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3 Lessons Learned Launching My Startup in a Developing Nation

Giving up on wasn't an option, even without the reliable electricity and internet connections western entrepreneurs take for granted.

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“Starting a business is simple,” my mentor told me. “It’s all starts with an idea.” I was elated. I was a naïve 18-year-old when I started an online business. My entrepreneurial journey has been filled with mistakes, co-founder tussles, near death experiences, stumbling blocks and lots of lessons.

Peeter Viisimaa | Getty Images

However, I learned, modified where necessary and grew. In my third year of running my ecommerce business, I finally hit my 6-figure revenue target. Below are some core lessons that have stuck with me since building that startup in a third world country.

1. Your environment isn’t an excuse.

I grew up in Nigeria -- one of the most popular slums in the country. And around 10 years ago, anything online was labeled scam. In fact, bloggers were constantly arrested by police because anybody carrying laptop on the street was a suspect. The government waged a war on internet scammers, so anyone with a laptop had to carry receipts to prove we owned them. We also had to show strong proof that our online business -- a term they didn't understand then -- was legit.

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As you can see, the kind of environment I started an ecommerce business in was not favorable. Just like every other entrepreneur, I wanted to cross 6-figure revenues and live the nomad lifestyles I saw online. But it looked far-fetched because a lot of things were wrong. Unlike in the U.S., we sometimes didn’t have electricity for up to 15-20 days in a row, so running an ecommerce site became a burden.

I was always moving from one location to another looking for somewhere to charge my laptop. Sometimes I had to write articles on paper, and then trek to a café miles away to type it. Basically, everything was hard. No stable power. The network companies were charging too much for internet bandwidth, and only few people could afford it. I couldn’t, and that nearly killed my business.

I had only two options -- close the business, or use my breakfast allowance to pay for café time. I chose the latter. This meant purposefully staying hungry during the day in order to stay online and work on my business.

It was never easy, but I knew I was the determiner of my own business success and not my environment. Lots of my friends closed their startups sighting the environment as the problem. I stayed put on my freelance and ecommerce startups and scaled them to 6-figures three years later.

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2. Being merely passionate about your business isn’t enough.

Passion can keep you motivated to start and run, but it takes something deeper than passion to sustain you when gloomy days come along. It takes vision to stay put. I believe having a vision will naturally spur your passion to stay in business longer. It’s the pictures you see that propel you to move on when things aren’t working out.

The constant flood in my area was a picture that kept me going strong. The epileptic power supply and low network connectivity issue were pictures that kept me going. Where I grew up was highly infested with mosquitos and gang wars, so nobody was safe. It’s either you are slightly safe, or you are in hospital for malaria or gunshot wounds. This was a picture I was seeing.

Starting my business was hectic, and after inception, it wasn’t growing as fast as I wanted. Some reasons were lack of credible payment processors -- we didn’t have access to PayPal eight years ago -- to pay for internet data, domain and site hosting yearly renewals. This was a picture I was seeing.

These pictures kept me from giving up. I knew if I stayed put on my ecommerce startup long enough, that I would one day change lots of things I didn’t have access to. Find those pictures that will keep you marching forward no matter what. Gloomy business days will come. What sustains entrepreneurs during those periods is the vision they see in that darkness.

3. Over-analyzing everything will help you.

Staying in an area that’s not so safe meant you needed to constantly analyze your environment and watch out for the smallest clues. The first person to catch a glimpse of oddity in the environment always ended up safe. So we basically lived in fear, which spurred us to be super watchful of our surroundings in order to stay safe.

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I transferred this “fear consciousness” to my business. It became a habit to ask questions regularly. And I found out that the more I asked questions, the more my business metrics grew and stayed positive.

Doing this slowed me down because I was constantly analyzing all business metrics. Yet it enabled me to know my business numbers better. I could quickly switch strategies because, by asking many questions, I knew which parts were working and which aspects needed to be dropped. Asking questions meant I was always testing everything. A/B testing was constantly done on the site. I kept doing that until I hit gold. 

The rest is history. I have long scaled up from those two startups and started others including Mainly Silver, an online jewelry outfit, and a web development agency, among numerous others. But I would not have gotten here -- as a CEO with hundreds of staff in different companies -- if I did not follow through on these lessons.

My advice is to start your business -- your environment shouldn’t stop you. And stick with it no matter how hard it gets. That’s how to succeed.

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