Open Minded Beginnings
There comes a time in your life, usually while you’re in the middle of pursuing a Bachelor’s in Chinese Language and History (with a theater minor, of course), that you decide that it is of the utmost importance to launch a job marketplace startup in Africa.
Myself and my co-founder Christine (though granted she was pursuing a medical career and a major in Anthropology) fell prey to this plot line somewhere in 2011 and haven’t looked back since.
There are different schools of thought about whether you should try planning out your life or not. Does a person wait for the right opportunity to come along, or does a person create their own opportunities. Eg. Does one wait for Mr. or Ms. “right” to come along, or does one scout out marriage potentials like it’s hunting season. 😉
Personally, I never had a clear idea of what I was going to be when I grew up. Sure, I had fantasies about opening a jewelry store called the Treasure Chest (with very curly script lettering), or turning into a fish (when I was younger I didn’t quite get the species barrier), but even when college rolled around, I still had no idea. So, naturally, I majored in Chinese Language and History, and waited to see what would happen. I studied Mandarin in Beijing and interned in consulting in Shanghai and was pursuing an interest in advertising, but hadn’t completely settled on anything.
This is why in my senior year in University, when I returned from Kenya, totally ablaze with ideas about how to connect my friends to jobs in their towns, moving to Kenya wasn’t completely crazy. My mind was open and my life plans flexible enough to conspire with Christine over Facebook about going back to Kenya after graduation.
Beatles, Friends, and Figuring it out
Let me just leave a philosophical mind dropping here – The way I see it, if I decided to attempt control over my future, it would be because I am scared to lean on others. Let’s face it – when something happens that you’re not sure how to deal with, you need to get advice. Whereas, if you control every step of the path, you know what to expect, can prepare yourself, and don’t need any faith in the goodness of others. That’s how I now deal with risk – I don’t know how to do this? Ask someone. I don’t know how to file taxes? Ask an accountant. I don’t know how to write a press release? Ask someone in PR. I don’t know how to design an investor deck? Ask another entrepreneur. (This is also why Nairobi desperately needs more experienced entrepreneurs as mentors and collaboration between startup founders – yes, we are making progress – but another story for another day)
I think that the beginning of every startup is a meeting of the minds. And you want as many minds as possible thinking about your startup idea – poking holes in it, supporting it, introducing you to more minds to poke more holes to build a higher tower. It’s like a giant game of Jenga (a game with a tower of wooden blocks where you literally remove blocs to poke holes and build a higher tower – pretty apt metaphor, patting myself on the back right now) and you kind of hope the whole time that the tower won’t fall.
For us, a team of 2 liberal arts ladies, who (obviously) launched our tech startup idea at Startup Weekend (as all liberal arts ladies do), we had 54 hours to build our tech prototype. I’m not sure our mouths were even comfortable saying “prototype” at the time…
But whatever! I get by with a little help from my friends.
Startup Weekend Success
At Startup Weekend, through sheer energy and excitement, we wound up getting a small team of computer science majors, plus mentors from what was then a very small and little-known startup, called Venmo. And we won! 3rd place.
Our room was also the best room (non-biased opinion). We had African music blasting and bags of potato chips everywhere. We even had a cheetah run across the screen on the home page and music in the background. (Listen to that song, which is apparently about prostitutes, here.)
Everyone was having a huge amount of fun and was genuinely excited about building a platform that could help workers connect to jobs in Kenya.
Our Startup Weekend Team!
Looking back, I think that collaborative attitude is what has propelled us along so far. We didn’t have technical backgrounds at the time, but we knew what we wanted to build and were confident we would have an awesome team to build it with. We were also pretty convinced that anything is possible with a bit of brain juice and team power.
We not only left with $750 from Startup Weekend, but also the small seeds of a network of DUMA supporters who would follow the company to this day (and a Kindle Fire! Thanks, Twilio!). We then went on to apply to every entrepreneurship competition school offered, plus things like the Kairos Society and Echoing Green. We even got into the Princeton eLab incubator program that summer and worked with geniuses (Holla, Eric & Luke!!) to build our minimum viable product. These networks in turn lent us credibility and paved a way for our network to grow exponentially. And we honestly couldn’t have done it without them.
Again, I get by with a little help from my friends.
One of our first website designs!
Moving to Kenya
We flew to Kenya in September 2012, once we had raised enough money to buy round-trip plane tickets – (remember, we were college grads with close to $0 in personal savings prior to any competitions), and landed in Nakuru for 10 months – a smaller city in the Rift Valley and about 3 hours outside of Nairobi. Yes that is the same Rift Valley where the first human is said to originate.
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the beginning of DUMA!
Lessons learnt? At the end of the day, if Christine and I hadn’t been open to a pretty significant change in our expected life course, DUMA might have remained a dream and we would be stuck behind desks at consulting firms wondering what could have been.
DUMA now has an office in Nairobi, has worked with over 250 very happy clients, has matched over 2,000 people to jobs, and has received awards from Google and Rockefeller Foundation for Social Equity and Poverty Reduction! We are also now a team of 11 people, working single-mindedly to create a smarter job marketplace in Africa.
Just goes to show that the world can sometimes transpire against you and force you to succeed. Sure, you can plan for things. But most of the time, opportunities come storming through the door, knock you down, and if you’re lucky, force you to look around for other people to help you up.
If there was any part of this post you want to talk about, or have me go into more detail about, please let me know in the comments! 🙂 And make sure to stay posted on my next post by clicking the follow button.
This was the first post of the series – stay tuned for “Friday kutwa” (the Friday after next Friday…in fake Swahili) where we will be diving deeper into one of earliest challenges – understanding the market.