On the 30 May 2019, we held the 3rd event in the Founders series. This time, we were joined by Jean-Claude Homawoo, the co-founder and chief product officer of Lori Systems, a startup in the logistics space, using technology and data to increase the efficiency of moving goods across the country and continent.
What began as an 'Uber for lorry' idea in Mombasa 3 years ago has grown to be a startup with 150 staff and over 5000 trucks, moving cargo in 8 countries, and with offices in 4.
Keep reading for pictures from the evening and more on the discussion.
On ‘coming home’
JC was born in Belgium, to a Togolese father and a Liberian mother. He was raised in Togo and educated in Togo, France and the USA. The question of identity, coming back to the continent and returning ‘home’ weaved its way in and out of the entire discussion. JC left a job as a product manager at Google, to come and co-found Lori together with co-founder and CEO Josh Sandler. He laughs as he tells us that most people he’s shared this with either thinks he is a mad or there was something special about Lori. Perhaps a bit of both (read on for the full story) but largely it was a growing awareness of self, and a strong calling to return home to Africa. After a 2 year stint in Hong-Kong, JC began to think more about where his personal value could be maximized, eventually realising he would not be fully satisfied working away from the continent.
“Going home is written in our DNA”
On founding teams
Right from the top of conversation, it was clear that JC was not mad. The people at Lori were a major factor in his decision to join the team as a co-founder. People are your biggest resource so finding, keeping and managing talent has to be a top priority for any startup.
“You just don’t know enough no matter how smart you are.”
Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Using sporting analogy, JC shared what works well for founding teams: more ‘general athletes’ that can happily dip in and out of a variety of tasks in the early days of startup, and fewer specialists who typically stick to one task. JC feels that entrepreneurship is a product of diversity both within teams, as well as in the wider ecosystem. This comes out clearly in our discussion around his experience as a Togolese man in Hong-Kong, the US, and now here in Kenya.
Back at Lori, JC credited his co-founder and CEO Josh Sandler with a lot of the diversity, commitment and work ethic he found early on. Which led to some really interesting insights on finding a co-founder.
JC compared entrepreneurship to dating, particularly when you’re looking for a co-founder: the need to be clear and upfront about needs and expectations, and not be deterred by differences in skill set and temperament. JC has a tech background and his co-founder Josh has a finance background: different but complementary.
JC was introduced to Josh 1.5 years before he decided to join Lori. Just like in a romantic relationship, his advice: “date a bit before committing.”
“Date a bit before committing.”
On Purpose and passion in entrepreneurship
The early days is always a part of the discussion that everyone looks forward to…what founders have had to do to get their business off the ground. For JC’s previous startups as well as Lori, it involved “hustling begging and borrowing” from family and friends for startup capital, from clients for desk space when they couldn’t afford an office. And it involved Josh, the co-founder, having to sleep at the port to ensure that Lori delivered on one of its earliest clients (note: there is absolutely no accommodation at the Port of Mombasa).
“Everything is going to be difficult”
“Everything is going to be difficult” says JC. Well, starting out isn’t that difficult. You’re filled with euphoria and optimism about your idea and can visualize success. But how do you keep going once you’ve put yourself out there, and faced the lack? According to JC, clarity about your purpose and your passion is really important when the going gets tough. And there’s no doubt it will – over 95% of startups fail.
For JC, his purpose and passion is tied to his identity as an African and his desire to apply his skills here on the continent. His passion is solving big problems.
The trucking industry is worth over USD 180 billion, USD 12 billion in East Africa alone. Whilst most trucking companies in Kenya have fewer than 10 trucks, the average shipment arriving at the Port of Mombasa can require at least 100 trucks to unload. This leads to the consignee having to make multiple calls to multiple transport companies, bearing in mind demurrage and the port-related charges should delays occur. This is a very big logistical problem.
For entrepreneurs (JC and his partner Josh), very big problems are also very big opportunities to find a way to do things better. And that is JC’s passion: using technology to solve very big problems.
On being born an entrepreneurship
We discussed whether or not entrepreneurship can be taught, or whether one is born an entrepreneur. JC’s take is that entrepreneurship can be learned, but people who innately possess a lot resilience, appetite for risk and a high pain threshold are more likely to be successful.
Lori is JC’s 5th startup, and he was pretty frank in sharing that a couple of his previous startups failed – something that is not uncommon with most entrepreneurs trying to solve very big problems. It’s all going to be difficult no matter how small or big the problem is, so "why not look for a big problem a lot of people have", he says casually.
Lastly on competition and solving big problems, JC says “don’t try and hoard the pie – it’s big enough for everyone”.
A very big thank you to JC for spending the evening with us and being so generous with his story. Thank you to Aaron for being a great facilitator and cracking the inevitable Jean-Claude van Damme joke! To Abbas for capturing the event. To Safaricom Business for taking a chance on us, and coming on board as our sponsor for the event. And for everyone who attended – your energy and engagement is what keeps Founders going.
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Have a suggestion for someone who would be a great guest for the Founders series? Please let us know!