The entrepreneurial journey—especially the social entrepreneur’s journey—can be very exciting and fulfilling, while at the same time very challenging. Fulfilling because it feels like you are living your life’s purpose, exciting because you are tackling societal issues that are close to your heart, and the potential to create employment for many other young people can also be very inspiring and push you to limits that you didn’t think possible for yourself.
For the most part, I have enjoyed the journey of building SophieBot –a start-up I co-founded which has as its primary motif the use of artificial intelligence to answer questions young people have concerning sexual and reproductive health through a mobile chat application.
I have certainly gained years of wisdom and knowledge through this experience, far beyond what I would know and understand without it.
As SophieBot, we have had quite a number of noteworthy achievements, including participation in the I-Am Accelerator competition by the United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA-KENYA) and winning a seed grant worth $10,000 at our inception, during the ideation stage. We also had the privilege of going through acceleration and incubation at one of the best incubation hubs in Kenya. In this ecosystem for entrepreneurs, I had the honor of interacting with incredible young people doing amazing things to make our society a better place. These people (or individuals) have not only inspired me but also challenged me to scale to greater heights. Subsequently, I have had many opportunities including being selected to be a One Young World (OYW) Ambassador in 2017, as well as joining several fellowship programs. However, among all these, the Y&Y program has had the greatest impact on my journey. It was during the six months of the program that I had to make difficult decisions concerning the future of SophieBot.
Change is a force that we, more often than not, resist in the motions of life. Former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson once observed, “He who rejects change is an architect of decay. The only human institution that rejects progress is the cemetery”.
In these words is a bitter truth which I have come to acknowledge. As an entrepreneur, what do you do when there is no “progress” at all? YOU PIVOT, yes I said it! I know it’s hard, it can be frustrating and even make you feel like you are a failure. One of the greatest fears of entrepreneurship is the realization that there is a need to take a different direction from that which you had hoped your start-up would take, having projected your growth and all. It is a very frightening, confusing and delicate time for a budding entrepreneur because you feel like you are starting all over again, yet you had imagined that by now you’d be closer to achieving your dreams. Human beings are stubborn and almost naturally resistant to change. Instead of looking for fresh opportunities to grow, we prefer the pain that is familiar. We almost impulsively choose it over the fear of uncertainty. Change is hardly ever an easy or fun process, especially for your start-up that you’ve literally birthed and seen grow and become something that has added to your sense of identity.
For SophieBot, the picture we had painted of ideal progress was this: to be at revenue in a year, having successfully implemented one or two of our business models for revenue generation and to have grown our user base from 20% to even 30% every month, which would have meant that we would be impacting more lives of young people in their sexual and reproductive health lives. This, however, was not the case. Growth and scalability seemed elusive, revenue generation seemed impossible and the social impact we had hoped to achieve in that period of time was intangible, coming to terms with this reality was nothing but easy.
These were some of the factors that influenced our decision to pivot. We did what we had to do and went back to the drawing board. Going back to the drawing board, in itself was not a seamless process, considering various team dynamic issues that arose as result of this decision, we, however, were able to come out stronger and better as a team even though that meant some team members branching off.
Since then we have been building our way up with a new idea that would help us achieve all the goals we had hoped to attain. Instead of relying exclusively on AI and app-based technology, at this stage we are looking at exploiting an SMS based platform using USSD to relay the same information to our users. It will expand our audience to those in rural areas who neither have access to the internet nor smartphones, yet still, need this information. We also intend to build a web-based platform/community where young people can share real-life experiences and lessons among peers with regard to their sexual and reproductive health.
It is important for me to remind myself (and as encouragement to other entrepreneurs going through this phase of their journey) that despite having to make a painful decision to pivot all the work we had done over the past two years, it was neither futile nor a waste. All the data in terms of the questions that we previously received from our users will be used to inform the structure of the content we will relay to our users. The database will also serve as a reference point of what young people really want to know and therefore help us better meet their needs.
Sometimes it is impossible to look at challenges or difficult times as gifts while one is in the midst of them, but looking back, I am wiser than when I first began as far as business decisions are concerned. I can confidently say that through what seemed to be a failure, I am a better entrepreneur.
The storms that we face as entrepreneurs, despite having a fighting entrepreneurial spirit, cannot be weathered alone. I entirely attribute my “bouncing back” to the Y&Y fellowship program, for the opportunity I was given to walk with mentors who have been very instrumental in making my thought process soberer. Especially at a time when the emotions of frustrating times attempted to be the determinants of my decision-making process. The encouragement and critical guidance I received (still continue to receive) from them has gone a really long way to push me through this defining moment on my entrepreneurship journey.
As young people who are visionary and very ambitious in chasing our dreams, building start-ups, changing the world, my advice is this: 1) be kind to yourself when things aren’t working out, take a break if you have to – which I did. Sometimes, “doing nothing” is the most productive thing worth doing. 2) Choose to allow yourself to go through that painful process of growth, do not resist change for it is only when we are uncomfortable that growth takes place. 3) Finally, remember not to try to do it all by yourself, because you can’t and it’s only harder that way
Yunus&Youth Fellow Beverly Mutindi is a 23-year-old social entrepreneur based in Nairobi, Kenya.