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Unlocking the power of community and tech innovation in Africa: a podcast discussion with Loïc, Optimetriks COO
We are thrilled to share a special episode of 'The SMEmpower Podcast' hosted by Max Getuba, featuring Loïc Ballester, Co-Founder and Director of Operations at Optimetriks. In this compelling discussion, Loïc provides valuable insights into the world of B2B sales, entrepreneurship, and the importance of community-building in the tech sector. His rich experience brings a unique perspective that complements the show's focus on empowering small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
Whether you're interested in sales, technology, or exploring new opportunities in Africa, this exchange offers a wealth of knowledge you won't want to miss.
Max - Do you mind giving us a brief intro into who Loic is, what you do now, and how you got to where you are today?
Loic - So I'm doing different things at the moment. I'm the co-founder and operations director for the company Optimetriks FieldPro and I also work as the growth lead for different markets where we operate. And on the side also work as the chairman for the French tech Nairobi community, which is an initiative I can describe more in details later on if you want.
So I split my time between those two roles, and I've been living in Nairobi for the last seven years, but about to move to another location at the end of the year. yeah.
Max: That's a fantastic introduction. Thank you for that.
So could you share the background behind Optimetriks and share how you got started, what you do as a company and how long you've been doing it?
Loïc: So yeah, absolutely. So at Optimetriks we started as a market research company, so we were selling services to our clients and we started out of Uganda almost 8 years ago. We were doing some retail audits for companies in East Africa where they basically needed us to recruit a team and go on the field and collect a few information from their clients to understand the market a bit better. And then we were just putting together some results presentations, we presented them to the client and we did that a few times a year. So for example, for telco operators, we used to do that four times a year, once every quarter.
So we did that for almost three years and we expanded our operations to West Africa as well. We were working with some telco operators in Mali, Senegal and so on as well in East Africa: Uganda, Kenya and so on. In order to do that, what we did back in the days is that we created our own application for data collection.
It was a mobile application that some in-house developers did for us and we basically equipped the guys or the field operators that we were recruiting to do these kinds of tasks, for them to be able to use it and collect the data. One thing we do at Optimetriks and that we’re still doing today, is that we spend a lot of time with our clients in the field.
So we regularly invited our clients to follow our teams in the field to understand how they were working, what kind of data they were collecting. And a few times our clients were just asking us what this application was and if we could maybe lend it for them to use for their own field force, so sales reps, delivery guys and so on. And at first we didn't want to do that. That's something we had used internally for us to operate. And after a few of our clients asking about this, we decided that was maybe a good idea for us to pivot and to go from a service company to a product company.
So what we ended up doing is that we put a lot more effort on developing the solution. We did spend a lot of time with our clients to understand their needs and try to tailor the solution for it to create more value for them. And then we started selling this product. So this solution is for our clients to use.
That's what we've been doing for the last five years, I would say. And so that's when we transitioned from Optimetriks, which was the former name, which is still the name of the head company, to FieldPro which is more of the solution we use now, we promote and sell to our clients.
So just to give a quick recap, FieldPro is a mobile and web based platform. We help organizations in different sectors, so it can be consumer goods, financial services and telco operators companies, to easily simplify, manage and automate their day to day field operations thanks to this application, for them to be more efficient.
And the aim ultimately is to be able to connect all the different actors in the distribution ecosystem, right from the producers to the outlets, the end consumers sometimes. So that's how it transitioned. And so as I was saying before, we do spend a lot of time with our clients to understand their aims, their needs and what we identified through those interactions are different use cases that regularly come back that are the most common use case for our clients. And thanks to this, we're able to develop tailored solutions.
For example, we have different solutions. FieldPro Sales is going to be more for consumer goods companies. FieldPro Agent Network is going to be more for the telco and financial services companies, FieldPro Agri Sourcing, as we do a lot of work with agriculture companies as well.
Max: That's such a unique and powerful story and it's a very interesting look into how you can pivot a service business into a product led business over a long time. 8 years is quite long and it looks like, you know, the company has changed over time and evolved into what it is. So congratulations on that.
So, do you mind just double clicking into that aspect of the thought process of pitching to your co-founder. What did you tell him? Because this is an entirely different type of business. It's a shift in what you had initially envisioned for the business.
So is that transition something that took a long time or a short time? And how exactly did you sell it to your co-founder?
Loïc: So the idea didn't come from me exclusively. We, the three of us, were having regular interaction with our clients and I think this idea came up to us pretty much at the same time. So I didn't have to pitch my co-founders this change in our business model. But we did have a lot of discussions around this. And it was pretty obvious for us that it was a natural move to make at some point for several reasons. We're operating as a service company and it was very difficult to scale the business. You know, every single project was quite different. It required a lot of setup time, a lot of time spent by our team, you know, reviewing the results, setting up a lot of follow up on the field. So it was pretty hectic every time, even though it was good money. So we're still doing it. But at some point we figured out that there was no way we could actually scale this business.
'And when the idea of transitioning to a product like company and basically saying selling a SaaS product came up, it was pretty obvious for us it was the path to scale.'
We'd be able to identify some use cases, we'd be able to sell some recurring licenses to our clients. And it was a good means for us also to be able to do some financial projection because, you know, in a sense the SaaS business model, you sell licenses or you sell a product every month. And then you can have some projections of your financials and revenues on a yearly basis.
So it was easier for us to also project the future of the companies. That's why we decided to do that. And to be honest, it is also a more exciting adventure than staying as a service company.
Max: That's really interesting and I think it's a very courageous decision. And I'm glad that you made it. So you work as an operator and growth lead within your company.
So could you enlighten us on your experience in scaling this company to over 50 countries and your experience operating in a machine that spans three continents?
Loïc: Absolutely. So maybe to give a bit of context. So I told you we started out of East Africa, right. So we have our main operations office, in Kenya right now in Nairobi, where we have a bit more than 20 people. But we also have expanded to other areas in other regions of Africa. So I told you, we are operating out of West Africa as well. And we have an office there. We have an office in Dakar, Senegal , with a team that is growing at the moment.
Right now we have a bit more than 100 clients, in a bit less than 50 countries. So 40 of them are in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly and we're expanding to Latin America, Europe as well, and let's say the Middle East in a few. So that's quite a wide geographical area. And the way we manage that is basically that we Foster a remote philosophy for employees.
'We have employees that work out of Nairobi, out of Dakar, out of France as well. Now Mexico. And what we managed to put in place is a good company culture that allows people to be responsible and autonomous and actually make decisions for them to grow the business on their own. I think everyone has some ownership or feel some ownership, at least of for the success of the company. And we basically all push in the same direction.'
Now in terms of operations, the way we deliver our clients, we have some English speaking clients that are taken care of by the team in Nairobi. We have French speaking clients also that are taken care of by the team in Senegal. And as it's a SaaS product, it's easy for us to deploy remotely.
So we have a lot of processes that are put in place to make sure that the follow up and the clients, the onboarding, the usage is well tracked. And as I told you before, we try to spend a lot of time on the field with them, so whether in Kenya or in Senegal, but also we travel quite regularly to go to Nigeria where we have some people working, and also Ghana where they do spend a lot of time with the clients in the field.
Those two countries are actually big countries for us and we also travel anywhere else where we have big clients. So now we have an office in Mexico as well. We're expanding the operations, trying to spend a lot of time with them on the field and we try to keep this proximity with them. And that's basically how we get a lot of feedback and we try to adapt the product to their needs because ultimately we just want to create some value for them.
So we're not just trying to push some features that we think they're going to like. We just take some feedback. That's how we pivoted the company, we listened to them and we basically built the product with them. So that's how we go about this.
Max: That's really impressive and inspiring. Just to follow up on that, I understand that you are mostly bootstrapped, which is also a very interesting decision. It looks like your company is making very unique and interesting decisions, and I think that's commendable, first of all.
But do you mind just sharing why you made that decision and what that has meant for the company over the last couple of years of its existence?
Loïc: So one of the main reasons why we decided not to raise money at some point was because we were actually profitable from day one. So from the first project we had in Uganda back in the days, we were positive we had a positive cash flow. So starting from that, we just tried to push a bit more like this, have more clients be reasonable with our expenses and see where it would go. And the thing is that over the last 8 years we've been able to grow as a company, to steadily grow our client base without taking any kind of investment. So that's the main reason we are bootstrapped because we didn't feel any need for us to raise money and accelerate, because I think all the co-founders and business partners in this company share the same vision about the companies that we want to take it step by step.
We don't want to rush things. But what we do is that we iterate all the time. We take in the feedback, try to develop things, we validate the concept before we actually push it to production and to the field. And it has been working for us so far. So for now I think we will keep on going like this for a while because we can basically, but also at some point it's not excluded that we want to really accelerate on one continent or to push a totally new product that we need more money for.
'We're not close to the idea. But for now, the thing is that we didn't need it, so we keep on growing the company this way and we'll see in the coming years depending on the opportunities as well.'
Max: Wow. That's a really amazing story. I think that puts you in a very small category of software companies, especially those who've managed to be profitable from day one bootstrap and grow as much as you have. So congrats to the team. That's amazing. So you have a sales background as well and you've excelled in B2B sales.
Do you mind giving us just a little bit of perspective on how to successfully approach B2B sales?
Loïc: Thanks for the question. I'm not sure I can give advice on how to be successful in B2B sales. The fact is really focused on giving our clients the best experience possible and to really be close to them so we increase their satisfaction. So to go back a little bit to how we explained it to over 40 countries, now we've never really bet on an aggressive expansion strategy. So of course we're doing some prospecting, but most of the time we go through recommendations.
So some clients we've been working on with in Kenya to this day have helped us expand to another ten countries in Africa, either within the same group or with other companies they knew. So they recommended us.
'We really personally believe in compound effects, that if you give the best quality to and consistently to your clients, it will go back to you at some point in the form of a new business. '
So that's what we've been doing. So think well, the only possible advice we could give on this would be to take care of your existing clients, make sure that they're satisfied, try to help them grow and they will probably help you grow in return.
Max: That's a brilliant strategy, you know, I don't know who said it. I think it was Einstein. Let me know, but there's someone who said that genius is really in simplicity. So the simpler you can make a problem or define something, then the more brilliant it tends to be. So I think it's a really brilliant approach to B2B sales. But just out of curiosity, as you know, I'm someone who's very curious about sales with your first client. Let's say you are a market research firm. You just started, you have your co-founders.
Do you just walk into someone's building and you know, say ‘I want a meeting with the head of this or this’?
Loïc: So well, we've done that. Of course, when you try to launch a company, that's something you do. I think the most successful we've been since the beginning was more with people from our own network. So previous companies that were already working in Africa and in some sectors we wanted to break in would give us some introductions.
But I think if we were to have a share of the companies we manage to sign after some call prospect compared to the people we already know we've been introduced to, it would be very low. So yeah, not a lot of cold calling on our side, but we are trying to build on existing relationships and grow this way.
Max: That's very smart. Thank you a lot for that advice. So you're also the chairman of French Tech Nairobi, which is an entrepreneurship community.
Do you mind sharing a little bit about the community, what it is and what you do.
Loïc: So this is another thing I do part time. So it takes less time than my regular job at Optimetriks. Basically the French tech is an initiative that was launched by French President Emmanuel Macron at the beginning of his first mandate. And the aim of this initiative is to basically foster relationships between French entrepreneurs and local entrepreneurs wherever they are. So in the meantime, we have launched, I think, around 70 communities in as many countries. As for the French tech Nairobi is a community of volunteers, so it's totally it's not paid.
'We are trying to first welcome the new French entrepreneurs, so in my case in Nairobi, trying to put them in touch with a valuable network for them, included partners, clients or just like minded individuals, but also trying to promote and support startups in the local ecosystem. '
So in our case in Nairobi, Kenya, more in the tech ecosystem, but not only for them to be in touch with other entrepreneurs or investors or partners, but also to make it possible to an extent for them to do business with friends. So it's a two way initiative that is trying to create more values for people who want to participate in it. And we've relaunched this initiative. So there was a new election at the beginning of the year, and we've built a new board of directors in Nairobi for this community. And we've been trying to make it more lively and push it since the beginning of the year.
That's amazing. What do you think is the importance of communities, you know, in your experience? Communities of like minded individuals. Based on your experience, where did you take this? You know, you didn't need to take it for sure, but you decided to be the chairman of this community organization. So do you just share a little bit about that?
Loïc: So my personal point of view on this is that I've been in the ecosystem for several years now, and I've been meeting entrepreneurs and investors and business people over those seven years and felt like at some point a way to give back also to the ecosystem and try to make it grow. Because I've seen for myself that when you're out there and you communicate on what you do and you try to help people and just discuss what they do to try to understand. It opens your mind and ends up creating opportunities.
And so at some point, I wanted to be part of this. I wanted to try to give back and see if I could help those people. And the reality of it is that it was very easy for us to put together this group of people because they were already there. And you already have a lot of other communities that are trying to do a similar job. I wanted to be part of this to see if I could help and basically create more value for everyone. See if some opportunities for me, but also for other people could come out of it as well.
Max: That's a very fascinating and inspiring story.
And just to follow up on that, why did you choose to start your company in Africa and in Uganda East Africa specifically, you know, given you're a French national as well? And you could have easily just started it there in the EU and in that entire space. So what prompted you to choose Africa?
Loïc: So my business partner who was the one at the beginning of the idea was already working in East Africa with another company. And he identified there was a lack of good data or of precise data for people to basically develop in this region of the world. So he crafted his idea around this need and why Uganda or Kenya? We had an opportunity. So he met with someone who actually needed a company to lead this market research for them. And he decided to go.
Once we had started in Uganda, we identified other clients that could be working with us in the region. And we saw that Kenya was probably the most valuable place for us to settle down because most of the clients who we wanted to work with, were already settled in in Nairobi and not in Kampala. So we made the move to come to Kenya. And it was easier for us also to then go back to Uganda whenever we had a client there.
So yeah, it was out of an opportunity. We didn't just choose to go to Uganda at first saying this is where we're going to find the most clients. We had this opportunity, we took it and out of Uganda, we tried to grow the business.
Max: I mean, that's essentially what entrepreneurs do. So you find opportunities, you pursue them and you create value. And I think that's really the whole story of entrepreneurship in a nutshell.
So we have a traditional last question that we like to ask our guests, and this question is what kind of world would you like to create through your entrepreneurial endeavors?
Loïc: As I was saying before, when you create a community of entrepreneurs like this, you lead it. At least you try to give back to some people who have helped you already. And I think collaboration around these kinds of subjects, So for example, we had earlier this year an event around how technology could foster or make agriculture more efficient for people to eat well and so on.
'These kinds of issues, I think you have a lot of work to do around this. And you can only manage to tackle these kinds of issues by putting people together, by working together, trying to find a solution and yeah, grow this way.'
A big thank you to Max for having us on his podcast.
The conversation not only provided insights into the ever-changing landscape of entrepreneurship but also delved into how communities and collaborations can be powerful drivers of change and innovation.
If you found this article insightful, don't forget to share it and keep the conversation going.
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