ZOL CEO on the Startup Challenge
This article was written by ZOL CEO David Behr
Nearly 2 weeks ago, we had our first ZOL Startup Challenge final where 3 talented winners were chosen from a very strong field. Since then the dust has settled and a number of people have made comments on the Challenge and process. I thought I’d give some thoughts as the idea originator, main sponsor and one of the four judges.
Allen Mukwenha wrote an excellent critique on the 14th of September in Techzim, and many of the comments were very interesting. I’m glad to see so many opinions openly shared and discussed without fear or intimidation. Allen’s key criticism was that judging criteria were not clear to participants – and he is absolutely right – in fact I’d say the judging criteria were not clear to the judges either! To a large extent this is my fault and to fully understand this let me go back to my initial thought process of this ZOL Startup Challenge.
For a while I had been considering how ZOL can make more of a difference in the community – one more than just the cash value of what we already give to various community projects. I also have a passion of entrepreneurs and startups – after all I started ZOL with one desktop computer and two modems! I felt ZOL has good brand recognition and credibility and that if ZOL supported some startups it would be beneficial to raise their profiles and open doors that would otherwise be closed. I had also seen a UK show called Dragon’s Den, and thought it was quite a fun idea – although that show has judges that really invest in the startups for equity. Therefore the ZOL Startup Challenge was part Corporate Social Responsibility and part commercial – however it is important to note that ZOL gave the prices without taking any equity or other stake.
I found the whole event to be very rewarding and really opened my eyes to some of the incredible talent we have in Zimbabwe. My fellow judges also proved to be very insightful and asked probing questions. The TechZim team did a fantastic job in organising the event. I really hope we can raise more funds and have a second round and perhaps the ZOL Startup Challenge can become a regular fixture on the Zimbabwe IT calendar.
I would like to address some of the specific issues that have been raised by comments on TechZim – such as the “31 December 2010″ threshold date before which the business should not have existed. This was never communicated to any of the judges and was never discussed at any organiser meetings – and in fact it was never part of the formal “Terms and Conditions” which continue to be displayed, unaltered, on both the ZOL and Barcamp sites. It was mentioned in the Barcamp announcement, and went on to be wrongly incorporated in the the FAQs. Certainly this was an error and would have disqualified not only the winner but possibly the two runners up too – as well as many of the earlier round participants! To my knowledge no one was precluded due to this – and if someone did not enter due to this requirement I urge them to enter in our next round.
Questioning the teams about the idea being implemented before had nothing to do with uniqueness of innovation – in fact one of our judges coined the phrase “steal with pride” to indicate that we had no problems with someone gaining an idea outside of Zimbabwe, bringing it back home, modifying it for local conditions and launching it (assuming no Trademarks of Patents were violated). Judges asked this question in order to see if the entrepreneur knew the competitive landscape and, if the idea had worked elsewhere, why it was needed in Zimbabwe (given the global Internet there is no point in doing a local version of many applications) and how the local conditions would change the ability to replicate the success.
Judges debated the key criteria including giving the money to the “most deserving” or “safest bet” or to teams who had not already had a “chance in life” – which speaks to the CSR nature of the competition. In the end we felt the money had to go to the teams who would be most likely to succeed. In fact the ultimate question put to judges was “if you had $10,000 in your pocket, who would you give it to in order to get the best return on your investment”. Judges were asked to consider the backgrounds of participants so not just the “slickest” presentation won but rather try to balance it with all factors. Ultimately this was very subjective - if there was a simple scoring mechanism to judge startups then anyone would be successful at Venture Capital – unfortunately its not that simple – even very smart people who do this full-time get it wrong! The final decision was extremely difficult and caused a lot of heated debate amongst the judges. Ultimately the judges had to make a subjective call, and we each voted for the top three and final winner – the majority decision carried the day (it was not unanimous, but there was a majority).
Unsurprisingly a lot of criticism has been laid at the door of the winner – Mukela.com. The major “complaint” being that they used a $15 theme template. Did the judges know this? No. Would it have made a difference? Emphatically no! In fact if they had spent $3,000 developing a “pretty page” when there was a $15 template out there it would have counted against them. Cash flow or rather cash burn rate is critical in any startup and money should be spent where it makes the most difference. Mukela is about a lot more then just a pretty web page. The theme is the easy part – it’s like the colour and design of your front door – what really matters is what is going on behind the scenes where Mukela have found an unfilled niche in the region, with a solid backend, great team and strategic partnerships. People also seem to forget that kelanet.com is an integral part of Mukela.
Overall I am very happy to have launched this new initiative in Zimbabwe, and I hope we can continue it and improve upon the format with all the feedback we have received. I look forward to receiving more comments, but would ask you all to be constructive and not get personal. It’s impossible to please all the people all the time – especially in a competition that is inherently so subjective.
Well done to all participants for making such a great effort and especially to the winners – we expect great things from you to show you deserved the award.