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"Business life is a marathon, not a sprint, especially when talking about startups"

"Business life is a marathon, not a sprint, especially when ...

Esade Entrepreneurship Institute

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eWorks is the Esade venture creation program; it provides a series of activities and services designed to foster and support new venture creation by Esade students and recent graduates.

The Esade Doers podcast series, led by eWorks manager Davide Rovera, focus on entrepreneurs from the eWorks Community who present their startups and share experiences, learnings, sources of inspiration and tips with fellow entrepreneurs. Today, we can learn from two Esade students who started a Market Research company focused on Africa, Afriqinsights; Amish Chhagan, Founder and Managing Director, and Alicia Torné, Project Development Director.

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TRANSCRIPT: 

Davide Rovera: Hello and welcome to the Esade podcast about entrepreneurs and innovators. Our guests today are Alicia Torné and Amish Chhagan from Afriqinsights. Hi guys, thank you for joining us.

Amish Chhagan: Hi, Davide, thank you so much, it’s a pleasure being here today.

Alicia Torné: Hi, Davide, thanks for having us.

Davide Rovera: Thank you once more. One way we always like to start is to ask you to give us a 30-second investor pitch style description of what your company does.

Alicia Torné: Sounds great. Let me get cracking with that one. I will break it down into scenarios, first of all, the problem that we are trying to solve. Afriqinsights is an African marketing research and consulting firm with the ambitious aim of addressing the knowledge challenges that many decision makers, both from public and private sectors, are facing across the African continent. We are currently specialised in providing bespoke and reliable data and insights to our clients and partners and this allows them to then make well-informed decisions on their strategies, operations, and research. We provide this value to our clients and partners by leveraging our multiskilled and local teams with our presence across more than 20 countries, primarily within sub-Saharan Africa. So that would be us in nutshell.

Davide Rovera: Fantastic, very clear and very relevant, and we will dive into that in a few moments. First though, I want to hear a bit more about your story. Did you always want to become entrepreneurs? Is this your first project? How did Afriqinsights happen and what has been your motivation to become entrepreneurs?

Amish Chhagan: Okay. Thanks Davide, I’ll start here. I grew up in Zambia in Central Africa, I think it’s also part of the environment that I lived in. When growing up, I was always looking to make some extra money. We didn’t have the same types of opportunities that you perhaps have here in the western world – working at McDonalds or summer jobs cutting grass or whatever – so we had to be creative.

One of my passionate pastimes is music, so I combined this with the emergence of internet and the fact that I had a CD-writer at home. My dad worked in IT retail, so I quickly joined the dots and start selling the CD equivalent of mixtapes, so that customers could pick their favourite songs and I would put them on a CD. This was 100% profit for me as the customers provided the blank CDs. It was great pocket money for me.

Davide Rovera: Where were you getting the music? Was it downloaded from the internet or from other CDs?

Amish Chhagan: Not technically legal – of course.

But I had access and I guess that was the distinguishing factor. I briefly mentioned my father. In the 1990s my dad spotted a gap in the market – he was working in business development and had sales roles within IT companies. The gap he spotted was BTC IT retail. And in those days, there were only big companies like ICL in countries like Zambia, and that were providing mass-scale IT hardware. So, he started an IT retail company, and he was the first person to open an IT shop in Zambia. He did relatively well, especially in early days. So, I think witnessing this as a kid and seeing my father’s journey was inspiring and pushed me to follow similar lines.

Davide Rovera: So, you had a kind of an inspiration from one side and you spotted an opportunity early on – these CDs – and so you were able to make money out of some projects, and that probably seeded the entrepreneurial spirit.

Amish Chhagan: I’m from the Indian culture which very much encourages you to get a good education, get a good job, and then have a family, etcetera. So, all these ideas were put in my head very early on. I had this plan to get a good job, learn how things work in the big corporate world, and then start my own thing. Of course, with that kind of journey, the assumption is that you have all the time in the world – which is not the case.

And I quickly found that corporate culture was not something that I enjoyed or embraced very much: the politics, the administration…

Davide Rovera: So, that kind of pushed you. Is Afriqinsights your first serious startup attempt?

Amish Chhagan: Before I lived in Barcelona, I lived in London where it is ten times more difficult to start a company because of the high cost of living. I think Afriqinsights was my fifth or sixth attempt at starting a company. When I moved to Barcelona I started an MBA, it was easy to think outside the box in terms of starting your own projects. And I explored several different projects with various people – trying to see what was going to work.

Davide Rovera: What made you pick this one specifically? This is always an interesting question. Many entrepreneurs like you say ‘hey, we have been exploring multiple things’ but then at a certain point they choose one venture. Why this one?

Amish Chhagan: There was always a willingness from me to explore vocational angles in Africa. And I had consulted with companies to help them open the African market in terms of business development and strategic work. And the overriding challenge in all of these projects was obtaining the data to make strategic decisions. We were coming up with complex financial models that were based on assumptions that we had picked from the sky. It was very difficult to make decisions. So, we weren’t very confident in setting up market strategies in certain countries because of the lack of information. So, this lead us to think – how can we solve these problems?

Davide Rovera: When did you decide to focus on this business and structure it?

Amish Chhagan: It came about when we looked at the interest of potential customers. We looked at our potential target, our potential customers from public and private sectors and particular industries. We try to focus on a particular area but without being too broad. We cover much of sub-Saharan Africa and we cover many sectors. But we mitigated a lack of sectorial expertise by starting an expert network. We bring in experts on specific projects in industries that we are not familiar with. But of course, we understand the core, the market research, the analysis, the consulting side of things.

Davide Rovera: So you are just doing things and you see what works.

Amish Chhagan: We had a lot of interest early on from a variety of different stakeholders. From the public sector there was a lot of interest, because they want this work done independently, so when they release reports or publications or blogs, they can say the work was done independently. The private sector needs data to make decisions, especially when expanding into new countries.

Davide Rovera: Which categories and regions provide your main customers?

Amish Chhagan: Our main customers, particularly post-pandemic, have been within the public sector. And for a couple of reasons. Firstly, public sector projects tend to be much bigger and take much more time: they typically have bigger budgets as well. So, we will be working on a public sector project for 6-8 months, maybe more, depending on the project’s scope. And each project is commissioned and bespoke to the objectives of what the company or the organisation needs.

So, yes, and within the public sectors there is the World Bank, the UN, Fairtrade, and other large organisations. And smaller ones as well. Within the private sector this is more difficult because the projects are much smaller and focussed on particular data and a particular region. They are always looking at how to assess the entire budget on investing in a new company versus undertaking the research. And I think many companies, especially in Africa, are not used to putting investment into research before executing very ambitious ideas. Then covid hit, budgets were frozen or eliminated, and so little has been done in the private sector.

Davide Rovera: You mentioned some very big names from the public sector. For a startup, for an early-stage company, it’s sometimes difficult to be credible for those people. How did it work for you?

Amish Chhagan: You could not have summarised that better. One of our first major projects was with the UN CDF, which is a UN capital development fund. That helped us almost immediately because we were referred to other stakeholders within the community. And we even won another project thanks to a referral soon after the UN project. Of course, one of the first questions we asked ourselves was: ‘what do clients want?’ Firstly, they want a team that can execute projects. And here we have myself, Alicia, our analysts, and our people on the ground, and their qualifications. Secondly, they want a track record and credibility in the market. And thirdly, they want a budget. So, these are the three areas that we focus on when preparing proposals. The more projects we do, the bigger names we can work with, and this really supports our cause. Now we don’t have the credibility issue that we did when we started – it’s a chicken and egg kind of game. Now we have some big names who have published public reports about the work they have done in collaboration with us, so that has helped tremendously for our track record.

Davide Rovera: Let me double down on this for a second. You mentioned this early contract with the UN which helped you build credibility. How did you land that contract?

Amish Chhagan: There was no special sauce. We drafted a proposal, we reviewed it maybe 10 or 15 times. And we submitted it and we were shortlisted. There were about seven or eight companies. It was very much like a job interview – actually it still is and we still do these things. We put proposals together, we get shortlisted, then we have an interview and a panel discussion. The UN panel had some 10 to 12 people from all of the world, including New York and Brussels, and people on the ground in Zambia. This project was in Zambia – and that’s where I am from.

There was nothing special that we did, we just worked as hard as we could to put the best proposal together. We were there at the right time, at the right place, and with a little bit of luck on our side.

Davide Rovera: And you did a good job, so that’s a very important element, right.

Amish Chhagan: Okay, then congrats for that. So, the message for people listening is don’t be scared, do a good job, and sometimes with a little bit of luck, you can get large reference customers early on.

It still took us almost nine months to get to that stage. And that was also nine months of uncertainty, and lack of capital or salary coming in. We had done various small private sector projects, but nothing to brag about. And this is the kind of defining point. It helped us validate that what we were doing was right.

Davide Rovera: I’m assuming from the kind of model you have; you are not getting investors and you are revenue funded.

Amish Chhagan: No, we don’t need to pump a lot into digital marketing, capital investments, and so on. We don’t have any of those issues. What we are selling is essentially ourselves.

We are selling our combined expertise: our partners, our analysts, and the people on the ground, and of course our board and experts. It’s difficult to explore fund raising in this way. Because essentially what an investor will be paying for is our salaries.

Davide Rovera: Yes, it’s basically a consulting model.

Amish Chhagan: Yes, yes, it is. So yes, it’s not a model where we need to raise money.

Davide Rovera: How do you operate? What are the actual operations? You need to acquire projects and I’m assuming it’s more outbound than inbound. But now you have some brand names onboard there is probably some inbound traffic as well.

So how do you operate and research? You mentioned earlier that you are covering a broad area geographically and in terms of industries, so how do you operate normally?

Amish Chhagan: Yes, I have been talking a lot. Alicia – do you want to jump in here?

Alicia Torné: Sure. We leverage our three different teams. First of all, we have our operations team, and this is split between project management analysts and the research team, so we just make sure that for each project we have one project manager and a few analysts on the team. And then of course we have the relevant research people on the ground. So, if we are undertaking a project in Uganda, we will make sure that we have capable research managers, assistants, and agents if there is some quantitative work to be done. We have previously worked with all these people – either at Afriqinsights in previous projects, or in our previous lives. So, we know they are dependable people with high quality standards, and we can trust them. Of course, they have a background in research, so they know what they are doing and are very experienced. These people are locals and they understand the context, especially when we are talking about qualitative research. And at the same time, they speak the local languages, which really pulls down many barriers. Of course, we are a startup and it’s not that we have everyone on the payroll. We make the teams when the projects come in, and so we are able to put in the best people for the specific needs and requirements that the client has for the project.

In addition to project managers, analysts, and reputable research people on the ground, we also have our experts. So, depending on the area that the project is covering, we make sure that we have one or two people with the right skill set to provide their expert lenses at the very beginning when we are doing the desk research to see if some gaps and challenges are not being answered. This can help us draft the tools, put together our research questions, and enable us to know what to look for when we do the fieldwork. There is another time in which the experts play a key role, and that is when we have to analyze data. We are consultants by trade, our analysts are consultants by trade, but of course that does not mean that they are experts in every single sector. So, with the help of the experts we are able to go that extra mile.

By having these three teams together we have strong and relevant experience and track records and we make sure we can successfully undertake projects across the continent.

Davide Rovera: So, your strength is in your network. You can access these highly trustworthy and qualified people over a vast area, and you can find the right person on the ground. You are based out of Barcelona, and so the official headquarters is in Spain.

Alicia Torné: We also have some satellites offices in Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana – but the main HQ here in Barcelona.

Davide Rovera: Let me play the devil’s advocate here for a second, isn’t that counter-intuitive, that you are specialising on insights for sub-Saharan Africa – but from Barcelona?

Amish Chhagan: Yes, it is, you are right. There are pros and cons. The pro is that we are Europe-based, and unfortunately, there is this kind of perspective especially within the consulting world and market research world, that if you are based in Europe or have a western focus, then there is an element of quality and high standards that you adhere to because you are based in a western country. It is unfortunate but it’s the way people look at these things. Many of our projects are not entirely from Africa, they might be, for example, from the UN offices in Zambia or Kenya. But we are getting the sign-off in New York or in Brussels. So, we are dealing with Brussels on the administration side and the execution is with the local office. That’s typically how it works. So, there is this kind of bias.

Also, within the industry we are not doing anything new, this is something that local companies can do. And these firms just cover that country. Now, what happens is that most local firms don’t have projects going on for the whole 12 months of the year. They have dry spells and because they are desperately looking for work they might over-promise and under-deliver on big projects. So, the actions of a few bring down the reputation of the entire industry. A European base brings some sort of credibility in some ways, but you are right, it’s better to be close on the ground, and there are plans to migrate back, at least one of us, it’s me or Alicia, probably me, who will go and live in Kenia or Zambia, and continue operating. But, of course, that is difficult right now.

Davide Rovera: Yes, I know, I can understand, and I think you covered it very nicely. There are pros and cons, but you are trying of course to leverage the unfortunate part as an asset, as a competitive advantage for you. So, that’s very good.

Maybe one more question on the future of the company. You mentioned that there could be plans for some of you to move and relocate to sub-Saharan Africa. Do you think there is some level of economics of scale that you can achieve going into the future to allow you to productise at least part of what you do, or do you think the business will always be bespoke?

Amish Chhagan: Yes, it is funny that you should ask this because it is something that we were aggressively looking into pre-covid.

We were considering operating a subscription-based service or infusing more technology into what we do. That might lead to us potentially fundraising as well. However, the pandemic started and instead have developed a couple of very interesting technology-intensive partnerships.

We may continue to explore the avenue of infusing more technology and collecting data on hot trends and sectors. However, it’s a vast investment for us. The big risk is that in Africa this information is obsolete within six months, or even three months, depending on the sector. If we invest and collect data on a specific topic and we are unable to sell it within three to six months, that information becomes worthless.

Davide Rovera: So, you would need very large customers to justify the investment.

Amish Chhagan: There are companies doing similar things. But yes, I’m not sure whether we will continue to explore this because of the risk and the level of investment needed. We are still small and not well-known in the market. We will continue with bespoke projects with the ambition of obtaining retainer type agreements. Last year and this year we signed some service-level agreements with several organisations.

Alicia, did I miss anything?

Alicia Torné: Technology and our short-term goals… nothing else for me to add - thanks.

Amish Chhagan: Yes, it’s a little difficult to answer, given where we are in the world and how much the covid pandemic has challenged our model.

Davide Rovera: The reason I asked is that often when projects are research or consulting based, firms try productise at least part of the knowledge consolidated, so that they become investable for investors…

Amish Chhagan: More scalable. So, you reduce margins in exchange for higher scalability, which is usually the trade-off that people consider.

Scaling is a very difficult word to use in the model that we operate in.

Davide Rovera: Right, it is very linear.

Amish Chhagan: Yes, exactly. And this is why we try to think outside of our current model. But I think the risk versus return is quite difficult to justify. At least for now. But let’s see how things progress.

Davide Rovera: We will keep tabs on you to see how that goes. Thanks for now, for your description, I think it’s been very clear and you have also been very open talking about the future. Let’s move to the final part of the interview. And we want to ask you a more personal question…

So, again, feel free, and both can answer either way.

And the first question is what book are you currently reading?

Amish Chhagan: For me I don’t tend to stick to one book. It might depend on what I’m looking for, or if I’m doing some work, or if I’m watching documentaries and reading something. It depends on my mood as well. And in this way, I tend not to finish very many books.

Davide Rovera: Yes, I understand. I can relate.

Amish Chhagan: But from time to time there will be one book that grabs my attention and I tend to almost obsess on the topic by attempting to understand the surrounding topics. One book was ‘Sapiens’ which I’m sure you know, and another current book that got me on this level is ‘Creative Quest’ by that creative genius ‘Questlove’. He is the lead drummer of a famous hip-hop band called The Roots. He is a culinary innovator, a professor, entrepreneur, author, and has a bunch of other projects. I don’t know if you have heard of him.

Davide Rovera: I know ‘The Roots’ so I guess that’s a good start.

Amish Chhagan: They are backup band on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallom. He is the drummer, the guy with the big Afro haircut. I’m also a wildlife photographer and so there is also much relevant wisdom and philosophy that comes from this.

But this book talks about his techniques, his lessons learnt to channel creative energies. He works with lots of famous people, both in the business world and the creative world. But I guess when we talk about ‘Creative Quest’, I’m talking about just music or art, but we are also talking about the ability to generate and create ideas.

I like bringing ideas to life. Which is why I enjoyed strategy consulting when I was working in London, because you are starting from a blank piece of paper and creating a plan and an idea to execute. But I think one of the aspects that is frequently discussed in many entrepreneur books and biographies is the need for risk taking, persistence, focus, and confidence. But I think the other key is the mindset, the steps you take to give your mind the clarity to be able to generate that constant flow of new and innovative ideas until it almost becomes a skill set. And so yes, I tend to read a lot of different types of topics and areas.

Davide Rovera: Very interesting. And mindset is something that is coming up more and more during all these interviews, so definitely I would say many entrepreneurs will agree on that point.

Alicia Torné: If I may say on my side here I’m the same as Amish. I read several books at the same time. I’m more business-focused, and I’m currently finishing ‘The Ultimate Sales Machine’ by Chet Holmes, and I think that really touches on mindset and attitude and having a strategy, but also, persistence, and focus, and being there day after day just to achieve your objectives. The book is basically focused on 12 key strategies to boost your business, and we are currently implementing some of these.

Davide Rovera: And thanks. Moving forward – these next questions are related to your specialties, and should be easy for you. What do you think is an interesting startup? Of course, beyond yours.

Amish Chhagan: Yes, sure. I think given our interest in Africa, I will focus on something in Africa, if that’s okay. There is a company that is based out of Switzerland that is focused on Africa – it’s called Empower – and it provides alternative energy solutions through a B2B model. The company can scale quite quickly. There have been a quite a few players over the last five years coming to the market and offering a lot of hardware and technical services for solar and alternative energies. But what separates these guys from the other offerings is that they have the hardware and technical services, as well as the software for big data analytics and consumption that enables them to build the business case for their clients to justify moving into alternative energy sources. And don’t forget, we are also talking about Africa, where the mindset is that ‘we get our electricity from a local government-owned energy supplier’. So there is also a big element of education.

And a third area is that they offer a financing programme with partner banks and financial service companies. And the founders have these varying backgrounds in these areas, so each of the founders is specialised in one of these areas with very complimentary skills and I think that explains their success.

Davide Rovera: Thanks, I’ll take that as a shared suggestion. Next one is on a similar line: for people who are thinking about starting a new company, what is an interesting trend that they should look into? It could be an industry, it could be a market, it could be anything that you think it’s going to grow and that’s worth exploring further.

Amish Chhagan: I think this depends on the geography that we are talking about, because there are lots of geo-focussed trends. But again, we will talk from what we know best, which is in Africa if that is okay.

We already mentioned alternative energy solutions – which is a very interesting area. It might be a little late to get involved because there are some big players that are operating with lots of financing from all over the world. But there are always niches. Digital financial services and the emergence of mobile money is not new, but there is a massive amount of opportunity to produce specific solutions in key areas across Africa. I can think of another area – and it’s not really a startup idea per se – but VC funding is constantly on the rise in Africa year and year. For African startups, there was a dip in 2020, but it’s an interesting area to get involved in. Yes, it’s not a startup idea as I said, but it’s an interesting trend. It also correlates with what is going on – more VC funding is coming in and there are more creative ideas that are solving massive problems in local and regional areas. And like blockchain and AI startups there is interest, but personally I think too few people understand these areas, especially blockchain, to create impact and value.

Alicia Torné: Yes, and to add to what Amish just mentioned – I think that we can include sustainability and social impact as two other major areas. I am thinking of sustainability in terms of environment and company structure and growth. And in the second area of social impact we can see a worldwide tendency, but particularly in Africa. People and organisations are very interested in transcending economic returns. People are looking to make an impact in people’s lives, communities, and societies. And yes, I think that this trend refers to both societal value creation and to the fact of being able to measure it. There is a need for frameworks, systems, and tools to measure and manage organisations. At the end of the day, if you cannot measure something, you cannot manage it, so it’s as key as creating value.

Amish Chhagan: These are important points that Alicia brought up, especially in the context of Africa. And it was a point that was discussed in a webinar we did on ‘The Future of Africa’ with several Esade African alumni. If you are starting a company, especially somewhere in Africa, and you are not thinking about sustainability and social impact then there is very little chance that you will survive. You need to be able to create social impact somewhere along the value chain of your company, and if not, the company is going to be very short-lived. And that is again correlated with VC funding as well.

Davide Rovera: Absolutely, and measurability as well.

Amish Chhagan: People are looking for track records of financial and social returns.

Davide Rovera: Yes, multiple bottom lines…

Amish Chhagan: That is super important.

Davide Rovera: Super relevant insights, thank you very much. Now, the final questions and these are more about you personally. The first question is what advice do you often give – but don’t really follow yourselves?

Alicia Torné: Okay. Hard question here. Well, we say to people: ‘don’t be too hard on yourself’. Unfortunately, I have double standards and I frequently find myself being over critical with the things I do. We should definitely give our best, but without punishing ourselves, right? It’s wonderful to drive for continuous improvement, but we need to remember that business life is a marathon, not a sprint, especially when talking about startups. Startups do not follow the same path that other established companies follow. There is this new niche element that has been discovered, yet there are many things that you can replicate, for example the management of the company and the key strategies to grow your business. But there are things that you will need to learn from scratch. So, the idea is that you take one day at a time, you have a good strategy in place, but of course, you must be resilient and consistent. Enjoy the process, learn, make mistakes, fall down, get up again, and eventually results will come. Results are important, but the process is even more important. And give yourself the time to enjoy it. Let’s not take things too seriously. I mean, we need a balance between making improvements – but without too much criticism. That would be my unfollowed advice.

Davide Rovera: It’s very important.

Alicia Torné: Easier said than done.

Davide Rovera: This is a trend that we hear more and more: entrepreneurs not being able to keep the right mindset and right balance. It’s extremely difficult, and probably one of the most difficult things about being entrepreneurs.

So, moving on, Alicia you mentioned something which is going to be my very last question to you both: what has been your biggest mistake as entrepreneurs.

Alicia Torné: Not starting this entrepreneurial journey earlier.

Amish Chhagan: I had in my head that I needed to get a job, I needed to learn what corporates were doing, and what other startups were doing, and then go do something. It made sense in my head. And it was quite rational. But there is no better learning curve than throwing yourself into the deep end and starting something, and failing numerous times before something works. You can fail ten times, and you just need to succeed once.

Alicia Torné: Exactly. I totally agree with Amish, it’s learning by doing, but at the same time it’s also very important to have the right team to support you. So, fail all together but with people that have the right mindset, the right attitude, and eventually things will come right. But having a good support always helps.

Amish Chhagan: Yes, that is very important, the team needs to be on the same page as you. Be passionate, be ambitious about the project, but also take risks, that’s important.

Davide Rovera: Being aligned on values and objectives is important, but also being able to manage those ups and downs – the emotional rollercoaster.

Alicia Torné: We try to bring onboard people who have principal mindsets and not agent mindsets. Because at the end of the day we are working with small teams, so we need to make sure that everyone takes ownership of what they do. Everyone must understands the role that they are playing, and how key this is to the overall organisation. So, it’s a tough job, and it’s a tough thing to do. When you read it in theory, everything make sense – but challenges always arrive when you are implementing these ideas. But it’s a task that needs to be done and it really pays off.

Davide Rovera: This could go on much, much longer, but I guess we will need to continue at another time in the future. For now, I would say Alicia, Amish, thank you so much for being so open and transparent with us, for sharing your inspiring story, and all the best moving forward with your project.

Amish Chhagan: Thank you so much, thank you for having us onboard. And lovely to meet you.

Alicia Torné: Looking forward to the second round.

Davide Rovera: Absolutely, so thanks. Bye, bye.

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