Ambushing Wall Street and selling Africa over coffee-break
It’s the year 2012. If you happen to find yourself in New York’s financial district at some point, go to any random Wall Street coffee shop at around 10:30 a.m. You’re bound to spot a group of well dressed money men. Some will be speaking into cell phones, some will be tapping away at their ipads, some will be reading the paper, some will be in meetings, others will be having a chat with old friends. The posy of three to five men in their fifties is the table you want to go for. You can always tell if it’s a meeting or a regular coffee-break based on the atmosphere and their manner of talking. If they’re simply having a cup of coffee feel free to introduce yourself and ask to take a moment of their time. They’ll ask you what you’re selling. Say you’re selling Konza Technology City to investment managers (or whatever it is you choose really. The point of this article is that you can use this approach for pretty much anything).
“It’s not my job. It’s just something I do for fun over coffee-break.”
They’ll ask you what the hell that is and you’ll basically be in. Explain then bring up in casual conversation the topic of Africa as a potential mega-market for technology and you may be surprised at the level of passionate skepticism that remark will spawn. Debate will flame up and a verbal hailstorm of comparative statistical terms and figures will be rained upon you, some of them either skewed or outdated but most actually true. And because of it you may very well be left with no leg to stand on let alone defend ‘the dark continent’ to these moguls. But at the end of it all, say this:
“If you’re in the right industry, lack of development is not a problem. It’s an opportunity. When the English bumped into North America in the 17th Century they didn’t scoff at the lack of infrastructure and head back home to their paved streets and gas-lit cities. They stayed and built what was to become the largest economy on earth (a position it would retain for over a century). To the prudent investor, lack and scarcity are merely alternative words for ‘growth potential’. In today’s world development on all fronts is a fundamental need and if you can fulfill that need then you’re in business. If you’re in business then you’re making money and in business that is all that matters. Now in this case you’re coming in at the rocky ground floor to build the tower and what you realize is that things can only get better from this point forward. Land there with a prospectus in hand and you find out there’s nowhere on the planet that foreign investment is more welcome. Yes, the first few quarters will be rough and the shareholders back home may or may not lynch you at the AGMs but jump to year 3 when you have adapted to the systems, learned to play ball with the governments, done the sweating and laid the brickwork, studied the market, chosen a niche and created a loyal consumer base –all before your competition has even touched down at the airport- and all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so bad. Your hard work combined with the new environment and its unique set of challenges has given rise to a burst of innovation meaning you probably have a few new products, the revenue is flowing in from sources no one even knew existed before and the same shareholders are now smiling at you on their way to cashing dividend checks.”
There’ll be a pensive look on their faces. Keep going.
“Success in hard times depends on vision, guts and the ability to make the best of a bad situation. You see, it’s all about perspective – the sinking of the Titanic was a disaster of unimaginable proportions to the people onboard but it was a miracle for the lobsters in the ship’s kitchen. In 2008, global finance crashed and has been sinking ever since. All the businesses on board the unsinkable ship suddenly had to fend for themselves. The privileged few had life-boats and were found alive by the rescue boats; but almost all the others either froze to death in the water while trying to swim to shore or are washed up in remote islands living in caves and trying to recover. The lobsters however, are thriving on the sea bed beneath them feeding, growing and multiplying. The question is give a choice, which of the two would you prefer to be?”
It won’t necessarily change their minds by any standard but it will get some chuckles which means they may let you hang around longer if only to challenge your assumptions (never underestimate the power of a good metaphor). The chuckles aside, you will have made your point. It will get them thinking and for the simple reason that it is all 100% true …which is all well and good but in the present -as they shall tell you- the challenges are already very steep for people in their position. Almost too steep to take on any new ones which is also 100% true. In the current state of global financial crisis, most companies are finding their bottom line challenged by low consumer spending caused by rising inflation and plummeting incomes. Some market segments are worse hit than others with ‘essential goods & services’ (basic needs providers) managing to stay afloat by increasing prices while non-essential goods like leisure & luxury items take hit after hit even with shaved prices. The ripple effect means these companies can no longer afford to pay, leading to lay-offs which in turn lead to less money in the economy, translating to a further drop in sales since the unemployed can’t afford to go shopping anymore. It’s a vicious cycle and the worst part is that there is no definite end in sight. So far, the occasional light at the end of the tunnel has only turned out to be an oncoming train instead of an exit and the future is as uncertain as ever. Recovery from a depression usually means that most people are not living, merely surviving. The truth is that the general economic climate has people everywhere tightening their belts and the presiding thought pattern among consumers is ‘If I don’t need it to survive, then I’m not wasting money on it’ which in is hard to argue with. Just try convincing someone with credit card bills, a late mortgage, health insurance on the verge of being cancelled and unpaid college tuition for his/her kids to buy a vacation package or ‘invest’ in a new car. You’ll see what I mean. They know all this. It’s probably what they were complaining about before you interrupted the conversation so don’t waste time with it. Pick it up from there.
“If you look around, you’ll find that the most successful recoveries are being done not by companies struggling to regain the lost market, but by those daring to expand into new markets –in the case of tech companies, the mother of all new markets is Africa. Over a billion people, market-ready with trillions of dollars in GDP, literacy rates on the rise, embracing technology with the highest mobile penetration growth rate in the world with 65% of them (and counting) already owning mobile phones and only 15% of whom are direct internet users but over 65% of whom indirectly rely on the internet in one way or another every day. Interest exists, little indigenous competition (unlike in Asia) and massive space for expansion. And yet that is not the golden egg that Africa has to offer. The real X factor is in the minds of the innovators. They’re the real driving force behind the change that is going on and for the first time multinational corporations around the world are realizing the true value of this resource. The thing about Africa which makes it unique in the world is that ICT is not all you can do when it comes to ICT. Africans have developed this amazing ability to make mobile phones do these interesting and amazing things that no one had thought of before. They apply them to sectors of life that are industries apart and what’s more, do it elegantly.”
Rhetoric is good. It show’s vision. But you want to balance it out with realism and practicality.
“You have the money… Granted it’s not as much as it used to be or as easy to come by but instead of spending all of it on blowers to desperately fan a fire that may or may not die, why don’t you set aside some for matches and buy into the possibility of building another fire on the other side of the cave? That way if the first fire does go out, you’ll still have a place to huddle and keep warm after. More importantly, -if you stay warm and hence alive- you will still have the ability to re-light the first fire at some later point if you so wish. Diversification is the name of the game and this is where the gold rush is headed. The smart money arrives early so they can be the ones to set the rate for late arrivals. I know that conditions in Africa haven’t always been the most condusive but all that is changing – for real this time. Government is getting on board, legislation is on paper not in the pipeline, task forces are hard at work, tech imports are being zero-rated, professionals are training and re-orienting education, the skilled labor pool is growing, incentives are being waved around to woo investors, the population is embracing and integrating technology into a way of life… in other words, it’s all coming together. Slowly but surely. “
It’s obvious what reforms will do in the long term so they will ask you about the other stuff and what to expect in the short term.
“In 5 short years technology cities the likes of which you cannot imagine are going to start sprouting from the African savannah. Startups and multinational corporations will suddenly be neighbors and then you will see what African ingenuity in the right environment can really do. It won’t take long to get your attention. When you eventually go to visit you will land on a new runway, be driven on new roads to completely new hotels or apartment buildings where you will stay because of their proximity to the offices in the new business parks. You will notice that everyone has a mobile phone and you will witness people around you paying for shopping and cab rides with absolutely no cash and no plastic. It is on day two when you start to walk around and see what you can do to get in on the action that you will realize you have competitors you didn’t even know about heavily invested in the destination you’re about to recommend for data outsourcing. Then you will remember this conversation and kick yourself as you sit in your hotel room explaining the situation to your board back home via an internet connection facilitated by your competition.”
It’s a bit guerilla but it will do the job. You now have their attention. Hit them with the main summary. You’re talking to investment fund managers and at the end of the day it’s all about the numbers so give them some –time estimates, no cash amounts. You want them to go investigate for details themselves.
“Take Konza. It’s this billion dollar Tech city designed around an international business outsourcing center. They’re building through public and private investor buy in. If you get in early you could get your pick at pretty much anything but what you really want is to own a few buildings in the new ICT business parks. Renting the hottest new office space to multinationals will prove very profitable not to mention the long term advantages of a presence in East Africa. Place is growing rapidly right now, economy’s on the mend, HUGE entrepreneurship culture, regionalization is going on, lots of corporations migrating there, ICT is exploding… definitely the place to be. They’re talking functionality in 5 years, full establishment in 7 and if you play your cards right, full ROI (Return on Investment) in 10 – 12 depending on the scale of your investment. I’ve looked at the literature. It’s pretty awesome stuff. You guys should check it out.”
Write down the website on a piece of paper and slide it across the table to them. Do NOT have it on a card and DO NOT just happen to have a brochure with you. They’ll look at it and given there aren’t cards for each of them to take with them their professional mind will memorize it just in case it turns out to be useful information. People value information more when they imagine they have come across purely by chance and might loose it just as easily. In Wall Street, rumors at lunch have made and lost just as many billions as full days of office-work. And that’s it. You’re done. Don’t do any more pitching. Answer questions if they have any –just don’t get drawn into the details. Refer them to the website for any more info and once that’s sorted out, bring up something completely unrelated but happy. Like economic recovery and Wall Street being in the green again. This will probably eventually steer the conversation to politics and the election. Time for you to make your leave. Don’t sit in that chair over 25 minutes. They may or may not leave with you and they may or may not ask you for your card but that’s not too important (you won’t ask for theirs –this was just coffee with a bunch of random strangers- but if they give it be sure to accept. It’s a compliment.)
In all likelihood none of them will visit the website that day or the next but the seed of the idea has been planted and it will grow on its own. Let it be. If they gave you cards, don’t call to ask about it. Not for a least a month. Over the next few days all of them will suddenly begin noticing the word Africa popping off a page full of words and out of these one will start paying attention to News reports waiting for it to show up. Next time he has a bad day in the Middle East because Iran is acting up and the Saudi’s lost a pipeline pushing oil up to $130 a barrel and he finds out over lunch that China is investing dollar for dollar more in East Africa than the U.S. and all of Europe combined, the investment manager will remember your conversation. They’re not idiots so obviously there’s something there. He will put a research assistant on the region and check out the website you gave them. A hundred dollars says he likes what he sees but that’s promotional material. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Market the project. No real decisions are ever made on marketing but first impressions count. They’re what will keep him visualizing possibilities while research checks out the project. When the report eventually lands on his desk 2 days later and confirms what you said, he will call a board meeting by the end of the month (end of the week if there’s rumors of a competitor sniffing around the same project) and table it for discussion. At the meeting he will struggle to remember what you said to convince him and regurgitate as much of the phrasing as he can. If the board passes his proposal two hours later he will sit at his desk and a few minutes later make a call. Somewhere in Africa, a project manager’s phone will ring and on the other end will be an interested potential investor. Convincing them and seeing the deal through is someone else’s job. Your mission will have been accomplished the moment that call is made and by now, you’ll probably be 10 coffee-breaks down the line.
Post by @the_kageni_mind
Kageni Wilson (@the_kageni_mind) is an Innovator, Writer & Tech entrepreneur. He is the Founder & CEO of ionacloud (a free-to-use Personal Cloud Computer and virtual PC environment available at www.ionacloud.com). He lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya & is an avid Cloud and Africa 2.0 evangelist. You can reach him via twitter or email: firstname.lastname@example.org