6 Pieces of Advice for Starting a New Business in the Afri-sphere

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A reader, Vivi, is working on launching a dream project and wanted advice for budding entrepreneurs in the 'Afri-sphere'. As the blog gradually moves from focusing on providing creative inspiration to also providing business inspiration and resources, I thought I'd share my response to Vivi in the form of a post.

I often cannot believe that I'm 2 months away from my 4 year anniversary as a self-employed person. Asilia continues to work with exciting clients around the world, as well as to establish a niche in the Afri-sphere. I am grateful for this every day and as the time passes, I become more and more passionate about advocating for working for yourself.

 

Afri-what?

So what is this Afri-sphere? Well, Vivi introduced me to the term and, in my interpretation, it relates to products, services, consultancies and other offerings that are inspired by, informed by and/or targeting Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Specifically, Africans who are redefining their experiences, on their own terms, both within their communities and on the global stage.

The following are 6 important things that I've learned from my experience. I believe that they apply to most businesses, Afri-sphere and beyond:

 

1. Determine what success means to you

Before you do anything else, set a benchmark for measuring your progress. What do you want to get out of your business venture? And not only at the milestones but, on a day-to-day basis. Starting and running your business is potentially the most time-consuming activity you will ever undertake (I hear having kids may be a contender) – ideally, you want the long, challenging 'slog' to give you some kind of satisfaction too. Otherwise, you may struggle to remain motivated and push yourself and your idea to its full potential. That's why I doubt whether businesses created solely with money in mind ever really result in the satisfaction their owners expect.

 

2. Interrogate who your target audience is and give them what they want/need

Maybe you have a passion for something and you want to take it to the next level and make a living from it. You've got a product or service idea and you think it's great and that everybody should have or experience it. But do they want to? Do they need it? It's important to think about who will be consuming your offering and what they want out of it before you put your time, effort and money into it. Otherwise, you're in danger of pursuing a very expensive hobby! 

Ask yourself – are others already providing what you want to offer and how has their product or service been received? If no one else is doing it, ask yourself why this may be. Is there no market for it? Ask a trusted friend to play devil's advocate. Remember, it's not about dissuading you from going forward – it's about helping you to prepare and position your offering for success.

 

3. Raise the bar

I will go right out and say it – too many businesses in the Afri-sphere (actually, too many businesses everywhere) don't put enough thought, care and investment in design, service and presentation in general. There seems to be an assumption that people who want this product or service will patronize my business regardless. I don't have to bother about enticing them or treating them well. 

This kind of thinking closes us up to a myriad of opportunities. Opportunities to create better products and services, to build loyalty and genuine relationships with our customers, to increase our income and step closer towards financial freedom and to strengthen our industries. There are gains to be made for us individually, as well as for our businesses and our communities. 

Not to mention, it helps to challenge the assumptions of those who believe that we are not capable of doing great things (which of course we are). And those people I speak of, unfortunately, very often include… ourselves.

The point is this: your business may be niche but, if not merely for your own sense of pride, accomplishment and self-worth, do not aim to just do the thing – raise the bar and aim to do it the absolute best that it can be done. Don't merely compare yourself with your neighbours. In this connected world, your competitors could be thousands of miles away. Compare yourself with top performers worlwide. And then aim to go one step further than them. 

(For more along these lines, see Andrew Mugoya's popular guest post from a couple of years ago: "5 Reasons Why Ghana will be the Next African App Powerhouse")

 

4. Bring a fresh perspective

If you're doing something that others are doing, are you improving on their offering or adding a new and compelling twist? Your fresh angle may simply lie in the fact that, unlike your would-be competitors, you have actually considered the full experience that you would like your customers to have. From the first time they hear about your brand through to what happens after they have engaged with it.

Or you might have taken the time to find out what they're currently missing and address it with an improved offering or complementary add-ons.

My challenge to businesses in the Afri-sphere is to give us a fresh narrative. Compel us with a new spin on familiar things, showing us how these can add value to our present experience. 

Look for inspiration from others who have achieved this but, at the same time, don't be complacent with what has worked for others in the past. Challenge yourself and you'll create an even better product/service. 

At Asilia, when working on branding and identity design projects for Afri-sphere clients, we challenge ourselves to NOT use the obvious signifiers (e.g the silhouette of the African continent!). We ask ourselves: what other symbols and graphics can represent Africa or African experiences?

 

5. Let yourself shine through

Celebrate your uniqueness and let that shape your offering and the experience that you create for your stakeholders (customers/clients but also your staff, suppliers and wider community).

After all, that's what sets apart companies with comparable offerings. It's what makes you choose a quirky and therefore exciting brand over a reliable but boring mainstay. It's what makes artists such as Erykah Badu and Thandiswa Mazwai so memorable. It's what makes Apple so desirable over Microsoft which has traditionally been more of a household name.

Being yourself and being unapologetic about it makes it harder for others to compete on the same basis.

 

6. Keep innovating

You've decided, you've done your research, you've created something useful and novel and you're now open for business. Phew! Time to kick your feet up and watch the success build. Well, not quite. Once you put your offering out there, there are people who will copy what you're doing and some will strive to do it even better. Maybe they've been working on something similar for some time. After all, very few ideas are completely original. 

To remain in the game, you cannot be complacent. Constantly review what can be done better or differently; develop and share new thinking ('thought leadership' anyone?) and always go back to looking at your target audience, or even more preferable – talking to them, to discover how you can better serve them.

I'm guessing that your business is something that you're passionate about. If that is indeed the case, you'll be thinking of new ideas unprompted. My advice to you is to make sure you take that one step further and actually execute some of these ideas (this is something that I still struggle with – "too many ideas, not enough time" I lie to myself). Give shape to your ideas and be prepared for the fact that some may work and some may not. Whatever the outcome, you are bound to learn something new about your business, your market and most importantly, yourself.

 

Are you operating in the Afri-sphere? What important things have you learned about running your business?

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