The journey so far: Rob Withagen, CEO, Asoko Insight

Rob Withagen

Rob Withagen is CEO of Asoko Insight, an information services company. It provides up-to-date management information, profiles, insights and data on unlisted companies across Africa to investors, global corporates and institutions. Asoko Insight has offices in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, and London.

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

When we launched our series-A, we thought we were in for an easy ride: we raised a handsome amount in our seed round, delivered on our key performance indicators and kept our burn rate well below expectations.

The reality was different.

We focused our strategy on a small universe of venture capitalists we had established good relations with, only to understand either we or they weren’t yet ready. The time this took left us exposed to issues with employee morale and a rapidly depleting bank account.

We overcame the challenge by banding together. Co-founder Greg Cohen and I regularly revisited how to support each other in chasing additional investors while keeping the business running. The team accepted that pay rises and bonus payments would have to wait – while the workload continued – and our existing investors stepped up by putting in their participation before any new investors were committed. It worked.

In six months, we had external commitments for 50% of our round. Three months later, we were 20% oversubscribed.

We have come out stronger, cohesive and more focused. It’s been a humbling experience and a real test of our skills as entrepreneurs, managers and team players.

2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?

Navigating the funding cycles is certainly a part of it.

At a broader level, and this will apply to most entrepreneurs on the continent, it’s the realisation that we’re breaking down some serious barriers. Whether it’s democratising financial access, reducing the cost of power or mapping great African companies for the global business community, we’re hammering at real problems.

By tackling these, we’re delivering more than just attractive investor returns.

 3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

As someone with a primarily business background, I am well aware of my challenges to identify and implement leading-edge technologies to corporate data collection. So, one thing we realised early on was that we needed to bring in an amazing chief technology officer and give him the autonomy to build his team and drive that part of the business forward.

At the same time, looking through a non-tech lens became an asset, as we were able to learn and iterate without strong biases, quickly understand the limitations of technology in the markets we operate in and, eventually, yielding a uniquely hybrid model for corporate data collection in the African context.

Today, our human intelligence is the core asset, while tech enables our staff to scale the rate of accurate data capture.

4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

A laser-focus on metrics is critical for any starting business. When charting new waters, however, there is a risk of overreliance on familiar, but wrong, metrics. This is, particularly, applicable to African startups raising foreign-venture funding.

As an information subscription business, we have had to resist a premature focus on revenue in order to build a product capable of generating optimal revenues in the first place. It takes a visionary investor to back that and we’re lucky to have attracted them.

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

It’s all about agility and iteration. With that comes systematic, data-driven decision-making: build, measure, learn. Coming from a professional background, where eye for detail was the norm, it took me time to adopt that philosophy.

I would strongly recommend that any budding entrepreneur – tech or non-tech – to familiarise herself with the agile approach. And if you’re not an engineer, like me, partner with one as early as possible.

‘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.