your culture comes in. As with all my advice, the starting point is to be purposeful about designing what culture you want and then taking steps to shape that. If you don’t do this purposefully, a culture will emerge anyway, and it may not be one that is productive or that you want.
Have you defined your purpose,
values and principles?
Do you live your purpose, values and principles?
Do you reflect and learn from
Do you celebrate your successes
and acknowledge achievements?
Do you care about your people and
The golden rule for building an effective culture is “do what I do, not what I say.” As a leader, everyone will watch how you behave for signals on how they should behave. As Ben Horowitz rightly titled his latest book about creating culture, “What You Do Is Who You Are.” With any purpose-driven venture, time and energy spent designing and improving your model, team and culture will be time well-spent. It will pay off in multiples when you enter the next phase: scaling.
Rangan Srikhanta is a 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and MBA. He is dedicated to equal and fair education for all as a catalyst for future progression and access to opportunities for the world’s most marginalised communities. Rangan shares the story of how this came to be his passion and how he ended up at the University of Oxford doing his MBA.
My journey to Oxford isn’t a typical one,
but then again – as I soon found out, no one’s is!
Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, my family and I
fled a civil war that would change the lives of millions of people. Arriving in
Australia, it took me many years to realise that social disadvantage transcends
nations and disproportionately affects minorities.
Many government policies when combined with
externalities, in whatever their form, first manifest as minor differences in
education and health in early childhood, but snowball into much wider social divides
later in life (lower life expectancy, lower employment opportunities and so on).
Layer in the rapidly changing landscape, thanks to technology – a fast forming
digital divide, would also become synonymous with an opportunity divide.
As fate would have it, in 2005, I found an opportunity to do something to contribute to improving access to educational opportunities for thousands of children by closing the digital divide. One laptop per Child (OLPC), was a partnership among businesses, NGOs, and governments to produce the world’s least expensive laptop and to distribute that device to children all around the world. I was intrigued by OLPC’s vision of bringing those sectors together to solve social problems. I was equally impressed by the low-cost laptop that OLPC proposed to create.
The device, which came to be called the XO,
would cost just $100 a piece to manufacture, had free and open software,
ultra-low power usage, a sunlight-readable screen and be field repairable.
Inspired on so many levels, I chose action
over theory, opting to make numerous late-night phone calls to MIT to figure
out what we could do to bring the project to Australia. Armed with what would
be my greatest asset, my child like naivety on how these projects came in to
being, I set upon a journey that would not only improve educational
opportunities for thousands of primary school children but also change my
entire trajectory in life.
Whilst our early days were focused on
advocacy, it wasn’t until after our volunteer group formalised into One Laptop
per Child Australia that I realised that the OLPC initiative needed a re-think
to some of its core principles.
After delivering computers to many remote
communities, it was clear that flying in, dropping off computers for free and
then leaving was not sustainable and would undermine our ability to improve
access and usage.
A major challenge facing remote schools in
Australia is the tenure of teachers. On average teachers last 8 months. Any
model that required face-to-face training was not scalable, would only serve to
build a dependency relationship on our organisation, and do little to build
local capacity to overcome teacher turnover.
In fact, we found there were many
dependencies on suppliers (by design) that resulted in schools being forced to
come back for repairs, support etc. This was a market failure that increased
the cost of technology and reduced access to those that needed it most.
After evolving our programme over 10 years,
raising just under $30 million to train over 2,000 teachers and deliver over
70,000 computers, it became clear that I needed time and space to reflect on my
journey into the future.
Truth be told, after the management
rollercoaster I’d been through over the past decade, I wasn’t convinced I
needed an MBA. But to classify Oxford’s MBA with its deep connection to the
Skoll Centre as ‘just another MBA’ is a career limiting move for anyone who wants
to lead an organisation deep into the 21st Century. It forms the
reason why I wanted to come here – this MBA, is a place to consider how
externalities need to be core business for all executives.
One thing I didn’t anticipate was how the power of such a resilient institution like Oxford could be a catalyst for my own change. In my short time on campus, not onlyhave I been able to reflect on why I came here, but have also started to reflect on where I will be going.
Dr. Diana Esther Wangari is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA. She is the co-founder of last mile health venture, Checkups Medical Centre in Kenya where she dedicates her work to treating those who need it most. Read more about what led her to Oxford.
does a young Kenyan doctor, who through her earlier years dreamt of being a
neurosurgeon, end up at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford?
The answer to this – oddly enough – is a question. And this question is, “Do you want your life to count for something – or not?”
Here’s my story.
In my fourth year of medical school, I stood in the middle of a pediatric ward, having failed to resuscitate a young boy of four years and I knew he did not have to die.
John died from a case of complicated pneumonia. We could treat pneumonia. He could have been treated from his own village; he didn’t have to travel over 300 kilometers to seek care. That time taken led to complications. He did not need to be in my ward.
On that day in the middle of the pediatric ward, I asked myself one question, “Who am I? What am I doing here?”
I was in the biggest referral hospital, but majority of our patients, consisted of those who didn’t need to be there. They had preventable and very treatable conditions that could have been handled in a facility in their towns or villages. And by the time they got to us, the case had often complicated.
But childhood dreams are not easily abandoned.
And thus, it was not until my fourth year in medical school that I was able to accept a stark fact of the health sector in a developing country like Kenya – that no matter how hard I worked, treating the patients that came to me, would not be enough. My clinical practice would not be enough. And, specifically, if I specialized in neurosurgery, I would cut myself off from the millions of Kenyans who would never in their lives encounter a neurosurgeon.
The kind of people whom I met every day as a fourth-year medical student – people whose courage in the face of adversity and extreme neglect sometimes moved me to tears – would no longer feature in my working day.
I suppose I should also be grateful that I was not only a medical student. Beginning from my second year, I had become, out of necessity, a fulltime journalist duly accredited by the Media Council of Kenya, having worked with Radio Netherlands and Reuters Foundation.
But between what I was learning from my colleagues in the newsroom and the unforgettable exposure to what ordinary Kenyans go through in their efforts to get treatment at a public hospital, a strange change came over me.
I began to feel that I would have to regard myself as a failure in life, if, as and when, my time was up, I had not made a tangible contribution to improving the quality of healthcare available to ordinary Kenyans.
Naïve as it will sound; I want my life to count for something. Naïve as it will sound; I believe I can have an impact, which will touch on not tens of thousands, but millions of lives. And naïve as it will sound; I believe that this is an ambition that is within my reach.
Newton said, “If I have
seen further than others, it is
by standing upon the shoulders of
I knew that Oxford University has historically been the abode of giants; and that it is a place where I too, can hope to stand on the shoulders of giants, and expand my vision of what I can do for my country and my continent.
“Who am I? What am I doing here?”
I am the future of the Kenyan healthcare establishment. I feel like that who have come before me, have done their best but there is a lot more that still needs to be done.
So “Who am I? And what I am doing at the Oxford University’s Saïd Business School?”
I am Dr. Diana Wangari, a doctor, a journalist and a healthcare entrepreneur. As co-founder of Checkups Medical Centre, a health tech startup that operates a network of rapid outpatient clinics to drive last mile distribution of drugs and healthcare services. This is not just a Kenyan issue; we operate in four African countries and plan to scale across Africa through partnerships and investments.
From what I have seen this far of the Skoll Network, the Saïd Business School and Oxford University Community, I am in the right place.
Tsechu Dolma is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is the founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project to help build resilient refugee communities through women’s agribusinesses. She reflects on her lived experience and how it led her to an impact career and an MBA at Oxford.
There are 25.4 million refugees in the world; children make up half of them; 3.5 million school-age refugee children do not go to school, and only one percent of refugees enroll in higher education. I was born into these statistics. I grew up in a Tibetan refugee camp and spent the first half of my life as a stateless person. Fleeing the civil war in Nepal, my family sought political asylum in the United States.
After becoming a new American, receiving my education there, then going back, I realized that my refugee community back home was stuck in a culture of waiting that international agencies had perpetuated and we had enhanced upon. Our community has been plagued with development barriers such as heavy youth outmigration, low student retention, poor water access and ethnic marginalization. But we were not working on solving our problems; instead, we waited for outsiders to bring in poorly designed, implemented and costly projects that would only last for a year or two. Inside the past decade, climate change and globalization has made living in the high-Himalayas increasingly more difficult and we cannot afford to wait. I made a risky leap so that we can reverse this development trend, and instead take a grassroots approach to foster local ownership, inclusion and capacity.
My entrepreneurial spirit brought me back to the refugee camps I left behind to start a social enterprise. I founded Mountain Resiliency Project six years ago while I was an undergraduate student. We have a proven track record of improving food security, women’s economic empowerment and leveling patchy development for 15,000 displaced farmers in Nepal. Our average families have increased their annual incomes by 200 percent. Most importantly, 80 percent of our family’s earned income is spent on their children’s continued education and the remaining is reinvested in their trade. I realize the value of hard work and grit in achieving our true potential. Our work has received international awards and recognition for making strides. Today, we have 15 full-time staff leading our work in Nepal. I am rethinking the underpinnings of development in my community that has continued to perpetrate marginalization and dispossession. My vision is to scale Mountain Resiliency’s work worldwide. We want to grow out of South Asia to become the first-ever global network of refugee communities producing and selling goods to the mainstream market. Being a Skoll Scholar has supported my growth as a social entrepreneur and broadened my scope of advocating for and strengthening displaced communities.
The Skoll Scholarship aligns with my lifelong values of growing into an effective leader with
the grit, vision and communication skills to be a steward to my community and
me, it is the tool to address inequities, development gaps and improve
livelihoods. From my work at Mountain Resiliency, I have firsthand experience
of how effective social enterprises that are deeply rooted in empathy and
relationship building can transform lives. Social entrepreneurship is the best
amalgamation of my passion and skills for how I want to influence the world. My
experience with displaced communities has taught me that when the system is
broken and continues to perpetrate disenfranchisement to the most vulnerable,
the solutions must come from the unconventional. On my journey through
different landscapes, I seek connections with the human and natural world to
find my place and understand economic development. The literature on human, nature
and policy has allowed me to use ideas from development discourse, like
‘participation’ and ‘sustainability’ in a way that is both effective and
critical. Displaced communities worldwide have little to no political leverage
and only extractive industries and projects are in their region; resulting in
inconsistent, patchy development. I intend to change this.
Anjali Sarker is a current 2019-20 Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA. She is passionate about empowering women’s rights through economic opportunity. She reflects on her impact journey so far and what led her to Oxford.
It was a hot summer afternoon in 2014. A group of middle-aged women were sitting under a tree, giving me and my colleague a very skeptical look as we were trying to explain how mobile payments could possibly make their lives easier. They did not seem to be convinced at all, for good reasons; at least for reasons that were valid to them.
“We, women, don’t understand those things… too complicated for us.”
“My husband handles all financial matters. Those are men’s responsibilities.”
“My marriage will be in trouble if I use mobile money. My in-laws will assume that I’m secretly sending money to my parents.”
I wondered if it was at all possible to challenge the age-old traditions and gender norms that made women believe that managing money is men’s business, and they should ‘stay out of it’. As a deep believer in gender equality, and being a woman myself, I wanted to challenge the status quo.
At that point, the mobile money revolution in Bangladesh was just building momentum. However, as with all new opportunities, it was mostly men who were able to utilise mobile money. In particular, rural and poor women lagged behind. By 2017, the number of mobile money account holders in Bangladesh shot to over 24 million, the highest in the world. Shockingly, at the same time, the gender gap in financial inclusion increased 20 percentage points within only 3 years, leaving 38 million women unbanked. BRAC, one of the largest NGOs in the world where I worked at the time, had been active in the microfinance industry since the early 1970s, providing rural women access to small loans. We saw mobile money as an opportunity to expand the coverage of financial services to every corner of the country. However, the challenge was how to take it to the poorest women who need it the most.
The next few years became a roller coaster ride for my team, pulling off a massive nationwide project, funded by the Gates Foundation, to get digital financial services to the fingertips of one million women (literally). Leading the project taught me more than I could have ever imagined – taking me to the remotest corners of the country and exposing my eyes to the harshest forms of poverty. On one hand, it was incredibly inspiring to see how our clients’ eyes lit up when they made their first digital transactions and sent money to their loved ones. On the other hand, I felt numb when I heard many stories of husbands’ abusing their wives for being “too independent”. I realised that beyond providing necessary services and ‘doing good’, development interventions should also take responsibility for the consequences, both intended and unintended, that come later.
“A more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete.”
Anjali Sarker, 2019-20 Skoll Scholar
The project left my mind full of complex questions, which motivated me to take a two-year study leave. Before coming to Oxford for my MBA, I did an MSc at the London School of Economics, where I studied Inequalities and explored how emerging technologies impact the existing inequalities. Many people raise their eyebrows when I said that I was going to do an MBA, after studying “inequalities”! Aren’t these the two extremes of the world today where the richest 1% are exploiting the whole planet and the activists are protesting on streets to bring them down? Well, I believe the realities are much more complex and nuanced than that. One can choose to fight the system and in extreme cases of injustice, that might as well be the only option. However, in most situations, a more effective way of changing the status quo is to build a better system that makes the existing system obsolete. This hope for change is what inspired me and brought me to Oxford.
While looking into business schools, Oxford’s Saïd Business School clearly stood out because of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the Skoll Scholarship, and the incredible privilege to be immersed within the wider Oxford University community. In fact, my motivation for an MBA was understanding the world of business and investing the knowledge, skills and connections gained in social good, specially to create systems that work for women. Unfortunately, women are still the biggest minority in the world. More often than not, their needs and realities do not get the attention they deserve. To make things worse, if they are poor, illiterate or live in rural areas, they become almost invisible to the systems and decision-makers. My hope is that spending this year in Oxford, and all the incredible opportunities that come with an MBA from Oxford Saïd, will enable me to better serve millions of invisible women in Bangladesh.
Mike Quinn is a 2007-08 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA alumnus, he is also the co-founder and former CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintech companies. With over 10 years of experience running a successful social business, Mike shares his hard-learned tips and experiences on how get a purpose-driven venture started, built and scaled. This is the first article in the series, how to ‘start’.
In October 2019, I had the privilege of being a Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. I delivered three talks and coached dozens of entrepreneurial MBA students who were seeking practical advice on how to start, build and scale a purpose-driven venture. This blog summarizes my first talk, ‘How to Start,’ with the others to follow.
Start by falling in love with a big problem
When starting a new venture, there’s a lot of
pressure to come up with that one novel idea that nobody has ever thought of
before. It can be discouraging at the idea formation stage to hear comments
like, ‘Oh that’s not very unique!’ or ‘There’s another company already doing
that!’ This pressure can lead to you spending a lot of your time trying to come
up with a unique solution before choosing and understanding the problem you
want to solve.
This is a backward approach for a few reasons. First, it’s almost impossible to come up with an idea that someone else hasn’t thought of or tried already. Second, if another company is already doing it, that means there is a real-life analog to learn from. And third, trying to come up with a solution before fully understanding the problem is the fastest way to start-up death.
A better approach is to spend time up front falling in love with a big problem. Pick a problem that you are passionate enough to spend the next decade of your life solving. Make sure it is big enough that no one solution will solve it completely. And be confident that if the problem no longer existed, the world would be a better place and you would be proud to have contributed to the solution.
Falling in love with a big problem is what will keep you motivated through all the investor rejections, people challenges and product failures that will surely come.
Pick the right co-founder(s)
There is a saying that ‘Founder’ is the loneliest number for good reason. There is so much to do when starting a new venture that having a team of 2-4 co-founders can make a huge difference in both the venture’s success and everyone’s well-being. However, finding the right co-founder(s) can be fraught with challenges, especially for first-time entrepreneurs.
Before you look to find others to work with,
you should start by finding yourself:
What is your purpose?
What are your core values?
What is your personality type?
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
Which tasks do you jump out of bed for, and which drain your energy and cause you to reach for the snooze button?
I like to capture these on a ‘Me on a Page’ document that I review monthly to keep me grounded.
Next, understand that the ideal co-founder(s) enables you to be the best version of yourself (and vice versa). Find people who share your passion for the problem, resonate with your values and are equally committed for the long haul. Make sure they have complementary strengths and weaknesses and are people you enjoy being around.
This is a high bar to meet, and so it should be. Over my ten years at Zoona, I spent as much, if not more, time with my three co-founders as I did with my wife. We experienced exhilarating highs and gut-wrenching failures together. We had to work in a pressure-filled environment that was never stable, even when things were going well. Working in a start-up will either bring co-founders together or destroy relationships, so it’s critical to be purposeful about the people you will share this special bond with.
It takes time to know if you have the right co-founder(s), so in the interim there are some practical steps you can take. For example, ‘try before you buy’ by agreeing up front to test for fit and working relationships before formalizing anything. Build in staged check-ins and exit off ramps where people need to either commit or leave. When splitting equity, introduce share vesting so that a departing co-founder returns their unvested shares back to the company. Have honest conversations and learn how to give each other feedback. This all takes courage and maturity but is absolutely necessary if you want to build a successful venture.
Rapid prototype to discover product-market fit
With the right problem and co-founder(s), you will have solid foundations in place to shift your focus to discovering product-market fit. Your goal is to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) that solves a major pain point for your targeted customers. You also need to validate that they are willing to pay for your product above what it costs you to deliver it. If you’re lucky, they will start telling other people who are like them to try your product, and you will achieve lift off.
A lot of things have to come together for this to happen, and it’s typically a race against time and running out of cash. If you spend all your time building a perfect product in your office, you are destined for failure.
Rather, take a rapid prototyping approach. Start with a small and consistent customer segment. Get to know who they are, their pain points, and the root causes of their pain points. Learn from them about how they already overcome these pain points on their own. Then, design hypotheses for how you could help reduce or eliminate their pain. Test hacked solutions that require the least amount of time and money to develop and seek quantitative and qualitative feedback. Make adjustments on the go and keep iterating as fast as possible until you have a working MVP and delighted customers.
With any new venture, there is never a
guarantee of success and always a high probability of failure. But if you get
these three foundations right – falling in love with a big problem, picking the
right co-founder(s), and rapid prototyping to discover product-market fit, you
will be off the starting blocks and living the entrepreneur lifestyle!