Growing Your E-commerce Business Slowly in Africa - Zambia
This has to be one of the best lessons I have learned in 2017. The excitement of starting a business and the misconception that it will catch on like wild fire and be an instant success in Africa has to be one of the biggest lessons I have learned this year.
When I started my company, I thought it would be an instant hit but little did I know that it would take me to do the following to actually grow my business:
Low cost marketing – avoid braking your bank account
Be a zebra, dont try to be a unicorn
Educating my customers – not everyone understands how the service works
Studying my customers purchasing habits
Molding my business to meet customers in the Zambian market at their point of need.
Establishing good customer experience in order to grow my customer base from word of mouth. – Develop and establish your brand on the market
Taking time to speak directly to customers to get feedback from them on what they actually want or needed as well as how we could do better
Studying the expenditure capacity of customers to know what type of food they wanted and how much they would be willing to pay
Studying who was actually spending on our service which would allow us to mold our marketing material and be more creative in attracting different population segments who would become our unforeseen customers
Discover niches within our target customers and customer segments – Discover multiple revenue channels
Study information access habits of customers – Know how to reach your customers
Financial discipline – avoid unnecessary spending, keep it as lean as possible
Reinvest in your own business – no one will invest in a startup or an early stage business without good traction or revenue.
Understand local internal and external market forces – learn to respond to different changes in the market that affect customers spending habits.
Inspite of my profession being in the field of web design/development, e-commerce, how I setup my business required me to have a local perspective of how customers would react to my service was a lesson I learned early on in the process of growing my business. Its been a journey that has shed light on so many areas of growing an e-commerce business in Africa. So many times we have this misconception that our product or service is something so many customers want. To some degree we may be right but is it what they need. What a customer wants and what they need are two very similar but distinctively different concepts and I learned that very quickly early on when starting my business. When I would tell customers about my service, all of them would say wow that’s really innovative and great but it never got them to spend their money on my service and I started to ask myself….”how do I convert these likes on facebook and follows on twitter and Instagram as well as customers I meet in to real spending clients”. I quickly realized I had to change my approach and marketing strategy to appeal to the local market behavior patterns and move with the development in devices customers were using and for what purposes they were using them for in order to get a seat in the daily transaction and habits of the population segment we were targeting and would have access to. I quickly learned that customers had a misconception that such a service was expensive, so I decided to work with building good customer experience and build from there, word of mouth would then do the rest if we could remain consistent and focused. Eventually customers would begin to request for an online platform they could access in order to select meals and place orders. The rate of digital inclusion in some parts of Africa like Zambia has not been as quick and profound like east africa or south africa due to mutiple challenges which make access to the internet expensive, so pace yourself with your customers.
E-commerce is a great platform but i realized, the major money spenders wanted and needed to access information and be accessed in a different way so I started with facebook and whatsapp to disseminate information then printed out small business cards respectively and our meal couriers would then hand them out to curious customers when making deliveries, this allowed us to access customers who were both online and offline or didn’t have access to social media. The rest was left to us to ensure they had an amazing experience with our service. Whenever a delivery was made I made it a point to call as many customers as possible to get feedback from them to find out what they thought of our service and how we could do better to serve them with excellence.
Through these few experiences i started to notice some clients would call in without a clue of what they wanted to eat or what they could eat with their current budget and this created a niche of clients who needed meal recommendation capabilities. I learned to listen to my clients at this point to ensure service inclusion.
With all this happening I realized we started to get really good traction. We had gone from 4 deliveries to averaging 300 deliveries and we were now growing and hitting 600 deliveries. My biggest obstacle now was to ensure we could maintain our delivery experience with the growing demand and challenges that were mushrooming. I quickly realized e-commerce is great but if you don’t have the capacity to meet the fast growth of a business you could quickly ruin what took months or even years to build. Its was then that I knew if we launched a website we wouldn’t be able to meet the capacity demands because then we would have no control over meal orders considering we had multiple ordering channels and the most of which was used was whatsapp, SMS, voice calls and facebook, so to introduce a website would be disastrous. So I decided to stick to the perceived as ancient model of transacting until we had the capacity to handle website orders as well. This allowed for a control mechanism in how we handled orders ensuring a great customer experience was maintained.
So many times we get excited about our own service or product that we forget that so many things need to be in alignment and have to move at the same pace in order for a business to grow in a sustainable manner.
This took me to another stage of growth in my business which involved information dissemination. How would we give out information in a cost effective manner both for ourselves and our customers, Social media is a great platform but in country with some of the highest internet access rates, it would be expensive for our customers to access this information so we turned to bulk smsing and whatsapp messaging. I realized each client accessed information differently depending on their pockets and access devices but how could we ensure we reached them without breaking our bank account as a small business. Advice from my out of the box friends mum rang in my head at the time when I was trying to figure out the solution to this challenge, “K.I.S.S.” ie KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID, it was these words that propelled me to adopt the simplest mode of communication for information dissemination. We formed a technological partnership with a Communications company and this made things easier for us to communicate with our customers without making us broke. As a small startup business it was important to align each of your costs with the expected return on that expenditure.
Next reinvest in your business, use whatever resources you can find, cut costs through imaginative strategies with collective benefits. This will allow you to grow your business at your own pace without the pressure of borrowed money that needs to be returned or pressure to produce the ROI expected by an external investor. But this requires discipline and foresight.
Then you need to understand your customers spending habits so that you know what to market to them and when as opposed to casting a wide net and hoping to catch a client. Majority of the time such an approach has below par results that don’t meet your expectations or the desired effect. This process of knowing your customer takes time in order to personalize marketing material, likewise educating your customers on your product or service as you establish your brand but never forget customers like the ability to have options so that capability has to somehow be incorporated in your product or service. So instead of trial and error which will eventually prove to be expensive ask your clients questions and get the information directly from them.
Understand the local internal and external market forces that affect the spending habits of your customers. Understanding this early on will allow you to be proactive towards these challenges which initially required you to be reactive. This will ensure you retain your seat at the expenditure table of your customer.
Today we have mutiple partners that have come onboard that help us perfect our service with respect to service inclusion, financial inclusion, efficiency and effectiveness of the service as we prepare to branch into other towns and extand our services profile.
Bottom line I experienced all these things over a period of a year, my business’s customer base has grown and continues to grow our client profile as well through timing, consistency, commitment, brand establishment, strategic partnerships, proactive behavior towards our service and controlled mechanisms that ensure we are able to manage customer demands while constantly learning about them and their needs. Consequently, allowing us to introduce new services in line with our current services. Slow growth allows you to monitor, evaluate and adjust as well as be more creative while developing a sound and well-grounded business. The African markets are very different from the markets in other continents and require a different approach to yield the desired results. Our solutions maybe similar but the mechanisms will need to be distinctively different to meet our challenges, in order to be sustainable and successful.
You dont need a unicorn for a business because today zebras are fixing what unicorns are breaking. I.e you dont need a "wow" business, if its imnovative and sustainable youre already on the right track. Most "wow" businesses grow very quickly and fail quickly, few remain sustainable but they are exactly what you need to learn, ie from similar businesses that have failed.