10 entrepreneurial takeaways from Marek Zmyslowski’s “Chasing Black Unicorns”

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In October of last year, Polish entrepreneur Marek Zymslowski released his autobiography “Chasing Black Unicorns”, recounting his experiences of being accused – and cleared – of defrauding investors and becoming the subject of an Interpol Red Notice.

The former chief executive officer (CEO) of Jovago, now Jumia Travel, and co-founder of HotelOga/HotelOnline, tells his side of the story in the book, the revenues from which have been pledged to the Maya Foundation, set up with his partner Yaritza Reyes.

Unsurprisingly, as an active and well-known entrepreneur, there are a few key takeaways for founders within its pages, 10 of which are detailed here.

Background can drive you to succeed

“It’s thanks to Koszalin that I am where I am today, or to put it more precisely, thanks to the overwhelming desire as a teenager to get the hell out of there as fast as I could. It was surely that which drove me to study in Poznan, then take on Poland and further parts of the world.”

How to deal with investors

“I was supposed to negotiate its involvement in my upcoming ventures. Put in simpler terms, I was supposed to ask a few bankers in expensive suits for their money. Actually, it wasn’t their money at all, but that which had been invested in their fund. Guys in expensive suits had always made an impression on me, until I discovered that they really work for other guys in T-shirts. That is the beauty of the financial markets.”

Passion is important

“I succumbed to startup fever… Marc Andreessen, the legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur, investor, and founder of the internet browser Netscape, once wrote that “software is eating the world”. Our parents’ concept of a bank with no people is crazy, while we think it’s crazy to have to go to a window at a bank just to make a transfer.”

How to fail

“You start by accepting a certain ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ thesis on the basis of your own, subjective experiences. Put simply, as something seems logical or in line with everything you’ve ever learned, you believe it to be true. Meaning you’re making an educated guess. What’s more, you try to prove this thesis or, to be more precise, confirm it. Meaning you’ll choose and pay attention to those facts which confirm it, while ignoring and dismissing those which don’t. And this is the recipe for a stupid business idea.” 

Be friends with your co-founder

“The relationship between partners is a bit like that of an old married couple. You have your ups and downs. In marriage, it’s not only about the sex being good, or regular anyway. A married couple should also be friends. And if something goes wrong, then that friendship is a kind of airbag. Myself and Kasia were not friends. We had nothing in common. When the business collapsed, we fell into an abyss from which there was no return. We tore into each other like animals and our paths went separate ways.”

Africa is special

“After about two or three months, a guy like me who thinks he knows everything about business, at least in his own field, realises that he can throw at least half of his experience in the bin. Literally. One day, I turned on my computer and moved tens of documents with notes, analyses and other bullshit straight into the bin. It was simply taking up too much disk space.”

Doing business online is great, but you still need the old ways

“Gaining customers through the internet undoubtedly has one great advantage. It’s quantifiable. Most tactics and ideas can therefore be checked out by testing them on a small scale. Later, these can be scaled-up to see if our assumptions are correct, or if we are dealing with a coincidental correlation, rather than a real cause-and-effect relationship between the input and the result in an experiment. Most companies which operate outside the internet invest huge amounts of money in offline advertising. Although it produces results, it is not in a way in which you can determine which advertisement works and which doesn’t.

“The problem is that if you run an online business in Nigeria, gaining customers just through the internet is not enough. This is why we recognised that we had to find customers just as in the good old days, namely on the streets, on the radio and on TV.”

Problems when you are no longer early-stage

“The development of a company once it has reached a stage of maturity isn’t easy. And it was especially difficult at Rocket. They really are wonderful at securing funds from investors: business angels; venture capital funds; private equity; corporations and institutions such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the investment wing of the World Bank. They do great work in rapidly firing up new businesses in many markets at once and generating their first income. Because if Rocket is good at gathering money off investors, it’s absolutely brilliant at optimising processes and driving up results. But there are some things in business which need to be built from scratch and from outside. Vision, leadership, corporate culture, those things which allow you to hire great local employees and motivate them to come up with innovative solutions to solve local problems. Such things can’t be bought easily, not even for a lot of money.”

Prepare for big boys stealing your lunch

“While the strategy of ‘the internal market’ worked for online trade, it may not work for online travel. It was irrelevant that we were building up a local position, as this would not stop the giants from entering the market. The question remained: instead of pretending that this would never happen and just clearing a path in the wrong part of the jungle, wouldn’t it be better to get ready for the entrance of the big boys and, paradoxically, maybe become stronger due to their competition?”

Securing Series A

“I didn’t manage to get to those with balls big enough to take the risk of running a tech business in Africa. Or in other words – I wasn’t able to set their minds at rest regarding this risk, to mitigate them. I spent a total of a couple of weeks in the States talking to investment funds in Silicon Valley, the ones that are always bragging about seeking out the greatest innovation and taking risky decisions, on the condition that the start-up HQ concerned is no more than a 15-minute Tesla ride away. I wasn’t able to convince them either of the business model or the huge market we’re talking about.”

Anyone that signs up to Marek Zmyslowski’s newsletter will receive a free e-book version of “Chasing Black Unicorns”.

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