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 then shifted focus to the next stage of a company lifecycle, how to build:
Build a model
Build a team
Build a culture
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You run a growing social business and
things are going well. But you soon realise that with a little extra business
knowledge and global connections, your business could be so much more
So, you decide to take some time to
study your MBA.
But what happens to the business? You
think, ‘surely there will be plenty of time to run my business remotely, it’s
the 21st Century for goodness sake, it’ll be like I’m practically in
the office with all this technology at my fingertips’!
Well, sadly, most of the time this is where our Oxford MBAs can quickly get overwhelmed. In their hopes to do both, get an Oxford degree and run a successful business from 5,000 miles away, only one will prevail in the end.
So, what can we learn from those who
have come before?
Mohsin Mustafa, Oxford MBA, Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Scholar, and Skoll Scholar 2018-19, offers some handy advice for any prospective MBA looking to keep their business ticking over whilst they take a year out to study.
I run a healthcare business in Pakistan. We have pediatrics Clinics and we run those clinics in partnership with schools where we provide preventative care services. My enterprise Clinic5 is three years old and we have a team of 15 people. One of the biggest concerns I had when I was leaving for the Oxford MBA was what would happen to the business in my absence. So, I would like to share with you my experience and what worked. For advice on this aspect I would really like to credit Sidhya Senani, MBA 2017-18 who faced a similar dilemma as I did whose advice was crucial in helping me plan my transition this past year.
What to DO:
Have a lead in place
Having one person to contact while you’re
away makes it much easier for you to administratively manage affairs in your
enterprise. Also having one second in command makes it easier for your other
stakeholders (suppliers, clients, rest of the team) to know whom to contact in
case they want an issue to be solved.
Pilot not going to the office for at least
This pilot helps everyone in the team see how things happen in your absence. If you’re the cofounder, its quite possible that you were always available, both in person and with your time, now that you would be gone for a year, the gap would be felt so it’s always better to first give a feeler to the team and troubleshoot the issues that come up. Trust me this will come!
Set aside dedicated time for a weekly
This is very important. Face time with the team every week makes them see you still care about the work. It’s quite likely that the ownership you feel towards the business is much higher than anyone else. Feed the team with that energy every week. Additionally, during these calls, keep negative feedback to a minimum. Primarily serve as the motivational speaker or the cushion for their stressors. Let them speak. At your end reiterate the achievements during the year and how much longer the team must go before you join them and what’s waiting in store for the team after you join. Sharing the vision goes a long way.
You will get a few calls from your primary
point of contact every now and then. Prioritize that call. Important for your
primary point of contact (your lead) to feel that you have their back.
Also, if other team members call, try and
route them through your primary lead. If there’s a call, document it
immediately through an email so that everyone in the team is aware of what was
discussed. This practice reduces the chance of misunderstandings. This year
will be a real challenge of your business leadership skills.
Set aside cash flows so that your
business operation does not suffer.
It’s possible you might get cancelled clients, it’s possible that your business development plans for this year do not work out. The cushioning of cash flows for your business should be greater than what you keep. You need not share the exact level of cushioning with your team. It’s more as a safety net for rainy days.
What NOT to do:
Don’t intervene in operational matters.
Let the team on the ground deal with them
and TRUST their decision even if you think you would’ve done things differently
let it be. Unless and until you think a certain decision is an existential
threat, resist the temptation to intervene. This is essential to empowering
Don’t get involved in office politics
Some will happen inevitably. When that
happens try not to take sides
Don’t give negative feedback over a
Call if you must do it, do It one on one
Don’t plan to scale your work this year.
It exerts immense pressure on the team
A year later, I could safely say, things
went by quite smoothly for Clinic5. I would give this credit to my brilliant
team: Dr. Taha Sabri, Dr. Selina Hasan, Muhammad Irfan and Syed Kareem.
Additionally, my father kept an oversight on financial matters which took a lot
of stress off me, so thank you Abbu!
This time away might have been a blessing
in disguise since people took up more leadership responsibilities within my
organization and now when I go back, I can really focus on scaling.
If you’re taking part in the Oxford MBA this
coming year, brace yourself for an intense and exciting year.