Company collapse drove us to build our tech start-up

Solutech Ltd founders, from left, Alexander Odhiambo, Jinal Savla, Rayyidh Bayusuf and Mule Mutie. [File, Standard]

There are lessons in failure that can propel entrepreneurs. Take the case of Solutech Ltd, a thriving tech firm founded by four friends in 2014.

The start-up was birthed after the painful collapse of a company that had employed three of Solutech's founders.

A few months after their employment, the firm ran into financial headwinds and made workers' lives unbearable with delayed salaries and uncertainty.

"We were good in technology, we had ideas. All we needed was how to get into the market," says Solutech co-founder and chief executive Alexander Odhiambo.

Odhiambo, Mule Mutie and Rayyidh Bayusuf had met as computer science students at the University of Nairobi and were reunited in employment at the distressed firm.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going, so it is said.

Soon, the three started mulling over ideas on how to get back in the game after the collapse of the company which had employed them.

Develop solutions

They knew they wanted to develop tech solutions that helped businesses run their operations seamlessly.

The three linked up with entrepreneur Jinal Savla to found Solutech as a team of four.

They would leverage Savla's business development skills to market and bring their tech innovations to life.

In the last eight years, the company has expanded and works with about 70 manufacturers and distributors spread across eight countries.

Over 6,000 sales agents use Solutech's mobile application daily, according to the founders.

Solutech was recently selected as one of 12 Kenyan start-ups in the second cohort of the four million dollars (Sh480 million) Google's Black Founders Fund (BFF).

"One thing we wanted to do was come up with a product that was going to scale software as a service," says Odhiambo.

The founders had the idea of helping businesses automate their sales departments and block inefficiencies.

A chance encounter with the managing director of Kenafric Industries would change their business trajectory.

"We told him that we do mobile applications and could build something to help their sales department run better. And that is how our business idea formed properly," recalls Odhiambo.

Solutech for a long time operated without titles or defined roles, with the founders "doing everything".

However, with time they discovered each of their business skills and mapped out particular roles.

Many start-ups lag behind with founders getting embroiled in a vicious fight for control.

Odhiambo became the CEO, Mutie took over operations and human resources while Savla focused on business development and Bayusuf took charge of finance.

Sales force automation is their core product. This is a route-to-market solution whereby the firm works with manufacturers, distributors and individuals.

Many fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) brands use Solutech's mobile application for their daily operations, including tea firm Ketepa and flour brand Soko.

"We use technology as the go-between from when goods leave the manufacturers and distributors premises to the retailer," Odhiambo says.

"We give manufacturers and distributors visibility of what happens in between."

Their solution helps a sales department track in real time how many salespeople are in the field, goods they left with and customers they've sold to.

"Traditionally, sales managers used to use papers to record all these things, but we've digitised all this into a mobile application."

The firm uses various techniques such as geofencing, which is a virtual perimeter for a real-world geographic area.

The data collected via their innovation is used by their clients to make informed decisions.

Specific markets

This is how companies gauge the performance of their products and when to change strategy to make it move in certain locations or when pricing.

Mutie, the chief operating officer, says one of the highlights for the firm was when a client who was running its operations manually said it had tripled sales after Solutech's tech compared to the previous year.

"Such visibility and efficiency helps firms to know where their gaps are and which markets they aren't serving, which products are moving in specific markets and the ones not moving, and from that they are able to devise different marketing strategies to sell properly," he says.

Odhiambo adds that manufacturers can, for example, track the performance of their drivers.

"Companies are able to measure a driver's performance including their trip completion rate and get a proof of delivery."

Grown organically

Building the start-up in the early days was no walk in the park, the founders recall.

Getting brands to trust them was the first hurdle, but landing a big client such as Kenafric made the process easier and gave them confidence in their technology solution.

That Solutech emerged from a background of a failed business would also become part of the founders' driving force.

This meant making many sacrifices and building financial resilience for the business.

"We've learnt about patience and delayed gratification," says Odhiambo.

"For over two years, we earned Sh30,000 from the company. That's what we'd set no matter how much money came through."

Solutech has never looked for an investor but has grown organically.

Sixty startups were selected for the six-month Google programme where each start-up gets between Sh6 million to Sh12 million and up to Sh24 million in Google Cloud credit to scale their solutions and presence in Africa.

Prioritising integrity

Mutie welcomed the recognition, adding that it would aid in their African expansion.

"This will help us now in scaling our product in terms of technology, and presence in other countries," says Odhiambo.

On building a business, Mutie says it's more than assembling a talented team. It also involves moving as a family and prioritising integrity.

"As a business keeps growing, it becomes very hard for a founder to have eyes all over," Mutie says.

"For you to be able to take this business to new heights, you need people to do the right thing."

Solutech plans to diversify into the service industry and is working with financial, insurance and credit companies.

They are planning to launch a new product called dukasoft which is a business-to-business solution.

Over the next five years, Solutech is aiming for growth and expansion and has targeted countries in Central and West Africa.

"Apart from scaling up in the different countries, we're looking to also build these other products to be able to bring value into the existing ecosystem," says Odhiambo.