MTN Nigeria's Adia Sowho: Sharing Is A Must

November 30, 2023

Today's guest is Adia Sowho, one of the most experienced and thoughtful operators in the African tech ecosystem. After starting her career in consulting and telecommunications, Adia led growth at the digital credit startup Migo, before leading the turnaround as Interim CEO of the embattled agriculture finance company Thrive Agric. 

In this episode, we'll learn from Adia about her lessons working across both big and small companies, about the importance of sharing those lessons learned, and so much more.  

00:00 - Intro
03:41 - Sharing is a must
07:19 - Lessons from the Thrive Agric turnaround
09:54 - Why join MTN?
17:47 - Where are the Sheryl Sandbergs?
20:32 - Lessons from every stage of company
31:24 - Nigeria is a hard operating environment
34:37 - More money, more problems?
35:34 - Wisdom for startups
37:53 - Sharing is a must, part 2
46:19 - Adia has a Substack

References -

The Anatomy of a Turnaround
Adia's Substack
Follow Adia on Twitter

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Adia Sowho: Sharing is a must. Microsoft wasn't built in a day. Apple wasn't built in a day. There is consistency that lasted decades that has taken them to where they are. But you can't do that if you don't...

Justin Norman: That's Adia Sowho, the Chief Marketing officer of MTN Nigeria, one of the most experienced and thoughtful operators in the African tech ecosystem. 

Justin Norman: Did you design your career sort of explicitly to say that I want to have wide range of experience across all of these different stages?

Adia Sowho: None of this was by design at all. An opportunity has met me at my level of preparedness.

Justin Norman: Let's talk about the decision to go back and forth between big corporate and small company.

Adia Sowho: Size of company doesn't matter. You are always gonna have a people issue. You're always gonna have a culture issue. The structure of the problems are the same.

Justin Norman: What sorts of conversations are you having with startups?

Adia Sowho: My conversations are really around what's gonna give you cash right now so you can stay alive and just get through this period?

Justin Norman: Why do you think MTN hired you?

Justin Norman: This episode of The Flip is sponsored by Onafriq, formerly MFS Africa. Onafriq is the leading real-time payments network for Africa, which connects over 500 million mobile wallets across over 1300, cross-border corridors. And in over 40 countries across the African continent. Throughout this season, we'll hear from the Onafriq team about their work to create a borderless world. In this episode, we're joined by Gwera Kiwana Onafriq's head of crypto, to talk about their recent partnership for Stablecoin enabled cross-border payments with Ripple.

Gwera Kiwana: So with the new name comes new energy, invigorated energy into trying new things, and we've been working at this relationship with Ripple for quite some time now, and we've just launched a formal partnership with them to build blockchain enabled payments infrastructure for Africa. We're utilizing their technology to bring down the cost of cross-border payments, but also to make cross-border payments a lot more faster and more efficient. So as an individual, if I was to individually decide to send money across borders, especially to Africa, oftentimes that begins with using an app or using a service like a money transfer service or your bank. And a lot of those services traditionally are using traditional banking rails where they are using multiple different intermediaries. There's multiple intermediaries taking a slice of whatever fees and FX margin that they can take.

Gwera Kiwana: So we're using Ripple's crypto technology to really eliminate traditional problems such as lengthy transfer times, unreliable execution when it comes to settlement, and also the excessive cost of using traditional rails. So it's a much better experience for the money transfer organization who can then pass those operational savings as well as cost savings onto their users bringing, like I said, faster, more efficient, cost effective international money transfers to Africa to accelerate financial inclusion across the continent.

Justin Norman: Last you and I collaborated was around a newsletter takeover that you did for the Flip notes on the turnaround story of Thrive Agric where you sort of took us behind the scenes and shared your lessons and insights. In this season, I really want to extract insights and lessons from experienced operators from across the content. And I think there's something interesting there about sort of engendering a culture of sharing and sharing insights. So I wanna start right there just talking about your decision to share your insights really transparently and the sort of feedback that you got. What compelled you, besides perhaps my persuasiveness, to write about some of the lessons and to share those lessons publicly after your time as interim CEO there?

Adia Sowho: Yeah, your incredible persuasiveness. So I had a similar conversation with Bosun Tijani recently, and he talked about how it's important for the elder statesmen and women in the ecosystem to share because there's lots of stuff in our experience that's been accrued over time. So yeah, I think sharing is a must. And I think if you look at the structure of a startup ecosystem there are a bunch of elements and the element with the stories is the exits. And in this market where we don't have as much structure around exits because within the exits are the lessons, what to do well, what not to do well, right? So until we figure out what that looks like in a structured way, I think the stories and the discussions with people that have something to say are a must.

Justin Norman: Yeah. I talk about this with a friend of mine who was a advisor for an accelerator program, and he was telling me that some of the companies that he saw coming through the accelerator were pitching a business model that the company that he started failed with. So it was this idea that there wasn't actually this iteration across like cycles do you feel that that's happening.

Adia Sowho: Not enough? And that's an interesting example that you used, right? Because we don't iterate on business models enough, and especially because we import a lot of business models as opposed to building them within our context. So I think the stories will help us understand which ones are truly legitimate for this environment because we absorb the stories from elsewhere, but then we don't... I don't know whether it's because there aren't enough stories locally to absorb, but we should have more so that we can iterate. I think that iteration is very important.

Justin Norman: I think there is more, it's just about compelling people that it's okay to actually share those lessons.

Adia Sowho: Yeah. So I think... I wonder if there's like a safety issue, like a feeling of... Because the minute you speak then you get probably a lot more attention than you wanted bargained for. Whether it's the right kind or the wrong kind black tax and all that. All that comes into play. So people... The elder states women and men need safe spaces too.

Justin Norman: Yeah. I mean, maybe in the case of Thrive Agric, it's an easier story to share because it was sort of a success story of a successful turnaround. But I also think that collectively we've talked about this, you and I both got a lot of really amazing feedback from readers who just were so appreciative that these lessons were out there. So I would hope that, I don't know if that's compelling you... You've since started a Substack, right?

Adia Sowho: I did.

Justin Norman: So is that compelling you to share more lessons that... Those sorts of experiences?

Adia Sowho: To be honest Justin, you should give yourself some... A lot of credit, right? Because that was a seminal moment for me just because I'd written before but I'd been trying to find my voice and how I wanted to approach things and just simply telling that story. I think before I did, I really didn't pay so much attention to how much value that could add to someone else. But I've since then gone on to have lots of conversations with lots of different people who have each expressed something in that story that meant something to them. And how it's changed the way they make decisions or how they work. So the light bulb went off for me in sort of deciding, okay, I can keep telling stories like this 'cause I've got stories for days. So yeah, the Substack is born and we'll see how long I can keep that up.

Justin Norman: Yeah, we'll link to that. We'll link to the newsletter takeover you did. I'm speaking specifically about Thrive Agric. I think the dust has settled. It's probably been six or more months since we published... Probably more nine months or so since we published that.

Adia Sowho: Yeah, we did that a long time ago. Yeah.

Justin Norman: What are the lessons and takeaways that you still have and how do you think about that time and what you've learned from that experience?

Adia Sowho: Size of company doesn't matter. The structure of the problems are the same. I think you're always gonna have a people issue. You're always gonna have like a culture issue. You're always gonna have to think about who you're hiring. You're always gonna have to balance long term versus short term. You're always gonna have to balance whether you are strategically relevant in your space, like remaining so as opposed to being commoditized. So the problems are actually the same. This was interesting when it hit me to see this parallel in a seed stage company versus a post IPO company. So I'm constantly thinking about what the building blocks of a company are, what they mean, and how you structure them for scale and growth. And how you go back to first principles and what first principles looks like at each stage. So that's one of the things that still stays with me is that through sort of like working on growth at seed stage series A, B and beyond. How do you actually prepare for the next stage because the company has to look different at each stage and how do you do that?

Justin Norman: Yeah. You do seem to talk and write a lot about those topics, growth in operations and processes and scale. Is that because they're particularly important to you? Is that because it's what you think about the most? Is it because perhaps people aren't talking about it enough? Why are you focusing on those topics primarily when you share your insights?

Adia Sowho: I think all of that, and I think it's also therapeutic for me. Because I don't know how I found myself tackling such hard problems. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day and he was like your transitions dude, why do you keep going back and forth and you just like go from pre-seeds to like multi-billion dollar company? And I'm like I hadn't thought about it like that, but yeah, I feel it now. Now that I'm going through the everyday. So I think I need to make it make sense and that's what I'm trying to express in writing. And then there's a part of me that's kind of like okay, I've gone through this pain because I went from being technical to being in consulting to managing a revenue line and each was like a painful what a DNA change might feel like. Right? So I feel like having gone through that, if I can save somebody else just a little bit of that pain, I'd love to.

Justin Norman: Yeah. Yeah. Let's talk about then the decision to sort of go back and forth between big corporate and small company. I was gonna save it for later, but let's do it right now. I was very intrigued to see that you decided to go to MTN Nigeria. Right? And I know for a fact that you, I think, had a lot of suitors, especially after you turned around Thrive Agric and the investors were calling and the venture folks were calling to try and get you involved. And you decided to go to big corporate, which we were talking before off camera about I'm a pretty anti-corporate guy, but my perspective is changing a little bit. So we'll get into that. But before I share my theories for why I think maybe you decided to go to MTN, I'm curious to hear in your words why you decided to do that after you took some time off after Thrive.

Adia Sowho: So, I took some time off. I definitely didn't take enough. In my head, my thought was that in an infrastructure light environment, which we are generally in Africa, the only way to build the elements that we need for development is to build digital infrastructure as opposed to physical. And telcos across Africa are uniquely positioned to do that. If they're allowed to lean into that kind of innovation. I mean, think about education, healthcare commerce, all of that stuff can be built fairly easily with some focus using telco infrastructure as a baseline. So I took this role in the hopes of trying to be around that and sort of influence things in that direction from my position. But it's extremely difficult to achieve. I have a much clearer understanding of why that may not have been happening as quickly.

Adia Sowho: 'cause when you're in the ecosystem, you're kinda like, "Oh, the telco should do this and the telco should do that." It's easy to say. But that was my motivation. And I think that the prospect of having that kind of impact, the prospect of having the next set of unicorns built on infrastructure apart... Like think about what connectivity has done for the continent. Right. Just what else besides connectivity? What do you build on top of connectivity? And I feel like there's still a lot more work for the telco to do and could still do. So I wanted to be supportive of that and bring what I learned in my few years in the startup ecosystem back into a telco and just see whether that mindset... There was an audience for that kind of mindset there. And then of course, it's also probably the biggest product job on the continent so I couldn't say no to that. Right. So, yeah.

Justin Norman: Yeah. For me, if I can share my two cents, I think...

Adia Sowho: Come on.

Justin Norman: It's like an indication just of the outsize impact that telcos have on the continent. And in a country like Nigeria in particular that you would even consider that job, right? I think telcos are sort of in the background in many other countries. And people who want to do innovation and impact certainly wouldn't consider them in the US or Europe. The scale you talked about. Right. I don't know that there's any bigger scale in Nigeria than MTN. And I would also imagine like the FinTech opportunity as well, right. Whether we think that telcos are innovative or not, I think they've driven a lot of the innovation particularly from a FinTech perspective. Maybe to a lesser extent in Nigeria, but certainly obviously the Safaricom Mpesa story. All of that I'd have to imagine were a set of considerations when you were thinking about taking it.

Adia Sowho: I mean, this might be a bit of a dad joke, but I do think that telco is the original tech bro, whether we like it or not. And I think it's just one of the things I hope to unpack is just we know how to build for the web, but how do you build for a telco, right? That's like a whole conversation that not enough people are having. Wiza wrote that USSD article that's now become famous and probably gotten him like three jobs, that one article, right? About USSD. But we need to keep having those conversations so that we understand how to build in our context, which unavoidably should involve a telco.

Justin Norman: Yeah. You used to talk a lot about partnering with telcos. And the opportunity for startups to do that and how to do that. I know that that was part of your job at Migo. Is that still something that you think a lot about?

Adia Sowho: It is, but I feel like those conversations are still hard. The people are still the same, but I think the tech is changing. And I'm hoping that as more people APIfy or just build with APIs first, those conversations are eliminated and people can just connect APIs and that becomes then the route to partnership as opposed to 80 page contracts.

Justin Norman: Yeah. Why do you think MTN hired you?

Adia Sowho: I don't know. I think... Well, actually no, I shouldn't... That's a terrible answer. Why did MTN hire me? I think MTN was interested in the same thing I'm interested in. Right? You asked me just now why I took the job. I think for the exact same reasons as why I made candidate for CMO. Although at MTN, CMO means a bunch of different things 'cause I have the core products that are a significant chunk of the revenue. I also manage all of the analytics with the team there. And then there's the marketing. I think they were interested in sort of infusing a different kind of energy into that role, because that's what it requires now.

Justin Norman: Yeah. I also have a bit of a half-baked theory or hypothesis that I said before I'm a bit anti-corporate. But I think if you look around the market today, I think a number of challenges that we're seeing specific companies in particular are a function of inexperience. And a lot of the companies that are sort of built on stronger footing or foundations were started by people who spent some time in corporate, I mean GB with Access Bank and Flutterwave. Dare was at MTN before he set up MFS Africa, I think there's a number of others. And so I'm sort of accepting the reality that that corporate experience has tremendous benefit and maybe it has particular benefit in these markets. And I guess maybe the way to ask you that question, first of all is do you think that your prior corporate experience was beneficial in the startup roles that you worked in at Migo and Thrive Agric?

Adia Sowho: Yeah. So there's no way I'm gonna say it's not, right? I mean, if I'm living proof of anything, it's that. But I think there's that other study that said that successful startup founders are over 40, right? And that's from a global perspective. But like you said, I think especially in this environment with the volatility, I think seasoned operators have seen a lot and they definitely bring that to the table. I also think we need to just own the word inexperience, but see it as valuable, but not... Let's get rid of the shame around that. There's nothing wrong with not having operator experience, but there is value. I was a good candidate to go back to MTN because I have a mix of both. I understand building from a blank slate as a startup. Right?

Adia Sowho: And MTN was was like that 22 years ago? Right. So I think there's definitely the freshness of the perspective, like taking a childlike approach to building a company, right? And combining that with what it takes to have a consistent machine that works every single day to meet a goal. Right? And Rome wasn't built in a day. Microsoft wasn't built in a day. Apple wasn't built in a day. There is consistency that lasted decades that has taken them to where they are. But you can't do that if you don't sort of inculcate discipline.

Justin Norman: The really crazy thing about this founder led era, and maybe we're sort of exiting the founder led era a little bit now during a market downturn. Is the sort of requirements of a founder to be so many different things at different points in the journey, right? And I don't think that that's talked about enough, is just how crazy of expectations that is to be good at going from zero to one and then 1 to 10. And then 10 to a 100. And then a hundred to a million. Mark Zuckerberg, I think is the exception, not the rule in that case. Right? And I'm sure he also had a tremendous amount of infrastructure put around him to be able to support that. And...

Adia Sowho: Mm-hmm. Mmh-mm. I wouldn't argue he's actually good at all of that. I would argue that he's probably still a zero to one guy and then hired some people to just do the rest, but made enough money to make sure they still report to him.

Justin Norman: Yeah. So who are the Sheryl Sandbergs to the Mark Zuckerbergs in Nigeria? I don't know that necessarily there are very many.

Adia Sowho: Right. Right. I get called that a lot.

Justin Norman: You do?

Adia Sowho: I do. I do. And I think there's no shame in having a Sheryl Sandberg. But I think that there is...

Justin Norman: But not even that there's no shame, it's that it's actually a necessary component of Facebook's success, was that she was the Sheryl Sandberg to the Mark Zuckerberg. Right?

Adia Sowho: Yes. Yes. Yes. Absolutely. And Google did the same thing too. I think that that relationship though, where I've seen operators try to make that transition and start working with founders, inevitably some tension results. It's almost guaranteed. And then that sometimes shortens the amount of time that that founder-operator relationship can exist. So, I mean, that's something that one day somehow I hope to unpack and just normalize that a little bit. Just hire somebody that knows more than you and be okay with it. You know what I mean? Your five or 10 years experience versus their 30 years experience does not disempower you in any way. Because it's just lots of stuff gets triggered and then it just becomes this emotionally fraught and difficult relationship. And then they don't last very long.

Justin Norman: So founders still feel that they have to do everything and what is it? Like an ego thing that they're not willing to hire the experienced people?

Adia Sowho: There's some ego stuff there. There's some ego stuff there. For sure. For sure. So it's a bit of that. And then even when the operator comes in and you actually are effective. Then that's now treated as an attack on one's confidence. And I don't think that should be the case. But I've just heard that story, repeatedly and it's one of those things where we should talk about.

Justin Norman: Yeah. Yeah. What kind of business do you want to build and what are the necessary steps to actually building that business as opposed to staying at a certain level because... You know.

Adia Sowho: Right. And knowing what you're good at and knowing what you're not good at, and valuing the people you pull into your team.

Justin Norman: One thing I think is quite interesting about your experience at MTN as it's juxtaposed to your prior experience is that you're now kind of doing the work at... Or you have done and are doing the work at like every different stage of business all the way from sort of seed stage to now public company. You talked a little bit about some of the problems being the same across all different types of companies, but are there lessons that you're taking from your prior experience that you're bringing here? Is there sort of key takeaways? What is the experience like actually having worked across this stage? And at different companies too. It's not like you've worked for one company taking it all the way through. It's, you're sort of jumping around a little bit and I'm curious to hear what that's like for you.

Adia Sowho: Just to walk through and say something about each company and maybe the answer to your question will come to me there. So Thrive was a seed stage company. I joined Migo right at Series A, back then when a $13 million Series A was big news. I think I was employee number seven. Migo had a product and we were trying to start scaling. I would say maybe the post Series A company that I worked at would be Etisalat, which was at one point probably one of the fastest growing telcos in the world.

Justin Norman: And they were private when you worked there?

Adia Sowho: Yes.

Justin Norman: Okay.

Adia Sowho: And then I worked at a telco in the US. That was my first job. And I saw a couple of deals there, US Cellular. But strangely enough they have exactly the same number of subscribers they had then as they had now. They have 6 million subscribers. 20 years, 6 million subscribers. It was insane.

Justin Norman: Wow.

Adia Sowho: So leaving there and then going to Etisalat which went from 5 million to 23 million in six years, it's insane. And then now MTN, which is a multi-billion dollar revenue company. And then I also work for Deloitte, which is a 40 or $50 billion revenue company. So of course these all happen at different sort of stages. I haven't been a leader in all of these companies. I am trying to get to a point where I can say, these are the six building blocks of every company. But in each of them, you have to have observations about culture. And not just culture as a word. I like to really unpack culture into behaviors and how those behaviors are designed and how that culture is maintained. 'Cause it is a process. It's an outcome of the way a company takes and chooses to take its actions. Like how do you do that at each stage? There is some consideration for each stage. How do you sort of figure out, okay. Company, we do A and then it gets us B. That is essentially how every company generates value. And how do you make sure that that stays consistent in a company or changes when it needs to change, or you know when it's broken. That's a question that persists across all of these companies.

Adia Sowho: How do you lead? How do you evolve? How do you keep growing? These are all questions that, again, remain consistent. So hopefully whatever comes out when I unpack it fully is something neat that I can sort of have a discussion about. But it's astounding that there are actually similarities 'cause I didn't really expect that. How do you construct analytics in all of these companies? It is an important question at every stage. And how does that evolve as your hiring pool? 'Cause imagine there are, what? 2000 people that work at MTN Nigeria. Not everybody's gonna be comfortable with a dashboard. So how do you build a dashboard that allows each person to know what their job is and how to react to the information in front of them, irrespective of what training they brought to the table?

Adia Sowho: Where at Migo, we all were in the same dashboard with the machine learning guys, right? But then as the company grew, we had to start extracting the most relevant part for the BD team or the marketing team and so on and so forth. But all... Understanding how to do that in your company dictates how your company runs, dictates how efficiently you do A to get B. But very few companies actually sit down and think about that and think about how that needs to evolve. You just kind of put up something on the screen and think, "Okay. That works for where we are right now."

Justin Norman: Yeah. We also talked earlier about the value of experience. Did you design your career sort of explicitly to say that I want to have this sort of wide range of experience across all of these different stages or did it just end up that way?

Adia Sowho: Absolutely not. I think I just gravitate towards pain and I might need to... [chuckle] I might need to see somebody about that. No. None of this was by design at all. I think, one thing I tell people... Because it's a bit of a big question. What do you wanna do next? Who do you wanna be in five years? And if you can answer that question, kudos to you. But for those of us that can't, I think what's helped me is my curiosity. Even though I didn't know what it was. I think an opportunity has met me at my level of preparedness which is usually fierce. Generally if I'm just interested in something, I'm probably reading something about it every single day or reading a newsletter. So each job has kind of met me at that level, at that particular point in time. So, no. I definitely didn't do this by design.

Justin Norman: But do you feel grateful to your former self that you made the career decisions you've made?

Adia Sowho: I feel like regret is a bit of a waste of time, emotion. It is what it is.

Justin Norman: But I don't mean regret. I mean actually, like you are glad that you had this wide variance of experiences because it benefits you now.

Adia Sowho: Well...

Justin Norman: Like you did the... Your former self did the work that you're really benefiting from today.

Adia Sowho: Yeah. But I'd have to check my bank account in a few years. If it doesn't convert, then what was it for? I have to make... It has to have meaning. Short answer is yes. But ultimately I need to make it meaningful. And I think that's one of the reasons I'm trying to write and I'm talking is I need...

Justin Norman: That's not gonna affect your bank account positively though.

Adia Sowho: Damn [laughter]

Justin Norman: Yeah. I can tell you. You might need to find a better way to measure.

Adia Sowho: To measure. But yeah. Yeah. No. Definitely, I'm happy with where I am, I still enjoy what I do. I still enjoy solving problems. I still hope to contribute to the ecosystem and sort of lift our continent up. But yeah. So I am grateful.

Justin Norman: But I think it's not even, are you happy where you are today? But it's, are you particularly good at what you're doing today because you had the prior experiences that you had?

Adia Sowho: Absolutely. And I think the way jobs come together these days, there are very few of them that are... There's an emerging category of jobs that somehow align themselves to all the things you've done in the past. Or at least your expression in a particular role will align itself with everything you've done up until that particular moment. Like, for instance, one of the things I got really good at at Migo was being a really good product manager. Because at the time, myself and Akechi were literally obsessing over that product every day, day in, day out, tweaking this, changing that. So, that really sharpened that for me. And at Thrive, it was company structure. Just sort of overlooking how a team works to ensure that they're working in concert to lead to the desired outcome, not the undesirable outcome, which was the crisis that Thrive got itself into.

Adia Sowho: So those things added up to me getting to MTN, which is a company also trying to stay relevant, stay a market leader but at the same time increase its relevant and become a techco. So, both of those things directly fit into that. I'd also worked at another telco before that was a lot, smaller, lighter on its feet, had less legacy technology. So again, these things have a way of always adding up. One just has to be self-aware or introspective enough to say, "Okay. This plus this, plus this, plus this makes me this kind of manager. And I'm gonna lean into that."

Justin Norman: Yeah. Sometimes I think even it's an implicit thing. It's like deep in your soul, you know that this is what you should be doing. And if you're not really thinking about it, sometimes you might end up there anyway. At least that is how I feel sometimes. Yeah.

Adia Sowho: Right. Somebody would tell you. Yeah. Yeah. And somebody will tell you. But I think you have to have a moment where... For it to really start to give you joy and energy, I think you have to have a moment where you stop and be like, "Okay. What am I about? What am I good at? What do I know?" And what's my takeaway from each of these experiences? Successes or failures, all of it adds up and all of it is meaningful. And I think there's something powerful that happens when you just know your superpowers. Just lean into that.

Justin Norman: I find that exercise to be very hard and painful.

Adia Sowho: It is extremely hard. It's extremely hard. But ask your friends. If you have good friends, they'll tell you.

Justin Norman: Yeah. I just want them to tell me what to do sometimes.

Justin Norman: This season of The Flip is all about sharing lessons and insights from some of the most experienced and esteemed founders from across the African tech ecosystem. And it's a mission for which we're proud to partner with Norrsken22 to share wisdom and insights from the fund's unicorn board as well. We know that advisors and mentorship are an important part of the venture funding process. And throughout this season, we are speaking to and learning from the successful founders, operators and investors from Norrsken22's unicorn board. In today's episode, we're joined by Hans Otterling. Former partner of one of Europe's most successful venture funds Northzone. And a co-founder of Norrsken22.

Hans Otterling: The most successful entrepreneurs that I've seen, they have had a very strong vision of where they're going, what they want to do. They've been able to sell their vision to people to invest into employees and to everyone. But most core of it, they've also been able to create that trust that people trust the entrepreneur. He feels like he or she knows what they go... Doing and they act in a trustful way. I was actually invited to the Stockholm School of Economics for an afternoon to run through how a venture fund works. So I run through term sheet, evaluation, exits, all that things, and all the students were taking notes like crazy. Then after three hours, I said, "Now you can put your pens away, because now I'm gonna say the most important thing. If you don't have this, you're never gonna succeed. If you cannot create this, you're never gonna succeed. And the word is trust. 'Cause this is a long term game. If you cannot create trust with your investors, with your employees, with your customers, etcetera, then you will probably fail."

Justin Norman: We went out to dinner the other night and we were talking a little bit about the challenges of operating in Nigeria. And there were challenges that you experience today at MTN that I think the startups also experience. And I just thought it was interesting to hear you talk a little bit about the just sort of general market challenges that no one can escape.

Adia Sowho: Yes.

Justin Norman: And I was curious just to get a little bit more of your perspective on the just general like vibe operating in Nigeria. I think we also talk about market downturn right now. I think startups are concerned about, well, are they gonna be able to raise money going forward? And there's, I think, some compounding stressors on top of this general market challenge that you and I were talking about the other night. Do you have a sort of sense or vibe. What's your vibe as we're talking about this market downturn? I know it might be a little bit different in your current role, but how are you feeling or what are you thinking about these days?

Adia Sowho: It's tough to see the forest from the trees. And I'm not really a good person at having future vibes. I think I just find ways to cope in the moment and I usually do that by probably trying to unpack what's going on. And for me it's just the sheer scale of, the same thing founders are complaining about is the same thing sort of MTN is struggling with even as a large company, but it's almost like blink and you lose a billion Naira. It's just... I...

Justin Norman: Except MTN has a billion naira to lose and the startups maybe...

Adia Sowho: Do we though? Do we though? I see. So when you're listed, you owe... If your dividends are late, that's a different story. So, it's almost like the founder investor fundraising conversation. There's a version of that in MTN 'cause every quarter we have deliverables to meet. And if we don't meet those deliverables, there is a financial impact on the company. So it's almost like founders are struggling to grow. We're trying to outpace inflation. Founders are trying to manage costs. We're such a big target. When you're listed and you're our size, some regulator or regulation will just show up. Those things don't come with much notice. They just show up and that adds to your costs. And then you're like, "Okay. How do I catch up so I can keep my promises to investors?"

Adia Sowho: Then you go back and look and see what you can optimize internally. And I think it's cute when startups talk about technical debt. Try being a 20-year-old company. And the guy that made the thingamajig that you bought 20 years ago is long dead and buried and hopefully in heaven and the thing breaks. What do you do? So, it's the same... It's the sameness is astounding to me. For me, it's just, right now I cannot see past my everyday problems. I will admit that. So, I'm leaving the vibes for now. Maybe they'll strike me one day. But I mean, all we can do though is persist. And I think that's the grit that you have to have to continue to stay in this market. And the love. You know what I mean? That's what's gonna keep you pushing and not giving up.

Justin Norman: Yeah. A very Nigerian story.

Adia Sowho: Ha! Yes.

Justin Norman: Yeah. When you were talking earlier, one of the lessons you said that you had from Thrive Agric was that the problems are the same no matter what stage. And I was thinking, well, it must be nice to be a well-resourced company to be able to deal with those problems versus a less resourced company and the inherent challenge of dealing with all those problems with less resources. But, I don't know. Maybe there's a different set of considerations. There's really a short term consideration when you're a listed company. And so does it feel the same, I suppose, or similar to your time in working with startups or?

Adia Sowho: It feels the same to me. For me, it is really very much like a more money, more problems type of situation. So it's not... Yes, there are resources and yes, they can be put to work. But at the same time, that does come with its own baggage. So it doesn't relieve or make any of those problems disappear. It just changes the scale and just changes the shape of the problem. But they're still there.

Justin Norman: Yeah. So I know you are a sort of step further outside of the startup ecosystem right now but you still sit on some boards and do some work with them. What sorts of conversations are you having with startups especially in the context of, again, market challenges and everything else we just talked about?

Adia Sowho: Right now it's mostly about operating without an external infusion of funds. How can you go from idea to somebody paying you so that at least you can sustain yourself? Just keep the lights on. I talk a lot about bringing forward business development. How can people prepay you for services that you can render. Restructuring your roadmap away from stuff that's just fancy or fantasy and that has high utility and some nowness and the people will pay you for immediately. So my conversations are really around what's gonna give you cash right now so you can stay alive and just get through this period 'cause you don't control what's happening, like inflation. Nobody's sort of like... That's completely out of your control. So what you can control though, is how much cash your startup makes. So you need to be very practical and put your dreams on a vision board for now.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: And focus.

Justin Norman: Do you think that, especially considering the challenging operating environment we just talked about before that, that should have always been a focus for African startups or Nigerian startups in particular. This, we need to be profitable and control our own destiny because even if the money is coming from overseas investors, like during the good times, we always sort of said, well, is this tourism dollars and is it gonna go away?

Adia Sowho: Yeah.

Justin Norman: And now that it's going away, everyone's sort of reactive. I guess it's kind of ridiculous to say should they have, but this is again, maybe this idea about the lessons that we can carry forward and are we learning? For a lot of people, it was a first global recession. For me at least, I was... I graduated high school in 2008, so I didn't know what it was like to go through a recession until now. And I was like, oh, this is what it actually feels like to see multiple banks...

Adia Sowho: Yeah. Not to age myself, I think that was when I first... That was my first layoff. I think that was in '08, '09. Yeah.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: Yeah.

Justin Norman: Yeah. I would imagine then that these lessons get carried forward. Or is it hard to learn, if in 10 years, are the same mistakes gonna be made over again, even by the people who are, in their 40s.

Adia Sowho: Right. So that's why we need to talk about this stuff, right?

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: And just make sure it's recorded somewhere. I think there is some... People say there's nothing new under the sun.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: You know what I mean? So I think this is where wisdom, you need to find your sources of wisdom and make sure that you are keying into what they're saying. And sometimes it takes repetition. Like think about the great books you've read, how you read them once, and by the time you read them again, you see a completely different set of lessons that you might not have seen before. So it does bear repeating. And this is one of the things that I really want to try and spend time unpacking in my writing because some of these concepts are so big and unapproachable.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: And you just don't know how they affect you in your everyday. And you don't know which decisions you're making are leaving you unprepared for a crisis. But it's all like these great big words like inflation. Like how do you think about that in a startup?

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: Like what does that mean to you?

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: And just understanding that you haven't really grown if your growth rate is below inflation, for some people it's like a major light bulb moment. So these are the things that are worth talking about. And I'll do my best to contribute to the pool, and I hope that other elder statesmen and women...

Justin Norman: We have to tell all your... All your experienced friends to come see me.

Adia Sowho: Ha! Yeah. No problem. No problem.

Justin Norman: But it is, I mean, that work is hard.

Adia Sowho: It's hard.

Justin Norman: Right?

Adia Sowho: It's hard.

Justin Norman: I think you talked a lot in your piece on the Thrive Agric turnaround about just asking good questions. I know that that's something that's important to you. And that idea about probing into why did this thing happen or whatever, and getting down first principles, digging deeper is like hard work. And when you can only see in front of your face, as you said right now about the problems today.

Adia Sowho: Mm-hmm.

Justin Norman: Right?

Adia Sowho: Mm-hmm.

Justin Norman: That's why everyone needs a sabbatical or something so they can actually think. But...

Adia Sowho: I agree. I mean, I think questions also for me is like historical and emotional, like element of that, right? Because in our culture, questions aren't particularly well received, especially when you are asking them from someone that's older than you. They're just not permitted. You will receive the knowledge you're giving and you are to process it. So for me, that always created friction with asking questions for me. And that's why it's one of the things I try to encourage 'cause even today when I manage teams, I don't get enough. I feel like I don't get asked enough questions, so it's something I have to beg people to do. So, setting the cultural context aside, I think the importance of asking questions became clear to me as I wanted to explain its relevance to people. So it's one thing to experience something, it's another thing to sort of look, reflect on that experience and then explain it to someone else.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: The importance of questions started to elevate to me as an important element of critical thinking. And I think for us, critical thinking is even elevated further when you... Sorry, I'm getting a bit meta. When you consider that a lot of our problems are chronic and repeated, and we talk about the same things all the time. If you ask questions at the wrong level, you end up treating the symptoms...

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: And not the disease. And when you start thinking about things as a system, then you start to go to the root cause and start talking about causality. And then you find that beautiful things happen when you address causality. Like the whole thing just completely changes. And then you can start making serious step changes in your conversations. I'm gonna try to think about an example to bring this to life at some point if it comes to me while we're talking, I will...

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: I'll share.

Justin Norman: Yeah. I mean, I think about the prosperity paradox, for example, right?

Adia Sowho: Yeah.

Justin Norman: Where at the very beginning they talk about we built wells.

Adia Sowho: Yes.

Justin Norman: Right? And that was a perfect example. And maybe this is a bit derivative, but like the well was the symptom, right? And then they'd come back and there was no like maintenance of it, right? And so in a year or two, it would be in disrepair or whatever.

Adia Sowho: Yeah.

Justin Norman: And it wouldn't be utilized.

Adia Sowho: Yeah.

Justin Norman: And then they realized that there's actually a sort of set of conditions that sort of enables one to best utilize a well. Or programming around it or whatever. Right? Infrastructure that is required in order for that to be better utilized. And it's not just like a, you build this thing and it'll sort of go on serving its need forever without sort of other problems being solved. Right? Or another maybe a better example would be like they used to do the, like Pico solar home things. And then people were like, no one had any appliances to charge.

Justin Norman: So they give electricity and there was no appliances. Right? And they're like, oh, so we're not actually just selling solar systems, we're selling sort of full stack of things, right?

Adia Sowho: Yeah. Yeah.

Justin Norman: And so often I think the one thing that Chai and I talk a lot about is like, the problems are multi-layered and it compels people...

Adia Sowho: They are.

Justin Norman: To build full stack, just necessarily, I think like taking a vertical approach is necessary because there are problems at like every element of the stack or whatever. Right?

Adia Sowho: Agreed. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So you got to...

Justin Norman: And that makes for better businesses, but it's a harder set of problems to solve in order to actually solve that one problem.

Adia Sowho: It is. It is. I think that the iceberg is a common like metaphor for sort of dealing with the bit you can see, and then there's all this stuff underneath that you can't see. So I found that you just get much better results when you ask questions to help you see the whole system and the whole ecosystem. And then when you understand what is breaking it, and then address that, then the thing just returns to normalcy.

Justin Norman: Is there any other general advice that you have or anything that you're thinking a lot about right now? And it might be specific to MTN, but what's sort of going through your mind that if this is a therapy session, you'd want to get off your chest?

Adia Sowho: Let's build well-fed goats, not unicorns.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: I think it's just... I'm not saying lower standards or put your dreams in a box. But I think, a company of a decent size is still a great thing. I think for me, what's on my mind a lot now is still growth. And I'm a bit... I'm just pondering like, why I'm still thinking about that in a post IPO company.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: But when you're at that stage, you still have to avoid commoditization. Which becomes your, like everybody's target to commoditize, when you're that big, everybody... Like, look at what's happening in Nigeria now with MVNOs. There are hundreds of companies that wanna build a telco. I'm not sure how many of them understand the business, or I'm sure there's a spectrum of understanding of what it takes to build a business like that. But it's a lot. Everybody wants your pie. So then what do you do next? Because when the competitive environment changes like that, and then you're down to just like haggling with your customer every day, what's the next revenue stream that you have to build that's haggle proof, that you can just own and that nobody else can replicate.

Justin Norman: Yeah. So there's no resting on your laurels even if you're the biggest...

Adia Sowho: There's no resting at all.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: There's no resting at all. And I think that's the thing. I mean, not that I went there to rest. I mean I went there to definitely do other things, but you cannot... You can't... I have to sleep with my eyes open. It's just really, really, really intense. And to be that size and listed and just stakeholders and obligations everywhere. So it's definitely on my mind 24/7. I mean, this physical meeting is a rare thing for me these days. Like everybody just sees me on WhatsApp.

Justin Norman: Yeah.

Adia Sowho: I just have no time because I have to obsess over the problems of running a team and revenue line the size of what I'm dealing with.

Justin Norman: Yeah. Well, I feel honored that you're gracing me with your presence here.

Justin Norman: A little bit. It was a little lucky, right?

Adia Sowho: Yes.

Justin Norman: But nonetheless, we take advantage of luck when...

Adia Sowho: Yes, indeed.

Justin Norman: It's given to us.

Adia Sowho: Yes, indeed.

Justin Norman: So as a newsletter writer yourself to wrap up, do you want to plug your newsletter, Twitter? Where should we send people to learn more from you?

Adia Sowho: The newsletter is called Leap of Scale. And what I am trying to talk about in the newsletter is for us to not think about scale as a destination, but more of as a process. And it's lots of tiny decisions that you make along the way every day with the people you hire, with how you build your company, with how you build your product. I'm trying to unpack that just from my experience of having driven growth in some way at almost every stage, you can do that in a company's life cycle. So yeah, that's gonna be something I spend the immediate future working on. Yeah.

Justin Norman: Cool.

Adia Sowho: Thanks for asking.

Justin Norman: Yeah. Adia, thanks so much for taking the time. I appreciate it.

Adia Sowho: Appreciate it, Justin.

Justin Norman: Cool.

Adia Sowho: Thank you. It's always fun.