Features

Start-up success in Senegal

3 July 2018
ITC News
Lessons learned the hard way inspired CONCREE’s drive to create a relationship management software for entrepreneurs

I decided to start up an e-commerce business in Senegal back in 2011. At the time I was still a student at the University of Grenoble in France. However, I initially abandoned my entrepreneurship dream because I lacked critical elements, including co-founders with complementary skills,access to experienced people for advice, and a lack of access to information.

Still, a year later together with six friends I formed a working group to design a solution to help young entrepreneurs find the resources they need to start their own businesses. We ended up building a digital platform to connect co-founders with mentors, which would also provide vital information to entrepreneurs. We called it CONCREE.

Three of us, now co-founders of CONCREE, left our jobs in France at the end of 2013 to go back to Senegal.

To be able start our activities we decided to run two crowdfunding campaigns, which led us to raise €10,000 ($11,800) in start-up capital. We also learned a lot from our target beneficiaries: they were looking for better ways of connecting co-founders and mentors to be connected, and better access to start-up information. They also wanted help in transforming their ideas into successful start-ups.

PILOT PHASE

As we didn’t have enough experience to run a business incubation service, we set up a prototype and tested it through a pilot phase. The prototype included business models, value propositions, information on how to set up a lean startup and customer development methodologies. The service was run both virtually and physically.

We started with a cohort of 15 diverse start-ups with different levels of progress and in several sectors. These included agriculture; digital; fishing; fashion design; logistics; e-commerce; electronics; and education. This helped us test our incubation model in different situations.

At the end of the pilot phase we introduced minor changes and refined our business incubation service to help entrepreneurs make progress through three steps: idea validation; developing an operational business model; and developing a scalable business model.

The pilot phase has already had an impact: the three most successful startups participating in the pilot phase now have an annual revenue of about $3 million.

With our incubation model validated, we continued our work with both virtual and physical incubation models. However, we quickly faced difficulties when it came to generating revenue. On the one hand, entrepreneurs were not inclined to pay for virtual incubation and, for the most part, they were unable to fully pay for the service. Since we are a private enterprise, it was almost impossible to apply for grants.

We operated our first business model pivot by changing our paying customers to business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-government (B2G) models and building a strong partnership strategy.

Over a nine-month period we set out to build a partnership with ADEPME, the Senegalese agency of small and medium-sized enterprises. It helped subsidize the fees for entrepreneurs to benefit from our start-up training and provided 12-hour start-up coaching programmes.

Although we were now generating revenue, there was no follow-up. The partnership with the SME agency wasn’t renewed after it ended so we knew we had to think again.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

An opening came with the Mandela Washington Fellowship who gave us the opportunity to visit Nevada in the United States of America in 2016. There we met, interacted with and learned from experienced entrepreneurs and different entrepreneur-support programmes. We presented our virtual incubation platform to get feedback on the right scalable business model to adopt. Something magical happened.

We were approached by Matt Westfield, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Entrepreneur Assembly (EA) Nevada, a start-up mentoring organization based in Reno, Nevada. Matt was looking for a digital platform to upscale the organization to the whole state. He offered to use, on a subscription-based model, our digital platform to manage the mentoring programme in a state level EA. We accepted his proposal straightaway, knowing it could be a way to increase our profile. Many entrepreneur-support organizations were using customer relationship management (CRM) and communication software such as Hubspot, Salesforces or Slack.

They were using these tools because there were none specifically designed to manage relationships with entrepreneurs.

We assessed EA’s needs and designed the first version of our entrepreneur relationship management (ERM) system, which we named LezGo. After EA Nevada, we acquired two more customers in Nevada and Westfield became our business partner.

After more than a year, we started to see some progress. LezGo is now being used in nine countries on three continents: Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Switzerland, Uganda, and the United States.

We work with different types of customers: confirmed and experienced incubators; newly created incubators looking for tools and orientations in setting up and managing their incubation programmes; and public and development organizations supporting entrepreneurship activities such as German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), USAID and the International Trade Centre (ITC).

It has been a long and fruitful run for us. Our main objective this year is to maintain our upwards progression and to validate a business model that could be scalable.
We want this success story to continue.