10 'Founderisms' From The Founders Of One Of Africa's Hottest Startups

"Act. Learn. Repeat" and other startup lessons from the brains behind Zoona


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Zoona founders, Brett and Brad Magrath

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"Founders are the heart and soul of a company," says Zoona founders, Brett and Brad Magrath, this is because the founders set the tone for their own startup, and as a result, its culture.

The brothers share some of this knowledge in a new book called, Zoona "ISMS", in which they talk about the principles entrepreneurs should be guided by when tackling challenges in the unique African landscape. The brothers have amassed an invaluable amount of knowledge on what you need to focus on and what to avoid as a founder if you are to build a business that stands a chance at success.

According to the brothers, culture is crucial in any business because it is what drives impact and performance, and being purposeful about creating a strong culture in their business was one of the main factors behind Zoona's success.

Among The Wold's Best
Zoona is a Cape Town-based money transfer company operating primarily in Zambia and other Sub-Saharan countries. They provide mobile money services to unbanked or underbanked consumers and are credited with bringing the Uber model to the mobile finance and remittances industry. Their accomplishments include processing more than $1 billion in transactions and have raised in access of $15 million in various funding rounds.

​Zoona was the first technology startup from Zambia to receive international venture capital funding and was among the world's best startups in the 2016 Fintech100, an annual top 100 Fintech Innovators list that compiles the leading 50 established fintech companies across the globe, as well as the most intriguing 50 'Emerging Stars'.

People Are What Make The Business Tick
In the book, they do however, stress that it's not just the founder who determines the success of a business, but also the team. 

The Magrath brothers say, in whatever you do, you should always get back to people.

"What really matters are the principles that underpin an organisation and the commitment required to go 'all in'. We agreed on a set of principles we would not compromise on. These make up the foundation of Zoona today and are crucial to its continued success and purpose. And they all feed into and are from one place: the people who make up the business. At Zoona, it's about people," they say.

Here are 10 powerful founderisms that Zoona founders learnt from building a company that is among Africa's most talked about startups.

Be Bold and Be Brave
"The whole concept of being bold and brave is curious. Why are some people able to do it while others shrink away? Perhaps it's fear of failure, or a fear of rejection. Maybe taking that first step just seems too risky. We're not immune to those feelings either. Sometimes in the early days of Zoona, we'd lie in our respective beds at night, with our eyes wide open, wondering if we were right in the head (we kinda already knew we weren't). But we also knew that if we didn't try – even if we failed – we wouldn't know if we could do it and we wouldn't learn how to do it better. We took a leap of faith with Zoona and we've learnt so much more than we expected."

Say No
"While we at Zoona believe in saying 'yes' to many things – courage, quirkiness and definitely croissants – one area that requires a big fat NO is ideas. Or, more accurately, too many of them. Ideas are slippery little beasts. They come to you at the most inconvenient times (in the shower, while you're walking the dogs or dancing in heels) and pull at your sleeves, demanding attention. Sure, you could give each one your time. But sooner or later, you'd find you've spread yourself too thin. But if you say 'no' to all those tugging ideas – except one – the one you truly believe in and the one you know can work – there will be winners all round."

There's No Such Thing As Failure
"None of the first businesses we started is still around today, and we're okay with that. Without those experiences to teach us where we went wrong, we wouldn't be where we are today. While many people pretend to believe in the power of failure, we really do believe in it. We might even love it. Learning is one of my favourite things – and the only way to learn is to try, and probably fail."

Act. Learn. Repeat
"We've lived the 'act, learn, repeat' mantra multiple times. One of the most important elements to this entire process is that there is no such thing as failure. In order to repeat, we learn; and in order to learn, we had to fail. And even now, with Zoona established and thriving, we maintain 'act, learn, repeat'. Repeat as a core guiding principle, because there is always more to learn and more to do."

Eat Your Frogs
"So what does eating a frog at Zoona look like? It could be a number of things, but one big croaky frog we chomped was when we realised that by shifting our focus to hitting numbers and roll-out targets, we had negatively affected our customer experience. We landed up with the wrong people in the wrong places and with processes that benefited the balance sheet but didn't meet customer expectations. We took the decision to shift our targets to ensure quality not quantity. It was a difficult decision, but the right one."

See Value In Diversity
"Zoona loves diversity. We don't build walls, we tear those suckers down. The beauty of the word is that we're all so different; we are all unique. Diversity is a great teacher. It shows how to accept a different point of view and how to move beyond simple tolerance of 'other' to a celebration of the rich dimensions found within each individual. For true success, diversity is a trump card, and we believe this individuality is where genius and great ideas exist."


See also: Zoona Founders On Raising Venture Capital - What No One Tells You About What Happens Next


No Paper Tiger Partners
"'Paper tiger' is the English translation of the Chinese phrase 'zhilaohu'. Basically, it refers to someone or something that seems powerful and threatening but is actually ineffectual. Before Zoona, Brett and I had been 'dealt' by paper tigers. With Zoona, we wanted partners who were as committed, driven, hard working and frankly, 'crazy' as we were to build the impossible."

Knowledge Is The Enemy Of Learning
"Things are shifting at a rapid rate – customer profiles are changing, expectations are changing and technology is changing. Operating in Africa has no set formula, even within a single country. Knowledge isn't going to help and if we are to win in this space, we need to toss it aside, question our assumptions, roll up our sleeves and start learning."

You Need To Learn To Let Go Of Your Lego
"This could be aptly abbreviated to l(ego). We need to trust that if we focus on our smaller pieces, we can build something wonderful and that there's more than enough to go around. After all, we are scaling business faster than we are scaling roles. New people do not equal less work – they mean more work for all."

It's All About The Customer
"If companies listened to their customers, there wouldn't be a need for the slogan 'the customer is always right'. There's something empty and retroactive about the saying, it implies that no one bothered to find out what the customer wanted in the first place, and then when the customer complains, the company rolls over, pretends to care and gives them 50% off their next whatever-it-is-they're-complaining-about."

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