Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Tshepiso Leinane, a 24-year-old young man from Serowe, which is the second-largest village in the central district of Botswana.
I was given the 2nd Best Youth In Innovation & Technology by the Botswana National Youth Council (BNYC) in May 2019 and later that same year (June to be precise) I was given the Best In Science & Technology award by the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture Development.
In May 2017 I started iBranch Recruiters a company that helps connect students, interns, and graduates from all walks of the African Continent to employers on a global scale through the use of technology and artificial intelligence. It achieves all this through a Progressive Web and Mobile App.
The platform has recorded over 90,000 users, 7,000 jobs, 400 interns, 26,000 graduates, and helped 1,600 users get employed all since our Official Launch on October 27, 2020.
Over 360 companies across the globe use our platform to recruit African talent, and yes, you could be next too.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Before all the glorious stats and achievements I just shared with you, we had to start somewhere and this is how it all began. Growing up I developed this undeniable passion and love for computer applications, hardware, and software at a very young age. Thinking back now I recall being given the Best In Graphics Design, 2nd Best In Programming, and 3rd Best In System Design awards in 2013 by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development which is now the Ministry of Basic Education after participating intensely in the Regional ICT Fair at the age of 15.
The love affair grew even more at age 15 when my mother bought me the Packard Bell laptop which through it my coding skills intensified tremendously.
Fast forward to August 2015, I aced my high school exams and went on to pursue Computer Science at the University of Botswana. As I was staying on camp I began to realize that the smartphone I was using (which was a Blackberry 9360 that I got from my mother) did not have enough apps for me to pass time with so I spent most of my days bored.
One fateful day as I was browsing the internet, I came across an announcement from BlackBerry HQ, it was a Call To Mobile App Developers Inviting Them To Develop Apps for the Blackberry Community and in return earn from the very apps they create. I was very intrigued by the announcement, why because I knew that the BlackBerry App market wasn't as saturated as its rivals and this presented an opportunity for me to participate in the Call and hopefully earn from my art?
What to develop was the difficult stage that came after I finalized my interest in the call. I knew I had to come up with the most amazing app everyone would want to use, so I began brainstorming, at one point I thought of creating a mobile game app but I later dismissed the idea because I was looking for something African users can enjoy on a long term and so my final concept was the creation of a mobile app that will help curb the unemployment rate in Botswana.
Ideally, it was to achieve this by increasing the visibility of both jobs to job-seekers and quality job-seekers to employers. To validate the need for the app I did some research online whilst in school and I found out that most Batswana live in rural areas where internet connectivity is so poor, so poor that a job disseminated online via website cannot reach them, from that pain I knew my app had to support Offline Capabilities which websites did not offer.
Also, I learned that job-seekers spend time job hunting physically and making a lot of printed hard copies of their documents so that they can drop them at potential employers, so from this I knew the app I had to create had to incorporate the use of Artificial Intelligence which would then help match employers to the relevant job-seeker and vice-versa in real-time, this combined with other pains I managed to gather, I was convinced I struck gold and quickly began the development process of the mobile app.
All these events happened whilst I was in school but I later dropped out and went on to join the Botswana Innovation Hub in 2017 where the real development started. I have to admit that without the Botswana Innovation Hub accepting me as their member I wouldn't be this far, they provided me with internet access which was critical for me. They bridged certain barriers of entry any startup may face through networking sessions and mentorship programs.
Dropping out of school wasn’t an easy choice especially after breaking the news to my mother who later down the line acknowledged my choice. Had I not dropped out of school I wouldn't be at the level of progress I am at right now so it was all a gamble I had to sit down, weigh and act upon. I took the risk and to this very day I would do it over again. During the period of May 2017 and October 2020, we spent it trying to validate all our revenue generation streams. At the end of that development period, we managed to generate a gross sales income of $15,000 from our sampled portion of the market.
I know I didn’t dwell much on my reasons for dropping out of school but I would like to encourage my dear readers to pursue paths that make them happy, follow the path that you believe, and see a future for themselves in.
I also urge parents to support and nurture the talent of their kids whilst they are at their early ages. Without the timely interventions my mother made, I don’t think I would have reached my true potential. So in summary that is how the idea started, a quest to partake in the BlackBerry App Developers Community.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
After dropping out of school and joining the Botswana Innovation Hub, I began focusing on integrating the designs I've been compiling since I was at school to the backend through coding. I was coding on a full-time basis now and each programming spree could take me 16 - 21 hours a day. To this date, I wrote about 1.560.000 lines of code for our platform’s mobile app, progressive web, and cloud functions combined.
Before the whole thing paid off in October 2020, I was staying with my sister for some while then later went to stay with my brother and kind of started switching between the two every 3 - 6 months or so. I was fully dependent on them because I did not work nor have any source of income and they too had to rely on their monthly allowances since they were both in school.
Once the mobile app was finally 100% completed, I decided to pre-launch to the public, the purpose of the pre-launch was to do a large-scale proto-typing. For it to be successful I need a team so I rallied up my former high school classmates and friends whom I worked well with the past and trusted, surprisingly to this day that same team is still rooting for the success of the company with the same energy we began with.
From my experience with the team, I strongly urge you the reader to recruit people whom you really trust with your vision. It's also important to go the legal route and document everything especially if your team is to be compensated with company shares.
So back to the pre-launch, January 2, 2018, we devised a strong strategy and started to implement it, we achieved this by inviting media houses to provide mass media coverage to the launch then we got into an arrangement with the University of Botswana to host us. Come February 18 we held the event and it went well, it made it to Botswana Television News which was the greatest feat ever. We got the boost we really needed.
Unfortunately for every starting business there are challenges, and our users began complaining about the functionalities of the app, and these complaints came in the form of low star ratings on the Google Play Store. So we really had to use every complaint we received as a launchpad towards building a user-centric app. Since then we saw the apprise from 100 downloads to 5.000+ downloads.
Throughout the entire 2 years Piloting phase (2018 - 2020) we tried and tested each service. Our rule of thumb was that if the service could generate sustained income we approved it and halt it to then move onto the next service. The entire piloting phase took all that we had, it cost us money and time but it has proven to be worth the risk because we were able to raise over $15,000 through the combined services we offer.
My personal share of the pain this journey brought to us was when I lost friends, my touch with the world, and of course money. The biggest blow however was in 2019 when I was recruiting a new team member to the company, during that recruitment process I disclosed the critical information about our product to the potential recruit without signing an NDA and that particular recruit (who was to become our Business Development Officer) went on to replicate the idea and slicing our market share in half.
So I urge you fellow entrepreneurs to disclose information only after NDAs have been signed. Back to the issue, we had to accept our mistake and bank on the capabilities of our own product to outclass any competitor, and within a year that came to pass. So I can confidently attest to you that business reverse engineering will always be there but what is important is building a product that everyone would want to use.
Describe the process of launching the business.
On October 27, 2020, after spending 2 years piloting, we decided that the product was well packaged to go out to the market with full force. We agreed that the launch to be held on the 27th of October because that is my birthday so why not. The fundamental reason behind the launch was to fulfill the promises of the pre-launch, taking you back to the pre-launch we made a promise to the public that we will launch a product that will address the unemployment crisis in Botswana and beyond therefore it was crucial for us to deliver on that promise.
We started launch preparations 9 months before, the critical part of those preparations was making sure the product works perfectly, we used whatever feedback we could find to stress test the product and see how best it can scale affordably. 3 months before launch we approached the Botswana Innovation Hub for launch assistance, they helped us prepare what is called a Commercialization Plan. Another aid we got from them was to use their facilities to launch our product. I am talking about a very big hall equipped with sound equipment and projectors. So this was really what we needed to pull off a successful launch.
I even wrote a letter to the Minister Of Employment, Labour Productivity and Skills Development requesting him to launch us officially on behalf of the entire government of Botswana. The Minister accepted the request. It was a very big win for us and we knew now that we had to focus on the mass media and make sure the launch becomes successful. Every day calls were made to about 24 news coverage companies in Botswana, even France 24 was invited via email but never responded to us.
You can watch the Minister’s Speech on our YouTube Channel
My big takeaway from the launch, we wake up every day to stories that Elon Musk is doing this, accomplished that, Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in the world and more but what we take for granted is the effort these men and women put in behind the scenes just to be where they are today. Had it not been for us making calls every day for 30 days straight, not reaching out to key stakeholders seeking assistance, such a turn up couldn’t have been possible. Everyone was surprised to see how packed it was with key stakeholders (University heads, Mass Media, HR Representatives, etc) but it was all through our hard work.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Ever since we launched, the business has been great. We have spent over 3 years working on this solution and in the midst of the pandemic, demand for it has tripled. It is through the pandemic that we have managed to place more students for industrial attachments than before, more interns to SMMEs, and graduates to Corporates. Mind you last year, Universities halted some academic requirements such as attachments hoping to resume them this year but the situation is worsening by the month.
On the bright side, we managed to break even after the launch thanks to the coverage and the increased demand for digital recruitment and job placements services.
Our primary mode of engagement with our users is Facebook, this is because we are trying to target the domestic talent, medium-skilled talent, and high skilled talent so Facebook is the one social network with this type of mixed talents that we are looking for. Part of our efforts to capacitate our users is to set up a youtube channel that will be dedicated to showcasing to our users how the system works.
Invest in your customers, invest in your users, let them validate your product and if you establish a transparent and clear working relationship with them, growth is bound to take place. I urge you not to be obsessed with perfection for you will never solve everyone’s problems. Therefore the building is okay but lets the creation get out so that the very people it is intended for can help you mold it into what they want it to be. Personally, I am not an HR Person but I had to hold HR Workshops with HR Practitioners herein Botswana just to get an understanding of their pains and struggles and it is through those Workshops that our platform is what it is today.
Our user acquisition is all thanks to word of mouth and social media. Retaining these users is the duty of the platform, we have so many mechanisms put in place to achieve this. Some of those mechanisms utilize email marketing while some utilize SMS marketing, the latter being the most effective so far.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
To the date of this interview, I cannot be any happier with our progress. We are even planning to expand our services to where the demand is, this expansion plan is of course fueled by nothing but data. Through data, we have learned that Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe are where our services are needed the most.
Currently, we have registered over 360 companies within our database and these companies are spread out globally making a total of 29 countries. We plan to dissect this data and analyze it to see how companies such as Starter Story and others found us, from that analysis we can then devise ways to scale those mediums and reach even more countries. The US is the second-largest country where our registered company users are with Botswana taking first place. In terms of job-seekers Nigeria is the second-largest country where our registered job seekers are with Botswana taking first place.
Our overall expenditure is below $1,000 per month which is quite good for a tech company operating a huge database of global users and our sales revenue can be somewhere above $3,000 per month but with plenty of room for improvement. We are currently not limited by the market but by our own internal capacity to service the entire market well in time. It is within our plans to complement our staff and service a large number of customers daily. I believe with the right number of staff we will surely triple our earnings per month and become Botswana’s 1st business and social network orientated platform for professionals to generate over millions of Pulas in net profit.
On October 30 2019 we created a radio program at one of the largest radio networks in Botswana (Radio Botswana 2) for 6 months straight. The program was funded by Orange Botswana and the Botswana Innovation Hub and its purpose was to capacitate listeners, especially the domestic talent about the benefits of being an iBranch registered job-seeker. We also used the program to disseminate job opportunities wirelessly and help job-seekers build winning CVs with the help of the HR Guests whom we interviewed on each show. It is within our long-term plans to stretch this effort and reach even more listeners and hopefully viewers this year.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
My biggest takeaway which people always disagree with me is that, not every opportunity that comes your way as an entrepreneur is an opportunity to grow, some of these opportunities are just there to slow down your long-term goals. In my case, I noticed that ever since people or users interacted with our mobile app or web app, they would approach us requesting us to build their ideas into mobile apps at huge amounts of money.
This to any business owner sounds like a great opportunity to capitalize on but in my case, I had to take on a single external project at a time and reject the rest because I was so convinced that the sooner I finish with iBranch the more attention it will attract big attention, big attention in the form of HR Practitioners, Job seekers, Tech Firms, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Venture Capitalists and it is of this imagination playing in my mind which helps me turn a blind eye to opportunities which I believe are there to offer short term returns than what I am working on, and yes I coded alone and did not have a coding team to allocate tasks to. The reason for this is because here in Botswana our youth tend to believe more in employment than partnerships or entrepreneurship.
Of all the developers I approached for collaboration, none of them saw the vision I preached worthy enough for us to join forces and capitalize on our hard work in the next 5 - 10 years down the line, all I got was salary scales I could not sustain hence why to this day it took me about 3 years to code both our mobile app, web app, and cloud functions. The web app came as a result of our interaction with users in rural areas, majority of them failed to download the app due to poor smartphone penetration in those areas so the only platform they can access through their computers is a website. Hence why we then developed the web app as well.
In summary of my 2 biggest takeaways, always sign NDA when disclosing sensitive data about the product to potential investors or when recruiting new staff. Benchmark on the biggest competitor and live the future, in the modern-day it’s very clear that tech giants are faced with lawsuits and negative PR on daily basis, it is then your duty to put yourself in their shoes and say, how can I then steer this ship away from all these issues and how best can I avoid them in the future. Do not limit yourself to your region, it should be clear that tech businesses have a high scalability advantage, so at any point in time users may flood your platform but the question becomes would you be ready when they do?
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Well, accounting is the most fundamental part of any business, it is a requirement here in Botswana that you submit audited financial statements of your company before you can do business with an established organization. We did not understand the need to keep records initially and the need to follow proper accounting standards; the outcome of this was losing numerous key deals that could have been our long pending breakthroughs. As the saying goes for every failure lies a lesson, we then saw the need to keep proper financial records and what a better tool to do so than Wave Accounting. Since using Wave in 2019 to date, I recommend them to you, my fellow readers.
Facebook Insights is also one tool I personally love, to be honest, I love data, and analyzing data is one of my strengths. The functionality allows us the opportunity to gauge the performance of every effort we make online to reach users, we can also see how we compare to our competitors, etc. I do recommend this beautiful functionality to you.
As for my favorite coding tools, Android Studio is the best for mobile apps but recently I think I am falling more in love with Visual Code. Visual Code is more lightweight, versatile, and highly rich compared to Android Studio. So I would recommend for those building apps to use Android Studio and anything but an app to use Visual Code.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Vusi Thembekwayo Podcasts. He is a South African businessman with various high profit-making businesses across South Africa. It is the podcasts that I truly find inspiring because they are more focused on Financial Knowledge as an entrepreneur. Having a great product is great but without great numbers to back it up, the whole thing is pointless.
Then there is Grant Cardone. I can honestly tell you that without Grant Cardone’s YouTube Sales Tutorials, I could have never closed a single sale. Like I said before I am not an HR or Salesperson but due to my self-development efforts I was able to take the company this far. It's all about getting out of our comfort zones and fighting so hard to make our dreams a reality. I highly recommend Cardone’s tutorials to you, my fellow reader, he doesn’t only focus on being a better SalesMan but a good real estate investor too.
My other favorite authors include Dan Lok who recently launched the Unlock It. This top-selling book focuses primarily on being a better Salesman and sustaining high-Performance levels throughout. It is through this book I learned how to share my knowledge of sales with my Sales Manager and how to draw out KPIs for continuous performance within the organization. Other interesting books I recommend you include Napoleon Hill - Think and Grow Rich as well as Robert Kiyosaki’s Finance and Investment book.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Entrepreneurship is a very dangerous journey, it can be very fun if you love what you do. We often fail because we like reinventing the wheel, unfortunately for me and my team, we had to reinvent the wheel here and there since there was nobody to benchmark on regionally. So some of our achievements and success stories like how we help students get placed are actually uncharted territory, we had to explore this territory on our own, learn it and make something out of it.
Entrepreneurship has no success cookbook, it's all in your willingness to accept help, dedicate yourself to the cause, willingness to lose everything, the most painful is losing yourself. As a single founder, I have made necessary efforts to find a co-founder but due to the nature of some of my brothers and sisters in my country, I could not find a suitable match, what I found was rather some youngsters who would prefer using the information you share with them to compete with you, so I urge you to base your agreements on NDAs and on vesting shares.
My fellow readers, I have learned that in business you ought to have a character that is unique from your personal character. Running a business with personal emotions is always going to end miserably, I am saying this because business knows no emotions, it's all a game of chess and the one who wins takes it all, there is no time to cry but to regroup and strategize, base all your decisions on data around you, never assume and never take anything lightly. You will be used by senior management, bigger corporates, and smaller companies but this is all for your learning, it then becomes important to avoid falling into the same trap again. Business knows no emotions.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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