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MEST day 4 – Just do it!

19 Apr

The first result in a Google Image search for "Just Do It". Image by Sharad Haskar. Click for more info.

Day 4, Friday 8th April – last half day.

During the last half day the EITs presented the progress they’d made over the week and how they would be progressing with their business ideas. My overall advice for my team was JDI: Just Do It. They need to build their prototype ASAP and get it out there in the wild for people to test and give feedback. All the teams had made considerable progress during the week and had lots of ideas for how to improve their businesses.

I also suggested that we do a bit of 360 feedback on the MBA Consultants so we could see how we’d performed from their point of view. We made sure we explicitly asked for a good point and something that we could improve on. The EITs were all so nice, I could see them not wanting to criticise anyone.

The feedback was written on one bit of paper and to be seen only by each MBA, but I don’t mind sharing some of my feedback here:

Positive: “Enjoyed your [startup metrics for pirates] funnel lecture, gave me a different perspective into how Internet consumers behave

Area for improvement: “More straight to the point

Just before my MEST time was over, I popped over the famed MEST bridge to their other building where the previous years’ companies are incubated. I am really glad I did this. It was great to see where these companies had got to in a year as I could see the sort of progress my team could make once they get in there. The companies there were fantastic – none of them would have been out-of-place at a startup incubator in Silicon Valley (where I’m headed as I speak, typing this post at 36,000ft). In fact, one of the companies, Nandimobile, I already knew a bit about as it had gone to the Launch conference run by Jason Calacanis and won the best business award, beating all the Silicon Valley competition. Amazing! Go Ghana!

Overall, I have to say that this trip to Ghana has been an amazing experience. It was my first visit to Africa and quite an eye-opener. I didn’t sign-up to MEST because I’m particularly in to “social entrepreneurship” – I just like start-ups and seeing and talking about cool ideas and I was not disappointed. I am so glad I signed up for this at the start of the year.

At this point I’d just like to say a personal thank you to a couple of folk: Jorn Lyseggen for starting the Meltwater foundation that makes MEST possible, and Peter van Dijk for organising our visit and being a great host at MEST. Also a big thank you to Robert and Badu for being such a great team. They are a pleasure to work with!

It doesn’t end there for me though – I will still be working with my team as we prepare them for their pitch to Jorn to get in to the incubator.

P.S. If you’ve managed to read though all these posts then well done to you! I wrote all 5 of my MEST posts in one day. Probably the most writing I’ve ever done in one day (yes, that includes when I was writing my PhD thesis!), four of them at 36,000ft on my flight to San Francisco (jet-setting baby!)  so I hope that shows you how much this programme meant to me. If you found the posts interesting, please do take a second to leave a comment or rate the posts. It’s what we bloggers live for! I’m also happy to answer any questions about MEST if you’re reading this and thinking about applying.

MEST Day 3 – MBA carousel

19 Apr

I've always seen myself as a bit like Zebedee

Day 3, Thursday 7th April – MBA carousel

The day started out with presentations by all of the teams to all of the EITs and MBAs. This would be the first time we got to see the other teams’ projects in detail.

After the presentations we did 30min consulting sessions with each of the teams so we could give feedback to the teams and make suggestions as to how they could improve their ideas. We were advised not to hold back with the feedback – there was no point in going easy on them otherwise they would just get a shock when they have to present to Jorn in a couple of months to try and get in to the incubator.

These sessions were great fun. In fact I would say it was a privilege that we got this opportunity. It was a bit like reading a few posts on Techcrunch then being able to grill the founders. I think I managed to give good feedback and decent suggestions to all the teams. I maybe gave most value to the team that was working on a healthcare related product as it is closest to my own product background. There were some flaws in some of the plans that needed deeper thought, but overall all of the businesses seem quite viable to me. Maybe some of them don’t feel quite so enthusiastic after we’ve dissected their ideas but I really do think that each of these ideas, if executed well, could be quite successful.

That evening we went out with the teaching fellows from MEST. We went to the ex-pat/obroni bars. First we went for Thai food, which was not too bad. Then an Irish pub (there’s always one!) called Ryans where the Star was nice and cold and there was also some free Clubs being given away in a promotion. It was some kind of Accra ex-pat society evening so the place was quite busy. I even got the chance to practice my Norwegian, which was fun. Then we went on to somewhere called the Container. Maybe it’s called that because it looks like it’s housed in a shipping container. Anyway, the beer was something like GH₵2, so no complaints from me. After there we went on to a place called Duplex. Then we somehow got home. Probably in a taxi. Not sure. All I can remember is the slight despair that there was not much chance of me running in to a kebab van offering chips and cheese.

MEST Day 2 – Workshops

19 Apr

Why are pirates always so grumpy?

Day 2, Wednesday 6th April – Workshops

The MBAs were to give workshops to the EITs about several business areas: Tayo and I would cover budgeting and sales forecasting; Mike and Jaro covered business plans; and Louis was taking on implementation strategy on his own.

I was slightly apprehensive about the workshops. Despite having completed a PhD, I never got the opportunity to do any teaching (I emptied bins instead, but that’s a different story…), whereas Tayo has been a university lecturer in the states. Nevertheless I obsessively read startup and VC blogs so I figured I could take something useful from there. Maybe I should be concerned that I based my workshop on a few blogs rather than the very expensive learnings of my MBA!

I took my main inspiration from a couple of my favourite presentations: Dave McClure’s “Startup Metrics for Pirates” and Andrew Chen’s “How to Start a Profitable Freemium Startup”. Fortunately the EITs hadn’t seen these before, so my first suggestion was to look up McClure and read everything he’s ever written (whilst warning them that he uses “colourful” language and his slides look like they’re made by an eight year-old!).

I actually started out by saying that I think that revenue forecasting for start-ups that don’t yet exist is mostly a folly*. Top VCs will want to know that you are aiming at a big market, and that you have a product that people want so that you can take a significant chunk of that market. The actual forecast you come up with isn’t that interesting, because you have to make so many assumptions that the margin of error is massive. Nevertheless, showing that you’ve thought of each of the variables that contribute to the forecast shows that you’re thinking about the important factors that determine whether or not you’ll get any revenue at all.

So then we discussed each of these factors using McClure’s AARRR (like a pirate, geddit?) framework**, which stands for Acquisition, Activation, Retention, Referrals and Revenue. We took each factor in turn and discussed all the potential ways we could maximise our percentages at each stage. Tayo and I had quite a neat tag-team effort going on, with him talking about how to build a strong brand and use marketing to generate revenue rather than sales. He even treated them to a branding framework he had developed during his PhD.

Finally, I would take them through Andrew Chen’s freemium spreadsheet and show them how the things we had just discussed during the AARRR session were applied to each of the stages on the sales funnel in Chen’s model.

The EITs said they got a lot from our session – all of the sessions in fact. Even though I was paired up with a university lecturer who has a PhD in what he was teaching I think I did ok. Tayo’s a good lecturer – maybe he could have a word with a couple of the lecturers at Saïd***…

That evening everyone from MEST went out in Accra for some dinner, where we ate fine Ghanaian cuisine, and we redeemed our bonus beers for getting pics of the lighthouse (all the teams managed to get a pic!). There was some entertainment mostly in the form of singing both English and Ghanaian songs. There was also a humorous… ummm, spectacle… which I can only describe as “the duck”.****

*Note I haven’t been a VC, or raised money for a startup, so you can take my opinion with a pinch of salt!

**Obligatory pirate joke – Q: Why are pirates always so grumpy? A: Because they AARRR!!

***If by any chance you’re a Saïd lecturer and you’re reading this then of course I don’t mean you!

****Can’t tell you what this is. What goes in Accra, stays in Accra. Well, at least until I put the video on YouTube! 😉

MEST Day 1 – Exploring Accra

18 Apr

Colourful fishing boats

I actually flew out to Ghana a few days early so that I could try and explore Ghana beyond Accra for a few days. If you’re at all interested in reading about that, it’s here on my other blog.*

Day 1, Tuesday 5th April– Meet the EITs and explore Accra

After a round of introductions between the MBA consultants and the EITs (entrepreneurs-in-training), Peter, the class’s senior faculty, set us a challenge. This would be my chance to get to know Robert and Badu, with whom I had already had many chats over Skype. Armed with a small number of Cedis (GH₵) we were to use whatever means of transportation we could afford to travel around the city and get three photos taken of each MBA with his team at an Accra landmark (and get lunch at the same time). A special bonus beer was on offer for any teams that managed to get a photo of the Jamestown lighthouse, as Peter had previously tried to get a snap there but had been unsuccessful (no photos allowed!). A second mission was for each MBA consultant to buy a “trophy” for his team which would represent a learning for them.

So of course we went out, flagged down a cab and headed straight to the Jamestown lighthouse. Once there we were instantly approached by a guy that wanted to give us a “tour” of the lighthouse. Unfortunately being an “obroni” (Caucasian) made you quite the target for the local entrepreneurs (the ones that didn’t quite make the MEST grade) as I’d discovered in Elmina. We went past the lighthouse and headed down to the fisherman’s village. We were approached by a number of people wanting to “help” us, including one guy that was quite insistent that he give us a tour. Robert got rid of him, but we still gave him GH₵1 as we left anyway (for not abducting us and turning us in to fishfood?§)

Robert explained that because it was a Tuesday the fishing village was quiet as it is the day of rest for fishermen (God created the sea on Tuesday?). Although it was quiet, it was not really the sort of place I would have felt comfortable going on my own. However, with team at my side I really wasn’t that bothered. It felt so much better exploring Ghana with Ghanaians. Down there on the (rather dirty) beach I got some photos of the fishing boats (so much colour) and a kid with a bowl on his head at a jaunty angle.


We went back up towards the lighthouse and took the opportunity to snap a few pics. Result! Then we decided to walk towards a mausoleum, taking some pics at the Jamestown Fort Prison along the way. With hindsight that might have been a mistake – it was absolutely sweltering and I was boiling and worried about getting sunburn and/or sunstroke. It got to the point where I was sidling along the side of buildings to try and take advantage of the shadows. Still we made it there, with some singing entertainment from a bus full of school kids along the way.

Jamestown Lighthouse

Open for business?

At the  Kwame Nkrumah mausoleum we headed straight for the air-conditioned museum. Oh yeah! I needed that. We got a few pics around the park and monument then we went on our way. On the way our of the park, I found my trophy for the team**. I was only allowed to spend GH₵5 on it, so I was very happy to haggle the street-seller down from GH₵8 to GH₵5 straight away. Now I had my opportunity to experience tro-tros – private minivans that cram as many people in them as possible then run on set routes. It has to be experienced! Having lunch in town we discovered that the ladies appreciated our trophy. Can’t say I blame them – they clearly know quality when they see it.

Another taxi trip saw us at Independence Square where we got a photo of the Freedom Arch. Mission achieved!

We headed back to MEST, where we had dinner and gave the group a debrief and explained what our trophies were meant to represent to our teams. The day had certainly been good for getting to know Robert and Badu – they were great guides – and we had a pretty good time talking about their business over lunch, where we threw about a few new ideas that could be explored with their core idea. A great first day!

*what’s nerdier than having a blog? Having two blogs of course! I have about four so go figure…

**can’t tell you what it means – that’s between me and the team (and everyone else at MEST).

§I jest.

Working as a MBA Consultant with MEST

10 Apr

Since about November last year I’ve been working as a “MBA Consultant” with an organisation called the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), based in Accra, Ghana. MEST is a fantastic organisation; they take in young Ghanaian entrepreneurs and train them in software development and business skills for two years. At the end of the two years the students have the chance to take their business ideas in to an incubator where they receive investment, then the opportunity to raise later VC investment.

The selection process is really tough: they receive around 600 applications and the applicants have to do GMAT-like tests, aptitude tests, and a series of interviews before they are admitted to the school. There’s less than 20 students in each year group, which means every successful entrant beat at least 30 others. I think that makes it several times more competitive than getting in to Saïd Business School! So these guys really are some of the brightest young minds in Ghana.

The school was set up as a non-profit organisation by Jorn Lyseggen, the Founder and CEO of San Francisco media-monitoring company Meltwater (which I’m actually visiting in a couple of days). I’d met him at Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford – he’s a pretty cool guy, and especially cool for setting up MEST. I hope that one day I’m in a position to give something back like he is doing.

The MBA Consultants’ role is to provide mentoring to the students as they prepare their business ideas and plans to apply to the incubator. By the time we meet them the students have assembled in to teams and are trying to decide which of many ideas they should concentrate on. We talk with the EITs (Entrepreneurs-in-training) once a week by Skype (if the Internet connection is good enough) and generally discuss their business ideas and try and help them with their business plans. I think the main benefit we bring is giving them a Western perspective – they want to build global, scalable companies and it’s very useful for them to hear what will or won’t work in Europe or the US.

Working with my team has been a great experience. All the teams are working on developing Internet-type companies, so basically every week we talk and brainstorm about cool web applications. I love hearing about fresh web-app ideas, so I’m like a pig in mud doing this. In some ways it’s a bit similar to one of my previous roles when I was responsible for the re-development of PharmaDeals. Whilst (unfortunately) I’m not a developer myself, I’ve got a pretty good technical “appreciation”, so I’m comfortable talking about technical things with my team. If I’m honest, it’s really the sort of thing I would like to do as a job – I guess like a Product Manager role.

Part of the MEST-MBA Consultant arrangement is that Meltwater pays for us to fly out to Accra for a week, to meet our team (and the other teams) and really do some deep-diving in to the business ideas. So last week I went out to Accra. It was an amazing week but seeing as this post is getting a little long, I’ll write about it in a new post.