With a huge twitter following, Rebecca Enonchong is one strong Black woman techie who strives in all ways to promote African tech . In her 17 years in business as a tech entrepreneur, she has pushed herself to great heights, by seeing her business as a global business right from the start.
In 1999, Rebecca Enonchong founded AppsTech. AppsTech provides enterprise software solutions, primarily around Oracle technologies. With neither funds nor investors, she never gave up.
“I started with literally no money and despite my best efforts, never raised any funding. I was a woman tech founder. I was a Black woman tech founder. I was a Black African woman tech founder,” says Rebecca.
“Although those might have been external factors, my race, gender, or national origin were never a part of my equation. I lived in a self-created bubble in which those elements didn’t matter and I went about my business as any white male would have, oblivious to the reality that surrounded me and the challenges before me. It honestly never occurred to me that it might be any harder for me than any of my fellow startup entrepreneurs.”
However, what’s success without sacrifice and failure? Rebecca Enonchong has had to learn so many lessons throughout these years. All these she decided to share with us all.
Lesson One: Your reality is the one that you create in your mind, not the one that others create for you.
There’s no moving forward with doubt. You have to be bold. That’s exactly how Rebecca Enonchong built a global multi-million dollar business, with very little savings and no financial backing. Also, begin with a business plan that is true to your status at the time, and nakeds everything about your business.
“I spent the first two weeks doing nothing but writing my business plan. Because I was writing it for me, and not for bankers or investors, I could be completely honest. I was able to lay out my weaknesses, market risks in a very bare, truthful way. Then I could think of strategies to counter these. As I did this, my business model changed significantly from what I first intended. Over the years, of course, it changed some more.”
Lesson Two: Having a personal business plan is very effective.
“When we pitch to investors or customers, we want them to drink our Kool-Aid. It’s important, though, to realize that it is Kool-Aid and not to drink it ourselves.”
Know your customers’ status so you will be able to align yourself with them. After developing her business plan, Rebecca Enonchong discovered that most of her clients were multinationals, so she positioned herself as one too.
“How a one-woman company becomes a global business can be resumed by one word. The internet.”
She spent days studying the websites of companies like Arthur Andersen, PwC, and CapGemini. From that, she built her own company’s website. For a one-person business, she presented her company and herself, as a global corporation. What’s more fascinating is how Rebecca Enonchong landed her first contract.
“The site wasn’t very nice but in those days, neither were my competitors. I couldn’t yet afford an office but I did get a virtual business address I could use on the website and on a business card. I didn’t include a title on the card. I wanted the flexibility of being the CEO when I wanted or just one of the engineers if the situation warranted. I might have been a one-person business but I presented myself as a global corporation.
“Armed with by new business cards, my new website, I spent a couple of thousand dollars going to an industry conference. During that conference, I landed my first customer – a multinational. Of course, they had no idea that I was a one-woman machine. And they didn’t need to. They needed some technical advice that I knew I could provide.”
Lesson Three: Fake it ‘till you make it but never sell more than you can’t deliver.
After landing her first client, Rebecca Enonchong invested all the revenue she got in her business. She didn’t pay herself, even though she was homeless and couch-surfing (something she did for two years). However, this was good because she concentrated more on her business, and was never in a rush to go home after work.
“I was homeless and couch-surfed for two years before I finally got my own place. In the 17 years I have been in business, I have always paid myself last and have never had the highest salary in the company.
“But couch-surfing wasn’t just about saving money; because I didn’t have a home, I could focus entirely on my business. I wouldn’t leave the office until at least 2:00 AM. There were absolutely no distractions; there was absolutely no comfort.”
Lesson Four: Comfort is your enemy. Be prepared to make huge sacrifices.
“As I mentioned before, even though I was a tiny business, I was global from day one. Every single tool I purchased to run my business had to work from anywhere. In a world where the word “cloud” still defined something you could look up to in the sky, I only bought software accessible over the internet.
“We were one of Salesforce.com’s early customers. Also, each individual I hired, from my assistant to my technical and executive team, had to have worked or lived overseas and speak at least two languages. So while my like-sized competitors were focusing on the small local customer, I had my eyes on the more lucrative global market.”
However, Rebecca Enonchong and her team never had to fumble along the way, developing new strategies because it was all set from day one.
“because everything was designed to be global from the very first day, I didn’t have to pivot years later and develop a global strategy, change systems, and staff. Global in one location with four employees is actually the same structure as global in ten locations with hundreds of employees. Global is a way of thinking.”
Lesson Five: Design your business structure to address the largest market you can, not your current state.
“There were several aspects to our business model which were unusual at the time and helped us sign some very large deals within our first few years in business. One of them was that I personally hated bureaucracy. I still do. I have an intense dislike for paperwork and administrative procedures. What I came to realize was that so did many of my customers. When a bureaucratic multinational company is faced with a bureaucratic multinational supplier, the purchasing process and the delivery of services becomes complex and bogged down. So I tried to simplify the process.
“I basically productized services. So rather than sell so many man/hours or man/days with different rates for different people, I created packages that customers could choose from. For instance, support contracts had traditionally been per “seat” or per person on the contract. We proposed three different levels of a support product that never specified who, or how many would provide them. Not only did this greatly simplify the purchasing and delivery process but it also allowed us to scale. Since we weren’t paid by the number of consultants, we could build efficiency to reduce labor costs on customers and spread our resources across multiple contracts. In the US in 2000, this was innovative.”
Lesson Six: If the product or service you are providing isn’t innovative, your delivery of it can be.
Those you work with have a great role to play. Rebecca Enonchong had to recruit the very best and went as far as courting some for months before they accepted to come on board.
“As often as possible, I tried to find the brightest in the African community. Congo, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Sudan, Cameroon, and more were all represented at AppsTech. This in addition to China, Korea, India, France and the UK.”
“Most of them were much smarter than I was. Although some were obviously intelligent, they didn’t necessarily have specific industry experience. One of my very best hires, for example, was a political science major with absolutely no Oracle and little IT experience. But I loved the way he carried himself. I hired him on the spot. As a Client Relationship Manager, his ability to navigate difficult personalities was key. Another guy had a degree in veterinary science. He too had no Oracle experience. But he spoke five languages fluently including Russian and Spanish. If he could learn foreign languages so easily, surely “speaking” SQL wouldn’t be a stretch. He went on to get multiple Oracle certifications and was one of the very best members of our technical team.”
Lesson Seven: Hire the very best or train the very brightest
“Within four years, AppsTech had seven offices across three continents and customers in over 50 countries. We had generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue. By the time our model caught on, we already had established ourselves as the market leader. We had weathered the tech bubble and had seen many of our competitors, even some a hundred times our size, disappear. Profiles in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Computer World, Fortune Magazine and many others.”
In a country where tech entrepreneurship is just beginning to get a little bit of light from the public, Rebecca Enonchong has rightfully secured her place as Cameroon’s most powerful woman in tech. Hope for more African, and most especially Cameroonian women to follow her path, and do even greater things.