After moving back to Nigeria from Beijing in 2020, 23-year-old Kennedy Ekezie-Joseph and his brother, Duke, knew that they wanted to start a company. For seven months, they worked on building a software recruiting startup, which was profitable but did not grow as fast as the brothers wanted. This pushed them to think of another idea that was more tailored to the local market in Nigeria, and after two months of interacting with small business owners across the country, Kippa was born.

Kippa is a fintech startup that’s revolutionising bookkeeping and digital payments for small businesses in Nigeria. In under two years, the startup has secured over $10 million from global fintech investors and has a workforce of 50. 

In an interview with TechCabal, Kippa’s co-founder and CEO, Kennedy Ekezie-Joseph shares what he’s learned building a startup in his early twenties as well as how he ensures the company grows fast to accommodate their over 500,000 small business owners.

What are some things you’ve learned about building a bookkeeping and finance app?

Kennedy Ekezie-Joseph: One thing I learned was that all solutions have to be tailored towards the pain points of the target audience. In our case, the small business owners. Psychographically, small businesses want to make more money, and they want to keep as much of that money in their pockets for as long as possible. This means that whatever solutions you’re building for them have to very directly address one of the pain points that affect their ability to do that.

We also learned that imported solutions do not work. You cannot convince businesses that they need a solution that they are not convinced that they need, which has been an incredible pain point for us because there’s always a risk when building software and replicating a playbook. There’s the tendency to over-index on your playbook to the point where you lose touch with your customers and what their needs are. That is something important that we’ve learned so far.

Are there other things that you’ve learned about building a startup and working with teams?

KE: A big lesson we learned while building Kippa was definitely to not scale your team too early. You need to have very few people who are very hard-working and can take on multiple roles and multiple hats. Another lesson we learned was avoiding the temptation to throw money at problems. If you’re in a position where you can afford to throw money at problems, you have a quality problem, because most people don’t have the money to solve their problems, but it’s still not always the best solution.

Kippa has seen rapid growth since its launch in 2021. What are certain things you think have contributed to this growth?

KE: I think it’s mainly because we are building in one of the very few segments on the continent where rapid growth is possible. For the longest time, small businesses have not had anyone deeply building for these particular problems that they have, and so there’s ample opportunity to scale.

Another reason is that as a startup, we move fast. It’s one of our ethos internally, and it’s always when I speak to people outside of my company that I realise how fast we move. It doesn’t always feel that way, but when I zoom out enough, I’m really able to understand how quickly we move from building products to shipping products which I think comes from how impatient leadership is. Why should we take 10 days to do what we can do in two days? We are very clear with deadlines and timelines internally, and there’s no task that is allocated without the person allocating the task issuing a hard deadline. That’s a muscle we spent time building, and we’ll continue to build. I think all of those micro things help us on the macro scale to move very quickly and experience the sort of growth that we’re seeing. 

What’s the team at Kippa like?

KE: We’re a team that’s not afraid to have hard conversations. When we realise we’ve made bad decisions, which we’ve made in spades, we correct them very transparently. There is no one who is above correction, not me, not my co-founder, and definitely not any senior member of the team. 

I think that building and embedding that sort of culture in the team is also responsible for the growth that we’ve seen so far. Culture-wise, we’re not the sort of team where you come and find folks making TikToks at the office, or hugging each other and laughing with each other; not that anything is wrong with that. We run our business like it’s serious. We know that the work we’ve signed up for is a very hard task, and if we’re going to succeed, then we have to burn all cylinders. We can’t let anything slip through the cracks.

Are you bothered by the funding winter that’s affecting some startups currently?

KE: Yes, we are. We cannot afford to not be bothered about it, because that would be irresponsible. Our sector is also one that’s very capital-intensive, and so you actually do need capital to grow. Fortunately, we have a great team of investors behind us, and we are in a position where we can afford to put our heads down and focus on product building. However, we’re always paying attention and consistently monitoring how the market evolves. 

Beyond Kippa, what makes this path of helping SMEs scale important to you?

KE: Even before Kippa, everything I’ve done has been very Africa-centric. I’d describe my personal mission as one that involves creating economic prosperity for Africa, and when we look at the stats, small businesses contribute to 60% of Africa’s GDP. SMEs employ about 84% of the total labour force and 96% of all businesses in Africa are small businesses. So economic prosperity for Africa is impossible if small businesses cannot grow sustainably and profitably. For me, Kippa was just a logical next step and I believe that my life’s work is for Kippa to be able to live out and self-actualize.

How easy has it been to find people who share in this vision?

KE: Finding great people, especially those who are visually oriented, is probably one of the hardest things to do. At the same time, it’s important that we continue to keep the bar very high. There’s a random element of luck that comes into play with finding such people, because there’s no formula for finding them. You can’t rely on numbers of years of experience or background as it boils down to the individual and what their personal motivations are. 

How easy is it for business owners to adapt to your product?

KE: We’re very intentional about product design, so there’s no one who can use a smartphone and won’t be able to use the Kippa app. However, I would say that our ideal customers aren’t those who have never used a smartphone before or are digitally illiterate. Our ideal users are folks who have tried to do business on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram, and have some sort of familiarity with using digital tools.

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