Audio: Nwabisa Mayema, nnfinity: How to Start Your Own Successful Tech Company
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Nwabisa Mayema, nnfinity: How to Start Your Own Successful Tech Company

By Jomiro Eming

Turning a great idea into a successful tech business often relies on speaking to the right people, about the right things, in the right way. Social entrepreneur Nwabisa Mayema shares two key concepts that anyone who wants to start their own tech business should know about.

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Nwabisa has been a social entrepreneur for the past 15 years. As the Executive Director of nnfinity, and a trustee for the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship South Africa (BCESA), she has helped many people across the African continent start successful businesses.

Nwabisa says that any developer with an idea for an app can start a business, but success doesn’t come without hard work and commitment - especially in terms of the way you explore and develop your business’ ecosystem. She explains: “It takes a thousand days and it takes a thousand meetings. When you have your idea, you need to start pounding the pavements, and you need to be talking to as many people as you can about your idea.”

In other words, the ecosystem you build around your business is as important as the ecosystem you operate within - and, to build your business’ ecosystem effectively, she says entrepreneurs need to understand and remember two key things:

  • Build social capital and
  • Be able to explain your ‘macro’ and your ‘micro’ goals

In her experience, these make it easier to reach the people who will help you turn your idea into a successful, sustainable business. In doing so, you’ll also be better equipped to turn your business into a force for good, with wide-reaching social impact.

We explore how this looks in the sections below, as follows:

  • What is ‘social capital’?
  • What are ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ goals?
  • How to use macro and micro impact to build social capital

What is ‘social capital’?

In Nwabisa’s experience, most entrepreneurs value two things when starting a business: human capital and financial capital. “We tend to have these great ideas,” she explains, “and we think that the first thing we need to turn this idea into a reality is money. Then we think, ‘Oh my gosh, what I need to do is to build an amazing team!’”

What fewer people focus on is social capital - unlocking networks and people who believe in their business’ vision. Social capital, Nwabisa says, is even more valuable than human or financial capital because social capital doesn’t expire; it extends beyond a single interaction, or exchange of resources.

“For me,” she explains, “the strength and value of social capital is that it doesn’t ‘just end there’ - it becomes so much bigger, and it compounds as you go, and it’s collaborative, so it’s a lot more sustained and sustainable”

For budding businesses, social capital gives you access to feedback loops and networks, which will inevitably open a flood gate of resources. When building an ecosystem around your business, Nwabisa says that finding champions for your vision, and getting them to buy into your idea, increases the radius of your ecosystem - and therefore access to resources - exponentially.

She says: “Even if they can’t give you ‘the thing’ you need right now, they will remember the story and suddenly, when they’re sitting at a braai, they’ll start telling your story, which might land you the person who can help you right now”

Examples of social capital could include:

  • Champions: These are people/networks that buy into your idea, and talk to other networks about your idea with the same passion as you do. Champions can give you access to new networks, and ‘sell your idea’ for you. Champions want you to succeed.
  • Advisors: These are people/networks with experience and expertise, who believe that you have something unique and want to share valuable information with you. Advisors give you feedback, and can point you in directions you didn’t know existed.
  • Sponsors/Mentors: These are people/networks who want to be a part of your enterprise, and are willing to coach you, introduce you to people that could amplify your business, give you access to their resources, and help you work through tough problems. Having someone introduce your business idea to someone else will give it credibility, and make it easier to reach high-leverage networks.
  • Partners: These are people/networks who not only give you their knowledge and their resources, but join you as a partner and fulfill the roles of champion, advisor and sponsor/mentor as well. Partners are people you can call late at night, to help iron-out your thinking, and sanity check your decisions.

Building social capital

Building social capital essentially consists of two parts:

Talk about your idea with new networks and new communities: “Whether you’re a developer or a software engineer,” she says, “get out of your specific community - everyone knows you. Start hitting the networking events, the meet-ups, the conferences… Just start talking about what you’re doing, and listen to what people are saying in terms of feedback.”

But talking about your idea isn’t enough. You also have to make sure to position yourself in a way that gives people no other option than to take you seriously.

One of the key things is to figure out and become really good at explaining your business idea’s micro and macro impact.

“Human beings want stories. Once you start telling your story to someone, you are more likely to find a champion who advocates for you. Or you find a sponsor - not so much somebody who gives you money, but somebody who has access to resources, and says, ‘I’m going to use my resources to open the door for you.’”

What are ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ goals?

When you have an idea for a tech business, and want to be able to tell your story effectively, it’s important to know what problem you’re actually trying to solve. In Nwabisa’s experience, understanding your impact on a micro and a macro level can make it more **universally understandable, **and make it easier to align with external stakeholders’ concerns:

“If you’re a developer, and you’re sitting with people outside of your normal community, who have access to resources or who could be great advisors or mentors… The moment when what you’re doing on a micro level becomes part of a macro challenge, suddenly you pivot your language in a way that they understand exactly what you’re talking about.”

In other words, explicating your macro goals is your opportunity to showcase how your business idea aligns with existing missions, groups and initiatives: “You start plugging into a much bigger movement,” Nwabisa explains. “You start getting a sense of purpose and perspective. It also starts giving you the ability to connect with a far wider community, and now we start talking about an amplified impact.”

Nwabisa recommends trying to condense the macro goals you want to achieve into a few words by answering the guiding questions below:

  • What does my solution look like for 25 people, 2500 people, and then on a national scale?
  • What bigger issue am I trying to solve?
  • In one sentence, what am I actually trying to achieve with this app/this project/this software/this initiative?
  • How are other people solving a similar problem? What is the theme between my solution and theirs?

Your micro goals explain your own business’ space of innovation and impact: These refer to the things that you want to realise on a day-to-day basis: how you’ve set up your business, what tech stack you use to achieve what you’ve set out to do, what your app looks like for a user, the sales you make every day, how you empower your tech team to succeed, and how you interact with your customers/clients.

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To figure out how to explain your micro goals, answer the guiding questions below:

  • What can I do that no one else is doing, that fixes something in my immediate community?
  • What are some of the pains I encounter on a day-to-day basis? What systems do I use to solve those pains? How can I help someone else use the same system as I do?
  • What is someone in the community/networks/environments I have access to struggling with? How can I solve that pain, for that person?
  • What do I want my team culture to represent?
  • How am I going to help my tech team be excited to come to work on a Monday morning?
  • How do I make sure a customer/client is excited to give us feedback on what we’re doing?

How to use macro and micro impact to build social capital

Once you feel solid on your macro and micro goals you can start using them to build an ecosystem around your business. To do this effectively, Nwabisa shares the following tips:

Do it in person

An email might get someone’s attention, but Nwabisa says that most people buy in the person in front of them more than the idea they have. “Especially people with influence and resources, they’re not buying into your idea, they’re buying into you.” The impact you can have by commanding a room far exceeds the impact you can have virtually.

A pro-hack that has helped Nwabisa in the past is to say, “Let’s go for a walk around the block, that’s all I need.” It’s different, and shows you’re up for a challenge but know what you want to say.

Give them a reason to believe

Nwabisa also suggests presenting yourself in terms of your credentials: Convince them why you are the person best positioned for this: What about your experience makes you well-equipped for this mission? What about your context positions you well for this business idea? Why are people going to trust you, and believe in you?

Give them a call to action

This is simply about making it clear and easy for someone to know what you need from them: “Tell them what they need to do,” Nwabisa says, “like, ‘Hey, I’m going to email you tomorrow, please look at my proposal and let me know what you think about my idea?’ or, ‘Please can you look at my proposal and pass it on to two of your friends?‘“

If you want to follow Nwabisa, or reach out to her for advice on starting a business, find and follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

For anyone looking to gain more insight into starting a business, Nwabisa recommends reading:

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