Building an African design firm from scratch — Part 2: where we failed
In the first part of this article, we shared the things we thought we did well building a UX and Human-Centered Design (HCD) firm in Africa. But naturally, in our first 4 years of survival as a company, there was also a lot of stuff that we completely screwed up. Here are some of the one’s I remember:
1. Putting our family spirit at risk during COVID
Lots of fun and close ties were key elements of our culture since the beginning, but in 2020, we lost a bit of that family spirit which made us who we are. It was particularly difficult for the new team members who joined while we were all working remotely. We were too slow to launch initiatives to revive the culture and friendship between the tyeam. Now we have informal catch-ups generated automatically by slack, more internal brainstorming/fun sessions, longer and more regular 1 on 1s, videos turned on at the beginning of each call, and of course real catch-ups around a drink or meal for the people in the same city. It’s not perfect but it helps. It was actually super cool to see Nadia, Mouhamadou, and Pierre, all traveling to Benin for a workshop at the Africa Design School, meeting up in a Cotonou “maquis” with Tony, who was on holiday in Togo and just crossed the border to see his colleagues!
2. Being poor at Marketing & Story-Telling
I humbly think we are excellent in our field. We could and should definitely do more to share our stories and the lives that are impacted by our work — but that’s not in our DNA. Maybe that’s francophone perfectionism (you can also call it lack of marketing sense loool!), but we are always shy about storytelling and communication. The reason is that we generally don’t think our work is good enough to make a buzz about it. One number: last year only 2% of our revenue was spent on marketing and communication (whereas some benchmark says agencies are generally between 6 and 8%). For instance, we could create more videos showing the results of our work and testimonials of our beneficiaries, we could organize more events like the amazing Rising D-sign conference last year, or do more of our podcast series, we should apply to speak at renowned UX or Human Centered Design (HCD) conferences, we should apply to design awards, we should engage more directly online with our community in Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda and so on. As you have guessed, our communication team has some work to do!
3. Not asking enough advice to our global advisors
When you struggle you stupidly tend to turn yourself into a solo warrior mode, walking through the valley of death alone with your sword! Since the beginning we’ve been surrounded and supported by amazing advisors like Saran Diakité Kaba, former Design Director at PSA Group and director of the Strate School of Design, Omar Cissé, CEO of InTouch, Thomas Sarlandie, ex-technical director of Pebble or Olivier Furdelle, Director of Teranga Capital or Laurent Liautaud, CEO of Niokobok… and we did not spend enough time talking with them last year. Since January 2021, we got back into a monthly rhythm and that helped us a lot see the bigger picture.
4. Badly onboarding new teammates
We threw you in the ocean hoping you could swim… a wrong guess! Not everyone is a Lebou deh! (the fishermen of Senegal). People were soooo lost! They had to be ready to go, answering clients, making and defending proposals, finding who is who in the company, finding stuff on our google drive, etc… that was hard. We now created a detailed onboarding journey with the presentation of objectives and vision, documents and tools, meeting with colleagues, internal processes, and most importantly weekly 1 on 1 for newcomers instead of monthly.
5. Defining employees’ mission and objectives too early.
Either we would not give you any precise expectations, or we would give you a very detailed list of tasks. We found out that none of the above actually work! It takes time for the newcomers to comprehend the organization and find out for themselves where they would bring the most value. Also understanding it’s not easy for a person during a job interview to clearly state what they don’t like to do, that’s normal as they want to get the role! Now, we wait 2–3 months after the person’s commencement before getting feedback from her on what is best to focus on depending on the company’s objectives.
6. Not raising the english level of some Francophone colleagues
Seems obvious but we were really bad at helping our francophone colleagues be more proficient in Shakespeare’s tongue. That put them on the side and eventually, some of them left. We should have invested more in their English training.
7. Not teaching remote work tips and tools to junior designers
Just imagine, you’re 23 years old, fresh out of school, so excited to finally see what’s a real company and showing what you got and …. boom!! You’re here in your living room, trying to connect on Zoom, forgot the password, ran out of 4G data, with your niece jumping on you and your two nephews fighting like crazy! If you’re a girl, sadly probably add to this your mom asking you to do cleaning stuff at home because she can’t understand that you actually have a job! Of course, that’s an extreme and a little cliché, but I can tell you that this is the exact context of some of my Senegalese or Nigerian colleagues. Now we try to better understand their personal environment, we pay much more attention to their technical onboarding and provide them with remote work tips. Our teammates in Abidjan, Accra, Kigali, or Accra now have access to coworking places whenever they feel the need.
8. Recruiting too fast and not managing the junior/senior ratio
Notably, people who were in fact more at ease in a corporate job, for status or salary reasons, and not a startup one. Also, we did not test enough the skills of our new hires. Naturally, we liked to give the chance to junior people and so we did not put much emphasis on their skills, but rather on their behaviour and mindset. However, we grew rapidly and we also needed to have more senior people around to help the junior ones grow, but we were not good at hiring those guys. Now we also look every quarter at our ratio of junior / mid-level / senior people. It’s now around 40% / 30% / 30% respectively.
9. Not finding a bank alternative earlier to pay cross-border in Africa
We lost millions in CFA on that.. but also some credibility asking some freelancers from Ghana or Nigeria if they were ok to be paid by Western Union! They were like “who the heck are those informal guys?!” We tried literally everything from Xoom, WU, Transferwise, Aza Finance, Bitcoin payments, and naturally, the worst of the class: Paypal. They locked out our account with 2000 dollars on it when we tried to send money in Nigeria — still can’t get this cashback to date. These guys have literally no respect for African companies, by default they take you for a criminal!
But good news, we are now using IbanFirst which I strongly recommend — only 2% fees and your payment arrives on the same day almost anywhere in the globe. Yeah, we found a solution… for now!
10. Not defining priorities between co-founders and being more focused on it
Instead of having each three of us touching on everything. This year, we have clear individual objectives and time allocation but most importantly we understand that we, more than anybody in the team, have to learn new domains as the company is growing, So we become now more specialized in our respective missions. For instance, Camille, formerly our head of research is now stepping in as our new Academy Lead because we needed a very strong push on the community and internal training side. She is now launching a totally new model with 3-week online cohorts accessible from Ghana and Rwanda to Nigeria and Uganda, followed for the best students only by intense in-house (and paid!) 3-month internships on our client's projects. A co-founder focus is an amazing weapon.
11. Not showing our ambitious colleagues how much we trust them
We thought that giving them responsibilities was a clear enough proof of our confidence — but it was not — we needed to say “ I trust you 100% to run this part of the company”, and also put the necessary processes in place for them to go fast. For instance, we just created a fully independent business unit for our Market Research service LOOKA, enabling them with more autonomy and thus rapid growth. But also it clearly validated in the eyes of everybody the trust we have in Max, who started with us as an anthropologist and UX researcher and who is now, as General Manager of LOOKA, leading a team of 12 people, sharing his own values and defining his own objectives. LOOKA is today generating 26% of YUX’s revenue and helping clients like Square, Facebook, Orange, Yoco and many local startups run their own market research in 20 African countries.
12. Not being clear enough about what we meant by our values
We talked a lot about reliability, sharing, long-term vision, multiculturalism, and African Identity. But what it meant was different for each and everyone of us and we underestimated that. We now brainstormed and drafted a detailed explanation of our core values and their meaning with concrete examples of what Yuxies did to embody these values in the past. It’s not enough to say that sharing is important, you have to tell everybody how Pierre was giving illustrator classes at night to 1 or 2 of his colleagues, without even the founders even being aware of it. Beliefs don’t matter, actions do. (go read the great book “What You Do Is Who You Are” by Ben Horrowitz).
13. Creating inequalities between teammates.
Notably with some perks, between people based in Senegal and the ones coming from other African countries or abroad. For instance, we provided one flight back home per year to each foreigner but did not have something equivalent for the guys in Dakar. Now everyone will have a ticket to somewhere wouhouuuu! This is key for us to stick to our virtue of multiculturality — we want to encourage our colleagues to discover other parts of the continent and get together.
What’s next for us
- Embracing the fact that we are now a fully remote + pan/african organization and keeping building strong links with UX-UI designers and researchers all across the continent.
- Finally implementing OKRs (Objectives and key results) across all business units so that everyone is very well aligned on the company’s strategic priorities.
- Structuring our organization as a multinational company (still, HQ’d in Senegal) — with all the fun stuff around accounting, tax, legal, HR, etc! (another article on these that soon)
- Focusing on our internal training to grow our guys to the next level. As Co-founders, we have committed to spend 20% of our time in training this year and we now pay our employees for each class they give to their colleagues
- Spending time with our families! Well in fact adapt to the fact we are grown up now… so no pizza + sketch all-nighters anymore. Both of my co-founders last year had the joy of welcoming their first babies, which made them a little disconnected for a while — Instead of hurting us, it actually helped us be more strategic in our choices. More than ever we are today committed to build a better Africa for our children with Human-Centered Design.
Well well well… and that’s only the stuff that I remember! There probably were so many other mistakes that I forgot to tell you here. But anyway, thanks for reading all the way down here! Again we are very happy to share any details on these points with any designers or entrepreneurs starting up. We are only 4 years old as a company and sincerely have not done much yet, but we felt we shouldn’t wait to become all wrinkled and embittered before sharing our journey. Who knows, maybe we’ll go bankrupt this year ah ah…. but that would be ok because the road so far was worth it!