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Portraits of Young Founders: Speaking from Malawi to London

This is the story of how two young entrepreneurs, Muhammad Altalib and Robert Smith, attempting to start a social enterprise in Malawi, leapt into the challenging task of founding a trans-continental business. They faced unexpected difficulties and obstacles from day one, and ultimately learned valuable lessons about starting a business in two very different countries.

It is also the story of two co-Founders: how they first met, how they grew to work together despite having naturally different perspectives; how they grew and matured together through one hardship after the next. It is a story of ultimately why they decided to close this chapter of their lives in search for something new. It is a story of success; or, in other ways, success derived from the acceptance of the failures, possibilities and limitations of their company.

In this Portrait, we explore the idea of starting a company with a co-Founder in an unfamiliar market, and map the relatively unexplored vicissitudes of how business can be run between these types of contexts: London and East Africa. In this first episode of Muhammad and Robbie’s journey, we’ll observe the process of the two co-Founders’ crystallising inspirations, and the frustrating disconnect between the Euro-American start-up theatre and the unfamiliar markets of East Africa our entrepreneurs were trying to work in.

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Muhammad Altalib

I grew up in a number of developing countries. My parents ran an NGO and we moved around a lot. My path ran across Malawi, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Although I did grow up with relatively privileged surroundings, I was never shielded away from the everyday lives of those around me.

I then came to the UK to study. Having always been into entrepreneurship, I focused a lot of my time cultivating this interest, especially given the fact that I was in London, one of the world’s start-up hubs. Because I was studying finance at the time, I was naturally led into FinTech. The latest technology at the time was blockchain, and I started interning at a blockchain startup trying to increase transparency within trade. Part of my role included looking at flows of goods between Africa and Europe. There I had my first spark of inspiration where I realised there could be a big business opportunity here: “Hey, I come from that part of the world; I never knew there was  so much trade flowing between these two continents Maybe I can combine my regional know-how with this latest technology [blockchain]?”

It’s a very vague origin-point for my entrepreneurial beginnings, but in a sense that’s where a lot of startup ideas come from.

From auras of inspiration to a clear idea

Muhammad: Months down the line, as I continued trying to find a potential opportunity, diving into different academic papers, and looking through online articles, I finally started coming towards a tangible idea: cocoa farmers in Ghana where struggling to make ends meet. There needed to be a better way to finance those farmers. What I wanted to do…[Muhammad visibly bashful] which I realise is quite a bad idea now, but at the time felt revolutionary, was to create something called Cocoa Coin. There’s huge demand for cocoa and chocolate-demand is always increasing. I was going to commoditise cocoa silos in Ghana by listing them onto a blockchain exchange that they can be traded. The idea was that you could finance farmers using the cocoa silos as an underlying physical asset, with blockchain allowing for increased transparency….

Yuji Develle: Why cocoa? From what you’re telling me, it seems like there was a jump from applying blockchain tech in Africa to focusing on cocoa. How much did you know about cocoa farming before embarking into entrepreneurial ideation?

Muhammad: That’s the other disadvantage of being so far from the actual problem, Yuji

I was sitting here in London, looking at commercial-figures; you know, commercial reports and papers. So what you have to expect is I was seeing information solely pertaining to what trade mattered to Europe. Naturally, those two things are cocoa and coffee, cocoa and coffee. So I chose cocoa, just as naturally as having never been to Ghana before. But I thought hey, Malawi, Ghana, what’s the difference?

I pitched this several times [In London] to tech developers in my effort to start bringing together a team. I focused on the problem of financing cocoa farmers, and heavily suggested the use of blockchain-exchange listed silos as a solution to that problem Naturally [the tech developers] were super passionate about it, as the project sounds exciting on paper.

These discussions gradually led me to start considering other solutions to our problem, because we were saying, okay, how can you actually predict what the future productivity of a farm is going to be? Well, hey, there’s a number of things we can do, we can look at weather patterns, extrapolate farm productivity from there l and then finance against that predicted productivity.

At this stage of building a start-up, you’re running, you’re running everywhere. You’re going to all the conferences, you’re going to get every paper, you’re following every other person on LinkedIn… and of course you don’t understand much of it.

I cobbled together diverse ideas from wildly different domains in order to make something work for me. King’s [College London], where I studied, has a really strong Geography department and they were kind enough to share some data I could work with, so I started there..

Yuji: So you had an idea to “coin” the cocoa industry, but realised you didn’t have enough live-data. So you then had the idea to design a data-collection device (IoT) that would be… distributed to the silos?

Muhammad: Exactly, as is often the case, we replaced a problem with another problem, without really solving the original problem! The problem was farmers are not getting financed. I needed to create that link between the farmer and the cocoa silos, in order for Cocoa Coin to work.

How could I create this link? Okay, you go to the farm and then you use a sensor.

So I joined the Robotics Society [at King’s College London] and we ordered a bunch of parts! When trying to build our own IoT device, my first co-Founder Marius entered the picture.

From an idea to a ‘pretotype’

Marius was an undergraduate Computer Science student at King’s. We met as rivals in a pitch competition, but came out seeing common ground around IoT. Together, we managed to build a mini prototype of a weather station.

 

Marius and Muhammad in front of their weather station prototype

Looks great doesn’t it? Well we were going to build this weather station and we were going to solve some really big problems. We were testing these devices “in the field” on some farms in the UK. On paper, they passed the tests and were cheap by UK standards, like £20 a-piece. But the actual on the ground solution was quite a way away…

Yuji: Why was that? When did you first realise that?

Muhammad: When I went to Malawi for the first time. There was the business model issues and the logistics behind installing the devices in-country:

  • How you can just stick a bunch of devices into thousands of farms across Ghana?
  • How do you maintain these devices?
  • How do you make sure the guys respond to pings at this or that farm, and then chuck the device out when it’s no longer of the day?
  • How do you ensure accuracy of the data and in sync with both season (macro) and daily (micro) patterns?
  • How do you make sure the devices are valuable to farmers, while also preventing them from stealing the device, and you know, using the scrap metal?

All these thoughts would go through my head and they just didn’t match? It finally came down when we actually went to Malawi like wow, we were really in our own world, weren’t we?

But regardless, for all that happened, this seemed like the first viable solution. I could actually pitch something tangible and we won a few startup competitions.

Pitching the pretotype

I pitched that idea to the first important character of our story, Stefan.

Yuji: I just want to note Robert’s face of disapproval here for the tape!

Robert Smith: Sorry, Stefan is a pompous white guy. It’s okay, you can take it on the record; it’s fine, and true.

Muhammad: Anyway, we pitched our idea through to the final pitch stage, and I managed to get to Stefan, who is known as a Professor of Practice at the King’s Entrepreurship Institute: this is his official title.

Stefan was known to be somebody who was very direct, and at six-foot-five, very imposing. I think he’s a great guy, and obviously a fantastic business man, but his demeanor can come across as intimidating.

So I went in with this

mindset

and within a few minutes…we got into a shouting match!

Yuji: Why?

Muhammad: It was just my dumb luck that Stefan has a huge charity in Malawi and just so happens that I was pitching my idea for Malawi! And so he sort-of grinded me a lot harder than he was grinding everybody else.

Robert: Look, to my knowledge, he’s been on the board of a charity there. But it’s never been beyond listening to reports from people that work in the charity there, nor has he really been involved in the direct management of the day-to-day, but he knows a lot about Malawi, I’m sure.

Yuji: I ‘think’ I can get the profile here. You know, in London, we have a lot of people who are Africa experts, who have not yet settled there. What was this shouting match about?

Muhammad: Basically, you’re pitching. He asks you a very direct question, and he says, you’re wrong. I argue with him. No, I’m right, No you’re wrong. Everybody else in the room just sort of kept quiet while we were both pouring our angry passionate defences out. Very fun experience.

I think here I learned a first important lesson. I came out of there my blood boiling and a bit disheartened because I thought that I might have blown the pitch by being so combative with Stefan. But then to my surprise, I actually did win the Changemaker Award at Idea Factory!

Muhammad (middle) at the House of Lords at Westminster Parliment for the King’s College London Idea Factory

When you’re in the weeds fighting for your start-up idea, it can seem like your making no progress or that no one believes in you. The moment you realise someone actually believes in your idea, it can come as a sudden realisation.

This provided such a boost in me that it encouraged me to dive into this project full-time and begin putting a team together. I started bringing-in a bunch of other people, we became a team of five very quickly; all university students, working for free

This was also a period of us actively participating in the startup competition circuit: UCL had a competition, Cambridge had one, and many, many different competitions I tried to sneak into.

And it’s generally a very exciting time, because you’re not actually doing anything, you’re just pitching this grand vision, which nobody actually knows much about besides that what you’re doing is something fantastic and amazing and great!

As naive as it is, and as oblivious as I was, it’s actually a good thing for entrepreneurs to be involved in this circuit because it means that you’re motivated enough to actually push yourself. It’s a necessary step on the path to actually carry-on with your company and your startup.

Robert: So there is this education that people in the UK startup scene receive, you know when you’re launching a startup:

  • You have to start-off by coming up with a good idea
  • You have to solve a problem that you’ve defined, you know, find a problem to solve online and find a way to solve it.
  • You have to pitch for investment, based on “valid assumptions” and market research.

But no moment of actually trying to sell your product in the region where it’s supposed to operate in.

Muhammad: It’s true. I think it’s slightly different depending on who you are:

  • If you are an industry veteran, those are the general steps you take, because you know your department well enough.
  • If you are not an industry veteran, which a lot of young entrepreneurs are not, which I was not, I mean, I lived in Malawi, I didn’t actually know much about the industry and know much about farming or about any of those things, then it’s a little bit different. Because then you have to actually figure it out for yourself, using third parties as research-aides of sorts.

When you’re in this period of excitement, the honeymoon period, you will be naive and people like to shoot you down and be cynical with you. But it’s very positive, because it means you’re still in a motivated state. I was very excited. This state of mind allowed me to do things that I probably would not have done in other circumstances; such as jumping on a plane as a broke student to Malawi.

Resulting from our onslaught of competition applications, we were accepted to the King’s Accelerator (a 12 month incubator program) and to the Cambridge (University) incubator (a 3 month incubator program). Things were looking good on paper, but I kept-on thinking that I can’t just be sitting here in London. I mean, they’ve given me all these educational seminars and it means nothing. Reading research papers means nothing, you have to get out and into the field!

That said, joining an accelerator is a big milestone. I already talked to my parents and got their full backing, and decided to pursue Seedlink as a full time business after my university. I’m going to use my savings [to live off of].

Yuji: Was that difficult? I mean, pitching a largely unprofitable venture such as entrepreneurship to your parents can be difficult.

Muhammad: No it wasn’t actually. I suppose it depends on what mindset you are in; I had a positive mindset focused on the big potential of my work. And it wasn’t just because I was and am privileged, although my parents were willing to give me enough funding to allow me to survive the year at least.

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So I kick-off the King’s Accelerator program, one of twenty start-ups in a very fancy evening set-up to put you at the centre of attention, introduced to all the companies. It was a big cocktail party on the top floor of Bush House in Central London, which is the fanciest building at King’s. They had invited speakers and successful entrepreneurs, and they come to ask you: “oh, what’s your idea? What are you doing?”. You have a little stand, with your pamphlets and demos. It’s followed by drinks at the student bar. Of course, at this point I already knew I was leaving for Malawi.

So I’m there thinking: How will I be part of two accelerators (in Cambridge, at King’s) and also in Malawi?

At the Cambridge Accelerator, they needed you to be there in-person for the first few sessions. I had been accepted **to this exclusive program and they obviously rejected a bunch of other people and startups.

So on this night at Bush House, the stars somehow aligned. I find the three people who I thought could represent me in Cambridge while I’m in  Malawi.

  • Person A was Robbie. I didn’t know him too well but I did know that he was doing something really cool and exciting with his previous startup, Development United, which was based in Haiti. So he was definitely a potential candidate.
  • Person B was Ryan. A close friend who I had start-up discussions with in the past.
  • Person C was Ellis. I met him on the day-of and he was building his own startup to be based in Ghana.

So I’m here on this November night and leaving for Malawi in two weeks, I have nobody to take over in Cambridge, and I’m desperately looking to find someone and the three people I think would be best suited are all in one place tonight.

I drag all three of them out of the bar and we go to some Indian restaurant next-door after convincing them to have  dinner together.

I don’t know what I should have expected but, initially, Robbie was completely disinterested. He’s like, “Why is this guy wasting my time?” I think he was smoking a cigarette, much like he is now.

Ellis is very interested, but also I’ve just met him on the night.

Robert: Yeah, I stood behind the bar and I was like “Maybe you’ll see me a little later? Who knows?”

Yuji: Little did he know that he was gonna follow Muhammad all the way to Malawi.

Robert: Mistake one was going to the dinner.

Muhammad: Yeah, exactly. Anyway, so we have dinner, and I try to pitch them the idea.

Again, Robbie is not very interested, Ellis is trying to learn more and Ryan wants to go home soon. When I finished weaving the threads of my Seedlink idea and my proposal to have someone I trust go to Cambridge on my behalf, Robbie switches on and comes out of his drunken stupor; suddenly he’s very serious.

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Robert Smith

Robert: Substance does that.

So Muhammad’s original idea that this is Development, and that in itself is really interesting, because my initial hesitation almost was exactly that it was Development…which in my opinion, is not really what business should be doing. Not in the sense that business is not a practical solution but in the sense that development means so many things to so many people.

Then if you want to actually apply development to a business context, nobody really knows what the hell you’re talking about. So it also often comes with just huge, you know, basically white-supremacist notions that Euro-America is responsible for fixing the world, which reifies colonialism…it’s great. That’s its contemporary form, as well.

It points to a larger context of the startup industry in London that we were finding a place within to make a relevant project. Where if you want to do social enterprise, particularly not within Euro-America, particularly within a place that does not have white people, then this is framed as like a development type project, right. You’re performing the grandeur of ‘social’ entrepreneurship in ‘Africa’ — wherever that is anyways, which is very problematic in itself.

And this leads to a problem of translation, every time that we would do something in Malawi, no one knows what the fuck we’re talking about. Because, you know, the business of Malawi is not going to be the same as what you would expect on Canary Wharf. It just doesn’t work that way.

There’s that frame. This is the context, we’re kind of negotiating with and kind of finding our place within it. I think the majority of the time, especially at the undergraduate level in universities, it’s for predominantly privileged people to try out ideas that are not fully fleshed out.

That is the essence of privilege. You cannot do that in Malawi. A lot of them don’t have the funds, but we get that in Euro-America and that is pretty different.

So when Mohammed uses the word industry veteran, which is really interesting because by industry veteran that basically means that you have had the opportunity to float your ideas around a million different ways with the funds. At which point now you can actually even understand what a business model is. Right?

So yeah, my initial skepticism when I was talking to him, and it was, most of what he was telling me up into that point was just hype hype, hype, hype hype, right; fair enough.

Then Muhammad actually made a tangible business proposal, with a use-case and value with the business proposal, a product and the customer, which was very far from the initial kind of material technology device that he was proposing. It was now a [B-2-B-2-C] type service in itself. It was a logistic operation, right? At least we got there.

So yeah, I heard that and I was intrigued.

Joining a start-up accelerator

Muhammad: Cambridge in itself was interesting, because this connects exactly to the context that I was trying to lay out before on an obsession with using material technology to “solve” Africa’s problems.

Robert: Muhammad was accepted to Cambridge on this material technology device, this irrigation management system, whatever. So I showed up the Cambridge with this new business proposition, this logistics operation, you know, we want to do in Malawi, and they kind of looked at me like, “What the hell are you talking about? This is not what we accepted here. What are you doing?”

This is not the business that Mohammed gave us, you are a double imposter.

They were very close minded and weren’t that helpful. They did not appreciate the fact that we regressed, took a step back and rebuilt the business proposition according to what we thought would be useful in Malawi.

 

 

The crew at Cambridge
Robbie (left) showing off his Cambridge access card
Muhammad (right) sharing his insights with the rest of his, focused, crew

On the actual functioning of Cambridge: It was almost inappropriate for us in a way. The way it works is you have sessions and you have training sessions specific to whatever module (marketing etc.). You also have one-to-ones with specific mentors and are supposed to be making progress each week.

We were developing ideas and at this point Muhammad is really doing the basic ground-research. And also, the problem of translation came up on the daily given that most mentors had close to exclusively-UK startup experience.

Muhammad: Yeah. Cambridge was like the epitome of that kind of mindset. So how we actually got invited to Cambridge, was when I went to a weekend hackathon in Cambridge on food security.

**Robert: …**and they liked you ‘cos you were in Tech.

Muhammad: At a hackathon, you basically spend the weekend coming up with potential solutions to a set problem.  Our team came up with the  problem of quality control in the cocoa supply chain.. Our solution was a  swab, you could use to quickly test the level of pesticide in a bag of cocoa and determine whether it passed quality control checks. And that’s the idea we pitched at the hackathon and won.

The thing is, at a hackathon, you tell them what the problem is and what your solution is. Both are constructed by yourself. So when I started exploring the solution we came up with further, it didn’t turn out to be a very practical solution.When we came up with the farmer financing and logistics model, that proved a lot more logical.

So after winning the hackathon and being invited to Cambridge, Robbie goes up there instead of me with this new idea of Seedlink, not the idea I originally pitched to get in.

And you know the reactions all around were… since when did Muhammad become a white guy? There was one person, who was our main mentor and who got us into the programme, I think he very much liked the idea that I (originally) pitched him, despite it being completely constructed by myself, and not very realistic.

He was just a little bit salty about it. I think.

Yuji: So is that the result of a certain ideological orientation, around prizing engineering tools?

Muhammad: I’m not sure exactly, I think everybody would say they basically live in ivory towers. I mean, that’s a little bit of exaggeration, obviously, they don’t actually do that, but there is a bit of a disconnect. And they could not appreciate that you have to pivot if you’re on the ground. I think people in Cambridge are very traditional. They’re very much engineering-focused. After all, Cambridge is a hardware engineering hub.

I still remember this. Didn’t they tell you (Robbie) once: “Why are you doing this in Malawi? I just read this thing on Malawi saying that it was second most dangerous country in the world.”

Robert: It was so ridiculous. [The traditional institutions] want to support this idea with technology, but not when it’s actually like a tangible logistics business, which will do a hell of a lot more to the economy in general. Now you’re going to pull the Corruption Index, like a pretty irrelevant statistic, which you never actually used before, to tell me it’s not ‘safe’ to work there. There was no fetishised ‘Corruption Index’ when we were into tech.

Yuji: I guess what they’re trying to say is, you know, they’ve got economic models they’ve developed and those don’t work in countries with an environment different from what they are used to testing.

Max Gorynski: Metrics like the Corruption Index tend to be very enthusiastically used by large American consultancy firms. From what I understand their appraisals of these kinds of situations are, “Well, if we invest in this small venture, what is the subsequent likelihood that we’ll be able to entice stakeholders from the States to come and invest in this place?”

Robert: So ROI is not with respect to Malawi but in respect to global capital markets?

Max: Precisely.

Robert: You know, these mentoring sessions for Cambridge were held on a Thursday. Yuji, you went to King’s (King’s College London) right?

Yuji: I went to Kings, yeah.

Robert: Okay great, so you know that sports night on Wednesday usually goes quite late (note: this is an understatement).

Yuji: Walkabout Wednesdays

Robert: I would then have to get a train the next morning. So I mean, the interest really just went down rapidly as I saw intellectual ROI diminishing and sports night ROI increasing.

Muhammad: Basically, yeah.

How did you run a team across two continents?

Muhammad: Keeping a team motivated and engaged is one of the hardest parts of running a startup. It’s a skill you have to pick up, and one I wasn’t super good at when I first started building out our team. Add to this the fact that I was trying to manage two teams with very different work cultures across two continents. To give credit to the accelerators, this is a skill they try to build up in you.

Yuji: It’s also what people should do to get the job done, and then also getting them hooked on actually getting the job done…like managing and engaging, right?

Muhammad: My solution in the early days was to bring on people who were intrinsically motivated and give them the freedom to select roles they thought they were best suited for. This did mean we initially had a turnstile of people joining and leaving, but eventually the right people settled.

I will say that even then we had people floating around who were not too engaged. It takes a very specific kind of person with ’founder’ qualities which very few people have. I think that’s the biggest reason why Robbie and I clicked.

Finding and managing a team in Malawi was a whole other story. It was a big culture shock to me. The mindset I had come with was one of workplace equality, where there is no ‘boss’ and where each team member is given the freedom to select their role. The people in Malawi did not like that, and this quickly became apparent when they very directly told me that I need to start telling them what to do. To them, giving them the ‘freedom’ to choose their tasks was extra responsibility, and instead they wanted to be given a well defined task that they could complete and get paid for. It felt very transactional to me at first, but I quickly got the hang of it as whenever I would slip and not provide a task, they would take advantage of that and slack on the job.

So it was interesting seeing the dichotomy of work cultures between the UK and Malawi and having to switch to very different managerial roles whenever I was addressing a specific team.

Muhammad (right) with Paul (Middle) and Mkandawire (Left) part of the Seedlink Malawi team.

Yuji: So if I hear this correctly, despite the obvious difficulties associated with running a multi-continental operation and being away from your core team, as well as all of the downsides of staying in the Cambridge incubator, you still saw the value of having Robbie in Cambridge and not in Malawi?

Muhammad: I mean the whole reason why I spent all this effort to get Robbie to go to the mentor sessions, which I knew were kind of useless, was to keep Cambridge happy.

We had our reputations in London, along with the financial and investment might that the City holds with its banks and institutions, at stake. We needed to keep stakeholders in Cambridge and KCL (King’s College London) happy.

The importance of the London accelerator scene

How were these stakeholders benefitting your business?

Muhammad: It was several factors. Ideally, you want the best of both worlds (London and Malawi). London has a lot of resources.

Firstly, they have technical talent. Your mindset there is also very much an innovative mindset. You keep your mind open, you always see new ideas and new technologies, and you’re always very broad. London also has the capital that we would need if we wanted to scale the business.

In Malawi, you get very engrained with the day-to-day running of the business. So even though London [has] its technology, it has no context to apply that technology to. When I combine the two that’s kind of my unique selling proposition (USP). This is why it was always important for me to keep this bridge between London and Malawi. That was the biggest reasoning behind keeping both stakeholders happy.

Robert: You need to make a distinction between the institutions and the individuals.

As institutions, both Cambridge and King’s are nearly useless, as evidenced in people’s responses of us trying to go to Malawi. That said, we learned some skills relevant for London, but these were not relevant for Malawi. No one would listen to what happened there.

“No, why would you go into the place you’re trying to do business?” Well, why do you think?

The only thing an institution will give you are a few formal settings where you can pitch and potentially receive funds. That’s what you get from these accelerators.

Now, individuals are important. So within each of these places, like London, there were a few individuals. I think calling up Mark Corbett was very important because he was a huge development for us in many ways. Individuals that can actually sit down with you and be open-minded to what you’re saying. They are extremely important. It’s having the willingness and faith to give time. Mark had that.

And listen. I mean, Mark, on his computer had posted, always this sticky note, “ABC”: always be closing. It’s very just at the core of what the business needs to do, you need to sell, you need to get your ROI and you have your sustainability.

Other people bound by their dogmatic accelerator-approach thought that if you went to enough marketing sessions you’d somehow find the path to a sustainable business. In Malawi? It’s not how it works.

Mark would actually sit down, listen to what’s going on, and really tried to analyse the structure of the business to understand where sustainability comes, what’s the plan to get there, and how to maximise it at its fullest potential. Mark did not bind himself to how London said it should work but listened to how it actually worked from our experiences. This is one of the most essential skills to run a successful and ethical business.

It’s not being dogmatic, arrogant, or pompous. It’s not requiring us to translate. It’s not requiring us to sanitise the business realities of Malawi for this normalised vision of what business should be in London. That’s why he we had such good conversations with Mark, he didn’t require that.

If you go down the same path as we did, you will see that there are these people like Mark who provided some sense of community. But they were few and far between.

Is there something from this period of incubation in London that you took with you to Malawi and actually worked?

Muhammad: I would say, less so for Malawi because that was a very different context and more so for startups in general.

I mean, this was the kick-start of my career within startups, because it gave you the startup ecosystem. It gave you access to the community, it gave you office space in central London, it gave you pitch events to go, you were entrenched in the startup community.

I pitched loads of times! If I look at the first time I pitched compared to last time… I could probably pitch anything to you right now.

A lot of times a pitch veils what’s actually going on in your business because you create the context of the problem, and then the context of the ideal solution…but it convinces people and it’s a sales strategy that works.

After the community and pitching practice, the best part about Cambridge, King’s and all these other places: they were absolutely free. They charged me nothing and I did not need to sacrifice equity for their support of my business.

So there really is little I can be complaining about if you’re looking at this as a function of money or return on investment.

Robert: London taught you theatre, right?

Robbie and Muhammad at a pitch event

This is what this was: pitching is a performance.

It’s the most disconnected thing from the reality of business the majority of the time. But that performance creates hype, hope, aspiration, and it creates affect, right?

You have this affectual resonance, you feel inspired, you feel competent.

Muhammad in pitch-mode

This is what London teaches you.

Muhammad puts it in a positive way, but he’s a bit more pragmatic in the sense that realistically you do need to know these things to accrue funds in Euro-America, right?

But I’m also in the position that if you’re accruing funds from people that want you to dance on stage, rather than actually have a genuine conversation about your business, then these are not the people that you should be accruing funds from.

You could also imagine a different type of startup environment where you can be honest about your business, and then even the people that we have worked with, I mean, these people like the opposite of those in your big regal Bush House (literally the most expensive building in London).

I hate it (Bush House). I tried not to go there unless I had a meeting with someone. We’re talking about getting other people motivated, you kind of have to like feed them this potion (the potion of ‘regality’ and elitism).

So imagine a world where you don’t have to do that. Imagine a world where you don’t have to dance. You don’t have to motivate people by lollipops.

What if it’s really just about the business and what you’re doing?

It’s a bloody shame. This is why the majority of young people are going to start-up something, steal, and get on this hype-train to get the fame of running a startup. “I’m 21. I’m a CEO.” Oh ouhlala!

Yuji: Well, it’s a sort of fantasy right? The millennial fantasy of leapfrogging your career by becoming a Founder of something. An illusion for yourself, telling yourself that you’re better… than the little fish at big companies.

Muhammad: Yeah, I totally agree. Actually, I think there are two problems. When you think  of the people that are running accelerators ,they are marketeers, not business people. Many have not even run a startup before.

That means that on the whole, they’re looking for status.

So they don’t want you to tell them that “my business is not doing well” they will ask you questions like  “how many users do you have?”. So they can put that nice little statistic in their marketing brochures about how “our startups have raised this amount of money.” “Our startups have this many users” and everything is going great.

If you don’t report the right statistics to them, no matter how relevant to your business, they’ll see you as a failure.

Robert: We obviously don’t have the same metrics of success.

Muhammad: I mean, they’re not thinking very long term. I find investors are sometimes digging their own grave, because they always talk about the principal agent problem. Startups are not showing the right information, but at the same time, they create the context that startups are pushed towards doing that, and as Robbie said, dancing on the stage.

Robert: Theatre, startup is theatre, everything’s a performance.

Yuji: Yeah. So basically, you ask, ‘How do I get the girl?’ And then they told you how to dance. But then you find out she doesn’t really like dancing.

Muhammad: Yeah.

Max: The whole theatrical experience of startup culture, there’s a kind of maniacal optimism around everything. Quite often, even in terms of how even the really difficult parts of it are contextualised, there tends to be this kind of mania for for every single aspect of the process, and very little of it is ever appraised in any way other than in the most positive possible terms. That you should be so frank with us about it is highly valuable.

Robert It’s important to say this is not a critique of innovation, because that’s the response to this: people will say that innovation is actually a solution to all social problems.

But what do you want out of innovation? In reality, we have most of the solutions, right? If you really want to fix this food logistics problem in Malawi, you don’t need innovation, you need political, economic analysis. Famine does not have to exist in the world. There are enough resources, and we should not be fooled for a second that this is anything other than a political choice.

You need funding from the government. National and international commitment to goals that are defined by common people, not global governance. That’s not on the table within the private sector. You can have government collaborations, but that’s very different than actually having governments commit to funding and prioritising things. Innovation, whatever that actually means, only really goes so far.

Look at the number of startups that actually sustain themselves in East Africa, outside of Nairobi, it’s small! So, you know, innovation is not a solution.

It’s a theatrical performance for which we enjoy. We enjoy it! And that is the colonialist aspect of the present, just like colonialists enjoyed resource extraction we are enjoying the hype of innovation, you know, only accomplishing so much. So Muhammad and I did enjoy it. But we learned that we, and especially London, needed to think farther.


Thanks for reading Part 1 of a multi-part Portrait of Young Founders Muhammad Altalib and Robert Smith. In Part 2, we will jump into Mo and Robbie’s time on the ground in Malawi and how they faced the realities of being an entrepreneur in East Africa.

Yuji Develle

Yuji Develle

An inspired political technologist with a management consultant’s workflow, his gift lies in creating ecosystems where people and ideas can move from a whiff of inspiration to a firestorm of actionable opportunities. He is a strategist and networker, building the Wonk Bridge vision with its ever-growing community. His clear and evidence-based writing on deeply seeded social and political issues will help you unlock a new perspective.