Playing the game of chess in a country playing checkers like Nigeria can be complex
By Ofili Okechukwu
A start-up acquaintance of mine once raised a cool $1,000,000 from the silicon valley clan. The raise was widely celebrated across Africa.
And the instructions from Silicon Valley, was simple “Grow fast, capture market, forget profits, capture market, grow fast” And that’s exactly what they did. They grew fast, spending money to acquire users organically and inorganically. Long story short, they could not sustain their growth momentum once the money started to fade. And soon the company, a shining light for all of Africa, started to fade as well. Today that company is a shell of herself.
As I like to say they were given money to play Chess in a country that is playing Checkers.
For those that don’t know, Chess is a game played on an 8X8 board and consists of 16 pieces with multiple move variations. Checkers, on the other hand, is a much simpler game that is played on the same 8X8 board, but consists of only 12 pieces, one type of move and uses only half of the board. For direct comparison, in Chess, a player can make a possible 30 moves in a single play, while Checkers has less than 10 move options per play.
To date, checkers has been solved by a computer, but chess, it is yet to be solved, it is just too complicated. The sheer magnitude of the number of moves possible is enough to crash any supercomputer.
So what does Chess or Checkers have to do with Nigeria and Investors?
Silicon Valley, when it comes to Start-ups are playing a game of Chess.
Nobody has quite solved it yet, but they play at it regardless. And that game is simple, put all your money, grow, raise more money, grow , fuck profit, just grow grow grow grow and eventually take over the world or grow grow grow, then take over the Milky Way! For countries like America with a strong middle class and lots of cash lying around, Chess works.
Chess allows big companies like Spotify exist in the absence of profit, allows UBER dominate while making millions of dollars in losses, allows Instagram grow without ever making any money. The rules of the silicon valley chess game make no “business” sense, but it’s silicon valley so chess works.
Nigeria is Playing Checkers but Investors are Playing Chess
The problem is when you bring a chess mentality into a checkers environment like Nigeria. A country with little to no investment (when compared to the Silicon Valley behemoth) and no “real” middle class, the chess strategy doesn’t work.
That’s why for all the complexity Chess has, a chess grandmaster will always get beat by a checkers local champion in a game of checkers. Let me say that again “for all the complexity Chess has, a chess grandmaster will always get beat by a checkers local champion in a game of checkers.”
If you want to win in Nigeria, you have to learn to play checkers, and you need to learn to play it well. Cause no matter how good you are with chess, if you can’t play checkers, you will likely lose. Checkers is simple, the moves are simple, you can only go forward and get to the end before you can move backward… the movement is forward, toward profit, towards money, toward a sound business principle, before you can move back to do anything else.
I know all this, because for years I have seen Nigerian start-up after start-up, try to play chess and Instagram their way to success. But our economy is not set up for that plus we don’t have a shit load of local investor money to pump into a failing but barely growing business and we don’t even have a strong middle class to grow the most basic businesses exponentially.
Checkers is what works, profitable businesses that leverage on lower-class poverty (bet9ja) or middle-class necessity (Dangote Cement). That’s where Nigeria is, and you need a local mentality to hack Nigeria and not a Silicon Valley mentality. In other words, if you want to win in Nigeria play checkers very well, not chess!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.