What really is the African narrative? Why do outsiders still perceive Africa as a country? Who should be telling the African story- the West or African youth? Recently, I was fortunate to grab dinner with a number of African scholars originating from countries spanning Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, Congo, and Zimbabwe. As we shared with each other our respective experiences living and traveling across the United States, the aforementioned questions seemed to be at the forefront of discussions. As we also shared our experiences, one scholar mentioned how foreign students in her school once inquired about her supposed pet lion. In addition to her professor chiming into this flawed perspective, he proceeded to share with the class videos of sub-Saharan Africa painted through a prism of disease, starvation, corruption, poverty, and war.
Mind you, Africa is a continent that has birthed approximately 1.2 billion people and pioneered innovations across every imaginable industry today. This is why I was so excited to chat with Co-founder Jesse Ghansahof OMG Digital; a platform launched out of frustration of the lack of genuine, relatable, and exciting local content available across the African continent. In brief, OMG Digital was started as a way to publish content that African millennials would love to consume. The goal of the company is simple; to develop and grow dedicated, loyal and fanatical audiences through their engaging brands, which includes OMGVoice, Servepot, Bitnode, and Bloomtent. Dubbed as the “Buzzfeed of Africa,” OMG Digital recently raised 1.1 million to catapult their impact in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. My conversation withJesseuncovers his entrepreneurial journey.
What’s your life philosophy?
I strive to be as kind as possible to other people because life can be very tough. In any way you can, you should extend help to others at all times and not expect anything back. It’s important to be selfless and to be kind to people.
What’s something you do every day that is non-negotiable for you?
One thing I cannot go without every day is reading. I try to read either a novel, an article, or a research paper every single day. I believe it’s the most convenient form of increasing your knowledge base when trying to learn something new in the span of half an hour.
What are the formative ingredients in your childhood that came to create your perspective?
I’m heavily influenced by my dad, who is an engineer by profession. Based on the nature of his work and my curiosity, I grew up reading a lot of science fiction and very old books focused on philosophy, such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, engineering and physics.
What do you consider to be one of the greatest challenges and setbacks for developing businesses in Africa?
Comparing the entrepreneurial ecosystem across Africa to Silicon Valley, I realize that we - African entrepreneurs - have to deal with a lot of tangential problems that isn’t tied directly to our work. I spend 70% of my time sweating over things like internet and power. Startups in the valley don’t really need to worry about that. Dealing with so many problems unrelated to your business leads to a lot of time, energy, and resources being wasted which could have been invested in the main business. Other challenges include funding. A number of businesses have to be very shortsighted because you have to figure out a way to sustain your business. It’s difficult to build a Snapchat in Africa because it had to operate for over 7 years before generating any revenue while entrepreneurs on the continent worry about revenue in the shortest possible time frame.
When you think about how you built your company, how much do you think was your skills, intelligence, and talent and how much do you think was just luck?
I wouldn’t put a direct metric. I know a lot of luck was involved because so many things had to fall in line to get to where we are right now. Sometimes we just wing something new and it just works out. That’s a factor of right timing and luck.
If someone is trying to start a business and has no money or no connections - just an idea - what is the one thing they need to have or focus on?
If you plan is to build a scalable company, just start where you are and try as much as possible to build relationships with other founders who have raised money and have experience with building teams. Eventually, those connections can become highly valuable, which then positions you to attract funding when you build a product that is valuable. In 2015, I had no connections to investors however, I kept going to events and meeting people, putting myself out there, and applying to different accelerator programs. What I really needed to do was focus 80% of my time building my startup as opposed to worrying about funding. As a matter of fact, I’ve realized that a number of founders believe going to a networking event will help them in the future when deep down, they are just refraining from facing the difficult problems in their respective companies.
There are a tremendous number of opportunities on the African continent. How do you stay focused on your journey?
There are indeed a lot of opportunities, however, I think for some ideas and products, the market is very much in the early stages and might take anywhere from 2 to 3 years to really develop. So the question is, how do you sustain yourself to get to the point where your market is ready for your product or service? Assuming you are building a consumer brand, you are dealing with subscriptions, transactions, and purchases. And right now, it’s increasingly difficult for consumers to make payments. Even Konga had to be sold because they were bleeding a lot of cash. Alternatively, if you wait for the market conditions to be ideal, that wouldn’t be smart. You have to operate now so you can gain valuable insights that help you build when the market is ready. Once the market is ready, it wouldn’t be too difficult for them to excel because of their brand recognition.