OP-ED: The (useful) thing about failure

For Andile Masuku, an entrepreneur who's suffered more setbacks than successes, failure is often a go-to source for learning.

OP-ED: The (useful) thing about failure
Photo by jurien huggins / Unsplash

Just can't look away

Failure has always intrigued me. That's partly because, as a (mainly) avid student of life, setbacks have tended to be a richer source of learning and insight relative to success. There's also the awkward reality that, as an entrepreneur, I've experienced far more failure than success, which, when you think about it, is probably true for most entrepreneurs across Africa.

I generally bristle at our postmodern culture's obsession with winning. It's fair to say that the world has capitalism coverage a la Media USA to thank for enthusiastically helping to mainstream this now global fascination. Think catchy headlines and coverage angles pedalled by everyone from publishers like the New York Times and TechCrunch to cable news networks like FOX and CNN. 

Local and foreign media covering Africa's early-stage tech ecosystem has embraced the trend towards unnuanced hyperbole with aplomb, frequently anchoring coverage efforts with binary headlines and ensuing copy about 'winners and losers' (but mostly winners and winning). These narratives then influence social media chatter about ”the way kungakhona” (the way things are), i.e. the progress of the continent's tech scene.

Oversimplification is the enemy

As a social media native, non-traditional media maker and media owner, I'll be the first to admit that publishers (institutional and independent alike), particularly in today's social media-driven era, are just as often mirrors of society's values and preoccupations as they are intentionally or unwittingly click-greedy, agenda-setting propagandists. 

Far from being a critique of the media, I'm, in fact, grateful for the back-handed blessing of this emergent status quo inspiring me to coin the phrase "Oversimplification is the enemy". That statement has come to define my quasi-journalism covering failure over the last decade plus. 

Brave testimony

Noteworthy mentions include my podcast conversation with Tonjé Bakang in late 2018. In a poignant reflection on entrepreneurial resilience, Bakang, the Cameroonian visionary behind Afrostream, riffed on his own words detailing the tumultuous journey of his subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service's unlikely rise and dramatic fall.

Despite the ambitious endeavour to carve a niche amidst streaming giants like Netflix and daring African startups like Nigeria's iROKOtv (widely hailed as a startup in beast mode hurtling steadily towards what seemed to many like inevitable success), Afrostream faced insurmountable challenges in a fiercely competitive market. With a mere USD4 million raised and ultimately sunk over four years, the stark reality of navigating a landscape dominated by players with marketing budgets of tens of millions of dollars underscores the David and Goliath struggle they fought. (Spoiler alert: David doesn’t win.)

Bakang's pursuit of capturing an underserved market segment amidst brutal competition illuminates the complexities of navigating the streaming landscape. His story offered, then as now, invaluable insight into the value of founder resilience and the importance of documenting lessons that often can only be learned the hard way. All good lessons, especially when they’ve been painfully gleaned, should be taught and celebrated widely to improve the odds of success of future startup attempts.

Public diary shares

More recently, in November 2023, a blog post entitled RIP iROKOtv? published by iROKOtv Founder and CEO Jason Njoku gripped many a student of tech ecosystem life as he unpacked the way kungakhona at his streaming business in his trademark straight-shooter style. 

Factoid and insight highlights worth checking out in full include details about iROKOtv navigating a challenging period of debt restructuring and cost reductions to complete a 3-year business turnaround. According to Njoku, the turnaround strategy significantly reduced losses from -$4.9M in 2020 to -$0.5M in 2023.

Given the sentiments expressed in my opening paragraphs, it shouldn't surprise you that my favourite takeaway from Njoku's article, which I'm unceremoniously renaming Confessions of a Tech OGee, had to be his advocacy for radical transparency in media coverage of startups—acknowledging both successes and setbacks.

I also love that by continuing in his long tradition of open-sourcing learnings from his live founder journey, through his distinctive quasi-journalism, Njoku is modelling what it can look like to concurrently sport (seemingly) unreasonable confidence in one’s entrepreneurial abilities, determined optimism about a startup's commercial prospects (despite unlikely odds), and a sober ecosystem outlook that's healthily informed by the certainty and grinding utility of failure (hopefully not one’s own).

Editorial Note: This opinion editorial was first published by Business Report on 6 February 2024.