Silicon Valley – One traveler’s dream, expectation and the future back home

Oluseye Soyode-Johnson is the co-founder of Maliyo Games, a Lagos based company that creates casual browser games to share the experiences of everyday Africans with a global audience. Oluseye participated in DEMO Africa 2012 in Nairobi, Kenya, where he was chosen out of 40 entrepreneurs to travel to Silicon Valley to participate in the 2013 Fall DEMO launch event in San Jose, California.

The most important thing about the LIONS@AFRICA-sponsored Innovation Tour, for me, was inspiration. The trip changed and the way I think about my role in Nigeria’s emerging tech scene. From broadening my presentation skills to near-Jedi levels; to listening to managerial ideas by off-beat thought-leaders, I’ve just learnt how to dream bigger.

Rewind. Back to Monday, October 14: Leaving San Francisco Airport, I laid back and spread out in the spacious Super Shuttle bus I now shared with four strangers. I was finally making my way towards ‘first contact’ with my Innovation Tour and DEMO mentors – as well as a cohort of four other fellow DEMO startups from Africa – at the San Jose Silicon Valley Hotel.

Just a day and a half ago, I was at home in Nigeria, in the heart of Africa’s fast-paced, emerging tech scene, working hard on a new gaming product for the company I co-founded called Maliyo Games. To be honest I hadn’t had much time to think of what to expect from this trip and it was all I could do to squeeze in the time to prepare the 90-Second investor pitch for the DEMO Fall Conference in Silicon Valley. Back on the bus full blown memory loss had long set in so I decided instead to soak in every moment of this great opportunity.

Mountain View. Cupertino. Palo Alto. Silicon Valley holds a certain mystic within many budding technology ecosystems around the world. For my DEMO Africa cohorts and I, our journey to Silicon Valley began a year ago – when 40 startups pitched at the first-ever DEMO Africa conference, in Kenya. I was one of five ‘Demo Lions’ chosen to pitch at the original DEMO event. It was a tremendous opportunity and I gleaned many insights that have added to my arsenal. I would like to share just two personal and character-building lessons.

How to Give a Riveting and Successful Pitch

After my 6-minute pitch at DEMO Africa (Kenya, 2012), and the 90-seconder at DEMO Silicon Valley, I have learnt a thing or two about stage presence, giving presentations-under-pressure and most importantly, how to tell a story that convinces people to meet you afterwards – and say ‘tell me more’.


The first thing I learnt is that it doesn’t get easier, to stand in front of a bunch of strangers you want to impress and impress in very a short-time span. Even as I was about to be introduced on stage by SVP of DEMO, Neil Silverman, I realized, from behind the large backstage screen, that I needed to calm down, or I would blow it! I remembered my two-step rule. One. pray. After all, it was God that brought me here – not myself! Two, before climbing up on stage, I need to ask myself …why? Why what I’m about to say, matters to me. Beyond all I have written on paper, I ask myself ‘what about the subject matter do I care about – NOT what I want to make the audience care about’.

Suddenly it dawned on me and my nervous mind, that the material can be something more than just a speech. This gave me courage to rise to the occasion. I forgot the pre-planned script and spoke from the heart. I have since given this advice to my brother for a management presentation, and a nervous bestman before giving a wedding toast. It works. But how does one even say anything meaningful in 90-seconds? Smile, use your hands and own the room for those 90-seconds!

We also learnt from great advice our DEMO mentors gave during our first two days. I think one of the most valuable contributions they gave was to always start a pitch or presentation with a story! We were reminded that a great speaker at a TED Talk, never opens with the line ‘the title of my talk is …’. A TED speaker starts with an anecdote – which may seem off-topic at first, but instantly draws the listener into the world the speaker is about to paint. ”Stories are truly the language of business,” said Nathan Gold, DEMO Coach and 5-time DEMO god. So my opening line, and thus, story, was: “Africans view entertainment as a ‘need’ not a luxury; and this monetizes in ways that are hard to ignore!” As I spoke this opening line with conviction and an air-of-ease, suddenly people took notice of who was in front of them, standing on stage – and paid attention. For an audience that is 10,000 miles away from knowledge of African culture, it immediately intrigued them; speaking to them of a dynamic market and set of consumers they should pay attention to, even if different from theirs. Now they had to know more – and they came up to ask after the pitch!

Growth Hacking and Building Traction

Over the course of the week we had a chance to participate in various events and hear from leading tech personas. I wouldn’t lie, Mark Zuckerburg (CEO du jour) was definitely a main attraction, but in the end, I learnt from many unique perspectives.

The fire-side style chats at the DEMO conference were great. I gleaned the most from Di-Ann Eisnor, Head U.S. Operations, Waze – the crowd-sourced traffic information company Google bought for $1billion. Her fireside chat was aptly called ‘How to Build a Billion Dollar Business’. For early stage companies in ecosystems like Nigeria’s, she had some interesting advice:

  1. The first was how to make an application useful to early adopters, ensuring that you eventually reach the kind of traction and user-base you need to be successful. What happens when you don’t have enough users (and thus data) to make an app engaging for a diverse user-base. Di-Ann says to focus on the power users within the early adopters and incentivize them to do more of the heavy-lifting and populate more of the useful data needed. In Waze’s case, the problem was that they didn’t have enough users to give traffic data in less travelled routes – it just wasn’t possible. So they built a Pacman game into the app, so if a user drove routes they wouldn’t usually take, they got more points within the game. The power users loved it and Waze got data about more areas. Don’t forget early adopters are cool and hip. They are happy they are the first and will give feedback that helps to make the app more of what they like. Hang in there and take an iterative development approach that constantly takes feedback from the community as you rebuild the product.
  2. As you grow, take advantage of every opportunity life kindly hands you. Life hands us a lot of lemons but a lot of times we are too lazy to squeeze. Growth hacking (is paramount. I believe it’s even more important in Nigeria’s budding ecosystem. Growth hacking focuses on low-cost and innovative alternatives to traditional marketing to sell products and gain exposure. The later (exposure) is what is most important to me at the early stage of a Nigerian startup, as exposure means consumer trust – and which can lead to sales. This exposure is usually expensive and near-impossible for small startups in markets like ours. Waze was blessed with a seemingly usual opportunity – a fortuitous event that was well spotted by its managers. A major highway being shutdown in LA. It would mean a weekend of very angry motorists and later even outcries by the mayor. In response, Waze released a fun video about it, without mentioning their product. Predictably the video got meager views (it was a small startup). But more important was the chain reaction after the video. It soon caught the attention of a local TV station who called them in for a few minutes interview. Traction grew a little. This interview then got them noticed by a national TV station, ABC, who then asked to use the Waze platform to provide their viewers minute-by-minute traffic information over the course of the crisis!! They struck gold and the traction floodgates opened – and haven’t stopped. Moral of the story: Keep your eyes open for opportunity, use it and who knows.

2014 – The Year of great Nigerian Tech Ecosystem growth

By the end of the week in Silicon Valley, I was so excited about returning back to Nigeria. I had to get home and begin to build. True, Africa is far from achieving the Silicon Valley mindset, but a few great startups and individuals can led the way. Who knows maybe one of these, maybe the Nigerian Minister of ICT, who I got to meet when she visited the Maliyo booth at DEMO. I have new found respect and interest in this very forward-thinking lady, who seemed genuinely interested in learning from Silicon Valleys successes.

As I start new ventures, it’s super- encouraging to see the Minister on the same journey of learning and imagining of new environments in which startups could begin to flourish in Nigeria.

Last but not least, I want to thank DEMO and LIONS@FRICA for choosing to have the next DEMO Africa 2014 conference in Lagos, Nigeria. It can only be fortuitous that it comes in a year that will surely herald truly amazing tech stories out of Nigeria.

Silicon Valley – One Traveller’s Dream, Expectation and The Future Back Home was first published on LIONS@FRICA

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