“These are not sexy problems to solve. They’re very hard… If you're passionate about the problem, you find a way to solve it. Even if it's a way that doesn't seem scalable or bankable at first.”
Tobi Lafinhan, co-founder of Venture for Africa, talks about his experience building VFA. Starting with finding out Civil Engineering wasn't for him, to how Tobi & his co-founders built a recruitment service for startups that they would have appreciated when they began their careers.
Welcome to How Founders Build. My name is Sharon Landis and I’m your host.
Sharon Landis [00:05:34] I’m very excited to have Tobi Lafinhan. Did I pronounce that correctly?
Tobi... Close enough.
Sharon... to discuss what's going on in the entrepreneurial scene in Africa, and also his company Venture for Africa. So, Toby, welcome first of all, and can you introduce yourself and a bit about your company?
Tobi Lafinhan [00:24:36] My name is Toby. Toby Lafinhan. I'm Nigerian, I live in Ghana. I'm currently building a company called Venture for Africa. What Venture for Africa does is to connect talent that is looking to dive into the world of startups in Africa with startups that are hiring. We work with high growth companies. Companies that have raised anywhere from a million dollars and above, that are looking to scale into new markets or new spaces, and then connect them with slightly experienced talent. Anywhere from three plus years to five plus years of experience, typically with grad school behind them and some professional experience. We started this last year. It's been about a year and we've run two cohorts.
I'm glad to be on your show today Sharon.
Civil engineering intern to co-founder
Sharon Landis [01:07:43] Tell us about the path that lead you from, maybe not being so enchanted with being a Civil Engineer to your company.
Tobi Lafinhan [01:15:94] I always wanted to be a civil engineer, I think for as long as I could remember. I got the opportunity to do a number of internships. Very lengthy internships, the least of them was about three months, with different companies. The last one towards my final year in college, I looked around, and I was like, okay these guys are great, they're really awesome. But I just didn't see myself doing exactly that in the next five to ten years. I felt like I had to go look for something else. The way I run life generally is, I might not know exactly what to do, but I know exactly what I don't want to do. Civil engineering was the point in figuring out okay, this is great, you had a passion for this. But this is not something I want to spend the rest of my life doing. From there on and it was serendipity. I found myself in a startup in Lagos, which was a different town from where I grew up. I joined them for a couple of months, then ended up joining a different startup.
Then it's grown into this thing where I desired to build my own thing with a couple of my co-founders. Then Venture for Africa came about.
Sharon Landis [02:21:29] How did you start putting together Venture for Africa?
Tobi Lafinhan [02:24:09] One of the people I’d work with closely at my previous organization, we worked very closely on trying to shape out the best way to find talent to bring it to the program. We wanted to be very effective with the resources we're putting out in going out to speak these fantastic entrepreneurs. One thing that we kept seeing was that there wasn't any organization that was doing this and the way that we thought was best. And the other gap that we were seeing was that we were connected to fast growing teams that were relying heavily on their personal networks to find talent. For your first 20 employees, that's fine. But once you start getting bigger, you have a limited talent pool if that's all you're looking at.
On the other side of this problem, there's so many people that would consider working with tech startups, but don't have where to start from. If you're not that outgoing person that can network your way to success, send out cold emails, and just be very outgoing, you will miss out on certain opportunities. As I personally missed out on a lot of opportunities because I wasn't that outgoing.
From the story I've said so far, why I said the opportunity found me is because I was just doing what I was doing where I was, and someone spotted me and said, hey, I think you can do this. We're trying to put a bit more structure to that sort of serendipitous situation. We're looking out, and reaching out to people that we think could add value to startups and then creating a pathway, a bridge, for them to connect to those opportunities.
We're not just here to find talent and place talent
Sharon Landis [03:51:11] Really good recruiters are hard to find.
Tobi Lafinhan [03:54:01] Yeah, yeah they are. It's because it's an industry driven by volume, obviously depending on the business model that you run as a recruiter. You're either working on a number of leads that you can send, or the number of leads that get closed. If you're doing the former, your incentive is to get as many people as through the door as possible.
We try to separate ourselves from being a typical recruitment firm. We're not just here to find talent and place talent. Within a three month fellowship program we offer support to this talent. We assign them to mentors. We offer workshops that give them a bit more context about what it's like to work with startups. So, yes, you have the hardcore skills. But do you have the right context to be able to hit the ground running?
Within those first three months, it gives both sides of the funnel an opportunity to explore in a low risk environment. As a startup, you don't have to fully onboard the person, go through the whole payroll process, which can be very costly if the hire doesn't work out. And for the talent as well. There's only so much information you can find about the company online. There's nothing as good as being in there for three months. You don't have to worry about what it looks like if you want to leave after three months, because it's a defined experience. You also get paid for the work that you do. We wanted to make sure that these people weren't just working for free and gaining experience, but they're getting paid for the work that they’re doing. We've been able to convince the startups that, look, these are very skilled people, and with the right context they can deliver. So, yes, you should pay them for the work that they do.
Fellow profiles and finding hard-to-find talent
Sharon Landis [05:27:59] Are these people just out of university? Or are these people who have some experience? What does your candidate look like?
Tobi Lafinhan [05:34:09] We have three distinct buckets of profiles so far. The first profile is local and global talent, Africans and non-Africans in diaspora that are looking to dive into the world of startups. These are mostly people within first or second year MBA programs, or maybe they've worked one or two years. Or maybe straight out of college. The second group is people on the continent in other traditional industries. Either they've worked with banks or typical traditional businesses but want to explore startups. That also has a range of very experienced people to early stage talent. The final category is people already within startups looking to transition into different opportunities with different teams.
Although we have a wide spectrum of candidate profiles, the ones we've been able to successfully place are those with an average of three years of experience, and typically with grad school behind them or some level of equivalent experience.
Sharon Landis [06:36:76] And are there specific grad schools that you find are a good fit for your program?
Tobi Lafinhan [06:41:94] Honestly, so far we're just discovering that different kinds of programs have different kinds of roles within our fellowship that they apply for. Obviously the popular ones, the Harvard's, the Stanford's. We’re seeing from Europe as well, London Business School. A lot of people that are in business schools but are keen on working with startups. That's a general category that we've seen a lot of strong interest from. That’s the easy market, the low hanging fruit for us.
What we're hoping to discover, is to seek out people that could actually work at startups, but don't have typical profiles. They’re harder to find. Someone who has spent time in an adjacent industry, but hasn't been to business school yet or been to some kind of regular program or structured program where it's easy to then find them. The issue we face, particularly on this side of the continent is career departments over here are not as strong as you have in other bigger brand schools. Finding pools of talent is a bit tricky. Talent isn't all gathered in one place, like you'd find in more developed markets. We're currently looking for creative ways to be able to, if not find them, attract them towards us and explore how that can add value to our entire network of professionals.
Sharon Landis [07:59:92] What's one or two ways that you're finding these hard-to-find people?
Tobi Lafinhan [08:05:68] One of the ways we're doing that is creating a brand for ourselves. Being that go-to person to add value to people that might be looking already. If you're thinking about exploring startups, we're hoping that if you go on Google you find something about us.The other active way that we are trying to do that is to reach out to schools. That's a bit more difficult, because most schools don't have structured career departments that connect to organizations like ours. We're reaching out to the schools and trying to set something up, if there isn't something we can plug into already. Also connecting to incubators and accelerators and a lot of different training programs have become a mainstay in the tech industry in Africa. Plugging into those groups that might already have entrepreneurs in them, very early stage. As an entrepreneur, having experience working within the startup as well, could do a lot more for your entrepreneurship experience, if and when it comes time to building your own thing. Accessing those pools of talent is something that we're exploring as well.
The startups: fintech and banking
Sharon Landis [09:12:57] What kind of entrepreneurial businesses are you working with, size-wise and industry-wise? And what exciting things are they doing?
Tobi Lafinhan [09:22:84] Right now fintech is the hottest thing on the continent. That’s financial companies that are using tech. We have a lot of new banks, still tech companies but focused on trying to disrupt the banking industry in particular. I wouldn’t say we have specific targets when it comes to startups. The definition we used to target partners is if you've raised some form of capital. The only reason that's a big target is we want our fellows to get paid. If you have raised some kind of funding, then there's a structure to your organization that our fellows can easily plug into. One thing that happens with fellowship programs like this, if you put them with smaller sized teams, it becomes a very ad hoc arrangement, or very fly by the wire sort of thing- everything isn’t structured. Which is fine for startups.
Because of the value that we're hoping to add, we're targeting much later-stage companies. We have a tendency to lean towards tech companies, or tech-adjacent companies, because that's the industry that we're familiar with, and that's industry that's currently growing very quickly. We are exploring ways of placing talent in more traditional industries. That's further down the line, for now we're focused on the tech market.
Sharon Landis [10:39:61] Is there anything that you can talk about, any of the products that these companies are working on?
Tobi Lafinhan [10:45:15] Yes, absolutely. There’s one company called Carbon. They're one of the new banks that I mentioned. They started off offering a pay later service. They extend credit to you. As you pay back the credit, the bigger the amount of credits you can access later on. They started out, maybe in 2016 and they've grown into a micro-finance bank. They offer debit card services and other typical banking services that you see. Essentially, run a bank without a physical bank.
We also have a team called Turaco, based in Kenya. They're offering insurance services to the underserved. They’re able to work with bigger insurance companies to package certain services and break them down into smaller pieces that are more accessible, from the bottom to the lower class of individuals. When you think about insurance, mostly only the middle class and top class have things insured. The bottom to middle class can't understand why they should, or don't have disposable income enough, to access these services. Turaco is trying to make that more accessible and available to the bottom of the pyramid.
Another company is Sokowatch. They offer supply chain logistics to smaller sized stores. So, your Walmart’s your Amazon’s, they have built out big supply chains where they can access suppliers, take advantage of bigger discounts and wholesale discounts. But for your smaller mom and pop shops, maybe a chain or maybe just a single shop, they don’t have the ability to access those kinds of discounts, but also the data and insights that comes from how you your stock is moving. Do you know if this product you're stocking is moving as quickly as possible? Are people keen on buying another product that you're not currently carrying? How can you get all those insights? Sokowatch offers a platform to restock and also track how their stock is moving, to know how to make better decisions on what to stock and how to price things. They've built a credit service on top of that. With all that data, you can extend credit to people that can move goods as quickly as possible at the best price possible.
Sharon Landis [09:12:57] I've dealt with a lot of recruiters, in my time, and I've never come across a recruiter that did anything more than “butts in seats” kind of thing. Sometimes you come across somebody that does site visits, but it's nothing compared to what you're talking about.
Tobi Lafinhan [13:26:73] We started from a place where we were in the midst of the problem. We saw the gaps. These are not very, for lack of a better word, sexy problems to solve. They’re very hard. And our parents rant about, if you're passionate about the problem, then you would want to find a way to do it. Even if it's a way that doesn't seem scalable or bankable at first.The North Star that we have is to add value to both sides of our funnel. Both the fellows that are coming in and the startups building solutions. We try to understand the startups business, up to the point that we can speak about what they're doing. That shows an understanding that we're able to probably find the right person, to be able to take that solution of that company, a bit, just a bit further.
Fellow qualification and support
Sharon Landis [14:13:15] When a fellow starts with you, do you have a qualification process?
Tobi Lafinhan [14:18:79] We've made it very simple. The three month experience that they go through is an extension of the hiring process that gives more valuable information about what this person can do.
There's an application form. We ask a couple of simple questions, we get your resume as well. For those that we find interesting, we have a quick conversation, 20 to 25 minutes, to understand more about why you're looking into this space and this particular startup that we're offering. We assess our conversation and all we know about you, and if we think it’s worth it, add you to a short list. The startup decides who they want to speak to. We usually recommend they do one or two interviews.
The point is to lower the risk enough for both parties to reach a quick decision. A decision that you can still get out of if things don't go so well. That way we can wrap up the recruitment process ideally in two to three weeks. You can get started, and get introduced to the team, and get working with the team. After the three months, both parties have enough information to decide. Or decide that, we’re going to go separate ways after the fellowship.
Sharon Landis [15:28:82] It can be really scary when you’re new, and things go wrong, and you don’t know what to do. I’m sure a lot of people do better than they would just knowing that there’s somebody in their corner.
Tobi Lafinhan [15:39:42] That is what we really try to communicate to the fellows. A lot of people ask, why can't I just apply to this company directly? Part of what you've just said is what we're offering, in addition to, just being a billable role at this company.
Sharon Landis [15:53:43] You're walking with them for the first three months.
Sharon Landis [15:56:24] What other support do you offer your fellows, while they're in this three month program?
Tobi Lafinhan [16:02:40] We connect them to mentors and workshops. For the mentorship, it's all about speaking to the fellows to understand, what are your plans? What are you looking to grow in? Then looking through our network of more advanced people and connecting them together.
Sharon Landis [16:19:87] Having a mentor is so important in the beginning. Someone who really cares.
Tobi Lafinhan [16:24:46] Exactly. What we found out about this is, you might as well reach out to someone and ask for them to mentor you. And maybe they would. What people have found good is- I want a platform that brings us together, and then I can take you from there. We're offering that platform, saying, we know a bunch of these mentors. What we know about this person could make sense for you as a fellow. Then we introduce them. It's a relationship that's completely driven by the fellow and mentor. We check in once in a while to make sure everything is good, but we want it to be as organic as possible. So it doesn't feel like a relationship that only needs to exist within the program. Our hope is that after three months, this is someone you can reach out to, even as you grow in the industry and space that you're in.
Sharon Landis [17:10:40] How are you getting your mentors? Are people keen to sign up?
Tobi Lafinhan [17:14:68] Yeah, they are. For now it's through our personal networks. People that we've come across and done great work with in the past. We want mentors that we can trust. If we've worked with you before and we've been in and around the same ecosystem for a while, there's that level of trust that exists. So, we're happy to reach out to you to find out if you have 30 to 45 minutes every two weeks to speak to someone about something they're passionate about and trying to grow in.
Startup funding in Africa
Sharon Landis [17:40:83] Something I read about, I think from 2018, people who are trying to get investments and investment funds going in Africa, one of their complaints is that most of the money that’s coming in is from outside of Africa. What are your thoughts on that?
Tobi Lafinhan [18:00:11] The US, the west, they are more developed markets, more developed financial markets as well. It only makes sense that that's where the capital is. Although there's capital already within the continent, I think it's still very old and traditional capital. If you look at the US and the kind of capital that is making its way down here, it's not capital that goes into stock markets or traditional industries. It's very adventurous capital.
As we have more exists and more successes in our ecosystem here in Africa, who will begin to see more of local capital going in. I think there's already, for example, there's something called Future Africa. It was set up by Aboyeji, who setup Flutterwave and also Andela. He set up two successful startups that have raised significant amounts of funding and have grown. He's exited those companies and now funding other companies. That's how ecosystems grow. If you look back to when Silicon Valley started becoming a thing, once one person became successful, the capital from that success fed back into the ecosystem to put more successes through and so on and so forth. Give or take, in about 5 to 10 years, there will be more local entrepreneurs funding a lot of these companies that we’re seeing, in addition to capital is still coming from the outside as well.
Sharon Landis [19:20:21] You don't see that capital that's coming into Africa from North America is a bad thing or impeding you?
Tobi Lafinhan [19:29:81] No, from my perspective, I think not. Obviously capital comes with strings sometimes. The tech ecosystem is pretty much connected, both home and abroad. There are shared sentiments and shared values. We still tell people to be careful the kind of capital they bring onboard. Once an investor has a track record of, not just investing in companies in the US, but investing in companies on the continent, you're more comfortable taking on that kind of funding. Y Combinator is a great example of a company that has invested in a lot of startups in the US, and is now expanding its focus to Africa, to India. I have no problem with taking on good capital.
The sales cycle and handling the Nos
Sharon Landis [20:13:90] Where they're building blocks along the way that didn't look like building blocks, things that seemed more negative, and then they turn out to be blessings?
Tobi Lafinhan [20.23.22] We're early days. I'm sure more of these problems or what you just described would appear in various forms. So far what has been very interesting is understanding the sales process and the sales cycle. Whenever we have an idea and we have something that we think people want, we think of the process of getting people to pay for it and people to want what we're offering, as a very linear process. I have a solution. I have a customer. I told them about my solution. They like the solution. I get paid for the work that I do.
Sharon Landis [20:56:35] Tons of money. Tons and tons of money.
Tobi Lafinhan [20.59.27] Exactly. As much as I read about how difficult it is, and how for every one yes you get, there’s 99 nos, there’s nothing like being in the process yourself and being in front of the nos. And understanding how to navigate the nos. What has been interesting for me is finding that, when someone says no to you, or doesn't accept the offer that you bring it's not so much about what you’re offering. It’s just timing. There are things that people have reached out to me, that I think are pretty cool. But at the moment, I can't just take advantage of it. The trick there is the person staying in touch. That's something I've learned, just staying in touch. There are so many emails I receive that I see it and I'm like, okay I'm going to get to this. And then I don't eventually get to it. On the other side of that, the person might think- he's not interested, but I am. I just haven't gotten to it.
It’s just about sending the reminders, thoughtful reminders, not bugging the person, but just checking in once in a while to say hey- looking forward to hearing back from you and things like that. Sounds like a simple truth, that what I've learned so far. I've not been a sales person in my life, so it's really a new experience. Learning from the emails I send and the emails that get responses, and how the responses even come through the sales process.
Sharon Landis [22:16:92] When I'm on the buyer side, I see people giving up way too soon. I say no and I don't really have a reason. I can see they're completely deflated. They don't know how to keep the conversation going, because it might not be no in three months. Don't give up on me as a buyer.
Tobi Lafinhan [22.38.60] Absolutely. You put it into words what I was trying to communicate. The fact that people say no means so many different things, not just no. It's being able to understand that, and take that information and figure out how to keep the conversation going in any way, shape or form. I’m still learning but that’s definitely one thing I've seen so far.
Sharon Landis [22:59:73] Is there anything else you want to tell us about? Anything at all that you want to ask the world for. We're listening.
Tobi Lafinhan [23:06:24] Now we're just about to hire our first team member. We need to help build our community. So far we've run two cohorts. We received 600 plus applications. People interested in startups, going into numbers of 1500. We haven't found a way to really engage that community. Right now, all the community receives from us is one or two articles a month about how they can build their profile. Also, whenever we have a cohort that's running, we share opportunities with them. We want to take that relationship a lot further. Even if we can't place you at a company, there should be still a value exchange that's going on within the month that you're within our funnel.
We're looking for a community manager to find creative ways to keep that community engaged. So whenever we do have opportunities, it's not a connection that you have to warm up, it's a connection that's already warm, that can plug straight into any opportunity that we have. Three, four years back, when I was to just starting out in my career, I would have appreciated a service like this. I'm only building something that I would have benefited from earlier in my career. And seeing how I can continue to scale that with the rest of my team. And also with the insights that we get from all the solutions that we're putting out month after month.
But yeah, we're looking for our first team member to help us build our community. A community manager.
Sharon Landis [24:46:86] This has been really interesting. I love your energy, I just see great things for you.
Tobi Lafinhan [24:52:65] Thank you so much. This is a very fun conversation.