January 25, 2021

Building an African design firm from scratch - Part 2: where we failed

In the first part of this article (link) we shared some of the things we thought we did kind of OK. But naturally, in our first 3 years of survival, there was also a lot of stuff that we completely  screwed up. Here are some of the one I remember:

African degital design
Our team is now made of 11 different nationalities and 37% women - diversity was one of our key success factors but maintaining a family spririt while growing rapidly and remotely is a big challenge

  • Losing touch together during covid - we lost a bit of our family spirit that was super strong before 2020 - it’s particularly difficult for the new team members who join as we are still all remote. We were slow to find initiatives and processes to tackle that aspect.
  • Employees onboarding: we threw you in the ocean hoping you could swim… wrong guess! Not everyone is a Lebou (fishermen of Senegal). We now created a detailed onboarding journey and weekly 1 on 1 for newcomers.
  • Defining an employee’s mission and objectives too early. Now we wait 2-3 months before doing it so that the person has the time to explore the company and see where his talents will be most useful.
  • Raising the english level of some Francophone colleagues, which put them on the side and some eventually left. We should have invested more in their training.
  • Teaching remote work tips and tools to junior team members - and also we were not trying hard enough to understand their personal context (large family, noise, poor connectivity, housekeeping tasks, etc). We now pay much more attention to their technical onboarding and provide them with renmote work tips.
  • Recruiting too fast, notably people who were in fact more at ease in a corporate job (for status or salary reasons) and not a startup one. 
  • Find a payment alternative earlier to pay cross border in Africa - we lost millions in CFA on that.
  • Announcing some ideas we had for bonuses without validating that and had to come back on the decision afterwards. Bad one!
  • Defining priorities between co-founders and being more focused on it, instead of touching on everything. This year, we have clear individual objectives and time allocation for each co-founders.
  • Showing our team how much we trust them  - we thought that giving them responsibilities was clear proof of our confidence - it was not - we needed to say “ I trust you 100% to run this part of the company”. For instance, we just created a now fully independant business unit for our SaaS LOOKA, enabling them with more flexibility and thus enabling their rapid growth.
  • Not being clear enough about what we meant by our value: reliability, sharing, long term vision, multiculturality, etc. We now brainstormed and drafted a detailed explanation of our core virtues and their meaning with concrete examples. It’s not enough to say you promote African Identity, you have to explain to new Yuxies what actions some teamates took in this direction. Beliefs don’t matter, actions do. (read the book “What You Do Is Who You Are” by Ben Horrowitz)
  • Creating inequalities with some perks, notably between people based in Senegal and the ones coming from other African countries or abroad. For instance we provided one flight back home per year to each foreigner but did not have something equivalent for the guys in Dakar. Now everyone will have a ticket to somewhere wouhouuuu! This is key for us to stick to our virtue of multiculturality - we want to encourage our colleagues to discover other parts of the continent.
What’s next for us
  • Assuming and sharing our ambition - we humbly think we are excellent in our field and we are still a little shy about it. need to communicate better and reach more scale making design more accessible in Africa.
  • Embracing the fact that we are now a fully remote + pan/african organisation and keeping building strong links with designers and researchers all across the continent.
  • Finally implementing OKRs (Objectives and key results) across all business units so that everyone is very well aligned on the company’s strategic priorities.
  • Structuring our organisation as a multinational company (still HQ’d in Senegal) - with all the fun stuff around accounting, tax, legal, HR, etc! (another article on these that soon)
  • Focusing on our internal training to grow our guys to the next level. As co-founders, we have committed to spend 20% of our time in training this year and we now pay our employees for each class they give to their colleagues
  • Spending time with our families! Well in fact adapt to the fact we are grown up now… so no pizza + sketch all-nighters anymore. Both of my co-founders last year had the joy of welcoming their first babies, which made them a little disconnected for a while - Instead of hurting us, it actually helped us be more strategic in our choices. More than ever we are today committed to design a better Africa for our children.

Thanks for reading all the way down here! Again we are very happy to share any details on these points with any designers or entrepreneurs starting up. We are only 3 years old and sincerely have not done much yet, but we felt we shouldn’t wait to become all wrinkled and embittered before sharing our journey. Who knows, maybe we’ll go bankrupt this year ah ah…. but that would be ok, because the road so far was worth it!