After a year of chaos, experimentation, lows, and many exciting moments, Stears has learnt a lot about building products and designing services that people deeply value.
In one sense, Stears is four this year; we launched Stears Business as a non-revenue generating project in January 2017. Yet, in a strange way, this was our first year in business, if for no other reason than it was the first time all four co-founders were working full time.
From a team of 4 to 22; expanding in a pandemic felt ironic.
Nevertheless, to end the year, we would like to share with the community that made it possible for us to exist as a nascent tech company, by sharing four of the biggest lessons we learned about building in Nigeria.
#1 It is always about people
I have always admired the US series—West Wing, for this simple reason. The fictional President Josiah Bartlett, a two-time Democrat Party President, does one thing extremely well: bringing brilliant, passionate believers together.
One running joke in our management team is the awkward reality of getting used to no longer being the smartest person in the room. I chuckled when I heard this recently because I had embraced this harsh reality when Stears was still four people and four laptops.
However, being smart is not enough. Being brilliant only does half the job. The rest of the way, it’s about making brilliant people work together. Building is a team sport.
My management hero, Andy Grove, shared a simple but powerful theory in his book High Output Management, which has become a guiding principle when I am working in teams.
He argues that there are two reasons a teammate will not do a job properly; either he/she cannot do the work, or he/she will not do the work. If he cannot do it, then it is the manager’s job to train him. If she will not do the work, it is the manager’s job to motivate her.
Either way, the output of the manager is the output of the units and people under her supervision.
Today, at Stears, the team works hard to make sure we intentionally build a people-friendly culture. We want to attract & retain the best person for the job. And we have to do the work to make that possible.
However, a good people-culture is not just about managers.
At Stears, we consider ourselves lucky to have a team of superstars. From the newsroom to the delivery team, everyone works hard. When it comes to making the team build out our shared vision, challenging people and recognising their hard work brings a sense of purpose to this hard work.
For instance, one of our biggest people achievements is the work being done by the Stears Data team today. Stears has always been consumed by its media brand, and resources have always been spent on Stears Business. However, we have always wanted to build our own Bloomberg Terminal or Reuters Eikon, something big and flashy that stands out.
This year, after many rocky starts, the team finally turned ambitions to code and began building out the future of our enterprise product machine. However, we learnt as a team that the MVP (Most Viable Product) is the way to start. First, you must crawl, then walk, then run.
As simple as our MVP is, it gives me great pleasure to know how much we went through to get to this database:
Stears Data MVP providing access to all our Nigerian datasets
So, going into 2021, where are we going to invest? You guessed right. Unlike the Nigerian government, we will invest more in our people so that Stears is a great place to work.
#2 Align, Align, Align
When we first tried using the famous Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) in 2019, we failed woefully. I didn’t understand how they worked, or why we needed them. To make matters worse, we were in that difficult place where our business model was transitioning to a subscription model, and so the company vision was still being formed.
It was not the time to focus on new fancy performance management systems. If only we knew.
Fast forward to Q4 2020, and we rise and fall on our OKRs. I have a one-on-one OKR session with each new employee. Managers know their OKRs by heart. Team members contribute to creating their OKRs. I write lengthy company guides every quarter about OKRs.
It is a brave new OKR world.
It all re-started when I read John Doerr’s ‘Measure What Matters’. This was a few months before we got into the Google Accelerator Programme for Startups and learnt even more.
But our OKR culture took a whole new shape when Bode (CTO) read the book as well. He took it to the next level. Every quarter, he has some new OKR-related trick or suggestion up his sleeve. Recently, he was caught reading Andy Grove’s High Output Management during our Christmas party.
Here is Bode’s Q4 OKR board:
Bode, the OKR champion at Stears
Since then, we have been experimenting with OKRs, and there are no signs that this will ever stop. As I always tell the managers during planning sessions “If it is not an OKR, it doesn’t get done”.
But why am I so obsessed with OKRs?
Well, the beauty of the OKR system can be narrowed down to a simple value proposition for me: it aligns the team. Any team.
When we are headed to our north star, everyone knows we are headed north, what getting to the north star looks like, and how long we expect it to take us to get there. We definitely do not always get where we plan to go, but even then, the OKRs make it easy to tell when we fail to hit our goals.
The team teases me whenever I say the word ‘alignment’. I have meetings where I introduce the agenda by saying, “We are here to align on next steps.” I am unashamed about this. Alignment is key. It is crucial both in success and failure.
When a group of people do not know where they are going, they can end up anywhere, and that can be disastrous for them, for their customers and for their shareholders. To avoid this, we write, analyse, measure, score, and rewrite them every quarter.
Now I wonder, how did we get anything done before OKRs? The truth is that I don’t remember. I guess those were the dark days. These days are better. They are far from perfect, and there is so much we do not know, but these days are better.
#3 Use your data
‘Dollarise your revenue’ was my mantra this year.
As Meffy and team waged war on dollars in the country, we were determined to make sure that we earned all the dollar revenue we could.
So, when we launched Stears Business Premium with a naira default payment option, I was dissatisfied. I wanted the default to be $$$. I wanted our diaspora Premium subscribers to pay in $$$. Why would we want them to pay us naira? In this economy?
In true agenda fashion, I tackled our Growth Experiments team to prioritise it—Yvette and Fikayo know the story well. I Insisted that the Delivery team switch the currencies. After all, it was a 1-pointer in our sprint. We just needed to make it work. And so they did.
Before I knew it, once you landed on the site, the default currency would be dollars. If you wanted to switch to naira, you could toggle the options, and it would change. But first, you would see $$$.
This chart below tells the whole story of our experience trying to convince international banks to let us collect $$$ from our customers.
The chart above is one of [seven] I was shown, tracking in great detail, the impact that the switch had on the subscription growth. It was not just about payment failures; it was about a change in our customers' interaction with the site.
To cut a long story short, the Editor in Chief told me what I already knew—we needed to switch it back. The data told us everything we needed to know.
But that was not all we learnt about the beauty of data.
Taking a leaf from our friends at Superhuman, we ran a product-market fit survey to establish whether we had reached the benchmark 40% product-market fit threshold.
The experiment's design was simple: survey our paying users and find out what % of them would be ‘very disappointed’, ‘somewhat disappointed’, or ‘not disappointed’ if Stears Business Premium no longer existed.
While we were figuring our product-market fit, we also tried to get a better sense of why our subscribers read Stears Business.
Who reads Stears Business? Well, we took a stab at that too.
What features should we build next? We got hints.
And finally, how do readers prefer to consume their news?
We collated all this information and took it to our design sprint after making a conscious decision to improve the experience of our readers.
The sprint was a five-day process for answering critical customer questions and testing ideas with customers through a design-centric approach. It served as an essential tool of business strategy, innovation, behaviour science and design thinking, all packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use.
Annie, TJ and Josh during the sprint
I remember Jim Barksdale’s quote: “If we have data, let us look at data. If all we have are opinions, then we can go with mine”.
However, I have been humbled when it comes to my own opinions too. I no longer move without caution. I am happy for Yvette (Product Manager) to lecture me.
#4 Revisit your assumptions
My final and most important lesson this year relates to one of the most popular articles I wrote. It was the Stears Business Premium launch piece titled, ‘Introducing Stears Premium: Information worth paying for’.
The truth is, one of the core assumptions in that article was wrong. Not totally wrong, but wrong enough for me to now dump it as we go into another year.
I argued that creating information worth paying for was the goal of Stears Premium. I argued that the content was King and King alone. I argued that setting the gold standard was about providing analysis that no one could find anywhere else.
It is not that these things are untrue; it is just that I did not see the big picture.
You see, a subscription service is a beautiful thing. Absolutely beautiful.
At the core of any good subscription model is a commitment to creating recurrent value for your customer. The whole premise of a subscription model is finally letting your company build a true one-to-one relationship with your customers, understand what they are doing and, guide them through a personalised experience you have designed for them.
There is nothing (in my little experience) more transformative than a switch from a traditional asset sale model, where the goal of a sales team is to close a specific transaction, to a subscription model where the goal is to build a long term value-driven relationship. The impact of recurring payments, recurrent feedback and constant change, has driven a new kind of innovation.
To show how significant it has been, we eventually carved out a product team.
Today, I have a more nuanced view: we are building a customer experience worth paying for. An information experience across our two major divisions: Stears Business and Stears Data.
Now, we are beginning to learn a lot more about our customers and how to satisfy them. Working within the ethical boundaries of data collection, a commitment that we have imbibed since working with the Luminate team, we are learning that the best way to please our customer is to understand them, and how they interact with us.
Therefore, in the end, what we sell is access.
It is not about a specific article or data point, but the end-to-end experience of easily accessing high-quality information. We are here not just to deliver information worth paying for, but a service worth paying for.
That is bigger than just the content. It is bigger than a recommendation model to tell you what to read next, or a ‘favourites’ section. It is a customer-obsessed, customer-centric desire to solve the underlying problem of information asymmetry that our customers face.
So, as we close the year and focus on the next, and as we prepare ourselves for the highs and lows of 2021, we remain focused on our goal: making it easy for anyone, anywhere in the world, to access high-quality information on Africa.
Where that takes us, we will find out together.