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How to Scale a Purpose-Driven Venture

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 third, and final article in the series, how to ‘scale’.

I started this three-part series with some tips on how to start a purpose-driven venture:

  1. Start by falling in love with a big problem
  2. Pick the right co-founder(s)
  3. Rapid prototype to discover product-market fit

I then shifted focus to the next stage of a company lifecycle, how to build:

  1. Build a model
  2. Build a team
  3. Build a culture

Now it’s time to learn how to scale. This is the stage that every entrepreneur and investor wants to get to as fast as possible, but it’s also fraught with challenges when you do.

Know When to Scale

Perhaps the hardest part of scaling any venture is picking the right time to put your foot on the accelerator. If you wait too long, you miss the opportunity and your investors, team, and maybe even you will lose energy and focus. But if you try to scale too early, you risk stretching your organization too far and experiencing burn out.

I have done it wrong both ways. As CEO of Zoona, I took too long to double down on our exponentially growing money transfer product in the early years, but then was too aggressive with market expansion in the later years before we had our core team, operations, and technology ready to go.

The trick, I have learned, is to really pay attention and listen to both the market and your team. If the market is pulling your product and growth is coming organically with strong customer retention metrics, that is the first and most important signal. If you then look across all of your business functions and feel you are executing at a 70% performance level or above, then you are good to go. Don’t wait to achieve perfection (you never will), but be wary of flicking on the growth switch if you have any major shortcomings in your foundations. And if you find these shortcomings, fix them fast!

Pick a Strategy and Execute Well

If it’s the right time to go for scale, the next question is how? Having the right scaling strategy is really important, and it’s generally easier and more effective to scale from your core (i.e. don’t try to scale something that is new to what is already working).

But I would argue that picking a single strategy and really nailing the execution is paramount. You will never know for certain if your strategy is right until you try, and the worst thing you can do is waste time and energy pulling in multiple directions. Have a robust strategy debate with your team and board to find focus and alignment, but then make sure everyone follows Jeff Bezos’ advice: “Disagree and commit.”

Once your strategy is set, it’s all about execution. Cadence is critical: Set quarterly Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and cull any non-essential tasks that aren’t directly linked to achieving them, set up weekly dashboards to track leading indicators and key learnings, and establish performance management systems for your team. Also, make sure your best people are focused on your most important OKRs and help them by removing distractions and obstacles in their way.

Stay Close to Your Customers

In the scaling process, one challenge I faced as a leader at Zoona was drifting further away from our customers. When you are small, you are in front of customers all the time and this is critical to understanding and connecting with them. But later on, you may have two to three layers between you and your customers, and those layers may also want to execute without you being in their way.

The danger is that you spend more time in meetings watching powerpoint presentations than interacting with the customers who pay everyone’s salaries. You lose perspective and retain outdated assumptions. Your own energy may even wane, as your original source of purpose and inspiration may start to seem inaccessible.

I experienced this several times at Zoona. My favourite remedy was to break my routine and take a customer immersion trip. I cleared my calendar for five weeks and spent all my time in the field working for our agents and serving customers. Not only did I discover several product and operational bugs that were easily fixable, I gained a broader understanding of who our customers were and what Zoona meant to them. This, in turn, influenced my thinking on future strategy and enabled me to take new ideas back to my team to lead the company forward. It also set a new behaviour standard, and soon other leaders across our company were spending more time out in the field with customers, which led to many positive outcomes.

Don’t Run Out of Cash!

Lastly, scaling can be very expensive. You have already gone through an incredible struggle to get to this point and may have even raised a big investment round and have cash to spend. But you can burn through all of that cash surprisingly quickly and end up in a very difficult situation if you aren’t careful.

To navigate this challenge, it’s critical that you have the right people on your team and a culture that values your hard-earned money. Keep your fixed costs as low as possible and spend your money on acquiring and retaining customers. Establish processes and controls to create budget scarcity so that cash is not wasted on things that aren’t working, and empower your CFO to declare war against waste.

Also, watch out for copycat competitors with deep pockets and potential disruptions to your business model. It’s when you are scaling that competition suddenly takes notice and copies what you are doing. Don’t panic (you are probably better than you think) but don’t stand still (you won’t be better for long if you do).

And finally, don’t wait until you are out of cash to raise your next round of investment. You should start nine months ahead of when you need the money and always have a plan B in case you can’t get it. The best plan B is to get to cash flow positive so that your venture is sustainable and you have more options on where to take it next.

Good luck scaling your purpose-driven venture!

If you enjoyed this blog series and would like to learn more, I have written a book called Failing to Win on my ten year journey of being a purpose-driven fintech entrepreneur in Africa. I have launched a crowdfunding campaign for you to pre-order your copy to help me cover the upfront costs of getting the book ready for publication. Please click this link now, and help me spread the word!

Green book cover with bold back text 'Failing to Win, the remarkable true story of building on of Africa's first fintech start-ups'

A new decade of impact investment: Three tactics to accelerate towards the SDGs

Tara Sabre Collier is not only a 2012-13 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA graduate- in 2019 she joined the Centre as a Social Entrepreneur in Residence. She has extensive experience in the world of social finance and international development, as a social entrepreneur and impact investment advisor.  As we begin a new year and decade, Tara Sabre shines a light on how far we’ve come (and how far we have to go) in achieving the UN SDGs.

This January kicks off an inflection point to consider the realities we have created since 2010 and those we aim to create by 2030. As of 2020, we now have ten years remaining to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which serve as guiding pillars for envisioning a better future for the world.

Twenty years ago, the last time the UN set forth the ambitious Millenium Development Goals, we fell short of accomplishing some of the outcomes we envisaged. 2020 is different and can be a watershed moment for global development. Today, the private sector and public sector have partnered at historically unprecedented levels to tackle the world’s challenges. New allies have emerged, leveraging far greater amounts of philanthropic and commercial capital and every kind of vehicle in between. Impact investing, which was valued over $500 billion in 2018, continue to grow by leaps and bounds. By 2025, 30% of family offices expect to allocate 25% or more of the funds to social impact investments.

Nonetheless, the size of the impact investment required to reach the SDGs appears daunting in some cases. For example, achievement of SDG #7 (universal access to affordable and clean energy) would require $1.3-1.4 trillion per year until 2030. So how do we (the impact investment ecosystem) improve our odds of reaching the SDGs by 2030?

One important tactic that impact investors can take on is to pursue synergies across multiple SDGs. Researchers at Aberdeen University and University of Potsdam have already embarked upon fascinating research to analyze and forecast the synergies and trade-offs across the SDGs. This provides an evidence base for impact investors to accelerate and measure progress investing in multiple-SDG strategies, from gender-smart agribusiness development to climate-friendly infrastructure.

Another tactic is to innovate cross-sector partnerships. When impact investors pour capital into agriculture or education enterprises that impact SDGs, the business enabling environment can make or break the potential financial success and social impact of said ventures.  This is why alignment between impact investors and public sector will continue to be crucial; innovation can play a vital role in amplifying these alignments. Development impact bonds were the last decade’s major step towards innovating cross-sector alliances. The 2020s are an opportunity to bring technology, such as big data, blockchain and AI modalities, to continue innovating these alliances for more effectiveness.

Perhaps the most important tactic to accomplish the SDGs is to counteract “impact washing, i.e. the practice of funds or enterprises claiming impact in bad faith without generating any demonstrable social or environmental benefits. B Lab is one of the oldest sector-agnostic certification initiatives to bring accountability and transparency to the social enterprise ecosystem. And IFC launched their own impact investment standards in 2019. But for intentionally aligning impact investment with reaching the SDGs specifically, the Future Fit Business Benchmark is potentially one of the most powerful new tools for companies to understand and operationalize their impact.

Twenty years ago, there was no impact investment industry, no development impact bonds, no blockchain, no social impact certification agencies and barely any smartphones! And yet, despite the shortcomings, the period of the Millennium Development Goals was marked by biggest drop in global poverty in recorded history. Today, we have a fleet of new technological advancement, more supportive business enabling environments and a thriving new asset class supercharging our progress towards global development. Even with the enormous scope of the Sustainable Development Goals, with continued progress we may be on pace to accomplish them this decade.

How to Build a Purpose-Driven Venture

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:

  1. Start by falling in love with a big problem
  2. Pick the right co-founder(s)
  3. 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 failure?
  • Do you celebrate your successes and acknowledge achievements?
  • Do you care about your people and their well-being?

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.

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The windy road from Kenya to Oxford University

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.

How 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.

Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

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.

So “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.

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My journey from Nepal to Oxford

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.

(Photo Credit: Mountain Resiliency Project) The majority of the villages Mountain Resiliency Project (MRP) works with do not have road access. They are some of the most remote settlements in the Himalayan range. Foot and pack animals travel is the lifeline of our communities. In this photo, Tsechu Dolma is traveling to one of MRP’s sites in Manang, Nepal, where the nearest road is a four-day hike away, plus a another 20 hours bus ride from Kathmandu, crossing a pass 16,814ft above sea level.

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.

Tsechu Dolma in camping tent, with background of mountain scene

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 environment. For 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.

How to Start a Purpose-Driven Venture

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!