Meet the “Sexy Startup” CEO Francis Obirikorang, Co-founder of Swappaholics

Swappaholics

Barter trade just got better online.

This is the first ever African Startup to make it into the Dubai based seed accelerator, TURN 8. We are most proud to bring you the story behind the “Sexy Startup” Swappaholics, co-founded by two software enthusiasts Francis Obirikorang and Michael Kabutey Ocansey. We had the opportunity of interviewing Francis from the Dubai based accelerator TURN 8. He is 32, hails from Akropong Akuapem in the Eastern Region, up the Akuapem Hills whiles Michael, 34, is from Ada Foah in the Greater Accra Region.

Francis tells us “Swappaholics Holdings Limited started on the shores of Ghana and is registered as an incorporated offshore company with its headquarters in the British Virgins Islands. Swappaholics was birthed in Ghana, and rapidly scaling into the Nigerian, Kenyan and UAE markets.”

Swappaholics is here to create a swapping culture where products and skills become your social currency.

Read on to unravel what this disruptive and sexy startup is all about.

What is Swappaholics and when was it launched?

Swappaholics is all about swapping. Reinventing the ancient barter trade into a 21st century online platform that empowers individuals and businesses to connect and swap products, skills and services in a social setting. The greatest advantage it possesses is, you don’t need money to trade; giving equal access to everyone irrespective of their financial status. Founded on 3 key swap verticals, Product Swapping ( www.swappaholics.com ), Skills Swapping ( www.skillz.io ) and Car Swapping ( www.carswap.ae ). The product swapping feature was launched in August 2014 in Ghana, skills and car swapping portals will follow soon.

You found yourselves in TURN 8, a Dubai based technology accelerator programme, how did that come about for you among the lot?

TURN 8 is an accelerator program organized by i360 Institute and DP World (the largest port operators in the world) with its main aim of encouraging innovative startups in the UAE region. Applications are received all over the world and the selection process is very competitive. Teams are selected based on quality of idea and composition of team (minimum 2 founders, one with a technical background and other with the business acumen). I’d say we got into the accelerator by faith and dint of hard work. We didn’t get to participate in the global hackathon events that takes place in selected cities around the world since Africa has never been amongst the destinations. We found the link to Turn8 website by chance whilst browsing Google. They had opened the application for selection into the Turn8 Round 4 Spring 2015 edition so we applied online.

We got notified 2 days later our idea had been shortlisted and a Skype interview was booked. We got interviewed by the General Manager of the Turn8 program and after a lengthy discussion we were told we would be contacted. A week later we got a congratulatory email that we’ve been selected. The good news was we were the first team to be selected into the Round 4 program and also the first team ever to participate from Africa.

Wow! This is quite an incredible achievement brothers, congratulations. So After four months in the programme, you are sure to come before investors on Demo Day to pitch for further investments. For that reason give us a pitch of Swappaholics.

Swappaholics is changing the status quo to trade; introducing a new paradigm shift that eliminates the need for physical cash; empowering people to use their skills, product or service to trade.  Join the swap culture. History beckons.

I the CEO, is responsible for product design, user acquisition and marketing of Swappaholics. I have several years experience working with multinational software companies. Michael K. Ocansey – CTO, takes charge of technical development of Swappaholics. He has a 10+ years experience in software development and consultancy for various technology companies across Africa and Asia.
Disha Paragani, a mentor, is the Chief Marketing Officer of Basement Me Project, an ideas cultivation company in Dubai. She focuses on marketing, go to marketing strategies, user acquisition & retention and growth hacking.

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Swappaholics is marketed through social media targeted advertisements, print & electronic media, celebrity endorsements and word-of-mouth using Swap ambassadors. Our target users are people between 16-35 years. We are ahead of competition because we are constantly evolving: using innovation and disruptive technology to introduce new products and features. We are introducing a new form of trading which is swapping, creating a swap culture where products and skills become your social currency.

‘Swappaholics’, an interesting name. How did you arrive by this name and has it proved positive? 

Swappaholics is a combination of 2 words i.e. swap + alohic where alohic describes the addictive nature of a product. We built an interactive and addictive swapping portal hence the name Swappaholics. It’s proven positive so far, with a few negatives where people casually rhyme it with alcoholics. So far, many people can identify with it, and understand it without you explaining what the product is about to them.

What motivated you or what gap in the market made you launch this business and how did you determine there was a market for it?

If you’ve lived in Accra for a long time, you will know the best place to get good deals on electronics is the area affectionately called Tip Toe Lane. It’s also a place where one can get genuine products at affordable prices. A unique trade goes on there where people trade their mobile phones for other phones. They swap. After few inquiries from most shops as to how often people swap; it was revealed that people actually swapped a lot than they bought stuff reason being most of these people had low disposable incomes to purchase new items. That was how the idea migrated from an ideas stage into  fully functional portal. We migrated an offline activity into an online one. For all the other markets we have plans of launching in, the swap culture is prominent.

How did you start the company, especially, putting together the team?

Mike and I worked in the same company for about 3 years in 2008. We struck companionship from there and had done several projects together. So when the Swappaholics idea clicked, he was the best person to approach to start this startup. We are a team of 2 people, but scale faster due to our disruptive nature. We believe speed, precision and dedication are the hallmark of any good team and it should be founded on respect. There is no boss mentality, the titles we bear are just for paperwork.

How did you come by your initial round of funding to make it attractive to be acquired by Turn8? 

Mike and I were both working full time when we started Swappaholics. Our initial funding all came from our salaries and other money we got from doing side jobs. Many people believe you need huge investment before you can start something. You don’t. Money go waste everyday which we don’t account for. The unnecessary spending at malls with friends just to eat; the beer and pork we consume every Friday which runs into several hundreds of cedis, the call credits we buy to bundle internet and download movies etc. all when used judiciously can be used to start something. It doesn’t cost a fortune to buy a website domain; buy a server space and start something. You need to show passion and dedication by selecting people who believe in your dreams and want to work with you. Once you have these ingredients, nothing can stop you. My philosophy has always been “leap and the net will appear”. Start and support will come.

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How has having a mentor contributed to the growth of Swappaholics? 

Mentors serve as a guide; very often startup co-founders have the raw passion and grit and need to be moulded into professionals. Developing an application is one thing, defining a go to market strategy is another. Mentors help you understand the bigger picture by giving you industry tips and advice.

I’d say a startup without a mentor is like a ship without a rudder; it has no direction and purpose.

Our mentor has been very formidable with extensive marketing knowledge. Disha is one amazing mentor with deep insight into marketing techniques, growth hacking, customer acquisition and retention. She’s a force to reckon with.

How important has your business plan been to your growth?

Business plans are essential but for a startup, I’d advice not to focus too much on a business plan. Business plans are guesses. They are forecasts of how things might look like in the future. People draw business plans for non-existent projects and applications. Rather investing your time drafting a 20 paged business plan, break it down into actionable items which you want to do weekly. Meet at the end of every week to see what has been done and what hasn’t.

What lessons have you learnt since starting this business?

As I mentioned earlier, building an application is one thing and marketing it, is another. Very often we focus too much on how the application should look like without actually taking time to get to know what the problem we are trying to solve. Someone might say I want to build an application that can send coca cola to the moon to the astronauts. Is it a good idea? Maybe. Is it feasible? Maybe. Is it solving  a real problem? No! Will people be willing to use it? No. Understand what your target customers want, take time to know the dynamics of the market you plan entering into and always have a backup plan.

What previous job or life experiences are you applying to Swappaholics to make it succeed in the long run?

I have worked in software companies all my life and have been lucky to have worked in some multi national firms where they imbibe the tech company approach which is not the typical Ghanaian “master-servant” approach. It’s a flat system with no artificial hierarchy and the views of everyone is respected. This brings out the positives in everyone and are willing to contribute to the growth of the company. Those are the experiences being applied to Swappaholics.

What advice will you give anyone entering this industry?

Brace yourself. The startup space may look all fancy and glitzy but its not. It is blood, sweat and tears. Passion should be your multivitamin, zeal your energy drink and the can do spirit your meal. Surround yourself with like minded people. It’s not a bed of roses and if you are venturing into it to get rich overnight, you might as well forget that dream. Take criticism up the chin and not personal, you will be criticized but take them in good faith. Forget about titles. CEO, CTO doesn’t mean anything. Don’t be fooled into believing they represent anything.

Remember having 100% of nothing is worst than having 10% of a $1 million company.

Share your dream with people you believe in; give them equity stake in the business and this will motivate them. You cannot do everything on your own; even Jesus had 12 disciples.

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What mistakes have you made as founders of this company and what lessons are there to share?

We’ve made mistakes but none has really had an impact on the running of the company. We believe in settling issues quickly before it spreads like wildfire. Lesson is always be in sync with your co-founder and avoid the blame game; if there’s an issue the best resolve is how to solve it instead of playing the blame game.

Are there challenges you have faced and still facing running this business?

A business without challenge is no business. Yes we do face challenges, you will face financial challenges, human resource challenges etc. As a startup you have limited budget and staff so you have to be a jack of all trade and master of all.

What is your philosophy for doing business? 

My philosophy has always been respect for all. Operate the flat system and remove all those artificial titles and positions that put people on a pedestal above others. It’s a team effort not a boss-servant approach.

Have you won any awards or given any recognition yet, if yes, how are these helping your brand?

We haven’t won any physical award yet but we are nicknamed the “Sexy Startup” in the accelerator. Probably being the ones with a sexy idea and also amazing speed.

Give Africa a picture of where you foresee Swappaholics in the next 5 years. 

A household name. Being mentioned by even babies and sucklings.

What is most interesting and rewarding about being your own boss?

You are responsible for your actions, whether good or bad. The fear not to fail motivates you and drives you on. It’s like being high on meth. You have sleepless nights because your ideas won’t make you sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night to write an idea down or do a modification. You are the master of your own destiny. It’s a rewarding and fulfilling feeling.

Any final message to aspiring African entrepreneurs and your loyal followers?

Team work, collaborate, forget positions and titles, stay humble, take advice, don’t take things personal, read, read and always read about what’s happening in the domain you find yourself. Don’t operate in a vacuum.

Thank you everyone.

You must admit you have just gone through your own business class session. We thank the Swappaholics team and we have learnt a lot from Francis Obirikorang, go out there and follow your passion.

Among insights picked from Francis include:

  • Startups are founded on respect and titles mean nothing
  • Capital was gathered from salaries & side jobs and avoided wasting money
  • Business plans are not really necessary for a startup
  • The startup space is not all fancy and glitzy
  • You will need to share your dream with your team to motivate them
  • Be in sync with your partner and avoid the blame game
  • You have certainly enjoyed the interview. Come tell Africa your story by contacting us via mystartup@thespiritedhub.com

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