Kamal Budhabhatti and his team have over the years built a formidable business providing financial service companies like banks, micro finance (MFI’s) and saccos with platforms to run their daily operations. With an international footprint across 45 countries in Africa and emerging Asia and revenues topping Ksh. 5 Billion for the year 2016, you will forgive me for questioning the deep dive into new uncharted waters that is the on demand taxi hailing business with his startup Little, often closely associated with Safaricom. After what has been an eventful year globally for the sector, I sought him out to get a pulse on what his experience has been so far..
Why leave a comfortable business to business concern for a pure play consumer business? In many circles it may be termed madness.
As Craft Silicon matured, it made logical sense to build verticals that would run on top of the robust and scalable payment platform that we had nurtured over the years. Little was our first experiment in the transport vertical. We plan to get into a few other large sectors that would run on top of our existing platforms. We recently invested in EatOut to enter into our second vertical that is the food and hospitality sector. All the pieces eventually end up on our payment gateway, which is and will remain our biggest revenue earner.
It could be argued that you had abit of an “unfair” start, coming from your organisational history, and pundits would assume you had internal resources to dip into. Is the perception correct by any measure?
Little was our first mass market product and our B2B pedigree was rattled by user interface and user experience challenges that quite frankly we never had to deal with before. You cannot throw more engineers or technology at this one and the learning curve was steep, not a walk in the park by any measure. We are dealing with the same challenges that face any startup; talent, growth, competition, fundraising issues etc. The only benefit that Little may have had from Craft Silicon is that our room…is subsidized somewhat and we had relationships that we could plug into.
Little came into a market that had seen global players take interest and some big boys even launched. With odds seemingly stacked against you, what are some of the strategy bets that paid off?
Deep local knowledge, a strong healthy relationship with our partner drivers and mission critical corporate partnerships. We had our first ride toward the end of May 2016 and will likely hit our millionth ride just before we turn one.
Talking engineering talent, how and where do you recruit from and what do you look for?
We hire mostly from local university’s and mould for two major functions; the first being core platforms development and the second I would call auxiliary, that builds and supports everything else. We look for adaptable learners.
Diversity has been hot topic recently across the globe, more so in technology businesses. What is the mix at Little across job functions?
Oh!! This is one statistic I am proud of because it deviates from the norm even by global standards. We are at about 60% percent female to 40% male.
For the technically inclined, what does Little look like under the hood?
For perspective, Little sits under the same data center run by Craft Silicon that processed over 450 Billion KES worth of transactions last year. We run on a mixed stack that includes C#, Java, Node.Js across both Windows and Linux. Currently tinkering with cloud-based machine learning to bolster our service and power new feature sets.
What have been your greatest organizational challenges?
Our greatest challenge has been the steep learning curve in designing and running products that are made for direct mass market. It took us a while to understand the same, and to be honest, we are still not there. We have some very solid ideas, and we are learning how to implement these into a service that is used by thousands of users daily. When we started Little, it was a “corner project”, which hardly got any resources and attention and worked on during the proverbial 20% time made popular by Google where staff can take time off regular work and apply themselves to a project . I am glad that it took off like it did and now has a life of its own. We are also looking to grow out of the shadow of two iconic brands – Craft Silicon and Safaricom.
Any plans beyond Kenya?
Of-course! We plan to go pan-african and are evaluating like-minded partners. Where we find a fit, we ride.
We need to believe more in local capacity and strive to support innovative ideas from among ourselves. Not to mean that we entertain mediocrity but more to the fact that deliberate and consistent support, starting from our education to eventual creation and consumption by way of paying and responsive customers will we improve our stock and make us more competitive.