Episode 012: How to Embrace Failure With Wiza Jalakasi

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ABOUT WIZA JALAKASI

Wiza Jalakasi is a serial entrepreneur and current head of international expansion at Africa is Talking.

You can connect with him @wizaj on Twitter and via his website.

By 16, Wiza had already founded his first company, Mwtunes, an online music distribution platform that was way ahead of its time in his home country of Malawi.

At university in Nairobi, he and his cofounder set up Djuaji, Research, a market research company that paid survey participants via mobile money. It held a lot of promise. It was innovative, cost effective, and accurate. Early on, Djuaji raised seed capital from Savannah Fund and participated in its elite accelerator program.

It all seemed to be going well. Until it wasn’t.

Wiza and his cofounder were running out of cash and they weren’t close to figuring out how to make the business viable. He made a tough choice: He resigned and returned to Malawi.

Shortly thereafter, he spoke with Sam Gikandi, founder of Africa is Talking, an API developer, who offered him a job to set up the Malawi office.

Wiza had some reservations about working for someone else, but he quickly overcame those doubts and has never looked back. Africa is Talking recently raised $8.6mn for its expansion into new markets, including Cote d’Ivoire, which Wiza will be spearheading.

I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Wiza. He’s extremely eloquent and a fount of knowledge about the emotional roller coaster of being a young African tech entrepreneur.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Wiza Jalakasi.

WHAT WE LEARN FROM WIZA: IGNORE THE HYPE

Wiza shares how he learned to ignore the media hype surrounding African tech founders to focus on business fundamentals. He explains why failure is an unavoidable part of tech entrepreneurship.

WIZA’S ACTIONABLE TIPS

  1. Learn by figuring out what doesn’t work. Failure is a part of being an entrepreneur.
  2. Do not believe the hype. There’s hype and there’s the actual work that has to be done.
  3. Do not conflate vanity metrics with actual measures of progress. You can have a 100,00 likes on social media for a product but it doesn’t translate into people actually using your product or revenue. It’s easy to build a startup around arbitrary metrics that you define as having value simply because there’s so much hype in the industry and no one has standardized the valuation of startups.
  4. Start now. There are so many people who have ideas but they feel that they do not have permission to actualize them. I know many brilliant people who I accuse of sleeping on themselves. They’re sleeping on themselves because they’re not taking action. I’d say just get started. You can’t control outcomes but if you can get started something will happen and as long as something happens you can control that something. But the one way to be sure of failure is not to do anything at all.

WIZA’S TOP QUOTES

  • “There’s stigma around how people view failure. People feel like they’re not allowed to fail. This compounds the problem. You have this high-pressure environment where you’re either a rock star or non-existent. You’re not allowed to fail, but the startup process requires that you fail and iterate to improve.”
  • "If somebody had told me the things that I explained in that article, I would have had a much clearer picture of what I was getting into and where the pitfalls are. Because a lot of [tech entrepreneurship] is just psychological and mental and staying focused on what you set out to do in a world of seemingly infinite possibilities and in which every idea seems like a good one. You typically find yourself running around in circles if you don’t have a clear picture of where you’re going."
  • “The ecosystem encourages people to build products, not to build companies. There’s very little emphasize on the business and administrative skillsets required to actually get something from nothing. People just focus on how great the tech is. That’s really dangerous because it hurts us in the long-term. It increases the duration of time that entrepreneurs have to spend failing to learn.”

WIZA’S MEMORABLE ANECDOTE

  • [On Mbwana Alliy] "I think he’s one of the first people who thought about what it would take to make African startups investable. One of the emails that I have from Mbwana after we got accepted into the accelerator program and thinking that it was so difficult said, “This is probably the easiest funding that you’ll ever get in Africa.” At the time I read it and was like wow, could this possibly be true?” And it is true. It was such an experience. It was taking you out of this shell where you’re seeing the world as informed by these external opinions – the media, Tech Crunch, etc-- and those things aren’t bad but they aren’t painting the picture that you’re going to experience. You think that you’re in for a relatively easy ride. I remember conversations with friends saying, “I’m going to work on this for 5 years and then it’s Pina Coladas.” But it doesn’t work that way. Savannah Fund taught us that. Mbwana had us pitching to high-profile people from multinationals from across the world – Google, Airtel – and having to defend your idea to someone who manages products at Facebook, for example, forces you to think about the business at a very fundamental level." 

WIZA’S LINKS

WIZA’S MENTIONS

  • Djuaji Research
  • Mwtunes
  • United States International University in Nairobi
  • New Economy Venture Accelerator (NEVA)
  • Savannah Fund
  • Mbwana Alliy
  • Sam Gikandi of Africa is Talking

KEY TIME STAMPS

  • The hype surrounding African tech entrepreneurship – and why it’s distracting [3:15]

  • Wiza’s Medium article on his startup failures [8:52]

  • What he wish he had known before building a tech startup [11:32]

  • Needed improvements to the ecosystem [16:29]

  • His first startup, Mwtunes [18:19]

  • Djuaji Research [21:37]

  • First fundraising [23:03]

  • The Savannah’s Fund accelerator program [26:14]

  • Keeping good investor relations [26:47]

  • Africa is Talking [39:09]

  • Where he’d travel in Africa to improve his business [47:23]

  • Book recommendations [50:53]

  • Actionable advice [55:09]