The depth of talent showcased at The Start-up challenge gave me renewed optimism for Zimbabwe. I wish to congratulate the deserving finalists and the organisers for putting on a fantastic show. Although some projects didn’t end up making the finals, most had strong concepts and I hope the entrepreneurs are not discouraged but continue to pursue their ideas. Even as we celebrate this success, we need to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the format used, to build on the strengths and improve on the weaknesses to ensure even more successful events in the future.
One of the positive things that came out is that the organisers were able to attract a good mix of talented entrepreneurs with diverse business ideas. The event was well organized, attended and ideas presented included desktop applications, web applications, mobile applications and even hardware businesses. It’s important to note that the judges were selected well, with extensive experience in the technology industry in Zimbabwe and beyond. The panel included venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs – people who know what it takes to build a successful technology business. This meant that their feedback was informed and backed by solid experience.
The organisers need to get credit for the great coordination. Everything was thought through from corporate sponsorship, communication, event branding and equipment. The pitchers themselves worked hard and most of the presentations were well structured and well presented.
However, one thing I feel didn’t work well is that the judging criteria was not very clear to the participants. I don’t doubt that the judges were clear about what they were doing but I don’t think their judging criteria were well communicated. I felt that there was tension between two conflicting ideas – innovation and potential for commercial success. One common question the judges asked most entrepreneurs was whether the idea had been implemented elsewhere. Such a question can be used to get a feel of whether an entrepreneur understands their competitive environment or if their idea is a unique innovation. If the purpose of the question was to understand if the entrepreneur understands their competitive landscape, the judges might have been better served by asking questions that directly address the issue of competition. As it is, one has to assume that they were putting a premium on unique and innovative ideas.
However, our experience shows that businesses that replicate an established business model often succeed. Microsoft did not produce the first OS, Google did not invent web search and Facebook was not the first social network. These companies succeed by offering a product that was already on the market but their innovation was in other areas of their businesses, not the core product. Without innovating in the core product, a start-up can succeed by reaching an untapped market niche or by saving costs through greater efficiency and charging lower prices, among many other possibilities.
I appreciate innovation as much as anyone else but product innovation is not a guarantee of commercial success. An innovation challenge can be convened for innovators to compete on unique concepts and ideas. In some instances, an idea can be both unique with great commercial potential at the same time. However, I was left with the feeling that the judges focused too much on innovation and not enough on the overall business model and how it fits the current context. I hope the judging criteria used did not overlook businesses that are not necessarily unique but have great commercial potential.
In addition, it’s also important to understand if the quality of presentation (confidence of the presenter, the flow of the presentation and the graphics used) was part of the judging criteria. Was the experience and background of the entrepreneur considered as well? Indeed these are important factors that I think entrepreneurs needed to know beforehand, what and how each element would contribute to their overall score.
Another criticism is that entrepreneurs were not well briefed on their intellectual property rights. I know that when one pitches at a public forum such as the Start-up Challenge, one is sharing their idea in the public domain and that one should take care to protect their ideas through patents and licences. However, not all participants knew this and some were concerned because their ideas compete directly with the sponsors, organisers and judges of the Start-Up Challenge. To be fair, sponsoring, judging or organising such an event does not mean one should surrender their right to start or expand their business using the same or similar ideas as the ones pitched during the event. The problem is that not all entrepreneurs understood this and it might have helped to counsel them on their options for protecting their intellectual property before the event.
The judges did give some feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas presented. However, we are not sure what the merits of the chosen ideas are over the other ideas that were presented. It must have been a tough challenge making the final selection. However, transparency would help build confidence in the final decisions made and help entrepreneurs that did not make it understand what their ideas lacked and how they can be perfected. Without criticising individual start-ups on the shortlist, one observation I made is some of the ideas compete with established international corporations. Others provide simple web applications that are easy to replicate at low cost using open source solutions. Indeed, the innovations that resulted in these projects being picked are not obvious (they could be innovations in customer acquisition and retention or unique communication strategies or any combination of a million ideas I can think of). My point is that only the judges know. I am not clear on how and why the projects were selected. I think it’s important to publish the reasons because transparency builds trust in the process used. The judges cannot please everyone, but they can explain their thinking so that as a technology community, we can debate the model used and through debate and exchange of ideas, improve future Start-up Challenges.
The whole concept succeeded and I believe Zimbabwe is firmly on its way to challenging South Africa and Kenya in technology innovation on the continent. The Start-up Challenge showed that we have bright and passionate people that are working to address our market challenges using technology. We have seen from India and other examples that technology has the power to drive economic growth. We have also seen from Silicon Valley that technology can create wealth for entrepreneurs with little capital but great ideas. We therefore have to welcome this great initiative and thank the sponsors, judges and organisers for their effort and dedication. At the same time we need to start constructive debate to ensure that we get the best value from the few initiatives that are meant to benefit our young industry.