The turn of the millennium is probably most remembered for doomsday prophecies and a myriad of persons who turned away from worldly ways for fear of the wrath of some livid otherworldly deity, but there’s still a handful of persons who may remember it in other ways.
For one, the same period heralded what could be described as the ‘internet boom’ and for most African millennials, cyber cafes situated in mostly urban centres was the go-to guy for this slice of the pie in the late 90s and early 2000s.
However, for Ulrich Sossou; a Beninois software developer, his first encounter with the internet happened in 2006, just a couple of months after he completed his high school studies in the Republic of Benin.
Following the recommendation of his father who wanted him to study abroad, Sossou was seeking college opportunities in the U.S.A and Canada. It was about the same time that he learned of online scholarship applications and in the process of exploring, he stumbled upon something that will put the course of his life in a whole different direction.
What he discovered by chance was the “power of the internet” and it is in trying to harness that power that Sossou put himself on the map as one of his country’s most brilliant software developers.
As was earlier stated, his father was keen on seeing him study abroad, even though the Regional Institute of Industrial Engineering Biotechnologies and Applied Sciences (IRGIB-Africa University), located in Cotonou, had offered him admission to study Industrial Engineering. And because the old man wouldn’t budge, Sossou had to keep chasing scholarships.
But it wasn’t long before he began to get some ideas of his own. Under the guise of applying for scholarships – at least, that was what his father thought – Sossou frequented a particular small cybercafe in Port-Novo. However, he wasn’t seeking scholarship opportunities. He had found something better.
His first instinct was to look for ways through which he could make money off the internet, and he found that in doing English-to-French translations for clients he found on the web, and writing SAS pages.
While waiting for one of his scholarship applications to go through – though, it was his father that was doing most of the waiting at this point – Sossou opted to accept the admission offered him by the institution in Cotonou.
It became some kind of daily routine for Sossou to go to Cotonou from Port-Novo during the day because of school and stop by at the cybercafe upon his return in the evenings. He would spend several hours at the small cafe, returning home very late at times to the displeasure of his folks.
Sossou used the scholarship pursuit as cover for those many late nights, but all the while, he was immersing himself in software development. The cyber cafe had become something of a second home and after several months of rigorous self-tutoring, he had become quite proficient at web development, building websites for foreign companies using WordPress.
Sossou saved up all the money he made and before long, he was able to afford his own laptop and internet connection. Eventually, he came clean – letting his father know what he’d been up to and how the skill he had acquired was bringing in some good sums, even better than what the old man was making on his job. And that was how the whole talk of studying abroad was put to rest.
His romance with software development continued to flourish throughout his days in college, as he juggled the demands of his primary academic work with software projects for several organisations both home and abroad. At this point, he knew he was born to do this.
The Beninois tech entrepreneur took things up a notch in 2012 when he kickstarted a project on Github. The project dubbed Bootstrap Tour is a tool designed to help companies onboard users and improve user experience. And according to Sossou, Bootstrap Tour has become the most followed project by an African on Github.
The Github project soon got Sossou hooked up with some persons who got on him on board a project set aside for California-based Stanford University.
“I developed a pilot system for online courses for their graduate school of business. A total of about 1000 students connected to the platform for various courses,” he remarks. “I built the platform from scratch and maintained it for two years while working on other projects for other companies.”
Ulrich Sossou claims to have been earning between USD 75.00 to USD 100.00 per hour for an average of four hours daily while working on the Stanford University project. There were talks of relocating to the United States at the time, but he was not exactly keen on leaving his homeland, at least, not at that time.
It would appear Sossou is a man of many talents as he was also able to co-author a book titled Learning Bootstrap while putting in work on multiple software projects for various companies. Nearly 3000 copies of the book are believed to have been sold since the book was published in 2013.
You’d be tempted to think it’s been an entirely rosy affair for the African tech entrepreneur but that hasn’t really been the case. Sure, he’s had his finest hours but there have also been some less-glowing moments.
For starters, Sossou doesn’t have fond memories of his initial foray into full-blown tech entrepreneurship, as it turned out an unsuccessful attempt in the end. This was in 2014 when he launched FlyerCo; a marketing solution for real estate agents. Things got off to a flying start initially, but beginners’ luck soon faded and the business began to plummet after things stagnated for a while.
Eventually, the Beninois entrepreneur was forced to cut his losses and sell off FlyerCo in 2016, and better than he would have hoped for, there was an American company willing to pay a fair price for it.
He attributes the ‘FlyerCo fiasco’ to his motive for setting up the platform in the first place – it had more to do with making money than it did with making any kind of impact. And that’s because Sossou had set out to recoup sums he thought he lost to a UK-based company for whom he designed an affiliate marketing software.
He had initially sold an earlier version of the software to the company for USD 8 K in 2013, and when he pitched an upgraded version to them, they had no problems paying the USD 24 K he demanded.
Sossou thought he had made a killing off of the software, but that was until a bug was discovered in the software some six months later. While attempting to rectify the problem, he discovered that the company had sold the same software to about 5000 people for USD 1 K each – that’s USD 5 Mn in just six months for his creation.
And that was what pushed him into personal projects, although it was more like a personal vendetta to make more money off of his work. But as he soon found out with his first venture, it’s not exactly a cakewalk.
Well, if anything, the failure of his first startup didn’t deter him from attempting new ventures. This time, though, the new ventures are more tailored to the development of the startup and tech ecosystem in the Republic of Benin.
In 2014, way before FlyerCo started to go downhill, Sossou got in touch with Senam Beheton, Founder of Eltrilabs, and the duo has since set up TEKXL; a venture builder that trains and invests in African startups.
Through the combined resources of both platforms, i.e Eltrilabs and TEKXL, Sossou and Beheton keep in touch with dozens of developers, designers, entrepreneurs, digital marketers, and content creators – offering training and mentorship with a view to building products that can rival the very best in the world.
Now aged 31, Sossou appears to have pivoted from software consulting towards entrepreneurship and these days, he can be seen jet-setting and globetrotting – accessing larger markets and funding. These days, you’re most likely to find him anywhere between investing in the Benin tech community and consulting for various companies around the globe.
Going forward, Ulrich Sossou has his sights trained on developing top-notch tech talents and entrepreneurs in Benin, as well as leveraging his skills to telling effect in solving some of the continent’s most troubling challenges.
Featured Image Courtesy: Irawo