For many African tech entrepreneurs, the idea of nurturing a small business and building it from the ground up into a big venture — one that operates in multiple countries across the globe and generates millions of dollars in revenue — is success at its purest.
And do you know what makes that kind of success all the more impressive? Pulling it off with literally no money and never raising any funding.
Now, does it get more impressive than that? Actually, yes. Especially if that feat has only ever been achieved by one “Black African woman tech founder” in a turf that is typically thought of as the playground of the menfolk.
You think those claims are scarcely believable? Wait till you meet the powerhouse that is Rebecca Enonchong. To date, she is the only known African tech entrepreneur who has managed to build what can be termed a successful global tech business without ever raising funding.
Go ahead, mention someone else, I’ll wait. Nobody else? That’s what I thought.
Rebecca Enonchong is a Cameroonian technology entrepreneur who founded the tech company known as AppsTech in 1999. The company is a leading global provider of enterprise software solutions, offering implementation, training and application management services to companies around the globe.
AppsTech is an Oracle Platinum Partner, an SAP Partner, and PearsonVue Testing Centre. The company has offices in 3 countries and provides support to users in more than 50 countries, making tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
Enonchong is perhaps best known as a curator of important developments in African tech and an avid crusader for tech entrepreneurship in Africa. But what few people realise is that the soon-to-be 53-year-old is one of the most successful African tech entrepreneurs that have ever existed.
And to celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, here’s a look at how some smart thinking and shrewd moves helped Enonchong build a global tech business from the ground up despite having to rely entirely on personal funds.
The Making of The Rebecca Enonchong Story
Rebecca Enonchong was born in Cameroon in 1967 to a family that was not exactly underprivileged but was not stupendously affluent either.
Her father, Dr. Henry Ndifor Abi Enonchong, was a well-known barrister in Cameroon. During her early life in Cameroon, her father busied himself helping to create the Federal Cameroon Bar Association and its successor, the Cameroon Bar Association.
Eventually, Enonchong left Cameroon for the U.S. with her family during her teens. While in high school, she took up a job selling door-to-door newspaper subscriptions. At the time, she was just 15-year-old and by the time she turned 17, she was pretty much managing the newspaper subscription business.
When college time rolled by, Enonchong gained admission into the Catholic University of America, where she first obtained a bachelor’s degree in Economics before going to grab a master’s degree in the same field.
After her studies, she had early working stints at a number of organisations including the Inter-American Development Bank (IaDB) before landing a job at Oracle Corporation.
In 1999, armed with no more than her savings and unfazed by the many external factors that screamed “it’s a bad idea!”, Enonchong went about setting up her own company in a rather interesting way.
How She Pulled It Off
With very little savings and no financial backing (mostly because, try as she might, she couldn’t get funding), Enonchong set out to build a global multi-million dollar business.
According to a Medium post from 2016 in which she explained how she made it work, she spent the first two weeks doing nothing but writing her business plan.
“Because I was writing it for me, and not for bankers or investors, I could be completely honest. I was able to layout my weaknesses, market risks in a very bare, truthful way,” she writes.
“Then I could think of strategies to counter these. As I did this, my business model changed significantly from what I first intended. Over the years, of course, it changed some more.”
It was in the process of drawing up a candid plan that she identified that the type of customers that most purchased the offerings she was looking to serve up were multinational. That meant that her business also needed to be a multinational.
So, how does a one-woman company become a global business? One word: Internet. Although still in its infancy at the time, Enonchong knew she had to make the internet work for her.
She built the company’s web site and it was available in both English and French, after spending days studying the web sites of companies like Arthur Andersen, PwC and CapGemini and mimicking the look and feel. As she says, the site wasn’t very nice but in those days, neither were her competitors’.
Since she couldn’t yet afford an office, she got a virtual business address that she could use on the web site and on a business card. At the time, she was crashing on someone’s couch as she couldn’t even get a place of her own.
Enonchong didn’t include a title on the card. According to her, she wanted “the flexibility of being the CEO when she wanted or just one of the engineers if the situation warranted.” She may have been a one-person business but she presented herself as a global corporation from the start.
Next up, she needed to acquire customers and she knew exactly where to find them. Armed with her new business cards and freshly-minted website, Enonchong spent money she didn’t have getting on a plane and attending an industry conference. That was she landed her first client, so to speak.
She carried herself like a multinational. Of course, they had no idea that she was a one-woman machine. And they didn’t need to. They needed some technical advice that she could provide and that was really all that mattered.
All the money that came from the service she rendered to that client was channeled into her business. She was finally able to rent an actual office and hire a part-time assistant.
“I never used any of those funds to pay myself,” she recounts. “In fact, I was homeless and couch-surfed for two years before I finally got my own place. In the years, I have been in business, I have always paid myself last and have never had the highest salary in the company.”
Enonchong says the couch-surfing bit was more than just an economic choice as she was unencumbered and able to focus solely on her business while squatting, sort of.
“Because I didn’t have a home, I could focus entirely on my business. I wouldn’t leave the office until at least 2:00 AM. There were absolutely no distractions; there was absolutely no comfort,” she recalls.
Since Enonchong had her heart set on building a global business from day one, every single tool she purchased to run the business had to work from anywhere.
As she puts it,
“In a world where the word “cloud” still defined something you could look up to in the sky, I only bought software accessible over the internet.
“We were one of Salesforce.com’s early customers. Also, each individual I hired, from my assistant to my technical and executive team, had to have worked or lived overseas and speak at least two languages.”
She adds, “So where my like-sized competitors were focusing on the small local customer, I had my eyes on the more lucrative global market. And because everything was designed to be global from the very first day, I didn’t have to pivot years later and develop a global strategy, change systems and staff.
“Global in one location with four employees is actually the same structure as global in ten locations with hundreds of employees. Global is a way of thinking.”
Enonchong also emphasizes how keeping things simple with minimal bureaucracy helped her business stay nimble and enabled AppsTech to secure some very large deals within its first few years in business.
“I have an intense dislike for paperwork and administrative procedures. What I came to realize was that so did many of my customers.
“When a bureaucratic multinational company is faced with a bureaucratic multinational supplier, the purchasing process and the delivery of services becomes complex and bogged down,” she says.
The Cameroonian tech entrepreneur simplified the process by productizing services. So, rather than sell so many man-hours or man-days with different rates for different people, she created packages that customers could choose from.
“For instance, support contracts had traditionally been per “seat” or per person on the contract. We proposed three different levels of a support product that never specified who, or how many would provide them.
“Not only did this greatly simplify the purchasing and delivery process but it also allowed us to scale. Since we weren’t paid by a number of consultants, we could build efficiencies to reduce labor costs on customers and spread our resources across multiple contracts. In the U.S. in 2000, this was innovative,” Enonchong enthuses.
As she says, another thing that helped AppsTech thrive was the fact that she was able to put together a fantastic team, emphasizing the importance of surrounding oneself with capable people, not necessarily people with pre-acquired technical skills.
“I sought out the very best minds in the industry and sometimes courted them for months before they would come on board.
“As often as possible, I tried to find the brightest in the African community. Congo, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Sudan, Cameroon, and more were all represented at AppsTech. This is in addition to China, Korea, India, France, and the UK. Most of them were much smarter than I was,” she reveals.
“One of my very best hires, for example, was a political science major with absolutely no Oracle and little IT experience. But I loved the way he carried himself. I hired him on the spot. As a Client Relationship Manager, his ability to navigate difficult personalities was key.”
“Another guy had a degree in veterinary science. He too had no Oracle experience. But he spoke five languages fluently including Russian and Spanish. If he could learn foreign languages so easily, surely “speaking” SQL wouldn’t be a stretch. He went on to get multiple Oracle certifications and was one of the very best members of our technical team.”
In a tech entrepreneurship career spanning over two decades, Enonchong has nurtured AppsTech into a winner and cemented her place as a force to reckon with in Africa and beyond.
AppsTech has been able to weather storms that tanked many of its competitors, some even a hundred times its size. Over the years, the company has been profiled by the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Computer World, Fortune Magazine, and many others.
Enonchong is a recipient of several awards. In 2002, The World Economic Forum of Davos, Switzerland named Enonchong a Global Leader for Tomorrow (GLT) along with other tech entrepreneurs such as Google co-founder, Larry Page, and Salesforce.com CEO, Marc Benioff.
In 2013, Enonchong was recognized as a finalist for the African digital woman award. In March 2014, Forbes listed her as one of the “10 Female Tech Founders to Watch in Africa.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that AppsTech has offices in 20 countries. This has been corrected to reflect that AppsTech actually has offices in 3 countries and customers in over 50 countries.