Thursday, October 30, 2008

An entrepreneur's adventure: Part I

I frantically clawed at the dirt with my free arm, hoping for a jagged rock I could hold, a branch, a tuft of grass ... anything. My left arm hanging from a protruding tree root was weakening and hot from lactic acid. The warm blood sliding down the inside of my elbow felt almost cool to the strained muscles. I could still feel the frames of my glasses on my face, "at least I haven't lost those" I thought. But the glasses were of no use now, it was dusk, for me the hardest time to see.

"Shika hio mti, Harry", a voice fell from above. I strained and turned my head up. Although I couldn't see him, I knew Collin was there. He must have been petrified, already feeling the unbearable guilt he would have to bear for putting his nephew in a life and death situation. "Heh heh", I managed a chuckle, imagining the comic expression on his face right now, his face wasn't suited to tragedy.

"What" I scolded myself back to reality. I was making fun, and certain death was waiting for me 200 feet below unless I did something now. I turned my eyes up again. I could now see the extended tip of the branch poking through the uneven face of cliff. This was it, there was not going to be an easy way out of this situation. I couldn't think my way out of this mess, no time to come up with any fancy gizmos, no chance to code a solution in visual basic.

I figured if I missed grasping the branch with my right arm the momentum to bring up my arm would almost certainly make me lose the grip with my left arm. But I was past tired and I didn't know how much longer that left arm could hold. Would this be the end of my journey as an entrepreneur? Would all the ideas and hopes for starting up business come crashing down with me, from this bleak, cold and wet cliff face.

"Come onnnnn!," I muttered under my breath, psyching myself. I looked up again at the branch, I can do this I thought. I moved my dangling legs closer to the cliff face, in case I missed I wanted them to be where I could easily get something to step on to slow down the fall. Knowing that I couldn't wait any longer I let out a yell, channeling all my ki into a swing and stretched out my right arm towards the saviour branch...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thinking in Black and White

I recently joined a group called toastmasters, whose objective is to help its members improve their speech-making abilities. Here is my first speech called the icebreaker, that is supposed to introduce me to the other members.

Thinking in Black and White

Madame toast master, fellow toastmasters and guests.

My form two English teacher was Ms. Koch, an American with a Belgian ancestry. She asked us to call her Ms. K as her name did not lend itself easily to pronunciation by an African tongue. During one group session where we could move around the class interacting with other students and the teacher she asked me what kind of writing I liked most. Wanting to give an impressive answer I furrowed my brow a while and replied “creative writing”. Ms. K reflected on my response, and I smugly awaited praise for my clever answer. “But Harry” she replied “all writing is creative.”

I stood there feeling dumb, my smugness worn down by her simple logic. I half-grunted, half-mumbled to acknowledge her correction, and quickly shuffled away. She smiled patiently after me, as a teacher who knows more than her student would.

She was right of course. Writing to me was creative and fun. I had started writing outside school at an early age. Sometimes it was a story, but more often it was just a random jumbling of ideas that I wanted to see in paper.

Writing was a behaviour I picked up from my environment; I grew up surrounded by publications and journals written by my lecturer father and scientist mother. While I was still in primary school I remember being punished many days for running around and generally causing a ruckus while they worked on a paper or thesis.

My mother would sometimes ask me to proof-read her writing, perhaps not so much because she believed a 10 year old could really edit a scientific paper, but because she probably knew I easily got bored and the task would help me stay out of trouble or noisemaking. Proofing had a secondary and more lasting effect. I came to appreciate communicating difficult concepts in my mom’s simple, orderly writing. Scientific ideas were broken down into understandable points and even with fourteen-lettered words, the meaning came across clearly.

Academic journals and books formed a large part of our modest home library and took precedence over most other forms of entertainment. I remember one holiday, my father coming home with many large boxes. I jumped around them excitedly as he opened them thinking that he had finally bought a VCR and colour TV, so that I didn’t have to go to Robert’s place to watch movies. It turned out that he had purchased 3 sets of encyclopedias; over 70 books with tens of thousands of pages of text.

Over time, I came to realize that this was his greatest gift ever. The information between those pages helped me immensely with my thinking and writing. I was able to reference others’ knowledge and improve my writing. The articles showed me the form that well researched writing could take, and provided an incredible catalyst to generate more ideas and thoughts.

I am not surprised therefore that I eventually ended up as an entrepreneur. Business provided me with a testing ground for my thoughts. Not only did I have to channel my ideas into reasoned business plans, but I would have to test them out in the real world and determine their viability. Making money was obviously an added benefit.

I began my entrepreneurial behaviour at an early age; setting up a distribution system to supply bread and snacks to my high-school mates when I should have been studying geometry. Although this business made me a lot of money, sometimes as much of my teachers I still wasn’t sure of it as my career path. I dreamed at times of being an engineer like my father, or an architect as I enjoyed drawing, or a even politician who could change the world.

Going to college while waiting for university admission, helped me clear some of this confusion. I studied information management systems for two years at Strathmore college. It was here that I discovered a new type of writing, writing programming code. I went wild with the ability that programming gave me; to create software that could do anything my mind imagined was incredibly exciting. Not only did this skill help me further explore creative writing, but it was a resource that I would later use in entrepreneurship.

Information Technology was fun, but I soon grew weary of the academics and ditched IT to study law instead at the University. Again I was exposed to a new kind of writing, and my fascination with airy sentences in formal writing would be replaced by crisp, factual, and non-committal prose. Legal writing provided a wonderful addition to the different styles of writing I had been exposed to.

School is now behind me, yet I continue putting down my thoughts in writing. It may be for a proposal for an exciting new business venture. At times, it is a piece of code for software that that will make sales reporting simpler, or it could be for my blog where I will have no restraints and wander from writing of my weekend adventures to critiquing products from Safaricom. And at times it is for a speech that I hope to give at a meeting.

It is through writing that I am able to give form to my thoughts. Written thoughts which force me to crystallize my dreams and ambitions; to express who I am and what I believe in a way that is clear to others; to turn ideas into reality. Writing to me is thinking with clarity. Putting pen to paper, I am able to think in black and white.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Literary Hacks at Business Daily

First of all, I would like to thank all those who I meet on the street, in the office, on the road, who are readers and followers of my blog. You give me the motivation to keep at this. Now, some of you have mentioned that I seem to have deviated from writing "startup" posts, like the rural cyber chronicles in my recent postings. Heck, I guess that's true somewhat, but the mind of an entrepreneur is fickle and unrestrained. Whatever catches my fancy at that time is what I would blog about, so today I am putting on a critique's hat and aim my sights at what I feel is woefully bad journalism.

My target of vitriol is the headline story on the Business Daily of October 7, 2008, titled "Internet theft hits a new high" Naturally I was attracted to this story because I am an avid Internet user and a promoter of its potential as a business tool. Considering the very serious nature of the paper's allegation, I expected a fact-laden article with detailed testimonies, statistics, and warnings. Instead what I read was a vacuous, sensational, and rambling article that relied on unsubstantiated claims, wildly inaccurate headlines, false syllogisms, and a lack of understanding of the internet, internet banking and banking in general.

Is my criticism too harsh? You be the judge.

Let's start with the title, "Internet theft hits a new high". From this title you'd expect:
  1. Testimonials of victims of internet theft
  2. Statistics showing how the cases of theft have increased from a previous period to the current period.

The author goes on to give two examples, of a woman who 'lost' her entire savings over the Internet, and of a man who spent a lot of money to extricate himself from allegations of criminal activity.

Let's start with the case of the woman. The article starts of well enough; Veronica received an email. After that, its all downhill, the author writes that Veronica unsuspectingly provided her banking details and later found out that all her savings were withdrawn "through the Internet" and that the bank cannot be name for legal reasons.

Is it just me or does everyone see the sheer volume of BS in this? Let me break it down.

  1. The author fails to explain what nexus there is in Veronica supplying her account details and her savings being withdrawn ‘through the internet’. Is the mere availability of your bank details enough for a criminal to withdraw your funds? To the best of my knowledge all banks require proof of identification AND bank account details before they authorize a withdrawal. Proof of ID is usually a Government ID and/or a signature on a bill of exchange issued by the bank and/or physical presence. Exactly which method did the perpetrator of fraud use to have the steal the funds?
  2. Apart from that what exactly does the author mean by ‘withdrawing through the internet’? I assume that she can only mean that the funds were transferred to the fraudster’s bank account. In light of strict know your customer (KYC) practices of banks worldwide, the fraudsters identity should be known and it would only be a question of where to find him/her; and not the helpless resignation of her sentence “the money has not been recovered”
  3. Lastly, as a lawyer I know that her claim that the institution cannot be named for legal reasons is a load of bull crap. Exactly what legal reasons is she talking about? Defamation? Well, well if that’s the case then she should not fear as the number one defence against defamation is TRUTH. Unless of course the story is one BIG FAT LIE. Does Veronica even exist? The credibility of this story would be greatly assisted if the author could at the very least had some screen shots of the alleged email/website.
In brief the Veronica story does nothing to further the outrageous headline.

We move on to the second story of Paul Oduor, a Kenyan in the diaspora, who was ‘tricked’ into giving his credit card details which were subsequently used to sell drugs. This led to his arrest and him spending a lot of money on ‘bailing himself out’ and on his lawyer.

Let me pause here, as my heart beat settles with the fury of having had to pay for this miserable excuse for journalism.

The Veronica story at least had a chance, this on the other hand is totally unredeemable. Again I will break it point by point.

  1. First of all why did Paul send his credit card details by email? The author does not even attempt to answer this and leaves the reader to connect the dots between Paul winning a lottery and Paul sending his credit card details via email. In addition to this non sequitur by the author we are supposed to believe that Paul is really, really, really dumb that he would send his credit card details over email.
  2. If Paul sends the credit card details in order that he gets the $1 million dollar prize then he is just a greedy sucker who got what he deserved. Someone rightly said that you can’t con an honest man.
  3. On the claim that the credit card details were used to sell drugs, the author does not attempt to explain this. Anyone with a decent understanding of the internet knows that having a credit card alone does not make it possible to sell items on the internet. You need to have a merchant account (and a bank account) or PayPal account which will require you to provide more than just a credit card number.
  4. And not to belabor the point but exactly what Internet theft took place here? Paul gave his card details willingly (probably with the expectation that there would be some withdrawal against it). Paul doesn’t claim someone withdrew money from his card (which is what I expected when I started reading the Paul story). Unless the author means that the ‘lot of money’ Paul ended up paying to his lawyer qualifies as Internet theft.
I need to stop here for now as my temperature recedes before I proceed with my ventilation

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Closet Zain Users and the Vuka Phenomenon

What are the three most common things you expect to find in a Kenyan's wallet?
  1. National ID
  2. ATM Card
  3. Cash (if it's between 28th of previous month and 5th of new month).

I think that we can now add a fourth... a Zain sim card. The pink card from the Mombasa road fellows is now a must-have for any sophisticated mobile phone user (who probably are in the millions), even if it spendgs most time in the wallet.

For too long we have watched the rapid release of products from Celtel/Zain with the frustration of a teacher having to severally repeat a point to a dunderhead student. Uhuru tariff, Pamoja tariff, 6pm-6am 3 bob tariff, Unlimited talk time tariff, have all been excellent products in their own right, but not good enough to get a mass exodus from green to pink. However things may now be changing with the new Vuka tariff.

Vuka represents a brutal price war tactic on the part of Zain, intended to convert greens to pinks by making Zain the cheapest network to use, regardless of who you are calling. This price and Zain's superior network make the product a formidable challenger to Big Green's dominance. From the dramatic 1000% increase in the 073.... numbers now calling me, I think Zain is making inroads.

Should Safaricom be scared? At the moment I don't think so. As stated in my title, most of these new converts are closet users, meaning they only whip out the pink card when they are making the call, but keep their green card in the phone most of the time in order to receive calls. Because of this, most users will continue to give Big Green the bulk of their airtime shillings.

So does this means another wonderful Zain product dies an ignominious death?

It doesn't have to. This time, I'm going to jump in the pink corner and give Zain some unsolicited advice on two things they can do to make sure they finally get the market share they crave.

In giving this advice I've theorised that Zain's biggest problem is that Safaricom users, as much as they would like to vuka, fear that many people who are familiar with their Safcom number will be unable to reach them. So...

1. Instead of spending 1 billion shillings on advertising put that money and effort in lobbying for Mobile Number Portability (MNP) from CCK. MNP allows mobile phone users to retain their phone numbers when they move to another network (Even Safaricom acknowledges the risk to its earnings posed by MNP and warned subscribers to its IPO about it). Below is an extract from the prospectus under the headline "Risks relating to Company's Business and Industry"

In addition, the CCK has considered the implementation of mobile number portability (“MNP”) as a measure to reduce barriers to entry for new operators. Recently, the CCK announced that it does not plan to introduce MNP at this time. However, it is possible that it may do so in the future. MNP would permit the Company’s subscribers to change to another network operator
without having to change their telephone numbers.

CCK in the past has shown to be malleable in the face of constant pressure. Without a doubt, Celtel/Zain's hardest working employee was Claire Ruto, the former Corporate and regulatory affairs director who knew how to work the regulator (CCK) to Celtel's benefit. Its too bad they lost her to Safaricom because they can use someone like her for this task.

2. And hey, look if you can't get MNP to work, just use the 1 billion shillings to buy everyone a mobile phone, so that they don't have to keep their pink card in the wallet. With a good Chinese supplier you should be able to get 1-1.5 million phones, and tonnes of free publicity for the 'humanitarian' act. With time (hopefully) people will realize which is the better network and come out of the closet to Vuka completely.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Products I want to see from Safaricom, Zain, Orange

Ah, the uninhibited joy of wishful thinking. After Safaricom introduced Voice SMS - a product that I had dreamed of since I first used a mobile phone - I started thinking "hey, perhaps I can voice some of my other fanciful mobile phone product ideas, and someone may just take notice"? Well, here goes ... the following list are some of the next products I'd like to see from the trio of Safaricom, Zain and Orange.

  1. An SMS autoresponder. Everytime you get an SMS you can optionally send back a response like "Thanks for your SMS I'll get back to you", or "Sorry I'm not able to respond to your SMS right now but I'll do so as soon as I'm able" It would be quite useful, especially when your phone is off/out of reach/on divert.
  2. The ability to convert unused airtime back to cash (although I know this makes absolutely no financial sense to these companies, it would be really cool!)
  3. Free voicemail depositing.
  4. Mobile Number Porting, just let me use my Safaricom number on the network I prefer whether its Zain or Orange.
That's all I can think of now, feel free to add your own