Entrepreneurship

Niama El Bassunie, Founder & CEO of YC-backed WaystoCap talks about early days, Y Combinator experience and more [Interview]

WaystoCap is a B2B marketplace for businesses in Africa to buy and sell products. Co-founded by Niama El Bassunie, Anis Abdeddine, Mehdi Daoui, Aziz Jaouhari Tissafi in 2014, the platform is one of the very few startups from region to have joined and graduated from Y Combinator.

Earlier this year, they raised a seed investment of $3 million from Y Combinator and different other international and regional investors including Battery Ventures, Soma Capital, Palm Drive Capital, Amino Capital & Endure Capital. Started only three years ago, the startup now has 22 employees working from its two offices in Casablanca and Cotonou, Benin.

We had a chance to speak with Niama El Bassunie, WaystoCap’s very young CEO, who has turned her 3-year old startup into one of the biggest success stories to come out of North African ecosystem yet.

The Idea, Early Days, Pre-Launch Challenges

1) For those who don’t know, tell us a little about yourself and WaystoCap.

WaystoCap is the first online B2B marketplace targeting African importers and exporters. By revolutionizing the way merchandise trading is done in Africa, we will help the entire continent develop.

How did you guys come up with the idea? What was the inspiration?

After our different experiences advising governments in Africa, working on investment projects and trading commodities and forex in Africa, we set up a company to start trading independently.

As thrilling as it was trading and growing our business, we did not feel that we were adding real value to the ecosystem. It became clear that for us to have an impact, we had to build a solution that would change the way commerce is done in Africa today. And that is how WaystoCap as a marketplace and trading ecosystem was born. Beyond just a marketplace for product discovery, WaystoCap is an ecosystem that not only facilitates trade in Africa but also aims to foster trade. By creating a platform and community we are convinced that commerce is and will be the major driver of growth in Africa. It is only by giving SMBs access to commerce and tools that these businesses can develop and grow.

“I remember our first website, which I built, we went to the local supermarket to buy food products, took pictures on my mobile and listed them on our site.”

How do the co-founders know each other? Where’d they first meet?

After leaving my job at PwC in London and having been involved in a Used Cooking Oil business, I discovered the exciting world of international trading and start trading with businesses in a variety of sectors and regions. And it was in this new entrepreneurial endeavor, that I found myself traveling to Conakry, Guinea, to close a cement deal.Instead of the original 4 days planned for the trip, I ended up staying 8 months as I partnered with local business men and the government on a huge scrap metal project. That trip changed my life.

Instead of the original 4 days planned for the trip, I ended up staying 8 months as I partnered with local business men and the government on a huge scrap metal project. That trip changed my life.

And it was during my roadshow to finance the project, that I met my two co-founders Anis and Mehdi; who used to not only work together but were friends from school.

What were the early days like?

It was just 3 of us working to gain a foothold in the market. I remember our first website, which I built (!), we went to the local supermarket to buy food products, took pictures on my mobile and listed them on our site (as you can imagine – the design was: terrible). But that’s how we always proceeded in every stage – we tried to get something out as quickly as possible to start testing the market get clients and develop products with them. That period was filled with unknowns, it was very exciting, especially as we started getting more customers and grew our team – it almost felt as if our “baby had started walking” (not running yet!). And we were very sensitive to anyone denigrating us!

That period was filled with unknowns, it was very exciting, especially as we started getting more customers and grew our team – it almost felt as if our “baby had started walking” (not running yet!). And we were very sensitive to anyone denigrating us!

Cross-border ecommerce is one of the most difficult verticals to get into. What were the challenges you had to go through before launching the platform?

Our founding team has collectively 30 years experience in African markets and we’ve seen most gimmicks for what they are: just that, a one-off marketing trick. So the biggest challenge has been what makes trade work: a network of partnerships, and a community that we’ve built and the level of trust that is created within it. Therefore, it was clear that quality of our membership has been one of the most important challenges to overcome. Our suppliers repeatedly tell us how happy they are with the quality of people they meet through our platform. After all we’ve

Our suppliers repeatedly tell us how happy they are with the quality of people they meet through our platform. After all, we’ve all, heard of late payments, missed payments, or other issues so by working through our proprietary verification methodology we build real market intelligence with our partners.

Entire databases of buyers and sellers are frequently useless because as we’ve always seen time and time again verification has to be voluntary and cannot be finagled or scraped. Referral bonuses is another area we don’t believe works well. Perhaps if we were a social proof based system like Airbnb it would make sense to work a bit more on referrals, but in the African trade sector, you better have more than a referral to help you navigate the ecosystem. We are dealing in hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions per trade. No serious supplier will be satisfied by a simple gimmick based shortcut. And that is why we set our goal in stone to build the most reliable and largest African business to business marketplace in Africa!

We are dealing in hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions per trade. No serious supplier will be satisfied by a simple gimmick based shortcut. And that is why we set our goal in stone to build the most reliable and largest African business to business marketplace in Africa!

First Users, Naysayers & Initial Investment

How did you get your first users/vendors?

We worked with several Moroccan vendors to start with, and found through our existing network buyers that were interested in their products.

Who was the first person to believe in your idea and did you come across any naysayers?

The early believers were our friends, family, and first customers. It is the nature of startups to go against the grain, and choose hard to accomplish goals, so unsurprisingly there were people who thought we wouldn’t be able to make it.

How much was the initial investment and where’d it come from? How difficult it is for Moroccan early-stage startups to raise money? 

We bootstrapped the company for the first 18 months as we wanted to make sure it was at a stage where it was cashflow positive before we launched into an expansion phase. This was important as we wanted to build a company whose unit economics and business fundamentals made sense.

We started talking to a few contacts in Morocco but it was very difficult to find the right partners. While angel investors do exist, it was not obvious how to actually find them and sometimes you would meet some that did not understand the risk-return expectations of a startup.

That being said, it is exciting to see that over this last year the startup scene is starting to change with the launch of seed investment firms such as Outlierz; and several coworking spaces have been set up. We need more early-stage funds and smart capital that will provide the tools and financing to enable the ecosystem to prosper.

It is also our responsibility as a startup to contribute to the ecosystem by being available to other entrepreneurs and by creating more of a community support group. If all the players work together then we can then create a financing ecosystem that will allow future Moroccan startups to also raise locally.

We also need to focus on local talent as well as encourage Moroccans abroad to come back and create startups. One of the most important factors that truly transforms an ecosystem are success stories. The more we can have those, the higher the chances of creating a positive network effect that will encourage more and more quality startups to be built which will then also encourage investors to finance them.

One of the most important factors that truly transforms an ecosystem are success stories. The more we can have those, the higher the chances of creating a positive network effect that will encourage more and more quality startups to be built which will then also encourage investors to finance them.

Experience with Y Combinator

How did you think about applying for YC?

I used to travel frequently to Silicon Valley to visit friends who had moved there, and was exposed to YC’s network by friends who were YC founders. Our first investor was, in fact, a YC alumni (Jude Gomila) and he encouraged our application.

“Focus on specific growth goals, and hire the best people.”

What do you think was the biggest reason for your acceptance at YC?

We already had strong traction, and make a good team. We also had years of expertise in our sector.

What are your biggest takeaways from YC?

To focus on specific growth goals, and hire the best people.

Regional Ecosystem & Accelerators

12) There are tens of accelerators in MENA but the common perception is that they’ve not been able to produce even one big success story. What do you think the regional accelerators can learn from YC?

That having a great network of alumni, advisors, startups and investors is truly what determines the success of an accelerator. And actually creating a platform that leverages the network to the benefit of its users. I believe it would be difficult to mimic what YC has done. But that doesn’t mean that MENA won’t be able to create its own accelerator. The other thing to ask is perhaps that accelerators aren’t the only way to create a successful startup. While they can help in terms of advice and fundraising, they do not have a magic wand that creates success. We were not going to give up on our idea if we were not accepted by Y Combinator.

I believe it would be difficult to mimic what YC has done. But that doesn’t mean that MENA won’t be able to create its own accelerator. The other thing to ask is perhaps that accelerators aren’t the only way to create a successful startup. While they can help in terms of advice and fundraising, they do not have a magic wand that creates success. We were not going to give up on our idea if we were not accepted by Y Combinator.

Success emanates from many factors within the ecosystem including encouraging talented individuals to take a chance on building a company rather than pursuing a job abroad. And once there is a network and successful startups, the accelerators and coworking spaces that helped them along the way will also be successful.

There seems to be disconnect between Middle Eastern & North African startup ecosystems.
What do you think can be done to bring them closer?

MENA is a fascinating and diverse region, that offers many different opportunities and challenges to entrepreneurs. My father was Egyptian, and my mother is Moroccan. Many North African entrepreneurs look to the Middle East for financing as there are more funds available. Perhaps there is an opportunity for collaboration by attracting the best and brightest from the region to try their startups in the Middle East, and provide mentorship, financial support, and ease of access. And bringing more financing from the Middle East to North African startups.

How do you feel about being referred as Alibaba of Africa?

We prefer to think of ourselves as the WaystoCap for Africa!! I watched so many videos of Jack Ma speaking, and I find him a very inspirational person, but as he has pointed out himself, Africa will develop its own community and B2B platform.

Achievements, Challenges & Future Plans

What has been WaystoCap’s biggest achievement so far?

Our biggest achievement has been that almost all of our clients are working with us on a recurring basis. We are also proud to have enabled trade for SMBs all over Africa.

Was there any point in your journey you thought this is not going to work, let’s just pack our bags and go home?

The entrepreneurial journey is a rollercoaster in terms of highs and lows. But at no point did I want to go home; as I am way too passionate about our vision and excited about the next phase.

What was the biggest challenge in your entrepreneurial journey and what’d you do about it?

Early on we struggled with inspiring people to believe in our vision. We knew what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go, but had trouble making people see the light. I spent months talking to investors all over MENA but it was difficult to find the right partners who wanted to be part of our journey without necessarily owning the whole company or requiring board seats for such small investments. I decided to look internationally – and that’s how we indirectly ended up working with YC.

What are the future plans about expansion, technology & team?

Our plan is to grow the countries we are present in, and enable trade in every corner of Africa. From small importers and exporters in Benin, to large suppliers in Kenya and Ethiopia. We look forward to truly revolutionizing the way trade is carried out, and opening up global markets to all Africans. Bringing together a team with the right mind set has been a focus area for me. We believe that as a team we can move faster and rely on each other through the different phases of the company. When new team members tell me that they are dreaming and thinking about WaystoCap all the time, I know that we are creating the right culture within our company and that we are becoming stronger and at the end that is what will allow us to grow and offer world class service to our customers.

Work-life Balance, Favorite Startups, Role Models & Advice

Being an entrepreneur is not easy. How do you manage work-life balance?

Indeed it is not easy! I’m not sure I have found a work-life balance yet. I do enjoy a lot of activities outside of work, but I happen to also be very good friends with my cofounders so we also end up discussing work outside of “work”!
It took us 4 years to get to where we are, and I think we are only 1% of the way there. I’m not convinced that I need to worry about work-life balance yet! I admire people who have figured out a balance, but I do not believe it to be possible so early in a startup’s evolution. I’m sure many people will be upset with me about this! But I can’t help it anyway, I love what I do, and our vision to change African trade makes me truly passionate.

“Success is not built overnight – even if it sometimes looks like it.”

What would be your advice to young entrepreneurs of the region?

Seek out mentorship and find like minded people to work with. Early on we missed out on this and I personally believe we would have discovered shortcuts if we’d had mentors to show us the right way. Finding like minded people was always a challenge in Morocco, the startup scene is small, so we are working with others to try and grow it and attract the numerous talented and ambitious people. We plan on working with our friends at outlierz.co to turn Morocco into a hub for technology and startups in North Africa! Persevere in your endeavors and take advice from people; but make sure you have an “advice filter”.

Can you share the names of your favorite Moroccan, regional and international startups?

WaystoCap, of course! I am passionate about ideas and startups that solve real business issues especially in fragmented markets. Innovate companies like Tesla are fascinating (although perhaps no longer a startup), and other startups that can have a far reaching impact are amazing to see develop.

Have you had any mentors or role models that have influenced you?

Having grown up in an entrepreneurial family and being married an entrepreneur; it has meant that I have always been surrounded by mentors. Seeing my parents go through different business cycles, highs and lows while building their company taught me the importance and necessity of grit and perseverance – two essential traits you need if you want to build a truly successful company. Success is not built overnight – even if it sometimes looks like it.

Featured image via Zenith Magazine

Zubair Naeem Paracha

Contributor at MENAbytes
An HR Consultant based in Riyadh who has always been passionate about tech and startups. Currently trying to build his own startup, Qraar. You can reach him on Linkedin,  Twitter or zubair [at] menabytes [dot] com.

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