A Conversation with Saul Singer, Author of Startup Nation

On Thursday, August 6th, the Africa Digital Media Foundation was proud to host A Conversation with Saul Singer. Saul is the co-author of Start-Up Nation, a New York Times Bestseller, describing Israel’s success in fostering entrepreneurship. Held at the ADMI’s garden campus at Shalom House, the informal, 90-minute kitchen table chat saw 3 prominent business leaders – James Mworia from Centum, Yaniv Gelnik from Kabla, Daniel Ohonde from Real People brainstorm with Saul Singer on real-life dilemmas they are facing as they try to spur investment for entrepreneurship. Dr. Laila Macharia, Vice Chair of KEPSA, moderated the event – the first of the Conversations at ADMF series — which included a silent, exclusive audience (Ted Talks format), and was live-tweeted and webcast through YouTube. 

Here are some insightful take-aways: 

Know who you are…are you an innovator or an entrepreneur? 

Though used interchangeably, these two words don’t mean the same thing. Innovation involves a new idea, device or method or iterations and improvements upon an existing idea. It creates change; it disrupts the status quo, but it does not automatically translate to entrepreneurship or new business. Innovation comes when there is a gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.

Entrepreneurship is the practice of starting and managing a business, usually with considerable risk. Entrepreneurs are often innovators but not always. While always enterprising, entrepreneurs are not necessarily disruptive. Entrepreneurship also focuses on the tangible task of building a business, while innovations sometimes do not evolve beyond intangible ideas.

The people who both think big and the ones who think small are equally tired at the end of the day.

Entrepreneurship is about attitude, not academic qualifications. You have to focus on escalating the solution, not the problem.  Also, you may have all the theoretical knowledge for implementation, but no grit or commitment. To succeed as an entrepreneur, the most important trait is to be the kind of person that finishes what you start, and who doesn’t push to tomorrow what could have been done yesterday.


Building Intangible Value

Physical capital and human capital; while both are equally important, it’s not advisable to concentrate on one and neglect the other. The difference between Kenya and Israel is that Kenya is more concerned about physical capital while Israel is and always has been more focused on the value of human capital. In nurturing innovators and entrepreneurs, the mistake we make is that we address only one issue: access to finance. We must be ready to invest in the people themselves. Basic business skills that entrepreneurs overlook in their day to day activities are what pull them down. 

The unemployment and entrepreneurial gap in Kenya is a Kenyan problem which needs a Kenya-Israeli / Kenyan-‘country X’ solution. It is crazy for a country to stand alone economically. We all need each other.


Failure as seasoning 

The Kenyan entrepreneurial community should get better at acknowledging failure and letting it make them stronger. Did you know that a second time entrepreneur has a higher chance of succeeding than a first-timer? Success is the result, not the opposite, of failure.

In entrepreneurship, move fast and when you are not very sure, move faster. Don’t wait until the end to see your failure to get up and start dusting yourself off. Iterate your ideas as quickly as possible when you see your original idea is not working. You fail when you stop trying, in the eventuality that it doesn’t work out in the end, don’t give up. Success is not final, failure is not fatal either.

There is a culture of avoidance of risk in entrepreneurship. However, you cannot know whether it will work until you take the risk. Much as we cannot change the entire culture, we can create a sub-culture of risk-taking. Always remember when starting off, a bad decision is better than no decision.


Execution is everything 

In Kenya, you find people being nervous to share their ideas. Do not be afraid to tell people of your idea for fear they will steal your idea. You should tell everyone your idea! Get feedback, especially constructive feedback. The idea doesn’t help anyone. And once you start, you should expect imitators as soon as you are out the door. Execute your idea now, don’t look for excuses. You can’t be a successful shopkeeper if you keep your stock unsold.