In 2013, the Hypercube Technology Hub was born to create a space for Zimbabwe’s aspiring ‘techpreneurs’ to come together, collaborate, and create. The first of its kind in Zimbabwe, Hypercube drew significant international attention, and became a physical landmark representing the dawn of the information economy in Harare. However, the story takes a sad turn by December 31, 2015, when Hypercube closed its doors citing lack of resources sufficient to maintain operations. In the first event of its kind, a “failing forward discussion,” three founding directors of the now defunct Hypercube Technology Hub bared their souls to the public on Tuesday–answering questions from members of the audience about key lessons learned during their two years of operation and eventual closure.
The founders- Munyaradzi Chiura; Rinesh Desai and Nikki Kershaw- were part of the six member team who founded, and were tasked with managing, the technology hub. They shared a passion for technology and its potential to change lives and as a result, sought to foster the sustainable growth of technological innovations in Zimbabwe. The initiative received seed funding support from the United States Embassy, HIVOS, and Indigo Trust to begin operations and the plan was to be self-sustaining–through membership fees, office rental, and corporate partnerships–within three years. Later they also received programmatic funding from UNDP.
2013 and 2014 saw Hypercube realizing their dreams, hosting successful Start Up Weekends, producing new and award winning technology start-ups and applications, partnering with TedXHarare, becoming a home for local techies and a safe place for collaboration, conducting numerous grass-roots level training programs for youth interested in coding and technology, and raising international visibility and awareness of Zimbabwe as a growing vibrant tech community.
Speaking during a Food for Thought session held at the U.S. Embassy’s Eastgate offices, the directors cited limited funding to sustain the operations, which required no less than $10,000 a month, for their closure, but agreed there were other lessons learned along the way as well. “If any lessons can be learned from the Hypercube story for the benefit of everyone in the Zimbabwe tech eco-system–other hubs, and other techies alike—we want to make sure we are doing our part to contribute towards the advancement of this community…Even if we did have to close.”
Speaking candidly, the three founders cited the very passions that inspired them to begin in the first place as a team made it difficult for them when things began to unravel “to honestly and objectively assess whether Hypercube, as it stood, was viable and sustainable.”
They went on to share more lessons learned, which are summed up here:
Prototype first, *then* seek funding: Seeking funding can cause its own set of unique circumstances, and it is better to be in a solid position, know where you are headed, having validated your assumptions, and built up your community or business idea or prototype before seeking funding for it. Our vision was big, optimistic – and we didn’t have a Plan B if revenue streams didn’t fall into place, or targets were not met in time – as they didn’t. Our plan was so big, and so multi-faceted. This meant we lost track of our direction until we found ourselves on a “survival path” and by then we found ourselves “fixing” and unable to pivot, to change direction. We spent a lot of time researching other hubs, particularly those in neighbouring countries, but didn’t make enough of an adjustment for the Zimbabwean context.
Have a dedicated, functional Board: With 6 co-founders, Hypercube often acted more like a large corporate than a start-up, taking too long to make key decisions. As a group of founders, we often found ourselves moving too slowly in a fast-changing environment. Meeting quarterly was not enough, rather, monthly meetings and regular check-ins would have served us better. 4 out of the 6 co-founders had full time jobs or companies which they ran. Ensure you have a diverse advisory and management team, each bringing a successful track record in different fields. Each member should have the drive and commitment to see the organisation succeed, each bringing their own skillsets for the advantage of the organisation they represent, with the understanding that their fiduciary duties are foremost to the success of the organisation. Each organisation and its board members should be aware of any potential conflicts of interest which may present themselves and have a cohesive plan on how to mitigate them internally. Establish your board, corporate governance and accountability structures from the outset, before doing almost anything else.
Income: We piloted the membership scheme structure from January 2014 until December 2014 and commenced official paid membership in January 2015. This was too late – we should have done the free trial for far less time, and focused on bringing money into the organisation to help with our considerable running costs.
Financial Management: Set up a solid business plan, and refer back to it every quarter (or more regularly) to ensure it is still relevant. Hire critical talent if you don’t have it internally. Do not be quick to hire, but then do not delay in taking necessary steps to reduce staff or let people go either. Inefficient personnel management can become extremely costly. Never assume that the obvious is obvious. The state of finances indicate the health or state of an organization. Always have your eyes on what’s happening. Proper policies and procedures established from the outset and consistently applied are instrumental to the success and proper functioning of any organisation. These would also go a long way to being able to accurately monitor the health of your organisation.
Running costs: From the outset, operating costs were too high, especially given that we didn’t have any other sources of income other than donor funding. Private funding mechanisms and core partnerships were sought, locally and abroad but these did not come to fruition. The venue was one of our biggest monthly expenses. The size and location was a result of us trying to be all things to all people – trying to be central, safe for women, well-lit, large enough to accommodate co-working, community, acceleration, and education. We overestimated the amount of space we needed and did not adequately make full usage of the space availed to us. In hindsight, renovations to the office space were unnecessary, and not really what the community needed in the end – no-one cared what the space looked like except those international visitors, who were very impressed with and complimentary about the space. However, the additional lighting and improved electrical fittings throughout the space were the most important factors in making the space usable.
Admit when things are not working: One of the most difficult things to do, as a start-up / an entrepreneur, is to admit when your vision has flaws, or isn’t working in the way you intended, and you need to adjust your goals and expectations. We didn’t do this quickly enough, and only then when we were in survival mode, when we didn’t have many options left, and were making decisions based on keeping doors open, rather than what was right for Hypercube.
As a comment, the U.S. Embassy commends Hypercube founders for being willing to share their story and offer it to those in the eco-system who may be in danger of making any of the same mistakes. In the spirit of “failing forward,” we thank the founders for seeking still to contribute positively to Zimbabwe’s start up and tech communities and look forward to their continued contributions to the growth of a vibrant Information Economy here. – ZimPAS © January 22, 2016