The softer side of business

by | Dec 6, 2016

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

– An excerpt from J. K Rowling’s famous commencement speech at Havard.

Building a business can be really hard and entrepreneurs invariably get sucked into the constant hustle and grind of executing and almost always forget the importance of stepping back from the noise and taking out time to recharge and reflect.

Over the past few months I have had the amazing privilege to do some learning, reflecting and recharging at the Harvard Business School. A much needed recess after 7 straight years of hustle, grind and building Emerging Platforms, Edu Platforms & Ventures Platform, with some of the most amazing people in the world.


My experience at the Senior Executive Africa Program was amazing and has reignited a renewed hope for African business leadership.

While we discussed a lot of useful lofty business concepts – illustrated by some amazing case-studies; what struck me the most were what some will call the “softer issues.”

So, in this note I will be sharing some thoughts from that play book. Hopefully someone finds it useful.

Inspire Action

As leaders it is our job to inspire others to make a difference. Founders must inspire their co-founders and early team members to keep going even when it seems bleak, because surely you will get to that point. Think you’re persuasive? Watch the pitch that convinced early Pandora employees to work for free after the company ran out of funding.

Be Humble

Without humility, wisdom is but a blunt knife. As a founder, humility is not an option, its a must. No one cares if your vision of the world is the gospel truth, it must be presented with humility. The Bible says in Philippians 2:3; “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” This is wisdom!

Start with “why”

Photo Credit: Lynn Friedman Flickr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lynn Friedman Flickr via Compfight cc

To ensure urgency and a higher likelihood of success you must first establish a clear a sense of purpose. Why are you here? Why are you building this company? Why are you solving this problem? What is the destination? How do we know when we have gotten there? One way to do this is to try to look back from the future rather than look forward from the present.

Have Empathy

Developing real empathy and trust are critical to your path. You must really feel the pain points of your customers to design solutions that they can resonate with. A practical tool for empathizing with your users/customers that I really love is Journey Mapping, here’s how to use it. This is especially important for founders trying to solve problems in Africa that they havent experienced themsevles first-hand.

Keep an open mind

Maintain a constant desire to learn and deliberately “think slow”. As founders the temptation is to be maniacally responsive and to think and act at the speed of light. If you like me have been guilty of this, drop it now! While there is a place for being fast on your feet, some decisions require slower thinking. Especially at the early stage before things become operational — our early decisions become a definitive part of the product / customer experience / company DNA. I would think slowly if I knew I was designing my DNA. For more on this you might want to check out Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman.


Failure is a Learning Curve

Develop the ability to fail forward, because failure is an integral part of this game. What’s important is what you learn from the failure and that you keep going. I strongly recommend that you also read this note by our “Oga @ the top” Jason ‘Igwe’ Njoku that you can find here.

Have a moral compass


Never cut corners, develop a moral compass and let it be your true north. This is especially important because situations will question your convictions and you certainly don’t want to be making the decision when the matter arrives, especially if you live and work in Nigeria. Focus on a long-term view rather than short-term expediency.

.    .    .

In closing, I would like to say a big thank you to Professor Srikant of the Havard Business School for an amazing closing presentation that inspired this note. Prof, if you are reading this I look forward to an opportunity to host you in Nigeria.

We are excited about sharing these lessons with our amazing founders at VPHub even as I look forward to improving my personal practice of the same principles.

May your journey be interesting and profitable.

PS: I strongly recommend that you watch this video where Prof. Srikant shares some thoughts on design thinking.

This article first appeared on Kola Aina’s Medium


About the Author: Kola Aina —  Purpose; Tech; Grit; Excellence; Impact; Balance; Legacy

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