Edmond Nonie, the co-founder of Track Your Build, talks to James Torvaney about the company’s journey from a small drone operator in his home country of Sierra Leone to a comprehensive construction management platform used to monitor large-scale projects across West Africa and beyond.
Give us an overview of what Track Your Build does.
We are a data science company helping customers track construction projects. We provide professional engineering services enhanced by drone, satellite, and ground sensor data for organisations and individuals that want third-party, unbiased monitoring of their construction projects. We offer an easy-to-use cloud platform that they can use to remotely track and manage progress.
For example, a company might want to track multiple construction sites around the country from their head office, or someone from West Africa living in the US may want to monitor a residential build in Nigeria remotely.
What is the problem you are trying to solve?
The majority of construction projects finish neither on time nor on budget. Even when companies use enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, it is difficult to be sure of the authenticity of the data they are getting from the field.
We help them know how the construction is progressing, how well the workforce is being utilised, and where their money is going. Typically we will start by providing topographical surveys and then monitoring and managing of the build process.
Who are your customers?
Private companies are our biggest source of revenue, including clients in the real estate development and oil & gas sectors. This is followed by government and public projects, including by the likes of the United Nations or the World Bank, and then by private residential builds.
How has the vision for Track Your Build changed over time?
The general idea – remote monitoring of construction builds – of the company has remained the same, but the applications and methods have developed over time.
I started the company offering what I knew I could offer at the time, which was drone imagery. I marketed this to diasporans who were sending money back to Sierra Leone for construction projects, but were not getting visibility and as a result were not happy with their builds, or were unable to track their money.
We then started building our offering out stage-by-stage, expanded to things like NGOs and government agencies as well as overseas investors looking for transparency over their investments.
What were the biggest hurdles in growing the business to where it is now?
Getting customers to agree to do business with you. It sounds obvious but people often don’t talk about how critical selling is for your business’s success.
I believe opportunities come through honesty and patience. With our first clients, we didn’t talk about big plans such as data analytics or AI. We spoke about what we could do then, which was taking good drone pictures and videos. Then we let the clients know as we evolved, adding new services each year. Getting clients to say yes is difficult, but over time it becomes easier. Track record is important and there is a snowball effect – each new client adds to your credibility.
With any of these challenges, the fact that it’s difficult is a good sign. It acts as a moat – if you can build it in a couple of weeks, it probably won’t make a good business because it will be easy for someone to copy.
Describe the current challenges the business is facing.
Right now our model is still very human centred. We are building up our automation capabilities; adding the predictive element and supporting the project manager’s role.
For example, we want to be able to predict that if there is a delay in one aspect now, how that will affect something very different down the line. There is a lot of potential for this technology but it all needs to be built from scratch using real-world data. This takes time.
You had years of experience before starting Track Your Build, including a previous venture that didn’t work out. Do you feel they were useful experiences?
Yes, definitely. I’m a mechanical engineer, and my experience managing a number of construction projects was invaluable both from a learning and networking perspective.
I also started an ecommerce business in Sierra Leone – GoShop. I lacked experience at the time, and the business failed. But if you’re going to fail, at least do it in your 20s, so that you can use that experience for your next venture.
Now that I am older I understand how to play the game a lot more. Age can definitely be a good thing – people find you a lot more compelling when you are speaking from an area of expertise and experience.
What are Track Your Build’s plans for the future?
We want to expand what we’re doing in Nigeria and Senegal and create a new presence in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. We are working on securing a number of large, recurring contracts so that we have a solid and sustainable sales pipeline that will put us in a strong position should we decide to seek funding.
We then have three areas we are looking to invest into. Firstly, our cloud platform, which is currently a web app. We would like to build a mobile app. Secondly, investing in data acquisition: collecting more real-world data which we can use to build our AI models. Finally, there is a huge and growing market for remote monitoring across the continent, so to get ahead of the demand we are looking at sustainability initiatives such as a training pathway which would allow us to outsource work by certifying people to collect data and upload onto our platform.
You have built Track Your Build without raising large amounts of external funding. What is your personal approach to taking on outside investment?
We have taken on investment in the past in the form of convertible notes, although in general I am an advocate of funding growth through sales rather than external fundraising where possible. It is better to build something that makes money first, and when you can point to a strong and sustainable pipeline, you can be in a stronger negotiation position if you do need to raise capital.
When it comes to investment, we want to match the nature of the funding to what we are investing in. Where we are looking to generate appreciating assets, such as proprietary software and long-term sustainability initiatives, we would look to raise capital via equity. But on the other hand, giving away shares (an appreciating asset) to fund purchase of equipment (a depreciating asset) doesn’t make much sense. So if we were to need capital to buy physical assets, we would look to raise debt, and pay it off as the assets earn revenue whilst depreciating in asset value.
There has been tremendous growth in funding for the continent’s tech sector since you first started. What are your views on the broader tech environment in Africa?
There are so many infrastructure gaps that I don’t think you can ever be a purely tech company in Africa. In the United States, for example, Amazon can leverage established and reliable postal systems, payment systems, and road networks. If you want to be sustainable here, you have to take over a much larger part of the value chain and incorporate a bricks-and-mortar aspect to your business.
What advice would you give your younger self?
First, be patient. Understand that it is not an overnight process and building something good takes time. Learn what you can do today and what will have to wait. I started Track Your Build knowing I was willing to commit to a minimum 10-year horizon to get to where I wanted to go.
Secondly, I hear a lot of anti-job sentiment, which I don’t agree with. Working for someone else before starting a business can be one of the most useful learning experiences you can have, and it can also help build savings and act as a financial buffer whilst you are testing whether or not people will buy your product.
Finally, I’m a big exponent of sales over funding as a source of capital – build something and see if it sells. If you can’t sell it, then you probably shouldn’t quit your day job.
This is particularly important in West Africa, where it is very hard to raise long-term funding. As an entrepreneur, you need to start making money as soon as you can. You shouldn’t let the desire to have the perfect product stop you from having a product that enables you to cover your costs in the short term.
An over-focus on funding brings a lot of pressure – even equity funding comes with expectations. Before you get funding you need to be able to show that the market is interested. Fortunately, we funded our growth through selling, which has put us in a much stronger position now.
James Torvaney is a business consultant and financial advisor specialising in West Africa. He has worked with clients across a number of sectors, including technology, manufacturing, consumer goods and hospitality.