AFRICANGLOBE – Ghana-based chat application Saya has gained a huge following among mobile phone users across the globe. Founded in 2012, Saya is a replacement for text messaging much like WhatsApp, but built for feature phones.
Fresh out of the Accra-based Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, Robert Lamptey built Saya to solve the problem of expensive SMS messaging which most feature phone users face.
The app has gained users in 35 countries across the globe and is actively used in developing countries outside Africa such as Syria, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Lamptey notes that Saya has been popular among users in the revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Libya. The service initially offered group messaging for non-smartphones but has now expanded to the smartphone market.
The initial adoption of the platform came as a surprise to Lamptey and his co-founder Badu Boahen. Speaking in Nairobi last week, Lamptey recounted how the company’s servers crashed several times due to overwhelming demand from users. The application went viral with 400,000 downloads in its first two months.
“Five months after the launch we got 14m people who had been invited by their friends to use the service. We realised that each person was inviting about 100 people to join. There was this guy in India who had 120 people on his phonebook using Saya. We contacted him and he told us he found it useful. In fact, India is our largest user,” says the CEO of Saya Mobile.
Lamptey attributes the success of Saya Mobile to his upbringing in a household where striving to be the best was encouraged.
“I was one of the few kids in the neighbourhood who had a chemistry lab [and] who dismantled TVs. I was a science student. I used to win all the literature awards in school. My father always taught me to be the best in everything I did. Even if I wanted to be a footballer, there was one rule: be the best.”
Lamptey said that Saya is moving into enterprise messaging, a venture that will help the company to monetise. He explains that Saya Mobile waited this long because there was “no clear way to monetise”.
“Most of the ways to monetise involved premium SMS and the margins were not good because telcos would take about 75% of the amount and the company providing a short code would also take a cut. The math just didn’t make sense,” he says. “I think for us the right conditions were not available. If we had been in Kenya where M-Pesa was started, it would have been easy to plug in M-Pesa into the app.”
Saya Mobile has raised funding in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to cover its operating costs and technology development.
The Ugly Side Of Entrepreneurship
Lamptey notes that the biggest hurdle Saya faces is “money issues”.
“The thing most big companies forget is that a startup has a limited time to survive and that when we want to do a deal with a telco for instance, and they drag their feet, it becomes very frustrating.
“There have been two or three occasions where I had to use my savings to pay my employees. Those are the realities of a startup. People just don’t know the sacrifices we have to make. There is an ugly side of being an entrepreneur. Sometimes things just don’t work. You plan 10 steps ahead, you go do it and when you get to step seven things go wrong and everything falls apart.”
He describes an instance when Saya’s investors in the UK wanted to make a cash transfer to the company in Ghana but because of legal issues the process was delayed for three months.
“I had to explain to my employees that I couldn’t pay them their full salaries for the next three months. I gave them small amounts from my own money and told them to hang in there until the transfer goes through.”
Lamptey reckons that steering a business through such challenging times can be very difficult and requires one to be “extremely positive”. The 30-year-old adds that he is spiritual and draws “strength in reading the book of Psalms”.
“I think being a CEO is the most difficult job in the world. First you have to motivate yourself, then you have to motivate your employees. It is really, really difficult. It is only for certain personality types and people of certain mindsets. As the CEO you are the captain of the ship [and] you are the last person to jump out when the ship sinks. Even when you see a storm coming you just tell your team all is well.”
Networks For Therapy
Lamptey explains that he finds sharing stories of challenges and successes with other entrepreneurs therapeutic.
“I remember a day I was very down and one of the entrepreneurs I knew came in and said his company had made sales of US$50,000. I figured if he can make that kind of money in Ghana in this hard situation so can I… I stopped crying and got down to work.”
Lamptey urges other entrepreneurs to form partnerships with peers, seek help when in need and support each other. He says he practices pay it forward, a culture of helping each other that is predominant in the US’s Silicon Valley.
“I am not afraid to stalk someone on Facebook and Twitter and send them a message to ask them for help,” says Lamptey. “When I go to Silicon Valley and meet companies that have scaling issues I help them out for free because we have done well in scaling. Today, anytime I am travelling and I need a place to sleep I call someone and I get somewhere to sleep for free. I don’t pay hotels. If I need a partnership with someone in Silicon Valley I easily get connected to that person.”
Lessons From Silicon Valley
One of the key lessons Lamptey has learnt from his trips and interaction with the Silicon Valley ecosystem is to “pay people well”.
“It is a no-brainer. It is the most important thing you can do as an African entrepreneur. We always forget that in Africa people have extended family members that they care for. If you pay people well enough so that they can take care of their families and therefore have no pressure they will give you 200% of their time and effort.”
By: Dinfin Mulupi