Consulting with Ghanaian tech entrepreneurs: An MBA's experience

MEST, Saturday August 27th 2011

How it all started...
My decision to work with MEST was quick and spontaneous, though it doesn’t mean that I instantly found myself in MEST’s loop.

Everything started from the post I found on one of my favorite blogs - Erik Hersman’s White African (the post can be found here). There’s a common belief (supported by numerous evidence) that what we just see within Africa’s high-tech ecosystem is the beginning of rapid changes, driving emergence of several companies, powered by growing number of skilled and bright IT professionals. Metwater’s initiative plays an active role in triggering these changes and for someone coming from the IT-related business, missing an opportunity to experience all these from inside would be an unforgivable mistake:)

While reading Erik’s post I was about starting my MBA studies at Aalto School of Economics/Poznan School of Banking… and I eventually missed MEST’s 2009 consultants intake :/. Anyway, I kept this in mind and managed to apply a year later, which eventually made me a part of the team of consultants for the MEST entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs) from the class of 2011. And here's where the whole fun started : )

About the MEST MBA positions
Each year, MEST recruits MBA students and recent business school graduates to work with entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs) for one or two semesters, providing perspective and feedback to EITs on their business plans, competitive analysis, market research, financial projections and business strategy. MBAs meet weekly with EITs via phone, e-mail and Skype from their location in the U.S. or Europe, and are offered the opportunity to travel to Accra at least once per term to conduct a workshop and meet students in person.

Time to roll up the sleeves
Not having any prior experience of working with anyone from Sub-Saharan Africa, I was looking forward to meeting the entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs), who at that stage were in the 2nd year of their training at MEST, preparing to pitch their business ideas and business plans to the MEST Incubator for seed funding. And wow! those guys really rock! I can hardly recall meeting any group of young, aspiring entrepreneurs so motivated and determined and yet so bright and eager to learn!

First things first

After I was first introduced to my team (EITs), the first task was to shorten the list of potential ideas: the team had a pool of undeveloped ideas from which they had to identify which of them had the most commercial potential. This process can be challenging, so the question is, why shorten the list of potential ideas?
A high number of  potential ideas limits set of criteria to be used to filter them through, and the longer it takes, the less time you actually have for proper analysis of the most promising ones. Also, the entire idea selection process taking place before the final pitch, should be treated with a classical project management approach – setting up milestones, defining and dividing roles and tasks in a team etc.

A typical consulting session with EITs
To reiterate the role of the MBA consultant, I worked with entrepreneurs-in-training (EITs) for one or two semesters, providing perspective and feedback on EITs' business plans, competitive analysis, market research, financial projections and business strategy etc.

To start with, we tried to follow a fixed schedule for our meetings, usually spending together one hour per week. Now having all the collaboration tools sorted out, a typical consulting session starts with discussing all, new market information available from research work done the previous week (and of course it was helpful if everyone read this info before the meeting :)).

During these discussions, a lot more attention was given to issues (mostly the ones we felt were problematic and required going through a couple more options). Unfortunately I have the tendency to talk a lot during such meetings, it was necessary to make an effort  to give everyone present at the meeting the chance to express their opinions and thoughts :)

In my next post I'll share with you some experiences working with the tech entrepreneurs from Ghana and this will include tips for new MBA consultants and EITs. In the mean time, your comments and thoughts are welcome :)