Feleg Tsegaye is the founder and president of Deliver Addis, an Ethiopian company that offers online food delivery services in partnership with restaurants.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
In 2016, I had to fly to the US for a little over a week to attend the wedding of a close friend. At that time, our first full year of operations, the thought of being away from the business was quite nerve-racking due to the number of things that can go wrong within such a short span of time in food delivery.
Regardless, I had committed to attend the wedding, so to assuage my own feelings, I talked to all of our vendors, bank managers [and others] just to let them know I wouldn’t be around during that time [and] that I’d be available via WhatsApp, just in case anything came up and to help avoid any unpleasant surprises. By the time I boarded, I felt somewhat prepared and relaxed thinking, “What could go wrong in the span of 10 days?”
Boy was I wrong. When I landed in the US and connected to wi-fi, my phone blew up with notifications. While I had been in the air, a state of emergency had been declared in Ethiopia, due to political instability at the time, and mobile internet was shut off across the entire country. As an e-commerce business, that’s pretty much the worst possible thing that can happen – and I wasn’t even there when it happened.
I remember immediately calling my staff to see what was going on and to ensure they were all right. I had about a week and a half in the US, so we decided to use that time to do some intensive servicing and maintenance on our motorbikes – something we never had a great deal of time to do normally.
I spent that week and a half in the US building new offline-friendly processes and, when I returned, we got the team briefed and trained them. [We also] communicated alternate forms of ordering to our customers via offline-friendly channels like email. Throughout that two-month period of being offline, we found that we were still growing order volumes, even more so than before the internet shutdown. It was a lot of work but pretty rewarding to see that we could maintain growth regardless of the internet.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
I’m proud that we were able to create value on literally every front possible. We are the first online restaurant delivery service in Ethiopia, so we weren’t taking market share away from anyone, and we were able to spot an opportunity and then build an industry from scratch.
We’ve created numerous jobs for drivers, boosted sales for restaurants, which have gone on to hire more staff to support that growth, and created a service customers value and use every day.
Seeing where we started, with myself and one driver as the only employees, to now having 40-plus employees really does feel like the African dream.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
Being an introvert can be slightly challenging as a business owner because you’re expected to be the public-facing “spokesperson” and generally be more outgoing. I’ve learned to balance that a bit better over time. But it made – and still makes – marketing a bit of a challenge as those traits extend to how you promote your business as well, much to the chagrin of our investors.
The best way to combat that is to hire people who see things differently than you [do] for the roles you’re weakest at. It can initially be uncomfortable as the best hires will be pushing you outside of your comfort zone but ultimately, it’s what’s best for the business.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
“Move fast and break things.” This may work in the US but when it comes to Ethiopia, regulators do not take to that well. Here, regulators tend to shut you down first and ask questions later, so I advise against that.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
I remember one panel discussion I was involved in a few years ago when someone from the audience asked me if there were times I’d ever felt like giving up. My answer: “Yeah, Tuesday!” [He means that he thinks about it often.]
I think there’s this perception that if you’re struggling or grappling with a lot of challenges as an entrepreneur, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t think that’s true at all. Experiences can vary wildly depending on the type of business you’re engaged in, but you should be prepared to lose some money – hopefully only temporarily – personal relationships, most if not all of your free time, and often a bit of your sanity and hair in the process.
If you only lose a few or none of those things, consider yourself lucky. For technical founders like myself, it’s also worth considering what parts of your business you actually enjoy working on the most. As you grow, and especially when you take on investment, your time should increasingly be spent more on building the business, for example sales, vis-à-vis writing code. And you need to be comfortable with that otherwise you may end up inadvertently hurting your business and your team [who believe] in your overall vision.
‘The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip.