Who doesn’t love to be rewarded with a freebie? Whether it’s a cup of coffee, extra fries, or even an air travel upgrade, customer loyalty programs are a fun way to be spoiled by the shops, restaurants, or brands we love. Three young technology entrepreneurs, based in Accra, are now making it even easier for merchants to encourage their patrons’ support through their innovative bespoke customer loyalty app, Loystar ... and they’re not stopping there.
Tash Morgan-Etty visited Loystar where it all started, at the Meltwater Entrepreneurship School of Technology (MEST), and chatted to the company’s CEO, Ayo Dawodu, Head of Business Development & Sales, Paul Damalie, and Chief Technical Officer, Laud Bruce Tagoe, about their journey into the tech space, and what the future might look like for us all. One thing’s for certain, if these guys have anything to do with it, it’ll be a bright one.
What's the Loystar 'elevator pitch'?
Ayo: Loystar is a merchant facing loyalty app that allows merchants to easily design and run their loyalty programs.
What drew you each to tech?
Ayo: I’ve pretty much always been in the [tech] space. When I was young I generally went toward the science side of things. If I had a broken toy, I would try to repair it using scrap materials, like a tube of toothpaste, bottle tops, etc. I was generally always tinkering with things. So, that’s where it started, and when it was time to go to uni I discovered that computers were really cool, and I studied Computer Science. I finished my Masters degree in 2012, and went on to developing websites for small businesses; doing marketing and those kinds of things. I heard about MEST at the end of 2013, but their applications weren’t open. I applied when applications opened again the next year and got in.
Paul: My journey, and finding myself in tech, started on almost the same path as Ayo. As a child I was tinkering with things, but a lot of it came from my general curiosity. I would watch science programs on TV. I also read a lot. So, all these things exposed me [to technology], and in junior high and secondary school I studied science. After high school I had an opportunity to work with an insurance firm, where I was hired as a sales executive. That’s where I thought, 'moving forward [from here] I should flip the story'. So, I decided to study business, and I focused on banking and finance. During that time I got some entrepreneurial exposure by working with my mentor who had a distribution company. We were distributing deodorants that we got from Singapore. I had my first failure experience with that, ‘cause we didn’t figure things out and we lost money. It was around the same time that I discovered MEST, and made friends here, and hung out here until I finished my degree and could apply.
Bruce: My journey into was more a matter of survival. In my first year of university, studying Political Science, I needed to find a way to take care of myself and my expenses. At the time internet cafes were not really popular in our area, so I figured I could start one. At that time I didn’t know a lot about computers, but I knew a guy who was into computers. So, we partnered. He had the tech experience, and I was more into business. It didn’t work out. In the first six months we didn’t make any money. So, the guy took all his computers away, and I had just one computer left to depend on, but I realized this is something I wanted to do. So, I started working on it, buying sub-screen computers, learning how to fix computers, and eventually I became very good at it. After university, I actually got a tech job training people in IT as a private tutor. I worked there for two years; working with hardware. My curiosity got me thinking, 'OK, so I know hardware. How can I get into software?' One day I saw an advert in the newspaper for MEST, and it seemed like a good opportunity to learn software.
How has being based in Accra influenced your business?
Paul: Accra is a very cosmopolitan city; more so than, for example, Lagos. It’s a relaxed city. People come here because they feel safer and find it easier to do things. Over here people are generally open and welcoming. There are the up sides of that and the down sides of it. The up side is that you can literally walk into anywhere, and start a conversation with someone. They don’t have a bias or anything of that sort. For example, the way we are acquiring customers at the moment is really sales heavy, and we can walk into a restaurant and say, 'Can I speak to the boss?', and if the boss is available they are open to talk, or if not we can speak to someone else with that responsibility. That’s the upside of it. The downside is that, because people are so nice, if they don’t like your product they won’t tell you straight away. They can just waste your time and keep you going back and forth, back and forth. Instead of saying, 'No, thank you.' That’s the downside.
Ayo: I’m Nigerian and I’ve spent two years in Ghana. I can say it’s more beneficial to have Loystar started in Ghana. It’s easier to do business here; it actually costs less to do business in Ghana than in Lagos; and for that reason I’d much rather start Loystar here than in Nigeria.
What changes would you like to see in Accra in terms of IT?
Bruce: Internet reliability, ‘cause with most of the ventures we’ve visited their internet connection is really poor. For the way Loystar works most of the communication between the venture and the consumer is internet based. If there’s no internet, the messages are not sent out. So, the general reliability of internet needs to be improved.
Paul: I think education is another. If people can read and write, then they can be exposed. They can go onto the internet and have access to information, and research something to be able to understand a concept that is foreign to them. It’s happening… more and more Ghanaians are returning, and we want more of that ‘cause they open up peoples’ eyes, and they begin to adopt new cultures. For example, restaurants here formally wouldn’t be too concerned about customer service, and now that is changing ‘cause you have foreigners come in and they are demanding good service. Now competition is becoming tighter and tighter, and you have to set yourself aside. So those that we go to speak to understand the value of what we’re offering, and we hope they will adopt our offering. So, yes, education, exposure and access to information.
Ayo: I would like the government to see ICT as one of the driving forces of the economy. Nigeria is getting there, but in Ghana the government needs to be more proactive and encourage startups, and encourage agents to make sure that the needed infrastructure is available, like internet. We, at Loystar, have had to make sure that our solution is not totally dependent on it. So, even if there’s no good internet, it’ll still save whatever information [has been entered], and at the end of the day when you get connected everything gets sent. So, we’re trying to make do with the situation, and make sure it doesn’t affect us really, but if the right structures were available it would be very helpful.
Where are your usual hangouts in Accra?
Paul: I love Republic for their drinks and food, especially their pork and yam chips. Also, in A&C Mall there’s a lady who’s actually one of the merchants using our app. She’s called Zeno and she makes yogurt parfait. She mixes it up with fruit, berry sauce, and it’s really nice. You should try that sometime!
Ayo : I also like Republic. I like the vibe you get when you are there, and I’ve done karaoke there and I enjoy that experience.
Bruce: I like to go to a beach resort near Accra and eat fresh seafood.
Back to business… What's the biggest challenge you've encountered in business so far?
Paul : At the moment our product is more of an after sales thing. We need to rethink that so that it comes closer to being at the core of the business. We need drivers of the product. It’s fine to speak to the owner of the business, they understand the value and we sell it to them, but if the staff or the waiter doesn’t see the need to interact with the customer and deliver excellent customer service, and they don’t engage, then they basically just kill the product. So, our challenge is to bring Loystar into the forefront, and the core of the business, by having drivers who push the product. We’re working on how to do that.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in terms of business/entrepreneurship?
Ayo: The best advice I’ve learned is 'fail fast'. If you know you’re going to fail, fail fast and learn from it, because time is valuable. You don’t want to be working on something and at the end of it it’s not going to happen. It’s good if you know early on that it’s not going to work. So, as much as possible, and as fast as possible, 'fail fast.'
Paul : Mine goes beyond business. This is a general life lesson. Basically, 'don’t expect everything to be the way you planned it.' There’s what you planned and what actually happens. You should have that in mind, because it helps to give you perspective.
Bruce: Mine is simpler… 'Hard work pays'. Put in the hours, and be smart about it. Eventually it pays off.
What do you think are some of the biggest tech trends that will shape the next 5-10 years?
Paul: I definitely think that one of the biggest things that will change is how payments will happen. That will be based off what the big movers in the industry are doing. Right now everybody is trying to move payments towards mobile. So, Apple has iPay; Google is working on their system of payment; some handset manufacturers are working on theirs. The whole idea is that we move away from card-based payments and towards mobile payments. Africa has done well with this. A lot of us use mobile money, and it’s gradually growing. It will take a bit of time ‘cause there are all sorts of external factors, but I think mobile payments will be a big deal.
The other big global tech trend I see is the concept of a shared economy. Products that have come out with this are, for example, Air BnB and Uber. Because of the limitation on resources worldwide technologies are building solutions that maximize value. So, for example, instead of everyone having a car, let one person own the car and we all share it. I think a lot of that will happen in different kinds of ways. It’s already happening with transportation, it’s happening with hospitality, and it will happen in many other sectors, because resources are not in abundance.
Ayo: It may sound futuristic, but I think 'ambient intelligence' will become more common. For example, if you walk into a room and the light goes on, or the AC is set to the temperature you prefer. That’s ambient intelligence. You are beginning to see it, and I think in the next 5 to 10 years it will be very prevalent.
Bruce: I think there will be more use of Blockchain. Blockchain was associated with Bitcoin where it was used to assign digital currency, and track transactions across multiple sources using digital signatures. But now Blockchain is being taken out of crypto currency, and being applied in other sectors. It could be used wherever you want to decentralize access, but still allow peers to monitor what is going on. I think a lot of people are trying to move in that direction, including big corporations like IBM, Microsoft, etc. They are all trying to support this shift. So, I think in the next five years there will be a big shift towards this kind of decentralized management, where you can track everyone’s digital signatures and know where it’s moved from and where it ended. You don’t need a central body to monitor that movement, because everybody has a signature. So, for example, if you applied this to health, you could have a number of different hospitals come together to form a digital network where each patient’s file has a digital signature. Then the patient wouldn’t have to go to the same hospital every time, but their information could still be monitored. Your movement becomes freer, and the information is shared faster and becomes more accessible. It doesn’t have to always go through one source to authorize everything that happens.
What do the next 5-10 years hold for Loystar?
Ayo: In the next five years we want to become a pan-African company that provides not just loyalty solutions, but retail intelligence, on markets across Africa. In ten years we’ll even be doing that on a larger scale. You will probably be seeing us in Asia, because we are starting to see downloads of the product outside Africa, and it’s without marketing to them. So, it’s possible that if this trend continues we can move out of Africa, and focus on Asia or South America.
Paul: One idea we’ve been tinkering around with is, once we get a sizeable number of merchants, that you could make a purchase in let’s say Accra, but redeem those points in Lagos… a pan-African loyalty network. It would connect Africa, make things easier, and reduces costs, especially of travelling within Africa.
What advice would you give to your fellow youth in terms of ways they can harness their creative, quick-turnaround ways to make money (AKA the “hustle”), to become tech savvy entrepreneurs like yourselves?
Ayo: I’m not really a fan of people dropping out of school. Whether or not you enjoy your chosen course of study, I would still encourage you to complete uni. University teaches you how to learn, and sometimes how to unlearn things, and prepares you for any field you desire to go into in the future. If you don’t know how to learn, and you try to enter another field, you will still not make any headway ‘cause you don’t know the fundamentals of learning. Once you’re out of school, it comes back to my favourite lesson in business, which is 'fail fast'. Now that you know how to learn, try things. Try to make it happen. Don’t overthink… “analysis paralyses.” It happens a lot when you try to get every bit in place, and you’re not actually doing anything. The moment you think of [a business idea] be thinking of your next line of action. People recognize those who take action, not those who think or write about what they think. So, you want to always take actions and learn from that, because that in itself is valuable.
Paul : One thing I learned when I started getting exposed to tech, and business in general, is that if you have an opportunity to connect to someone new (no matter who they are) do so. Even if you are totally unrelated to them, keep that connection, ‘cause you never know when that connection might help you in the future. If you are a hustler you always need people to move to the next level, so don’t lose sight of even the smallest connections you might make. That’s how I’ve been able to get to where I am now. It’s because of these connections I’ve picked, nurtured, and grown over time. All of that has a hustle mentality engrained in it.
Bruce : My best advice would be to develop yourself. Especially in tech, there’s a lot of opportunities going on, and you don’t want to wait for someone to come and tell you what to do. So, know what’s going on and develop yourself in that direction. For example, I decide to started an internet café without help, but I learnt on the job, and by one year I was even fixing my computers and taking jobs from people fixing their computers. So, put in the hours and make sure you develop that skill. It’s skill that will make you thrive in the tech environment, because people will pay you for that skill. Once you develop yourself, and are very good at what you are doing, you can make money off it. So, essentially, make sure you are independent and develop your skill to a point where people will pay for it.
All the information you might need on the Meltwater Entrepreneurship School of Technology (MEST) can be found on their website.