A year ago, my friend, Ijeoma Akwiwu, and I decided to start Pivo Africa, a fintech for supply chain industry players in Africa. We poured ourselves into the idea and within six months completed our pre-seed funding round. Exactly six months ago today, we launched Pivo and it has been quite the journey. While the process isn’t new to me, I founded and sold a startup previously, having a co-founder to share the victories and burdens with makes things a lot easier. Ijeoma and I sat down to answer questions about the business and what it’s been like running Pivo with a close friend.
There are tons of articles about why you should not go into business with a friend and even more giving advice on what you should and should not do in case you do decide to have your friend as a business partner. Was this ever a concern for you when starting Pivo?
Nkiru: I don’t think it was a concern. It was at the back of our minds but not front and centre like, “Oh my God, we’re now about to run a business. How do we address all of these myths or notions around when two friends run a business?” There was always the consideration that as two friends about to build a business we need to be able to draw the line — make decisions as business partners and not just as friends and not let the fact that we’re business partners affect our friendship. Ijeoma and I had always had conversations about building something together. And knowing Ijeoma, knowing how principled she is, knowing how similar our personalities and approach to life are, it just made sense that this would be the next step for us. And we knew that, for each of us, there was nobody else we’d much rather be doing this with.
Ijeoma: I always like to say that Nkiru and I have seen ourselves grow both personally and career-wise. We’ve seen ourselves work as employees in other people’s companies. We’ve seen how when issues come up, how we have independently handled such issues. I remember Nkiru answering calls at 5 am screaming about her container. And I’ll come back from work and I’m telling her, “Can you just imagine what the hell happened in the office today?” We would also ask each other, “If it was you, what would you have done differently?” And we’d brainstorm on the issue. I choose to believe that we always took away one or two things that we applied in our separate careers and our separate lives.
Starting a business with Nkiru was a no-brainer because if there’s anyone I’m trusting with decisions, it’s her. She has the foresight and the audacity to do things. I’m strategic and calculated in whatever decisions I make. So I feel we complement each other. It was a matter of, we’ve seen and grown through too many things and doing Pivo together was just the ideal next step.
Nkiru: I also want to add that because we are both women, there is no ego. Even in our friendship. So we don’t have that in business.
Ijeoma, it’s interesting that you mentioned you trust Nkiru’s decision-making because that is what this question is about. You both have clearly defined roles within the company so when you cannot come to a 100% agreement you defer to the person in charge. But have there been times when you just could not seem to find a consensus or a common ground? And if there have been times like that, how did you eventually resolve those issues?
Ijeoma: We have a rule of thumb that no matter what the issue is, it’s me and her against it. At the end of the day, I trust Nkiru to make the right executive decisions. But sometimes the decisions don’t turn out well and it is a learning curve for us. When it comes to business I like to take calculated risks and I don’t like to feel like I wasted someone else’s money or time. That has always been my approach. But I have come to realise that risk is part of doing business. If it goes well, you fly. If not, you start again, not necessarily from scratch but from wherever it is that you had a fall. You’ve learnt so you’ll never make that mistake again.
Nkiru: Even if something goes wrong, there is no finger-pointing. No matter who made the decision, we don’t play the blame game.
You’re not newbies to the tech start-ups space and running businesses — Nkiru you founded Jalo, and Ijeoma you’ve had years of experience as a corporate lawyer. In what way is Pivo different from your previous experiences?
Nkiru: Number one, I’m not doing it alone. When I was building Jalo I was a solo founder and there was a lot of pressure that I had to shoulder alone and that can take a toll on anybody. So the fact that I’m not doing this alone and the fact that I’m doing this with my friend is a big difference. Another thing to note is that the tech start-up ecosystem is different now. When I was building Jalo, there was very little support for female founders and much less support for founders generally than we have now. There was not this much free flow or optimistic approach to funding that we’re seeing now. All of that did not exist back in 2016. Now people are cutting cheques in weeks. In 2016, it would take three months, five months, before you even see your first $100,000.
Ijeoma: Inasmuch as this is my first foray into the tech space and startup ecosystem, I am grateful that I have gone through the growing pains on someone else’s time and dime. The mistakes I made when I was a younger corporate lawyer, I cannot make them now. I have learnt the hard way and I’m doing even better with Pivo. But having been in the background doing all the research, advising to the best of my ability, doing monitoring and evaluation, I have now gotten sharper and I bring all that experience to Pivo.
Pivo was not the first thing you built together; there was SourcePro and the other one which will remain unnamed. How did you so firmly believe in Pivo and bring it this far?
Nkiru: It was just a conviction. Before Pivo, we would sit down in Ijeoma’s house in Katampe and brainstorm on whatever idea we had. So when the idea for Pivo came, there was just that conviction that this was the right one. Another way I used to signal that Pivo was the right one was the ease that has come with all the next steps.
Ijeoma: As Nkiru mentioned, there was ease. Yes, we’ve had our hard “nos” and “not yets” but the funny thing is that all the people that told us no have always come back one way or the other, maybe because someone referred us back to them or something.
Before you launched Pivo, you had a well laid-out plan with milestones and deliverables and a vision for where you wanted the company to be within six months. Would you say, looking at where Pivo is right now, that you’ve met your targets?
Ijeoma: I remember us setting a target for $1million for Pivo Capital and we grew past it before the deadline we set. Now Nkiru has shifted the goal post and we’re approaching that point as well. We just keep raising the bar even higher than what we set before. We’re also ensuring that we’re getting all the necessary contacts and customers and financiers that will help us scale to the new goal that we have set for ourselves.
Nkiru: Interestingly enough, this thing of goalpost shifting is from previous work experience. It forces everyone to move with a mindset of “We’re not there yet” because there is the tendency to relax and think, “We’ve done one million, we’re doing really well.” But we’ve only done one million. Now, let’s do five. We’ve done five, let’s do ten. We’ve done ten, let’s do fifteen. Yes, we have achieved some of what we set out to but that just means we’re just on step one, we have other steps before we reach the peak. For example, when we were raising our pre-seed round, we set one measly $200,000 for ourselves —
Ijeoma: It was actually $100,000. And then we got feedback of, “Isn’t this money too small?” We decided to put it at $150,000 and got feedback again that it was still too small for what we wanted to do. We ended up at $200,000 but eventually doubled that amount.
What would you say is the stand-out lesson for you over the past year; from ideation to where you are now?
Ijeoma: Lesson number one — it’s not actually the people closest to you that will come and help you or save you. They might come but cast your net as wide as possible. You don’t know who will believe in your vision and help you build it.
Lesson number two — inasmuch as you have people in your corner and they advise you, it’s not all the advice they give you that you should implement. Apply wisdom when sorting through all the advice that can truly help your business.
Lesson number three — you’re your own saviour. Believe in your own hype. Like Nkiru says, “It’s always day one for us.” Things don’t always go as planned but it’s our company, we’re the ones that get to steer this ship and we’ll just be careful how we steer it.
Nkiru: For me, the lesson is that one will kill a thousand, two will kill ten thousand. And we’re looking forward to killing not just ten thousand but “killing” one billion. The fact is that you can only go so far alone. You can go so much farther with your team and partners. Another lesson is to believe in yourself and what you’re building and the vision that led to your building in the first place. Because no one believes in you, it’s that belief in yourself that is going to carry you through.
First published on Medium.