Episode 009: Running an Ethiopia Investment Fund at 30 Years Old with Sean Keough

Sean Keough profile pic.png

ABOUT SEAN KEOUGH

Sean Keough is the managing director of Ethiopia Investments and executive director of EQOS Global, Ethiopia’s first outsourcing company specializing in data entry, digitization and contact center solutions.

Before that, Sean was an investment banker in San Francisco. On the verge of burnout, he decided to move to Ethiopia in 2014 where he worked as a volunteer for the NGO TechnoServe.

Sean planned to take a 3-month sabbatical, but he ended up never leaving.  

Without further ado, here's my conversation with Sean Keough.

WHAT WE LEARN FROM SEAN: USE ETHIOPIA’S LOW COSTS TO EXPERIMENT AS AN ENTREPRENEUR

Sean shares how he leveraged Ethiopia’s low cost environment to constantly experiment and test new ideas as an entrepreneur. Over the span of four years, he has founded an advisory firm, set up an investment fund worth millions of US$, and is currently managing the day-to-day operations of a thriving outsourcing business. 

SEAN’S ACTIONABLE TIPS

  1. Consider taking on projects for free to build your credibility and network
  2. Focus on building long-term value in African markets. The financial model where you return money to investors after 7-10 years simply doesn’t work in Ethiopia.
  3. Accept failure and move on. Failure makes you more interesting as a person, giving you richer life experiences.

SEAN’S TOP QUOTES

  • “If you have one life, why are you going to do what everyone else is doing? Why not try to reach the full potential that God has set out for you?”

  • “There wasn’t an appreciation for the service that I was offering. Typically, what you do is help an investor to invest in your client and then you take a percentage of the investment in the local company. It’s great on a development side because you’re helping to steer money into the country. But in Ethiopia, deals don’t take 2-3 months. They don’t take 6 months. They take two years. You need to have significant cash flow to get over that hump.”

  • “When I first started out, I thought, “Ok, here’s a US$150 million opportunity. What else is out there that no one knows about and that I’m uniquely positioned to take advantage of? But, what I wish I had known is that no one is looking at these opportunities for a reason.”

  • “Failure means that you’re doing something difficult and you’re leading an interesting life."

SEAN’S LINKS

SEAN’S MENTIONS

  • Technoserve
  • Henok Assefa at Precise Consulting (Don’t miss episode 004 with Henok!)
  • Ascent Investing
  • Zemen Bank
  • Rupert McCammon of AfinitasKey

KEY TIMESTAMPS

  • Why Sean moved to Addis Ababa [0:54]
  • His aptitude for entrepreneurship and risk-taking [3:03]
  • Why Ethiopia has an unique capital market structure [5:38]
  • The hack that Sean used to grow his advisory business in Ethiopia [7:47]
  • The strategic utility of working for free [13:09]
  • What Sean learned from prospecting his first project, privatization of a tantalum mine [15:30]
  • The origin story of Ethiopia Investments Fund [22:10]
  • The fund’s fundraising model [24:18]
  • The outsourcing business, EQOS Global [25:36]
  • Surprising source of local demand that drives a big share of company profits [26:55]
  • Sean’s biggest failure and what he learned from it [30:18]
  • The secret advantage of setting up a business in Ethiopia. [35:20]
  • Why Sean gets up at 4am [37:30]
  • Networking [39:00]
  • Daily routines [43:30]
  • Where Sean would go in Africa to improve his business [46:07]
  • Actionable advice [47:10]
  • Sean’s upcoming book project [48:54]