Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Whole Story - Q&A With HumanIPO

The following is the complete interview done with HumanIPO. You can find the published version on their web site which had some of the questions removed for brevity.

Eric Mutta (left), Zephania Mgonella (first Minishop customer) with Sosthenes Kewe and Christian Mpalanzi (right) from FSDT during the award ceremony on June 18th 2013 at the Serena Hotel, Dar-e-salaam.

Tell us about Eric Mutta (yourself, growing up, your family background, education background and so on). 

I am the first of four children; born in Tanzania on 25th July 1983 (I turn thirty next month and will be accepting birthday gifts!). My dad was a government accountant and my mum a school teacher before they got into the music recording and sales business. I went to school in Tanzania until grade 4, and then studied in Kenya at Imani School, Thika and then Greensteds School, Nakuru all the way up to Form 5 (O-Levels).
In 1995 I discovered computers and would start computer programming in 1997 with dreams of being a hacker. By the end of 2000, I went to Birmingham, England to study A-levels in Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science. I returned to Tanzania in 2006, worked a little, and then founded my startup, Problem Solved Ltd in 2008.

It has been about 18 years since you started working with ICT. How has the journey been since you started?

It has been an interesting journey. Computers have become more powerful, the whole mobile revolution happened, internet speeds have increased, companies like Google and Facebook came out of nowhere to change the world, mobile money happened, the iPhone happened…so many changes! Personally, I’ve honed my skills in the area of software engineering, learned tons about entrepreneurship and developed the championship instinct one needs to succeed in emerging markets.

Where did you start?

My dad purchased an old PC for me and my siblings to play video games in 1995. We were in the Mwanza region of Tanzania at the time. While in boarding school at Greensteds School in Nakuru, I got a chance to watch the movie “Hackers” and loved the idea of covertly controlling the world with computers. It appealed to my sense of world domination and so I learnt everything I could.
All hacking sites said to be a hacker you had to be a programmer and I began that journey in 1997 with something called QBASIC (a beginner’s programming language). By 2000 when I went to the UK, I was in love with creative aspects of programming instead of merely breaking into banks to steal money or turn all road traffic lights to green when I was driving. I have been at it 13 hours a day, pretty much everyday for the past 16 years now.

Tell us about Problem Solved Ltd.

Problem Solved Ltd is a software company I founded on 25th of April 2008. It exists to solve so-called impossible problems by using software technology. In mid 2007 I got a job as a programmer at TISCAN, which performed tax assessment for imported goods coming through the port of Dar-es-salaam.
Clearing agents would fill an Import Declaration Form specifying the contents of a container and email it to TISCAN for processing. It would take up to two days for a human to open the email, print the form, check everything was in order and give an agent their reference number once processing began. This led to many congestion problems at the port due to the delays. Management wanted a solution but it had proved elusive up to that point and they were told it was impossible to fix.

They found me in the office by luck – my manager was off for Christmas holidays, but I was stuck there because I hadn’t been at the company long enough to start taking holidays. After explaining the problem to me, I spent 12 days making a little program that did in 30 seconds what previously needed 4 people and 48 hours to accomplish. Problem Solved!

The result was electric (revenues at the company jumped up by $300,000 in the first month of use, thanks to faster processing) and a few weeks later I would quit and start Problem Solved Ltd to do more of the same for other companies.

You have won yet another accolade, tell us about it.

Previously, I won $15,000 from the US Department of State as part of the Apps4Africa 2011 Climate Challenge. After investing that prize and developing Minishop (the award-winning accounting software) I then won the SME Finance Innovation Challenge Fund II and received a $328,000 grant just a few days ago on the 18th of June 2013.

The challenge is run by the Financial Sector Deepening Trust (FSDT – www.fsdt.or.tz) and is a competitive, matching grant fund that awards amounts between $100,000 and $500,000. I won for proposing a fresh approach to solving the challenge of SME access to finance. Small businesses struggle to get loans from banks because it is prohibitively expensive to get required financial statements prepared by auditors/accountants. Minishop automates that process, making it up to 89% cheaper!

How long has it taken you to come up with the application that won the award?

On the 19th of August 2008 at 2.04pm I made an entry in my Diary of Secret Master Plans, about something called Biashara System. As the name implies, this computer program would do everything related to biashara (business). For almost two years I dreamt of how awesome it was going to be and how it would end world hunger, without ever getting it built.

Minishop, the application that won the award, was conceived about 3 years ago on 15th July 2010 at 7.15pm when I made an entry in my Diary of Secret Master Plans yet again. The word “mini” was deliberately included to make sure this time round I was doing something small enough to be completed, unlike the previous Biashara System. 
Exactly 5 months later on 15th of December 2010, Minishop found its first customer – it wasn’t even finished! Seeing I had a potentially successful product on my hands I worked overtime and released version 1 on 16th of February 2011. So total initial development time was 7 months and Minishop is approaching 3 years old at the time of this award.

Who was your competition for the award?

I know there were 13 other companies, mostly financial institutions, but their names are not disclosed (it is not a “name and shame” game, so only the winner is announced and it happens to be Problem Solved Ltd!) .

How does it feel to win again?

It feels right. Winning says to me “Eric, you made the right decision taking an incredible risk by quitting a well paying job to work on a company that, for 4 years, appeared to be going nowhere”.

Most small businesses die. Mine hasn’t. Now, with a sense of both humility and invincibility, I want to distribute Minishop to over 130,000 small & medium businesses and help them grow to their full potential.

Being that the award is the current talk of town how do you see it changing your life and the lives of other Africans and more so Tanzanians?

My life will never be the same again. For the first time ever, I am finally my own boss and a good boss at that because I can pay myself a salary! I have also discovered that my desire for world domination is not merely a part of my crazy sense of humour, but something I can honestly achieve, if I keep working on all the other entries in my Diary of Secret Master Plans.

For Tanzanians in particular and Africans in general, I hope me winning the award gives people audacity. That boldness to think in billions without fear because you can say: if Eric is doing it, why not me?

I could have asked for any amount between $100,000 and $500,000. I chose $328,000 because in Tanzanian shillings, you can pronounce the amount as “over half a billion shillings”. That word “billion” is why everyone is so excited despite the dollar amount being a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things.

When the media interviewed me after winning $15,000 in Apps4Africa 2011, I said my dream was to take that $15,000 and build a 15 billion dollar company within 15 years. The dream is slowly manifesting and the journey continues!

Are you working on any other project?

I develop a new product every two years. Minishop is my flagship product and pretty mature, so earlier this year I began developing a product to help professional organisations stay on track. This is more of an enterprise play, and like Minishop, it already has a paying customer even before version is due to be released this coming quarter.

Have you been able to get any sponsors for your projects?

I make commercial products, so “sponsor” is not the right word, perhaps “investor” is a better fit. FSDT, through this grant, is my biggest sponsor at the moment. I am on the look out for private investors that think big, have a long-term view, enjoy a good laugh, and don’t mind supporting a hard-headed engineer who wakes up at 3pm to start work because that’s how he is wired to change the world.

Are there other people working on the project with you given that you started working alone?

I have been writing code for 16 years. I am extremely particular about the way things should be done in the product development side of things, so I still handle all of that myself. With the grant, I am going to hire up to 7 problem solvers to help with other things. I have no problem attracting top talent, especially with all the news going around, but paying them well is a challenge so I have already started work on raising the next round of investment.

Do you have bigger plans for the future?

Yes. I want Minishop in every shop, on every street, of every city in the world. I want to build a company that will outlive my great grand children. I want to see what kind of engineering it takes to build a business with a trillion dollar market cap. I want world domination J

Who has been your mentor in the field?

Why pick one when you can have all of them? I have a very analytical mind as part of my engineering heritage, so I love to read stories of successful companies and extract general lessons that I can apply to myself. The Amazon “Kindle” is my mentor – through it I can buy biographical books on almost any company and read to my heart’s content.

Do you do any mentorship yourself?

Not as much as I would like to. I love teaching because it helps me refine my knowledge every time I try to frame it in ways that average people can understand. Having struggled to get to where I am, I am sympathetic to young people with great talent and unlimited hope. At some point I want to build a world-famous engineering school where African kids can come build the future.

How would you like to see the future of Tanzania in ICT?
I have the privilege and ambition to be the guy who defines that future. We have one of the most vibrant mobile sectors on the continent, with fierce competition and rapid innovation in product offerings. I want the mobile operators to be more open to third-party integration, especially with mobile money. I want Tanzanian kids to be computer literate by age 10. I want ICT to be the life-blood of the most efficient government on the planet. I want a National Software Act that codifies these objectives and recognises that technology presents the golden opportunity for tapping into Africa’s unbounded potential. It is a good time to be African!

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