Technology entrepreneurs in Africa have been urged to build products and companies that appeal to users across the globe. According to Linda Kozlowski, vice president of international marketing at Silicon Valley-based technology company Evernote, entrepreneurs should build the framework for a global company from day one.
“Often people just look at local problems when they are thinking about how to solve a problem or what an opportunity might be. That may be okay, but often if there is a problem here, there is a problem in lots of other places. It is best to look out a little bit and think, even if you could only start in one area, think about how this problem might be solved in multiple markets,” Kozlowski says.
Founded in 2008 by Russian-born American entrepreneur Phil Libin, Evernote is today valued at over US$1bn. Evernote has a collection of apps that help users capture and save a wide variety of data including notes, audio, photos and web pages across all the devices they use. The company currently has 75m users worldwide, 800,000 of which are based in Africa.
“We were global right from day one,” says Kozlowski, adding that while entrepreneurs might be inspired to start a business to solve some of the challenges around them, they should seek ways to scale their operations.
“Start from the beginning thinking I am developing something that at least half the world, if not more, can use. Maybe I am going to start piloting it here, but go ahead and think what might be the further needs of other markets that you can address,” says Kozlowski.
“Don’t just say ‘we are a Kenyan company or we are a South African company’ because that automatically puts you in a mindset where you might develop something that you can’t scale to other markets. In working on the internet, the possibilities are limitless.”
Kozlowski says restricting a business to a particular country puts it at risk of becoming irrelevant due to increased competition.
“Limiting it to just one country… is not a good idea.”
The $1bn company that almost collapsed
Kozlowski advised entrepreneurs to be resilient and not waver in the face of difficulties. She recalled how “Evernote almost didn’t happen” because of financial struggles in its early days.
The company nearly collapsed during the 2008 global financial crisis but was saved by a “middle of the night funder” who happened to be one of its customers. The Swedish customer ended up investing $500,000 in the business.
“You have to keep trying. You have to keep pushing. You have to be really dedicated to this. Our initial VC story was not a great story. It was, you know, hey, there is a bunch of note taking applications out there and here is another one,” says Kozlowski. “I think it is important for everyone to… just keep going, keep looking and keep pushing and try to find new and unique ways to find funding that you need.”