By Solomon King
My biggest business lesson from 2019 starts with this:
One of the most painful things that ever happened to me was shutting down Elemental Edge in 2017 after spending 12 years trying to build an international-level multimedia studio.
At the core of my failure were two things:
1. My constant inability to bring in consistent business.
Marketing, sales, or business development were not within my skillset. I hated it and could not understand why people could not see how awesome we were. I was exceptionally good on the creative side, but awkward and introverted on the client side. I could not close deals to save my life.
a) Founders must do the tough things, and the toughest of things is selling the vision to the team and to the clients. For introverted tech-focused founders like myself, this is where a business-savvy co-founder would have brought much-needed balance to the force.
b) There are things that only the founders can sell well. And part of that is the excitement of vision, purpose and shared goals. Being at the cutting edge of design technology meant our language and process was too unique for the average external salesperson or marketing person to grasp. We cycled through quite a few marketing people, but...
c) Lack of money to run a business is a vicious cycle: you can't recruit good business development people, your team is constantly unmotivated, culture breaks down, reputation takes a hit as you miss payroll after payroll, you're all broke AF and the quality of work degrades as people look for side gigs.
2. I absolutely refused to bribe anyone or give kick-backs in order to get business or get paid faster. Our major clients were advertising agencies, and if you've worked in this industry, you know the kick-back drama.
There's no lesson here; I still refuse to bow to corruption.
Obviously, there were lots of other failures from different perspectives, different people, all too many to list.
But as a leader, you take full responsibility. Quite simply, the buck stops with you. And I know a lot of the other challenges would have been resolved (or reduced) if there was consistent cash-flow in the business.
So (the lesson is coming, I promise).
After almost three years of struggling with the same issue at Fundi Bots, I decided to do something about it. Our fundraising was not working. I still was more interested in the technology, and kept looking for a fundraising lead, hoping that someone more experienced and knowledgeable would have more success.
So, with the help of the Segal Family Foundation's African Visionary Fellowship and my amazing friends and advisors, I finally figured out how to make fundraising comfortable and exciting for me.
Quite simply, it involved four things:
i. Focus on developing relationships around shared goals.
As an introvert, I decided to invest more time in meaningful one-on-one conversations with partners around shared purpose & goals. I love stories and deep conversations, so this was something I could leverage very, very well.
I would have conversations with potential funders and realize early on that our partnership would not be a good fit, but I still enjoyed the discussions around impact, business and the general landscape of education.
It opened my worldview and gave me incredible perspective that informed better business decisions later on.
ii. Less faceless grant applications.
While general grant applications have huge financial upside, they did not quite work for us. Our work at Fundi Bots was (and still is) very strange and it is not the kind that translates well in an application.
I realized quickly that writing a grant application in which you are trying to sell a radical idea while competing with thousands of very professional and experienced grant-writers was not the best use of my time.
Especially not when we had no proof of impact or effectiveness.
iii. Highly curated funder prospecting.
It was more rewarding to sift through hundreds of prospects, do inquiries and get advice in order to zero in on one potential funder before our first email, meeting, or call.
This meant better conversations, stronger partnership pipelines and better success rates.
iv. Gamifying my process.
When your background is in normal business (providing service or product in exchange for money), then fundraising is weird. You are basically asking someone to give you their money - for "free" - for an idea you think may work.
It was very uncomfortable for me.
But, as I learnt from a fundraising workshop back in 2016, you should never let your discomfort stand in the way of changing lives.
One morning, during a call a few years ago with one of my advisors (shout-out Eve K.), I realized I could gamify fundraising.
I had been studying and practicing video game design and I was fascinated by the Skinner Box and the general concept of gamification. And then, right in the middle of that call, I got an epiphany:
I could leverage what I had learnt about gamification to reduce (even possibly negate) my frustration with fundraising.
So, I "off-loaded" the discomfort of consistently checking in with potential donors to a CRM system I found and customized.
[This is also me advocating for my personal philosophy that widespread learning + experimentation leads to razor-sharp intuition and faster problem solving. It is a chaotic system that creates underlying order.]
And so, the biggest 2019 lesson is this:
Focusing on developing partnership relationships leads to excellent partners.
There are conversations I had early on where I realized we would have no control over how we did our work. Or that the pressure to grow fast would be too risky.
There are also lots of grant applications we get sent (or find online) that would be an excellent fit for us, but the reputation of the funder was less than stellar, leading to stories of very toxic donor-grantee relationships. Or, for more government-sourced funding, stories of corruption and kick-backs that would give me nightmares.
Having a values-filter helps us focus better. I already have issues with sleep, I did not want a troubled conscience to be one of the reasons I am not sleeping.
I never want Fundi Bots to get funding for the sake of it. It must serve a shared goal that leads with agency, dignity and empathy for our beneficiaries and our team.
And sometimes it means staying small or waiting a little longer (while panicking in the middle of the night about payroll and under-served beneficiaries).
But, Fundi Bots has been able to get some of the best funding partners and advisors. Funders who support with empathy, and who trust in local leadership. Funders who are happy to jump on a call to brainstorm project implementation with you, however risky or crazy the ideas are. And especially funders who respect and understand that your work is highly experimental, and failure is part of the learning process.
We founders and entrepreneurs are constantly under tremendous pressure from all sides, and many times, we are battling situations that are 100% outside our control (hello COVID-19). Yet, we have to find ways to course-correct, pivot and re-calibrate almost on a daily basis.
Sometimes you are leading a team of 5 people, and other times you are leading thousands of people scattered across the world.
But having funders, or investors who reach out to check in with you and ask how they can support during times of crisis significantly relieves much of this pressure and leads to stronger outcomes for your work.
But there is no solid peace of mind for any founder or entrepreneur than knowing that they have a good, focused team that is committed to the work, the vision and above all, the beneficiaries.
So, major shout-out to the entire Fundi Bots family, from those who have been with us since we started to those that joined a few weeks before COVID hit. I am incredibly honored to work with you!
Onwards & upwards!