What they don’t tell you about starting a startup

I am a firm believer in new ideas, innovations and trying to find new ways to solve existing problems. In business, startups do that very well. In the technology era, starting a new company has become easier. There is a lot of information online where you can learn. From my keen observation, the recipe for starting a startup is likely to consist of the following, among others:

  1. Find a good-product market fit
  2. listen to customers and make constant improvements to your product
  3. have a unique distribution channels that offer competitive advantage
  4. great team
  5. superb execution- it’s not just about the idea but how you execute it

These are very important and play a very crucial role but i also think there are other factors that are not highlighted because it is hard to quantify them.

Timing: You can have a great idea, great team, execution etc but i think timing is as important. Some projects fail because they are too early or too late. Specifically, the prevailing market, political, social conditions may not be suitable for the product you are presenting at that particular time.

Leverage: capital, time, networks. Those with better access to capital are better positioned. If you have time to tinker and experiment for along period of time, you are likely to learn a lot. If you have networks in form of some potential investors, colleagues, work background etc. These can play an important role in helping you in initial stages. Networks can also be in terms of initial customers that others may not have access to, at least in the beginning.

Luck: you also need good enough dose of luck. Some are just plain unlucky, again, it is very hard to quantify this, it can only been identified with hindsight.

Seasons greetings

See you on the other side.


Hitchhiker’s guide to civilizations: from mesopotamia to atlantis. Manifesto for civilizations.

Two books have really tried to explain the history of the civilizations. ‘Sapiens by Yuval Harari’ and ‘Guns, germs, and steel’ by Jared Diamond.

My main question is ‘why did different parts of the world develop differently’

Here I try to summarize the research done by Jared and Yuval into how the current came to be.

Firstly, it is important to understand the proximate causes and the ultimate causes. Proximate causes are easier and direct. Those regions that had more weapons, military and better organised were able to defeat, conquer when they came into contact with another population. However, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ tries to explain the ultimate causes.

When the European exploration began in the 1400s, they already had developed capabilities in food production, weapons and other tools. One of the major questions in history is ‘why was it that it was the Eurasia region that developed these competencies and not other regions in Africa, native Americans, aboriginal Australians?’ According to Jared Diamond -different regions had different geographic, climatic conditions. They played different roles in influencing the direction of a region.

Roughly 10,000 years ago humans decided that farming was better than moving from place to place. Initially starting from a region called mesopotamia, present day parts of eastern mediterranean(mainly Iraq but also parts of syria/Iran). It later spread to the nearby regions. The expansive Eurasia region spanning North Africa – China had favorable geographic and climatic conditions for agriculture.  It was the first region for humans to change to agriculture. Initially, we were hunters and gatherers but changing to agriculture had both intended and unintended consequences.

Domestication: most of the wild animals found in the region were also suitable for domestication than other regions. Diffusion of domesticated crops and animals was faster and easier in Eurasia with longer east-west latitude: allowing for similar climatic conditions/day-length, an important ingredient for crops farming.


image credit: http://www.transpacificproject.com/index.php/genetic-research/


It is largely assumed that most of the other regions continued with hunting and gathering for a while before being forced to adopt agriculture . Agriculture propelled more population growth, leading to different but mostly centralized systems of governance, growth of larger communities, chiefdoms, conflict between people, military and growth of weapons. These were able to be developed since communities settled in one place. While these advancements were being made in Eurasia, most of other regions were still moving from place, largely due to geographic factors, or just because they say no need to settle down.  Subsequently, it was the Eurasians who millenniums later began exploring the world having developed capabilities of conquest and search for new lands. When they came into contact with other groups there was spread of germs and outbreaks such as smallpox eliminated majority of local populations. This coupled with better weapons contributed European conquest in areas of Americas, Australia. They ended up settling in these regions and displacing the local populations, however, in some regions, they were not able to settle down because they were also repelled by local tropical diseases such as malaria in New Guinea and tropical Africa. Furthermore, due to food production and settling down, there was a lot of tinkering and cultural exchange and conflicts in the Eurasia region. These allowed for diffusion of technology in the region faster.

The initial head start by the region is still being witnessed today. Regions surrounding the areas where agriculture first began are still have influence in the world today – modern China, european region, Japan, Korea. States repopulated by overseas immigrants such as America, Australia as well. Based on this theory, the perfect recipe for building a civilization is: develop key competency in one area- spread it to as many people as possible- establish structures to enjoy the first mover advantage.

however, some points to note:

Majority of ancient history focuses on empires of Rome. In Africa, Egypt is mainly the focus due to the great pyramids. However, there is much much more.

Islam influence is thought to have been flourishing in the so called dark ages in Europe. Some great innovations and progress was made in the Islam world that spread to parts of north Africa, middle east to present day central European region. Some of trials such as compass, camera, flying etc laid the foundation for improvements and innovations later on.

Chinese were actually among the first to explore the old world not the Europeans. They were the first to develop ships and sailed across vast parts of the world. However, for some reason they tended to resist interfering with other cultures and preferred not to share and influence other cultures. Some sources say that the cause could be local politics that led to them abandoning their quests. However, some major innovations such as gunpowder, wheelbarrow, windmills, block printing and paper are thought to have originated from the Chinese.

Also, some parts of west Africa show some impressive old world progress and innovations. Some of the old kingdoms that existed in Africa include: Great Zimbabwe, It was an impressive ancient Kingdom that had huge stone walls and most powerful kingdom in the region. The robust architectural designs used at that time are incredible and exist today as ruins. Archaeological evidence shows that they were constructed by local people in the area. There are stories of how it grew even further with trade with the Arabs, Indians, with Swahili coast serving as entry point. The great merchant trade existed between Egypt, India and coast of East Africa to the Great Zimbabwe. The enormous and expansive trade route was among the first published descriptions of ancient trades, centuries before the arrival of Europeans. One of the hot-stops was Kilwa that even invented its own currency in the 11th century in order to facilitate international trade. You can find more here.Today, the place remains and is a great tourist attraction. Impressive how some 900 years ago they were able to build such fortifications with remarkable fashion.


The Bantu expansion in Africa is also a major historical event that has led to occupation of major regions of modern day Africa from the Congo basin. The original inhabitants are thought to be the Khoisan and African pygmies. They still exists today but it very small numbers.

The Kingdom of Benin was also among the most developed. Not be confused with modern day Benin, the Kingdom was located in modern day Nigeria. It had some impressive structures and showed the prowess of the local people in making them. Apart from art, it had sophisticated methods of art, trade, government, rule  among others.

A wonder in its own time



Africa’s history is a puzzle of grand propositions and could only have been unraveled partly. There’s still a lot that we still don’t know. Africa has an estimated 1500-2000 languages, making it harbor about 25% of all languages spoken in the world today. There is a lot of mix and match in Africa and probably not all history is recorded correctly and maybe there is more to discover.

For example, whereas it might be largely known that Egypt was the first place to start Agriculture and farming in Africa, some other archaeological evidence suggests it could be the Sahara, specifically the Sahel region. In the past, The Sahara was not as dry as it is today. If that is true, then there is probably a lot we don’t know about the region yet. A lot of information could have been lost or misinterpreted, history became legend and legend became myths. Like the ancient lost city of Atlantis. could it be in west sahara?

There are other great ancient kingdoms such as

Kingdom of Kush (Sudan)

Aksum empire

Mali Empire ( Mansa Musa).

Ethiopian Empire

among many others. I hope one day we get to see such in film.

People developed in different parts based on the region they were in. Innovations were largely based on environment and climate needs. However, what is true is that talent, human ingenuity existed in all parts of the world.

Education Odyssey: a class of notables: makers of a nation

The Kenyan students airlifts to study in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s could as well been one of the most defining moments of Kenya at the cusp of new independent Kenya. The impact of the airlifts, which boost an incredible alumni pool, has had reverberations for Kenya for decades even after the programme ended. The foresight, dedication of the organizers catapulted Kenya to become one of the few African countries that was ready for post-independence Kenya.

The term ‘class of notables’ is thought to have famously been uttered by Carey Francis, in reference to Alliance High School class of 1945. They blazed the trail to what become one of the most consequential achieving alumni class of that time.

The spillover effect in terms of economic, political and social ramifications for Kenya and the region has been phenomenal to say the least. The airlifts helped Kenya prepare for what happened after independence in 1963. It laid the groundwork for Kenya’s political and economic take-off for the newly independent nation.

Most of them came back and took important positions in the newly formed government. the policies, and strategies put forward by majority of these men and women propelled Kenya to become a leader in the region and Africa as a whole.

It could as well have been Kenya’s finest ‘hour’ in terms quest for education and spearheaded by the late Tom Mboya. Though there were challenges shortly after independence especially with assassination of Tom Mboya and period of slower growth, corruption, ethnic divisions later on, Kenya still laid a firm foundation in terms of ability of Kenya’s to take over from the Brits in terms leadership and steering the country into the future. By 1965, there was a considerable number of people who had a university degree and were absorbed into government ministries and local universities as they came up later in the next decade. Educating the populace, and at a fast pace, was important ingredient to enable the African nations propel their own destiny after independence. DRC, at the time of independence, some studies show that only 16 people had a university education. In Kenya, between 1959-63 more than 500 students were part of the airlifts.

At the Centre of the Airlift was Tom Mboya, Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano and several others.

The period boosts men and women who went on to do great things. All those who went to study abroad during that period were not direct beneficiaries of the airlifts since some like Barack Obama snr went on their own but can be summed up as being part of the airlift generation:

Tom Mboya: Firebrand and main advocate for the programme. even met John F Kennedy, when he was senator who later became president. JFK gave a $100,000 grant. Mboya’s also looped in other key personalities to support the programme: Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson.

Julius Gikonyo Kiano (first kenyan to obtain a doctorate degree, 1956).

Prof Wangari Maathai: Left in the 1961 airlift. first African woman to win Nobel Prize. Also a lecturer at university of Nairobi and later assistant mister in Kibaki’s government in 2002.

Barack Obama Senior: made his own way to US not through the airlift but is considered to be part of period of high number of Kenyans seeking education abroad at the period.

Others who had early influence on African modern education:

Aggrey James: from Ghana, earned a PHd from Columbia university in 1898. Sometimes called, Booker T Washington of Africa or ‘Father of African education’.

Jaramogi also organized other programmes mainly from the Soviet Union.

At the time there was ideological differences about western American versus Soviet education.


‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it’-
― Frantz Fanon

Ability to foresee the new world developments and ensure the people anticipate and are ready is one of core pillars of advancements in modern world. I would marry this viewpoint with generational shift thinking. Either people can be optimistic or pessimistic about the future and they can plan for it or just roll by. When the future is deemed to be better than the present, there is  more rigid planning for it and anticipation. There are also better frameworks, better politics and institutions. When the future seems bleak, there is a culture of taking shortcuts in order to get out as soon as possible before everything comes crumbling down. I think the period 1950s-1960s there was a lot of optimism, followed by pessimism period between 1970s through to early 1990s. The early 2000s were period of optimism leading up to Kibaki coming to power. This was again followed by period of pessimism post election violence and all. I think we might be still in that period but maybe not evenly distributed, i think many might disagree with this.

The organizers,benefactors of the Kenyan Airlift programme did what they deemed fit for themselves and their people. In the end their impact reverberated beyond themselves. We might not know it yet, but our actions now will be judged years to come as to whether we contributed to betterment of ourselves and our people or not. It’s good to have a longer term vision once in a while even if we might not achieve it, but we dared to dream: and that might just be enough.

ed. Note: Although i praise the efforts made to gain formal education, it by no means indicate that there was no education by Kenyans/Africans in general before the European colonisation. It would be very naive to assume/conclude that. Evidence exists to show the technological progress by many African regions prior, eg Ancient Benin City.  But that’s a long story to cover in another post, maybe. However, the gist of this article is appreciating the need for people to harness new realities in order to survive in the modern world. The context is therefore based on and after the independence.

The title and overview is partly inspired  by the book: Kenyan Airlifts to America 1959-1961 An educational odyssey. more here.

Skin in the game

In his ongoing war with journalists, policy makers, bankers, Nobel prize for economics winners, the establishment and New York Times, Nassim Nicholas Taleb outlines why majority of  people who have immense control over a lot of people have no real ‘skin in the game’;meaning that they only benefit from upsides and not the downside. The book can be alienating and I find it hard to agree with everything but also eye-opening into understanding dynamics.


Let me summarize what stood out for me:

  1. when thinking about solutions, think about how they relate with each other, asymmetries. for example, in international intervention policies, think about local alternative not international standard

2. bureaucrats and decision making. some who give advice/make policy have no downside to the decisions made but only upside. He makes a close linkage between financial crisis of 2008. banks get bailed out by taxpayers when they make unsound decisions, so ordinary people face downsides for bad decisions made by managers, but manager get paid nonetheless. Also, when politics become so detached from the ground, it ends up being about policies that have nothing to do with welfare of people it was meant to serve in the fist place; and become a game of musical chairs for the elite and bureaucrats.

3. Always look out for ‘what’s in their portfolio’. ie why people like hedge fund managers are best winners when their fund succeed and also losers when it fails: because they have put their money in the fund. So look out for biases when receiving/giving advice.

4. Don’t tell me about your politics, show me how you live your life. It is very easy to become political without really doing anything about it.

5. Decentralization reduces large structured asymmetries. When responsibility is spread over large area, ownership of projects, communities, it increases stability of the system, same with political systems, should work from the ground up.

6. On Solutions: interventionist solutions are not as good as they are painted to be. Most times, the solution is simple and direct. If you have to make countless presentations, graphs, completely altering the way people live and behave, it’s probably not the most appropriate solution.

7. What matters is not how many times you are right about outcomes, but how much gains are achieved when you are right.

8. Peer reviews: beware of making things to impress peers, colleagues and missing the real target audience. Same with some donor policies, architects to impress other architects and so on..

9. have deep understanding of the problem before writing the equation.

10. TORTS; common law regulating how people relate with each other is better than complicated bureaucratic regulations that only seek to create more ‘positions’ for bureaucrats when they are solving the cases. This is particularly in the case of new industries. When we are not aware of all the consequences, sometimes it’s better to have sandboxes, rather than outright ban and those that harm others are directly held responsible not blanket regulations: this is cue to crypto. lol , beware of ‘administrator’ whose job is to over complicate a problem in order to benefit from interpreting it.

11. Sometimes, better fences make better neighbours/ you are more likely to get along with your neighbour than your roommate.

12. Word of mouth from a genuine and satisfied users beats any ads all the time. This is the ultimate goal when making any product.

13. You can be different things at different stages/states.

14. we are prone to transfer risk from present to the future, even if the future is catastrophic. delaying risk somehow makes us think, it wouldn’t happen.

15. Minority rule: we live my minority rule, they are the revolutionaries, the change makers, from food industry, activists, etc. It just takes time, but they are usually the spark. Never underestimate the power of active, intolerant and courageous minority.

16. Asymmetries of life: for things that move,(eg market forces) the average does not matter. The extreme outcomes shatter all the preconceived expectations

17. Observe things in dynamics not statics alone. Relationships with each other rather than one-sided. Not everything is black or white. Just because you don’t see/understand it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. argumentum ad ignorantiam: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. sometimes it could mean that no careful research has been done yet, or not the right tools were used.

18. Freedom is never free, it entails some level of risk.

19. In ever changing and dynamic world of work, aim to be judged by your outputs not inputs. Because of asymmetries/power laws, sometimes inputs are not directly related to outputs. Sometimes outputs can be 10x. Outputs and inputs only work for structured work; machine like.

20. Lindy effect: the longer you wait, the more you will be expected to wait. or simply, for a technology, idea, book, art, that has been existence for 100 years, any additional time that it exists means  extension of life span for a longer period.

21. If you want peace, make people trade with each other.





Africa can also create solutions for the world

The phrase ‘we are living in interesting times’ could never be truer. We indeed are. My ability to write these words on this site such that anyone located anywhere in the world with access to internet can read was something that was just starting to be conceived 20 years ago but was inconceivable to vast majority of the human population. Even now, it is still incomprehensible to almost half of global population how the internet works. A whole new economy has emerged on the internet redefining how we communicate, work and live. And it is only just beginning.

In this new digital revolution age, there is nothing stopping Africans from creating solutions for the rest of world despite our state of economies. This does not mean that we neglect or fail to solve the current problems pervading the continent: food shortages, healthcare, poor infrastructure and the rest. We should of course dedicate major resources to solving these. However, I also think that the new technological revolution powered by technologies such as internet, blockchain, internet of things, smart cities can also be contributed by Africans and be used in different parts of the world. I think It is therefore okay not to think local when developing something or thinking about a solution. With these new technologies the possibilities of new careers has been stretched further.

I think this possible because new economies will be powered by whole new business models some of which do not exist yet or have not become mainstream yet. Furthermore, the new developments are powered by digital technologies which are not limited by current national boundaries. Young people have a chance to learn these and apply them anywhere. The definition of work boundaries is rapidly changing. Someone can work with a client in another continent without setting foot in a plane.  The convergence of digital technologies that are powering the third industrial revolution, will change how people work and geopolitical boundaries will be redefined. This is already happening. For example, a computer programmer, a graphic designer, a writer can work for a company in USA from Kenya. A blockchain developer or miner can be part of a global interconnected crypto community and using computers to verify transactions for a person halfway around the world. There is no reason why a developer in any part of Africa cannot build software that is deployed or used in another part of the continent and beyond. The interconnected nature of the new world is such that we can learn about what is happening in another part of the world almost instantaneously. Knowledge and information is now decentralized like never before. When a new way of doing things is discovered in one part of the world, it easily spreads to other parts of the world. Therefore a young person living in Kenya can develop expertise about a particular subject and use that know-how to provide skills to another person or company  regardless of geographical location.

The convergence is also being powered by ability of people to work and collaborate over vast distances through peer to peer networks. Authority and influence is also shifting from vertical to horizontal. Unlike the past industrial revolutions that were highly resource intensive and could only work in a centralized manner, the new digital connectivity means information is fast and the cost of production brought down significantly, at least for virtual related world. Barriers to entry such as technical know-how and capital have significantly been reduced in new digital era.

Smart governments understand this and are laying the groundwork to anticipate these changes. The initial infrastructural costs of powering these developments will be very important in setting the ball rolling.  This will further inform better policy rather than outright banning or copy-pasting policy. For example, the way Kenyan government set out to lay the ambitious undersea internet cable was a leeway for increased connectivity rates, at least in urban areas that has unleashed opportunities in the internet space.


Africa Undersea cables, 2014. image courtesy of mybroadband

Government players, institutions such as universities, research bodies should be intentional about wanting to facilitate these developments.  Funds will need to be directed to research, training and awareness  on these new areas:fast and affordable internet, internet of things, smart grids systems, distributed systems. The knowledge gained in these areas can be used globally especially for blockchains which adopts a decentralized architecture. If our people are equipped with that mindset, nothing stops us from using our skills and opportunities to work and collaborate and build solutions for people across boundaries notwithstanding local situations.

It is hard to stop an old system all at once, but what we can do is begin to channels state and local funds. At some point the economy will be made up of hybrid populace both in terms of skills and world-view. We will have a section of the population that reside locally but work for a company in SA for example, with colleagues in Seattle, Shenzhen and Buenos Aires. Instead of just waiting for free-market forces to dictate the way forward, intentional steering while allowing for creativity and innovation around these areas would push us forward. This would also make us not just consumers of these new technological products but also makers of them and hopefully bringing the African experience to the world stage.



In this post, I share some of recent documentaries I have enjoyed. They are not based on any particular topic but areas of general interest.

Shenzhen: silicon valley of Hardware: Shenzhen’s approach to innovation and building companies is quite different from Silicon Valley’s. The major prevailing notion is that Shenzhen and generally China’s innovation is based on copycat mentality. But this documentary explores this idea more to show that it is rooted on idea and opinions on open-source and intellectual property and that instead of always building things from scratch, sometimes it is easier, faster and more efficient to make improvements on existing products. Funny how the concept of open source seemed far-fetched but is now going mainstream especially with things such as public blockchains. Also some other things like the inevitable process of gentrification that is as a result of government trying to ‘upgrade’ a place.

Another closely related documentary is: Holy Land: Startup Nations, Israel’s innovation  amidst the prevailing conflicts with Palestine which has also its own share of innovation and how innovation permeates the prevailing social/political situation in the region. Other themes include influence of military training on innovation- most young people first join military at 18 before proceeding to college. Click here for the full video. Innovation and ideology are closely tied.

 The revenge of electric car: story of the complicated journey of start, almost failure and re-birth of electric cars. What many might not know is that GM was actually first to manufacture electric car long before Tesla, then stopped, saying they would never work, and that’s just in 2005. Then later, the launch of Tesla Roadster in 2008 revamped the excited from other manufacturers and now mainstream electric cars seem a reality more than ever.


The men who built America: A three part docu-series about a small group of industrialists pioneered various industries. John Rockefeller(Standard Oil), Cornelius Vanderbilt(Railroads), JP Morgan(banking), Andrew Carnegie(steel industry) and Henry ford (cars).


 modern urban cities: Abu Dhabi, with all its glory. The storyline of this documentary is showing the progress, the exquisiteness of a modern advanced city. But you can also feel the underlying story of  intersection of high city life and ordinary people, especially small scale traders, which is a story of almost any major upcoming city in developing world.


The India’s smart city plan is also a notable view.

blog classics

I am a sucker for good old wisdom and to see how people were thinking then and relate it to now. There are some archived blogs that i find interesting.

Let’s start locally, Ory Okolloh’s blog has insights about her views on politics, social justice na kadhalika as she calls it. Last blog post was in 2010. Gives you a feel of kenya, africa and global affairs between 2005-2010 especially.

The immediate former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick has an old blog called swooshing that was last updated in 2010. It offers his insights on startups, investing and technology in general. One post even predicted what would happen to a company once its reputation is in question, especially in relation to past dealings. for example this quote is lifted from one of the blogs ‘ But I think that reputation is anything but dead, and instead will become more important than ever. With more data and info getting on the net, and as the tools to decipher fact from fiction get better, reputation becomes more accurate, and significantly more valuable‘.

If you are into technology, startups and related insights i find Mark Essien of Hotels.ng  , Mark Cuban and Fabrice Grinda’s equally thrilling.  These are still updated once in a while.

would love to hear your suggestions on favourite old blogs that are not updated anymore.