There is something about copy pasting and changing the font colour that I advocate for, that which aims at giving us local versions of the first world services and products, the same way China is giving her citizens Baidu, WeChat and the numerous counterfeited smartphones and related products. I am not sure if I would advocate for the same copy pasting when it comes to products and services invented by our own – although that type of copy pasting is common. We know of the accusations against Safaricom. We also know how MPESA has been copy pasted to Airtel Money and Orange Money, even though the copy cats haven’t seen the light of the market, thus far. Airtel Money though, according to some latest statistics, seem to be gaining ground.
In the days just before the launch of The EastAfrican, a paper was launched by The Standard Group – The East African Chronicle. I remember seeing that paper once or twice and I guess it wasn’t clear to me whether it was any different from The EastAfrican. But today the paper doesn’t exist – reason being The East African Chronicle wasn’t an original idea by The Standard Group.
After The Nation Media Group finalized the plans to launch The EastAfrican, some insider decided to leak information to The Standard Group. According to Joseph Odindo, the first Managing Editor of The EastAfrican, The Nation Media Group was not the only one thinking of covering business related news in East Africa through a newspaper publication. Mutahi Kagwe – then the advertising director for the Standard Group, was also of similar thoughts. When information reached Mutahi that NMG was planning to launch a business paper for East African region, SG moved with speed to launch the East African Chronicle, but to his detriment, without proper ground work.
The launch of The East African Chronicle sent shivers in the NMG team that was working on The EastAfrican. At some point, Mr. Odindo says, they almost abandoned the plan. “Kagwe moved and launched it before the Nation, causing quite bit of panic because at one stage there was a discussion as to whether we should change our plans or the nature of the project, taking into account that there was a competitor and we needed to do things differently.”
But again information leaked from The SG back to NMG. This reverse leak helped the NMG team realize that what Kagwe was to launch wasn’t really that serious as the planned The EastAfrican. It was also realized that the East African Chronicle was to be a totally different product from what The EastAfrican was meant to be. Thereafter the NMG team sat down in a meeting where “common sense prevailed and it was decided so much work had been done” along the line of launching the The EastAfrican that it would be foolish “to change the course because of a competitor.”
“Was lack of proper market research before launching Mutahi’s own undoing?” Trevor Analo asked Odindo, to which Mr. Odindo explained, “The paper was like the afterthought. Mutahi Kagwe wasn’t a rush. Being a marketing person, he saw the business potential and got excited. But not being a journalist, he failed to see the scale of work required to do it properly. So one of the things that became clear after the launch was that he did not have the journalists and the content did not give him the result he wanted. Second, he was right to assume that it should essentially be a business publication, but he could not cover the regional business, required resources he could not marshall. It took us so long to recruit staff and quite a bit of time retraining them, yet while simply moved and launched. We always waited to see whom he would get to cover Uganda and Tanzania for him.”
What lessons can we learn?
There are times great ideas struck us. We turn them in our heads, digest them, and then we envision this great blue print that can turn the idea into a multi-million dollar company. But just before we go ahead to pursue the idea, we develop cold feet. In most cases, we reason that if we implement the idea in a small way then a powerful guy like Safaricom could come along and develop a rival product, a product that would render yours redundant and irrelevant. In most cases, the cold feet lead us to abandon the idea completely.
The Nation Media Group, though not a small man as you and me, and definitely not smaller than The Standard Group that stole their idea, also developed a similar cold feet after The Standard Group launched The East African Chronicle, a cold feet they were able to warm up through common sense reasoning. They went ahead to launch The EastAfrican and since The East African Chronicle was a shoddy copy cat, The EastAfrican was able to take its deserved top position in no time.
Other examples can be found elsewhere. The Nation Media Group recently tried to copy The Nairobian by launching a short lived Nairobi News. The failure of Nairobi News to pick up also tell the same story; the person with the original idea almost always has the understanding of what the industry needs, and has both the will and the power to provide that need.
As an entrepreneur, investor or innovator, don’t let thoughts that they with the millions and billions of resources may launch rival products kill your small dream. What you probably need is the ground work, the industry’s insight, and a strong personal conviction that you have a product that will uniquely satisfy the desired market needs. The personal conviction, in most cases, is what the market wants to relate to – not some massively rolled out project that lacks that magical and personal touch.
Most times, also, the guy with the resources may not be an expert in the field you want to launch your product or service. Just the fact that someone can hire people, if he/she lacks industry’s specialized knowledge and understanding, he/she cannot be able to explain, clearly, what exactly needs to be done in order for the rival service to be successful. Mr. Odindo explained this when he mentioned that one of the reasons the East African Chronicle failed was because Mutahi Kagwe wasn’t a journalist, but a marketer. It requires a journalist’s expertise and experience to fully understand and communicate what a paper like The EastAfrican, or even The East African Chronicle for that matter, ought to be in order to succeed.
The launch and development of The EastAfrican offer some other useful insights and great lessons to be learned by both the established businesses, content creators and those with great ideas. In the next articles in this series, I will explore a few more ideas important for business growth.