The journey so far: Cordel Robbin-Coker, co-founder and CEO, Carry1st

Cordel Robbin-Coker

Cordel Robbin-Coker

Cordel Robbin-Coker is co-founder and CEO of Carry1st, a developer of mobile games and content apps for African consumers.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

I faced one of my toughest challenges when I built my first game. As I would soon find out, it’s a huge technical undertaking to create a game that can simultaneously serve hundreds of thousands of users in Nigeria and Kenya as connectivity is slow and patchy.

I spent the last six months of 2018 building this live trivia game. After a soft launch, we started running live games around Christmas. Our user base was surging, doubling day by day. We got excited and decided to launch an even bigger game. We marketed it widely and planned to offer [cash] prizes of 1 million Nigerian naira (about $2,766).

We went ahead and launched the game. Right before New Year’s, our platform crashed. It couldn’t handle the sheer number of users. When I got the news, I was in a hotel room in Cape Town. My co-founder, Lucy, was celebrating the holiday with her family in Scotland.

Our product had failed in front of thousands and thousands of users. It was devastating, to say the least, because we had invested so much time working on it.

First, I got a hold of myself and then called Lucy. We came up with a plan for how we would communicate to our users and the best way to minimise a backlash. We decided to reach out to all of our users, own the technical failure, and send everyone a digital gift within the application.

Interestingly, we thought that there would be a backlash – people leaving negative reviews, saying harsh things. But instead, we woke up on January 1st to a deluge of conciliatory messages from our users thanking us for the gift and sending us warm wishes for the new year.

It was an incredible ordeal because of its magnitude. But, we made it work out in the end. One of the lessons that I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is that the biggest challenge is managing your own psyche. Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster. It’s very volatile. You lay everything on the line and there isn’t anyone else to blame for your failures but yourself.

2. What business achievement are you most proud of?

Recruiting and convincing my senior leadership team to join me on this journey.

I think I’m unusual in that I started this company without any co-founders and domain expertise – which I wouldn’t advise to anyone!

But, I was able to persuade Lucy, my co-founder, a world-class professional, to leave South Africa and join me in New York. We huddled in one room in a coworking space to try and figure this out. From there, we were able to recruit a world-class technical lead who had never even met us.

It took several months and many conversations to hire our lead engineer, Tino Mundangepfupfu, but it gave us the credibility to build an office in Cape Town and attract talented engineers.

We’re also excited that after three months of courting, we were able to recruit Damola Ajayi who headed up sales for Jumia Nigeria. She’s going to build our in-person distribution network.

Given the uncertainty in a startup and the challenge of what we’re trying to create, I feel both proud and fortunate to have recruited a leadership team of such calibre.

3. Tell us about your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

I think my greatest weakness as an entrepreneur is that I’m poor at organisation and administration tasks.

What you don’t realise until you run your own company is that about 85% of the work is administrative in nature. Strategy represents a very small part of what you do on a day-to-day basis.

Everything requires forms, approvals and scheduling – all kinds of things that, coming from a larger company, I didn’t need to do on a day-to-day basis. We have kept it from hurting the company because my counterpart, Lucy, is my polar opposite and is extremely organised and gifted at operations.

4. What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

I strongly disagree with the concept of failing fast. I still fundamentally don’t believe in failing. There is a lot of conventional wisdom that encourages taking risks as early as possible. Because the earlier you take a risk, the more time you have to bounce back.

But I have a different point of view. I don’t believe in taking uncalculated risks or jumping at the first entrepreneurial opportunity that presents itself. I’m also not a believer in the redeeming value of failure.

Rather, if entrepreneurs have a base foundation, like a core competency or cushion – whether it’s a skillset, credibility, savings in the bank – they are better prepared to take risks. They’re particularly more effective in managing their mindset.

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?

Nothing prepared me for the extreme difficulty of entrepreneurship. People say it; you read about it. But there’s nothing like experiencing it.

A couple of years ago, I read an article by a founder who had sold his company for several hundred million dollars. He said, if I knew how hard entrepreneurship was, I would have never done it. And if I could go back, I wouldn’t have done it again.

At the time I thought that his comment was hyperbole. Here was a successful founder who now had a couple hundred millions of dollars in his bank account yet was making insincere comments.

But, I now understand. If you think about all the likely sacrifices – probably with family, important relationships, physical and mental health – you can understand him having regrets even though he was successful.

But I actually wouldn’t have wanted to know about the extreme difficulty, hardship even, because entrepreneurship is like being in the deep end of a pool. You can’t walk into the deep end. You’re either in or you’re out. And the only way to get in is to jump. If you overthink it, it would be hard to jump.