Digitization of SMEs is inevitable. Over the past 12 months, I’ve scribbled this on post-it notes, written it on my whiteboard, typed it into word documents, and shared it at meetings more times than I can count. It is the truth. Do we really think that 5 years, or even 3 years from now, the average merchant or entrepreneur in Africa (or any emerging market) won’t be using any digital tools? They won’t be keeping records digitally or using social as a channel, or paying their vendors via e-invoices? And so through the doom and gloom of a market correction and blogs telling me to prepare to run my business like I’ll never fundraise again and the Cedi making the Ruble’s performance look stellar, this is the mantra that has gotten me through it. Digitization of SMEs is inevitable. Oze is building the tools on which this digital future will run.
In the turbulence of the global market, we stripped away all vanity metrics and continued to drive growth where it really matters. We also put our heads down and built some amazing new technology for and with our customers. I have a 2-year old nephew, so I spent a lot of this holiday building with blocks. My nephew has one obsession when he is building and that is “a solid base”. It’s the only way to build the tallest tower. If I look back to what we accomplished in 2022, I would say that’s exactly what we accomplished. We now have a solid base. A solid base means more customers using Oze fully. It means that we’ve put in place processes to support the development of our talent. It means an improved codebase designed for stability and scalability. It means completing the integrations necessary to enable our banking partners to lend to our SMEs.
Beyond building some block masterpieces this break, I’ve also spent time reflecting on where we’ve been, what I’ve learned, and where we are going. It’s difficult to break them up into three distinct categories. Where we’ve been has taught me both where we need to go and how to get there.
One of the big leadership lessons I’ve learned over the past year is that sometimes you are wrong and as a leader the only way to fix it is to admit you are wrong and change course. Our customers have been asking for us to build an inventory solution pretty much from Day 1. And since Day 1, I’ve said, “No”. I was focused on what could go wrong with an inventory management system. I was focused on the complexity. The thing about inventory is that if you set it up wrong, it’s garbage from the get go. Also if you have a week where you let your recordkeeping habit slip, you’ve messed up your inventory completely. I tested just about every mobile inventory system out there (especially the free and affordable solutions) and they were a misery to use. I steered our team to focus elsewhere, but that didn’t change the fact that our customers were asking for it every week. We started research in 2021, but we never built anything with urgency. Then I had a mindset shift…
What if instead of designing through the lens of “what could go wrong”, we started building an inventory system with a vision for what it can enable. With inventory in Oze, we could help our customers to sell online. We could make it easier to record sales and expenses. And we can tailor financing products to help our customers stock up. At the end of 2022, the first group of Oze entrepreneurs got access to inventory features. I can say with confidence that I was wrong. We should have built inventory years ago. It’s a great system and I can’t wait to roll it out to our whole user base. This year, we’ll build on top of that inventory system so that our customers can also build up their business from a solid base. I’ll share more about the “blocks” that will be available to our customers as they come out, but think much more access to loans, your very own online shop, and a command center for your business.
It’s important for me to remember that Oze isn’t the only small business or startup that dealt with a rollercoaster of a year; all of our customers did. Despite this, 37% of customers report making more money because of using Oze and 56% were able to maintain their revenue during a period of extreme economic uncertainty. It wasn’t easy, but numbers like this make the work worth it. It also makes me excited because the best is yet to come.
Thank you to the Catalyst Fund Inclusive Digital Commerce program for running the survey behind the numbers in this blog.