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My biggest business lesson from 2019 starts with this:

One of the most painful things that ever happened to me was shutting down @elementaledge in 2017 after spending 12 years trying to build an international-level multimedia studio.

At the core of my failure were two things:
1. My constant inability to bring in consistent business.

Marketing, sales or business development were not within my skillset. I hated it. I was exceptionally good on the creative side, but awkward and introverted on the client side. I couldn't close deals to save my life.

a) Founders have to do the tough things, and the toughest of things is selling the vision to the team and to the clients. For introverted tech-focused founders like myself, this is where a business-savvy co-founder would have brought much-needed balance to the force.
b) There are things that only the founders can sell well. And part of that is the excitement of vision, purpose and shared goals. Being at the cutting edge of tech meant our language and process was too unique for the average external sales person or marketing person to grasp.
c) Lack of money to run a business is a vicious cycle: you can't recruit good biz dev people, your team is constantly unmotivated, culture breaks down, reputation takes a hit as you miss payroll, you're all broke AF and the quality of work degrades as people look for side gigs.
2. I absolutely refused to bribe anyone or give kick-backs in order to get business or get paid faster. Our major clients were advertising agencies, and if you've worked in this industry, you know the kick-back drama.

There's no lesson here; I still refuse to bow to corruption.
Obviously, there were lots of other failures from different perspectives/people and too many to list.

But as a leader, you take full responsibility, and I know a lot of the other challenges would have been resolved (or reduced) if there was consistent cash-flow in the business.
So (the lesson is coming, I promise).

After almost three years of struggling with the same issue at @FundiBots, I decided to do something about it. Our fundraising wasn't working. I still was more interested in the technology, and kept looking for a fundraising lead.
With the help of the @SegalFoundation's African Visionary Fellowship and amazing friends and advisors, I finally figured out how to many fundraising comfortable and exciting for me.

Quite simply, it involved three things:
i) Focus on developing relationships around shared goals.

As an introvert, I decided to invest more time in meaningful conversations with partners around shared purpose & goals. I love stories and deep conversations, so this was something I could leverage very, very well.
I would have conversations with potential funders and realize early on that our partnership would not be a good fit, but I still enjoyed the discussions around impact, business and the general landscape of education.

It opened my world-view and gave me incredible perspective.
ii) Less faceless grant applications.

While these have huge financial upside, they didn't quite work for us. Our work at @FundiBots is strange. It's not the kind that translates well in an application. Shout out to @AshokaAfrica and @echoinggreen for believing in us very early.
I realized quickly that writing a grant application in which you're trying to sell a radical idea while competing with thousands of very professional and experienced grant-writers was not the best use of my time.

Especially not when we had no proof of impact or effectiveness.
iii) Highly curated funder prospecting.

It was more rewarding to sift through hundreds of prospects, do inquiries and get advice in order to zero in on one potential funder before our first meeting or call.

This meant better conversations and stronger partnership pipelines.
iv) Gamifying my process.

When your background is in normal business (service or product in exchange for money), then fundraising is weird. You're basically asking someone to give you their money - for "free" - for an idea you think may work.

It was very uncomfortable for me.
But, as I learnt from a fundraising workshop back in 2016, you should never let your discomfort stand in the way of changing lives.

One morning, during a call a few years ago with one of my advisors (shout-out Eve K.), I realized I could gamify fundraising.
I had been studying and practicing video game design and I was fascinated by the Skinner box and gamification systems and right in the middle of that call, I got an epiphany:

I could leverage what I had learnt about gamification to reduce my frustration with fundraising.
So, I "off-loaded" the discomfort of consistently checking in with potential donors to a CRM system I customized.

[This is also me advocating for my personal philosophy that widespread learning + experimentation leads to razor-sharp intuition and faster problem solving.]
And so the biggest 2019 lesson is this:

Focusing on developing partnership relationships leads to excellent partners.

There are conversations I had early on where I realized we would have no control over how we did our work. Or that the pressure to grow fast would be too risky.
There are also lots of grant applications we get sent (or find online) that would be an excellent fit for us, but the reputation of the funder was less than stellar, leading to stories of very toxic donor-grantee relationships.

Having a values-filter helps us focus better.
I never want @FundiBots to get funding for the sake of it. It has to serve a shared goal that leads with agency, dignity and empathy for our beneficiaries and our team.

And sometimes it means staying small, or waiting a little longer (while panicking in the middle of the night).
But, @FundiBots has been able to get some of the best funding partners and advisors. Funders who support with empathy, and who trust in local leadership. Funders who are happy to jump on a call to brainstorm project implementation with you, however risky or crazy the ideas are.
We founders and entrepreneurs are constantly under tremendous pressure from all sides, and many times, we are battling situations that are 100% outside our control (hello COVID-19). Yet, we have to find ways to course-correct, pivot and re-calibrate almost on a daily basis.
Sometimes you're leading a team of 5 people, and other times you're leading thousands of people scattered across the world.

But having funders, or investors who reach out to check in with you and ask how they can support during times of crisis significantly relieves pressure.
But there is no solid peace of mind for any founder or entrepreneur than knowing that they have a good, focused team that is committed to the work, the vision and above all, the beneficiaries.

So, major shout-out to the entire Fundi Bots family.

Onwards & upwards!

E&OE excepted. Apologies for the atrocious, character-limited grammar.
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