Hilda Moraa is the Kenya-based founder and CEO of Pezesha, a peer-to-peer micro-lending marketplace for Africa that provides access to affordable financial services and credit scores to low-income borrowers. Moraa previously founded Weza Tele, which in 2015 became one of the first African tech startups to be acquired by another business.
1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.
Although I never used to believe in the expression: “Hire slow, fire fast”, it is one whose message really hit home for me recently.
Earlier this year, I suddenly realised that I had recruited for data roles too early, at a time when our product wasn’t clearly defined, and when we had insufficient data to guide us forward. I hadn’t thought enough about the gaps, needs and capacity projections for the subsequent months as the business was set to grow.
Sadly, 14 months into the journey I had to let the people in those roles go. Despite their talent, their skills were not relevant to the stage the business was in. It was a tough call, over which I lost plenty of sleep, and the process of restructuring and re-strategising was incredibly draining.
Nonetheless, looking back, although this was a difficult decision to have to make, it was the right thing do for the company. Having learned from this experience, we are now streamlining our human resource processes, leveraging on data from our ongoing pivots to help ensure we hire the right talent at the right time.
2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?
The fact that, at the same time as we achieved substantial growth at Pezesha, we have maintained our working culture and the clarity of our vision.
In just 18 months of operation, we have seen 50% customer growth month on month. This is proof that our mission – empowering micro, small and medium enterprises in Africa with affordable financial services that they can use in a responsible and purposeful way – is possible. This gives us the motivation to keep doing what we are doing.
Making an impact in this way is at the heart of what we do. We are trying to bring sanity and security to the lending space, and staying true to the reasons I started this business is something I intend to upkeep for as long as we exist.
3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.
My biggest strength is also my biggest weakness: Focus.
I am constantly generating new ideas about how to improve things, many of which are exciting to me. The flip side is that my attention can easily be stolen by entertaining one of these ideas before the time is right. The challenge, therefore, is to balance this creative spirit with the focus required to concentrate on the here and now, and on the priorities we have set for ourselves as a business.
A data-driven approach is the key to nurturing this focus. It is imperative for maintaining a consistent direction. As we continue to grow, the data we assimilate helps to guide our strategy, ensuring it is aligned with our milestones.
4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
“Just scale as fast as you can, don’t think about the profitability path.”
It’s every entrepreneur’s dream to have their business grow and scale. But, sometimes, running faster does not mean you will finish the race first. There is a healthy tension between growth, scale and profitability, and I believe striking the balance will drive long-term startup success.
“Scaling prematurely, for the sake of making investors happy, is like putting a rocket engine on the back of a car.” You’ll go fast, but you’ll also get destroyed. Don’t get me wrong, scaling is a good thing, if done right – and not to the detriment of customer relationships and product experience.
I believe in doing good while making money. At the same time, I believe in growing strong before growing up. It is in this way that you can achieve growth which is sustainable. Furthermore, being profitable gives you a degree of freedom, as well as new opportunities and a certain amount of leverage when it comes to fundraising.
5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?
It’s 100% about people. Getting the right people is not easy, but it’s the key ingredient that I believe will determine the success of a startup. If you have the wrong people, then nothing gets done, passion is killed and growth is halted.
Many entrepreneurs think that having funding is the most important thing and that it is all they need to make their business successful. I have learned otherwise. You can have the capital, but if it is channelled to hiring all the wrong human resources it rapidly loses its value. This is why, when we talk about startup failure rates, we should be talking about hiring the right people more than we talk about whether the business idea itself was wrong or right.
The journey so far’ series is edited by Wilhelmina Maboja, with copy editing by Xolisa Phillip, and content production by Justin Probyn and Nelly Murungi.