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Rebranding & Welcoming Theo

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021

Theo (left) and Anselme (right)

A few days ago, I posted that I had made the difficult decision to resign from Nisawa, a startup that I co-founded and led from inception. I also shared that I incorporated Vanoma, Inc. to pursue the same goals. Given the events that ensued, it looks more like rebranding as opposed to starting from scratch. Nisawa ceased operations a few days after my departure, which allowed all the staff to join Vanoma. As stated in my previous post, the mission of Vanoma is to build the infrastructure to power e-commerce growth in Africa.

In this post, I would like to introduce someone new to the team but some background first.

During the summer of 2012, I had just finished my first year of college and traveled to Little Rock, AR for a few days. On one particular night, around 3:00 AM, everyone was partying but I noticed someone with a laptop working on something that seemed urgent. I was intrigued and asked what the task at hand was. “I am trying to code an alarm clock, but I am running into issues.” That was Theophile Nsengimana ("Theo"). He was a rising sophomore and a chemistry major teaching himself Visual Basic programming language by creating an alarm clock.

I cannot put into words how profound that scene and the brief interaction were. By that time, I already knew that entrepreneurship was going to be the path for me, and it crossed my mind that I might have found the ideal partner for the journey. His work ethic was rather evident, but subtle things like independent-mindedness and discipline were quite clear to me. Instinctively, I knew those qualities were necessary for entrepreneurial ventures. At the time, Theo and I had been acquaintances for a little over a year, but I started being more intentional about our friendship. We would have long brainstorming sessions, from new types of communication platforms to payment processors (around 2013, before fintech became a hot thing). We would often create prototypes and sometimes register actual corporations.

Around the summer of 2015, Theo reached out to me and asked if I would join him on something he was working on. He had built a music streaming app ("Yeyote") for a Rwandan audience and thought we could get some users as there was nothing similar at the time (Spotify became available in East Africa around 2020). Although I was enrolled in a Chemistry Ph.D. program and had little spare time, this was an opportunity I didn't want to pass on. So, I joined immediately and focused on the music licensing part. In a few months, we had contacted all the top artists in Rwanda and had the legal rights to have their songs on the app. As a result, we created the most extensive online collection of Rwandan music and acquired several thousands of users.

The music app didn't become the success we had hoped for. Embarrassingly, I left after a year in what was arguably a naive and selfish move. However, through Yeyote, I came to trust and respect Theo even more. For instance, I pride myself on my work ethic, but while working on Yeyote, at some point, I questioned whether Theo was human at all. This guy would work non-stop for several hours while I felt like every organ in my body was collapsing. Moreover, after I left Yeyote, Theo kept working on it for over a year and made real progress. It's brutal to work on a startup as a team; so, going that long by himself was quite a testament to his determination and resilience. Following that collaboration, we teamed up on a few more successful projects, including the global crypto arbitrage of late 2017 / early 2018 which we capitalized on in a way few people did.

Fast forward today, Theo is joining me as a co-founder of Vanoma. The discussion has been taking place for several months and only materialized a couple of weeks ago. I am thrilled that he decided to join. In late 2018, when I was starting the predecessor of Vanoma, I flew to Nashville, TN, for a week and tried to convince him to join me to no avail (later, I found that it was terrible timing). I feel fortunate because Theo strongly believes in the mission of Vanoma that he has already left his highly comfortable job in Seattle, WA, and moved to Rwanda to work on Vanoma full-time. I made the same move a couple of years ago, and I understand how difficult of a decision it is. Besides joining now, I wouldn't have made as much progress on Nisawa without Theo's help. When things got tough, I would reach out, and he never disappointed me. For that, I can say with no exaggeration that it's a lifetime opportunity to embark on this journey with Theo and that our odds of success are as good as they can get.

Up to this point, the scope of my responsibilities was so broad to include designing and building the products, hiring the staff, daily management, acquiring customers, and handling complex customer support issues, to name a few. It was almost impossible to focus on something for a long time without many other things going badly. With Theo joining full-time, I will focus on operations, marketing, and sales while he leads product design and development. As an ambitious technology company, this separation of responsibilities is natural and critical to Vanoma's long-term success. Having been creating and monetizing tech products for the last two years, I have a pretty good understanding of the market and the challenges involved in building a tech company in Rwanda, from operations to marketing and sales. Similarly, Theo's credentials for product development are unquestionable as he has been a software engineer at various leading technology companies, from YC startups to Adobe and, most recently, Amazon.

Theo and I firmly believe that the timing is right for Africa. Key foundational blocks, namely internet penetration, smartphone adoption, and digital payments, have been laid already. With the COVID-19 lockdowns, any person saw first-hand the power of online services. Things previously done almost exclusively in the physical world are done equally well or even better by clicking a button on a smartphone. Among the many exciting opportunities, we have chosen to create technologies that enable sellers to reach and serve the rapidly increasing online audience. We want Vanoma to become the place any person wanting to become an online seller comes and finds all the things they need to start selling and growing their online business, from shipping and payment integrations to analytics and marketing tools. We believe in a future where sellers have full visibility, direct access to their end customers, and options for any service they use. Vanoma will be more of an ecosystem with many third-party integrations via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) as opposed to a platform offering a single option for every service. In doing so, we hope to equip sellers with the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century.

-- Anselme Mucunguzi