They Talk Well, And Do Badly

My new enterprise started life as a small, crack team of experts who would be the core, the essence, the heartbeat of Sparkle, but who essentially would also oversee the procurement and outsourcing of experts to join and build our tribe. That was the concept.

I have always been a believer in letting the experts work their magic. I knew what Sparkle could be, I knew the tactics we would need to employ to make it happen. Whilst I don’t advocate the “it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in….” hypothesis — it’s a pretty crude analogy — I do believe that constant repetition of a particular activity and doubling down on core competencies, is what leads you to become an expert.

From the outset, we were actively looking to collaborate with the experts — building out a platform that was simple, safe, easy to navigate and with products and services that not only met the day-to-day needs of our users, but that also just worked. Certainly, in the early days in the lead up to launch, we wanted to leverage industry-leading experts as we scaled, growing with them. Cloud space to keep our data secure? We needed to outsource. Accounting and fund management services as we scaled and grew our banking reserves? Again — we felt we needed to outsource. It was a no-brainer. That was until we started to identify potential expert partners and dig a little deeper into their own products, services and billing structures. But as we started to build out Sparkle and search for the best partners, our early-days concept of an exert outsourcing model, became harder to make into a reality.

When it came to cloud services, there were a number of potential partners — many of whom could have no doubt powered a big multinational enterprise several times over. But their scope to deliver a cloud service for a scaling business like Sparkle? Limited.

In terms of accountancy and professional services — our first [four] ports of call were to the Big Four. You know, the ones who release reports about the state of local economies, provide analysis and charts on how small businesses are operating in any one year, what the supply chain affects are, how small businesses power the economies they operate in, graphs, data, pithy analysis from experts… They give corporate advice in impressive reports and executive summaries, and use the findings for PR “wins” to help attract new business. But their scope to deliver an appropriate level of accounting and professional support service for a scaling business like Sparkle? Limited.

In fact, in my conversations with them all, I felt that any partnership or procurement of their services would result in us giving them content. They would be learning and benefitting from our on-the-ground, at the coal face processes and procedures [and maybe even data analysis] — but on our time [and money]. From our discussions with the Big Four, not only were they unable to deliver a service at a fee structure that was commensurate with a scaling SME like ours [and there are hundreds of thousands of companies across Nigeria at the same or similar growth stage as Sparkle] but it was also evident that the Big Four really couldn’t grasp the trading environments that SMEs were operating in.

In fact, when it comes to providing services to help small businesses scale, the Big Four are actually excluding SMEs from their services — they have yet to democratize or scale their services for a broader demographic; a demographic that they not only claim to understand and represent through their sector-specific reports, but also one that makes up the bulk of the supply chain of the corporate companies they do service. If, and I’m sure this is the case, one of the Big Four services Unilever, for example, the level of influence Unilever has on a diverse and far reaching supply chain, comprising a massive number of small businesses, is significant. But the professional advisors at the Big Four — the ones advising the conglomerates who in turn wield all the power over these complex supply chains, are ill equipped to provide serious counsel for start-ups, because they just don’t really know enough about them; the consultants are just that — consultants and not practitioners. And these consultants have not been invested in, in terms of sending them out into the field; they have likely gone down the Ivy-League school, straight into grad scheme, route. And no — they do not fully grasp the business challenges and supply chain logistics of a market woman or family-run manufacturing business outside of Lagos.

On the flip side, one global brand that I have been impressed by, a company that genuinely invested time into building a meaningful partnership with us, and had a core understanding of small businesses, was Visa. They came with an unrivalled knowledge of global payment processes and systems, but were also able to spend time working through local challenges and figuring out solutions; they took time to work through our partnership with us. There wasn’t a one size fits all approach — they invested in us from a partnership perspective and for a company as huge as theirs, that’s remarkable.

But for all the hype and content and branding around building for small businesses / powering small businesses by big global businesses — Visa is in a small minority. In reality conglomerates are serviced by conglomerates — they talk well but do badly, and only the small consultancy companies are really designed to support and grow with their small business counterparts. This is a massive and diverse market — one that I’m excited for Sparkle to grow in and influence.