Remote consulting with startups, my experiences

From the Archives, Friday August 26th 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 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 just 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. And here's where the whole fun had 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 meet “my” EITs. And, wow! those guys really rocked! I can hardly recall meeting before any group of young, aspiring entrepreneurs being so motivated and determined and in the same time so bright and eager to learn! The first challenge we had to face was to shorten the list of potential projects – later I realized that this seemed to be a regular issue among most of the teams :) Multiplying the number of potential projects limits sets of criteria to be used to filter them through. And the longer it takes the less time is left for proper analysis of those most promising. All what happens with the selected project(s), before the final pitches, should be treated with a classical project management approach – setting up milestones, defining and dividing roles in a team, etc.  
A typical consulting session with EITs... 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 is 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, but it was necessary to make an effort  to give everyone present at the meeting the chance to express their opinions:) Based on the experience brought from our work together, here’re a couple of advices I would have for the potential MBA consultants:

  • MBA advice #1: There’s a set of expectations coming together with the consultant’s role, and they vary according to the stage of project(s) / ideas the EITs are working on.

  • MBA advice #2: You may expect anything from being a coach, a devil’s advocate or an advisor – sometimes you need to force yourself not to give ready solutions (but let the team understand the concept well by themselves).

  • MBA advice #3: Sometimes you need to challenge the ideas by raising difficult questions (to make sure it is well thought through.

  • MBA advice #4: The EITs are serious about their projects and they expect the time you commit for them to be used effectively - sticking to commitments and adjusting your role to the situation is crucial.

  • MBA advice #5: Make sure not to miss the trip to Ghana! :) Visiting MEST was filled with inspiring and exciting moments which cannot be missed – they shape you as a professional and make you a dedicated believer in people’s ability to push this world forward with bright ideas and unshaken will to make them come true.

And here are also a couple of advice for EITs:

  • EIT advice #1: Start thinking about your business ideas as early as possible! Time is flying and there’re so many things to cover! You’ll spend hundreds of hours researching the market, talking to people, trying to make sense out of tons of information collected.

  • EIT advice #2: Before you start working with an MBA consultant think a bit about the workflow you’d like to follow. It could involve i.e. creating a dedicated space on Google Docs for shared documents, using a freeware, project management tool (where you can set milestones, track progress, assign tasks to each of the team members, etc.) - this will also help you a lot in your reports to your faculty.

My take aways I mentioned above about NOT missing the opportunity to visit Accra - there’re several reasons for that. First one - the city. If you ask me about my strongest memories from Accra (apart from MEST) I’m going to answer: tro-tros & markets – right in this order:) I’m aware that what I actually saw during my one-day, flash-like excursion was just a tiny part of what the city has to offer. But nevertheless this stays with you for quite a while. The incredibly friendly people, the heat, the traffic, the noise – yes, this all is a bit overwhelming but if right now I had a chance to jump in the plane and get back there, I wouldn’t think twice :) Experiencing MEST is even more exciting. Just think about that – attracting Ghana’s brightest young minds, exposing them to extensive IT-based, entrepreneurial training, providing them with life examples of successful, prominent entrepreneurs and creating environment for developing the best projects they come up to (through investment and incubation). This is the only program of this kind I’m aware of and it’s awesome! Our (MBAs) stay at MEST was scheduled in a way to give us an opportunity to meet with all teams graduating this year. We'd spent much time together discussing their business ideas, giving feedback and lecturing (practical lectures-workshops equipping the students with additional tips for business plan preparations and pitching ideas). What I particularly consider as something really valuable were all the informal chit-chats I managed to have with students, faculty and also the entrepreneurs running the incubed projects. These couple of days spent at MEST left a strong feeling of something incredibly important and fun taking place over there. For all of you representing the global startup ecosystem – keep a close eye on MEST and Accra! :)