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Start from scratch, and 3 more lessons for founders in the developing world

What mSurvey’s CEO learned building his company in Kenya.

By Kara Baskin  |  October 27, 2017

msurvey-graphic

With mSurvey, Kenfield Griffith uses an incentive program to collect consumer data from cell phone users in remote areas.

Why It Matters

In Silicon Valley, founders can take a lot for granted. Power, for instance. But Silicon Valley isn’t the world. Here’s a guide for growing a company under different conditions.

Until recently, it was nearly impossible for companies to gain insights about the purchasing preferences for remote populations and to tailor products accordingly. What did they buy, and why?

Kenya-based mSurvey, co-founded in 2012 by Kenfield Griffith, SM ’06, PhD ’12, gives companies unprecedented access to customers. With mSurvey, businesses can tailor their products to hard-to-reach consumers using real-time data. mSurvey partners with mobile providers to offer user incentives. Users respond to surveys and earn airtime, data plans, and other rewards.

“Say you want to have a conversation and get feedback from someone who likes goat milk,” Griffith, mSurvey’s CEO, said. “We can give you access to that person based on who has signed up. They get to give feedback to businesses, and we provide a direct incentive on their mobile phone with our mobile partners.” It has caught on: Griffith said mSurvey reaches more than 12.3 million consumers.

Here’s what Griffith learned about launching and growing a company in a developing country:

Start from scratch — really from scratch.
Griffith launched a product in a third-world area without basic infrastructure, such as mobile information — a luxury that Westerners might take for granted.

“I’d like to emphasize the fundamental difference in this age of African startups is that we’re creating infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a challenge. We’re building infrastructure that people can layer on. You don’t think about access to the internet or electricity. You’re focused on the core product.”

“There are other variables you need to consider when building a tech startup. In Silicon Valley, security means software security. In this context, security means software security and physical office security. Instead of one ISP, we need multiple ones to create redundancies. You need to consider these as line items,” he said.

For instance, mSurvey uses four internet providers for extra reliability.

Keep the end game in mind.
“Maybe it’s the MIT in me, but you see a problem, and you want to solve it. If it were easy, anyone would do it,” Griffith said. “We’re solving a big problem and empowering the continent to grow. One product company started using our product, and their revenue grew by four times. It pushes you to say, ‘Wow, we’re making a fundamental difference.’”

In a place like Africa, though, the payoff might take a while.

“It won’t happen overnight. I am not going to be in it to cash out. You’re building something sustainable for the longterm,” he said.

Cultivate the right talent.
“In the Bay area, you get a lot of people who have experience working at different startups, Facebook, Google,” Griffith said. “In this market, you’re the first, and you actually have to pull those resources together … The talent is here, but you’re finding it working in traditional businesses, and having them move over to a startup mindset is a bigger problem. Most of our team is from Africa, and we have a stringent process of recruitment that helps us vet the best fits. We look for problem-solvers. The talent is here, and we match the talent with the problem.”

Griffith asks recruits to take coding tests on the spot. He then assigns potential employees to a three-month project to meet a specific deliverable and goal.

“Depending on how they finish it, then we offer them a chance to come aboard. We’re looking for people who want to commit,” he says. “This is a problem for every startup. Find someone who shares the vision. Find someone who executes.”

Mindset matters.
“If you’re building infrastructure, it’s a different type of mindset,” Griffith said. “You’re solving a fundamental problem. Do you really understand the African consumer? That in and of itself is really a strong vision for us to attach to — we’re not just saying, ‘Hey, this is a cool problem to solve.’ This is a necessary problem.”

Because he’s starting from scratch in an area with infrastructure challenges, maintaining a vision is crucial.

“The mindset is resilience and uber-focus, because there are going to be things that completely derail you — like even having power. We’re figuring things out as we go. You’re figuring out 80 percent of your business with 20 percent of information,” he said.