I started 2021 with a lot of expectations, and to be fair, so did everyone else. It was a New Year and I wasn’t alone in the chase of getting new things going.
Early into the year, my startup — Gecko5 had successfully raised Angel Investment, I had recruited my very first team and really nothing was going to stop me. One thing that I didn’t have all the answers for was uncertainty.
What made going into 2021 more peculiar for me were 3 things:
- I was going to be a father.
- I was launching a startup
- and I was quitting a job.
I was starting the year taking on 3 very hard positions. Each of which comes with a fair share of uncertainty strong enough to alter the course of anyone’s life.
I started Gecko5 on 23 October 2020. The first persons I contacted were ‘Bimbo (who is now the Technology Lead at Gecko5) and ‘Duzie (my Creative Director at DDB Lagos). Contacting Bimbo was to set the development in motion, reaching out to Duzie was to test for validation and clarity of idea; essentially as Duzie was a magical mix of football fandom and rational creative thinking. With positive signals from both ends, I got more invested in the idea.
By the time I would contact Ikechukwu (my friend and colleague at DDB Lagos) and brief him about the project, Gecko5 and the development of our flagship product Ballgecko were fully underway.
Leaning into why I started Gecko5, the idea/venture predates back some years before October 2020, 3 years before this at least. About that time, I started observing different sub-cultures and communities in Africa juxtaposed to other parts of the world and I found a problem I could empathise with. The sports fan experience in Africa was largely inefficient and across different sports for fans in Africa, we were outsiders looking in. Especially when you consider the upward trajectory of our music and entertainment scene, there was no vehicle for fan culture and community in Sports across the continent.
Some years before my WhatsApp message to Bimbo, I had shared my thoughts with ‘Gbenga Ajiboye, a dynamic fast-rising business analyst that had a sharp eye for value estimation and business structuring. Each time I spoke with ‘Gbenga, I would have a refined picture of what it was that needed to be built to solve the problems I had identified.
So when it was 23 October 2020, I had conceptualised the solution (to the problems I had identified) to be a media engine that runs with a community at the base. I had been inspired by the quality of digital storytelling by Bleacher Reports, the Athletic, and others, and saw the opportunity to create something better and different, a community-first digital media publication… Ballgecko.
Good to go…
Fast forward to December 2020, Bimbo and I had built the first version of Ballgecko and I was already pitching to investors, and key colleagues to join the mission I was starting.
By December, Ikechukwu had joined as Co-Founder and we were creating pilot content and pitching to VCs amidst recruiting our first colleagues. We had no headway with investment until 12.15 am on Saturday 9th January 2021 (just 6 days to our first kick-off date with our new colleagues). That morning (or midnight, if you will), I was pitching my startup to one of the many Black VC rooms on Clubhouse, and someone in the audience was curious enough to send me an RFP via a Twitter DM and that started off our path to funding and financing. There is a lot more to this story, but here I am just exploring the timelines between having an idea and the process of getting it off the ground.
I wanted to build a product that aggregates community around sports and simplifies conversations amongst fans, however, I’ve had to face a lot of critical issues and considerations that I didn’t imagine having to deal with.
Ikechukwu ‘Ikay’ went through his own period of immersion into the sheer power and vision of what I wanted to achieve. This was a significant aspect of our partnership and a key difference from my earlier collaboration with people to start businesses. I made it clear to Ikay that he would have to be convicted of the idea himself. By late February into March, Ikay was fully convinced of the project. He bought in fully.
Again, I cannot stress how pivotal this was to our success as a company. Essentially, Gecko5 is a vision-focused company and not a product-focused company. We have a clear vision of what the future of sports could(should) be for fans and we are committed to making it a reality. What this meant was that our launch and execution of Ballgecko would follow the pattern of - Build, Test, Measure, Iterate. Something that most of our early colleagues would not understand.
We created, we learnt, we pivoted, we built forward.
I am ending 2021, empty. I have emptied myself to the last drop, chased the mission, given it all I could give, and amidst the evolution of Gecko5, I have experienced a year filled with lessons that have left me inspired enough to share.
Measure what matters
In the early days of Gecko5, what I considered lacking was talent and resources to drive more traction. I figured we would be able to do more if we had more people to produce more. I was big on quality, but I needed to give that one user more to experience when on Ballgecko. For more than half the year, my focus was heavily on creating, testing, and creating some more. Not so much on reach, and repeat usage. This invariably led to a bloated operation without significant product adoption depth. By shifting my focus to measure what matters, we deepened our core focus; solving for fans and getting product adoption(going from 68 subscriptions to 7000+ subscriptions).
Managing people became difficult with integrating measurability into task assignment and process management. When work becomes measurable, faffing becomes difficult and it gets harder for people to do performative work.
This has become an essential approach for me; every project or action is reviewed to ensure it is measurable. And most importantly that the metrics are aligned to the core goals or overall direction of Gecko5.
People, scaling & teams
One thing that became clear to me over the months was the sheer size of the cost of creating media content and scaling that content.
By our original design, Gecko5 was a media company and our recruitment focus was on creators, writers, and broadcasters. Creating new ideas/shows most often than not meant a new hire.
However, here is the challenge. We were constrained by budget and availability of talent, thereby focusing on character, the potential for growth, and the most important factor — ‘the will to contribute’. This made sense to me considering that our organisation, idea, and process were all new. We were carving out a new niche in a space very familiar with the regular. Scaling was tied directly to how fast we could acquire talent and how fast they could ship out work.
As we tested ideas and hypotheses along the way, our team size increased. Majorly because we did our best to be loyal to our hires, by keeping them on long after the core role they were recruited for had changed. Most of this loyalty was never repaid, as people when unable to do the familiar switched off and struggled to significantly contribute to the mission and the workflow. They simply had lost the will to work, issues became personal, Gecko5 became less of a priority, and I was packing a lot of hate from people I was just getting to know. I think for most of these individuals there was a knowing, that the relevance was lost, but they would only hold on to the job long enough till they got a more interesting opportunity. I would come into work every day unsure of what to expect, and who was here to contribute or not.
It was a dark place.
I had designed an organisation that was never going to scale.
Month on month, my focus was less on the product or users as much as it was on getting people to get things done.
As the year drew up to a close, I and Ikechukwu did a count of 25 people we had worked with since inception that had left Gecko5. In most cases, they were good people, who invariably turned out not to be good for us and the goals we had.
It took me till October before I fully divested myself from ‘people drama’ to focus on users, product development and operational strategy.
I mentioned to Ikechukwu quite recently that the mistake we made was turning briefs into job descriptions. A lot of the people we engaged as employees would have done okay as vendors providing us services at agreed standards and pricing. However, our operations given our business model was around being a creative engine, agile enough to respond to opportunities and stories emerging in the football scene. This we largely failed to do.
To counter this our business model had to change quite drastically. This change, the identification of the need was the critical first step towards our pivot.
Moments of clarity
I am convinced that we owe a lot of the progress we made this year to our laser focus on users and audience listening. After a while, we started re-evaluating the work we did and how we operated, asking ourselves critical questions. At this point, we were far gone in our business model as a media co, and the answers were tough to accept, we realised that most of our efforts around content creation despite how good it was didn’t matter to our target audience.
The problem we existed to solve was valid, the way in which we would solve it would be different from what it was we were doing at that time.
By July we were leaning more into the community aspect of our business, designing models and testing ideas around building a thriving community around sports.
In October, we were engaging pockets of would-be users and immersing ourselves in youth culture around sports even further. We had spent time with young folks across various campuses in Nigeria talking and also listening and observing.
On the train ride back to Lagos that day, I knew for a fact that we needed to pivot even further. Given that there were a lot of changes to our operations, I needed the team to evolve to this at their own pace.
They did, by November. By this time, our team had been streamlined to a core team of generalists who were handling special aspects of our product development and operations. Those who remained mattered, fully bought and were essential to our success.
Making something that people love
Product development is a spiritual experience. It sits in the midst of intuition, data, design and empathy. A lot of consciousness goes into creating products and developing Ballgecko has been no different. We evolved as a product only because we could identify the evolution trends in fandom, what it means to be a fan today is different from what it was last year and would be significantly different in the years to come.
Our bet is riding on the human behaviours that would shape sports consumption in the now and years to come.
We are deploying technology into the refinement and simplification of these behaviours at scale. It’s a place we needed to be, but we could only have arrived at it by journeying through media creation and distribution focused business/operational models.
We are designing and developing Ballgecko as fans first, innovators second — passionate, eager, restless and fiercely loyal. It has given us a driving-seat experience in imagining tools and defining the live conversation experience.
Our play also significantly shifts into culture. Being able to design and deploy experiences offline that supports an online tribe of users further qualifies our purpose and mission.
You cannot incentivise loyalty
As a Founder, I have had to invest in developing positive, loyal and sticky relationships between users and Ballgecko, colleagues and Gecko5, partners/colleagues and myself. To be quite clear, looking back now, I think I overdid it. You cannot make people do more of anything more than their natural capacity/tendency for such things.
When we stepped away from incentivizing users around using Ballgecko in whatever form the incentives were, we immediately could identify the issues in our product development, design, and value proposition. The new re-imagined Ballgecko solves functional problems for fans with purpose-built technology that enables users.
Similarly, when I stopped over-compensating in my associations with people, I started seeing clear behavioural patterns that were quite revealing of character.
Incentivisation can contribute to growth, but nothing beats organic, cultivated growth. The latter presents trackable patterns detailing the health of your product and business.
In the last year, if you ask me how does it feel to be a Founder? My response would be “misunderstood and highly unpopular.”
I have fully come to terms with knowing that hard decisions would come with reactions I do not need to try to control or manage. Especially in building teams in a dynamic situation such as a startup, the hardest thing is not finding great talent, it is what to do when those people are turning in mediocre performances and becoming unreasonable. It is the choice that you must make, and the making of it that matters.
My fundamental role as a Founder is to transform an idea (guided by a mission) into a scalable, sustainable business. Every and any other semantics is quite irrelevant.
My choices in the critical moments that dotted my journey this year always leaned heavily towards maintaining momentum towards delivering a product. In the end, I chose to prioritise building a product over building a company.
Companies exist to make products scale; organisational elements and ingredients such as culture, policies and so forth only become meaningful around products that can justify the scale of operation of the organisation. By making the hard choices of sticking to what I wanted to achieve: which is to make sports simpler and more connected for fans, I was able to set the entire team on the right course.
While the what and how we would be achieving the mission has significantly changed, our why remains true and increasingly important to us and the audience for whom we exist.
Bring on 2022.