54 hours to build a business

Last year, there was a lot of buzz around technology in Kampala. Mobile Monday, the google technologies user group and the Linux users group were all going strong. The latter two seemed to have quieted down a bit, but now, facilitated by Google, just like the two user groups, and hosted by MTN, this week’s startup weekend, (Facebook) was a rather interesting event.

At a startup weekend, hundreds of which have now been held across the globe, small teams, mostly students, try to come up with ideas and build something of a working business around them over the course of the 54 hours the event lasts.

It started on Friday afternoon, where anyone was allowed to give a one minute elevator pitch. When I signed up, I considered throwing a pitch myself, but I never heard back from the organizers. Forgetting about the event, I got a surprise invite only hours before the start. I still considered pitching, though I hadn’t given my idea a lot of thought. But with the crowd being mostly students, I forgot about it, at least this time around.

A surprising large amount of attendees were wearing shirts identifying them as students of Victoria University, “take a shot at a UK degree in Uganda” (interesting slogan, if a bit odd; take a shot?) and, as a whole, a surprisingly small amount of whities were in attendance. In fact, it took ages before I and @boazshani, promoting the portal UGO.co.ug (hello nineties!) were joined by a trickle of more whities, and they were jurors.

Some of the speakers dropped a few tidbits of interesting information, though I suppose for the younger crowd, they were somewhat more interesting. @mr_maina, CEO of the groupon clone Rupu, mentioned the interesting concept of white space, and how applicable it is for doing business in Africa: “when rules are vague, authority is fuzzy, budgets are non existent and strategy is unclear”.
Sadly, though, Ben didn’t quote the source, which is an 11 year old Harvard Business Review article. Ben continued with describing best practices for starting a business, but then admitted that he himself hand’t followed any of his own guidelines. Clearly, being considered successful, this was a clear, and pointless, example of “do as I say, not as I do”.

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Easily the most enjoyable, and also most seasoned speaker, of the weekend was the ‘honorary guest’, handing out the first prize at the end of the event, Dr. Ham Mulira, ICT governance big shot in Uganda (and having no less than four LinkedIn profiles). Mulira’s speech contained a few nice anecdotes, but offered little wisdom, with his most choice insight also being lifted from someone else.

After a quiet start, no less than 35 pitches were put forward. Only two were presented by women, which pretty much comprised all women present. Of these, my favorites were:

+ A service called “Show me around”, where locals could show foreigners where to do what in the Kampala region, in person. Quite similar to a service I once used in Hanoi, OurExplorer.com (now a part of Viator).

+ A service to allow for transfers between a PayPal account and the mobile money services popular in Africa.

+ A tool to compare Ugandan cellphone plans based on consumer’s past behaviors.

+ A setup allowing for food-orders to be delivered to your door after paying for them with mobile money.

None of the pitches were highly original, though a few were relevant in a local, Ugandan context, such as comparing the cellphone plans, a local iTunes clone and a SMS-reminder service for young mothers.
Of the 35 pitches, 16 were selected, voted for by the audience, to try and find a team to support themselves, of which 12 were eventually presented at the end of the weekend. None of my favorites made it all the way, though “Show me around” reincarnated as a geolocation service.

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The idea of a startup weekend is to create a Minimal Viable Product in the space of 54 hours. I was highly skeptical, and indeed, most of the presentations at the end of the weekend were just that, presentations, with little or no demo of the finished product being shown.
Three winners were selected by a somewhat professional jury, and only second place I could really agree with. MyZiki, a platform to distribute local music and collect revenue even showed off a working, if barebones, demo on a Samsung Android phone.
Third place went, surprisingly, to a fund raising platform, Sonda, where the presenter failed to describe an actual product or value proposition.
First place was for betotm.com, a proposition for a portal to allow for mobile online sports betting, which appears to be quickly gaining traction in Uganda. These guys did some decent market research, though I have a hard time to believe that existing betting agents are willing to fork over 5% for their revenue for having it piped through betotm.com.
And I’m surprised the judges were willing to award this betting portal first prize, as it’s a bit like awarding a business venture which has a great plan for selling cigarettes or booze.

What was great to see, was that the shy, quiet, mostly, boys from Friday, had changed into much more confident speakers by the time they had to present their products on Sunday, even though most presentations were quite meager, most business plans seemingly not thought through very well, too often relying too much on context sensitive advertising.

It would be nice to see any of the final 12 presentations making it into an actual product somewhere down the line but, though prizes for the top 3 were mostly free use of useful services, including office space, it seemed no actual investments were awarded, meaning that, most likely, most, if not all, of these students, will revert to either studying, or to work that will simply make them some money in the short run.

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