Success Story: Ben...

Ben Lyon - Kopo Kopo

Though he started off with dreams of working for the US government or a DC think tank, Ben Lyon (@bmlyon) quickly found himself an entrepreneur in East Africa thousands of miles away from home. It was a tough start- having spent a year and a half, pitching to over a hundred investors, but now, Kopo Kopo (@KopoKopoInc )has grown to service 15,000 businesses across Kenya and has already processed over a million transactions. 

In 2011, Kopo Kopo was among 25 finalists in the Pivot 25 (now Pivot East) mobile startup competition, and won the opportunity to incubate at m:lab’s East Africa iHub. At iHub, what began as a two-man team grew to 12 employees, and has now ballooned to staff of 50. Today, Ben and his team are looking to expand across East Africa and envision becoming the ‘business operating system’ in all emerging markets. 

1. What are the three things that help your creative process?

I try to pay attention to what’s happening around me, anticipate changes in the industry and continuously engage customers.

First, I always pay attention to what businesses put on their front doors, windows and check-out counters to try to understand their goals and priorities. If a business has a sticker that says “Visa Accepted Here,” they likely understand the costs of cash and are willing to accept other e-payment types as well. If they advertise a service like TripAdvisor or Yelp, they’re likely conscious of their reputation and want to build relationships with their customers. Those are just a few things you can pick up at a glance.

At the industry level, I try to keep up with 300+ blogs and websites every day – not to mention social media – to understand the latest trends and anticipate changes. The payments industry moves at a frightening pace, so anticipating the future can mean the difference between relevance and oblivion.

Finally, we try to start every process from the perspective of our customers. We engage our customers to understand their needs and solicit their feedback on wire frames and proposed features. If customers don’t value or understand a feature we’re designing, we start over. Oftentimes, we choose to build or prioritize features in response to customer requests.

2. Why is it so hard to start a business in your community?

East Africa’s tech ecosystem has tremendous potential, but it’s still nascent. As one of the earlier players in the ecosystem, we’ve stumbled over various obstacles that have since been lowered or removed as a result of the ecosystem coming together. For example, we pitched 100+ investors over the course of 1.5 years to raise our first equity round. The same process might only take 6-9 months now.

When we talk of a ‘Silicon Savannah,’ we mean a mature ecosystem in which successful entrepreneurs invest in and mentor fellow entrepreneurs and in which students are given the confidence, support and tools they need to pursue their ambitions. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there. In the meantime, we’ll all have to keep stubbornly navigating the ‘teething pains’ of the ecosystem.

3. What did you want to do when you were younger?

Co-founding a tech company in East Africa was never a part of my plan. Instead, I always thought I’d work for the government or a think tank in Washington, D.C. That said, I count myself incredibly lucky to have stumbled into this opportunity – it’s been the best period of my life.

4. Who was your biggest inspiration while starting out, and what did his or her support mean to you?

I studied Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank and Iqbal Qadir of Grameenphone while in college. I was fascinated by their tenacity and resourcefulness and wanted to do similar work.

Other than bumping into him on a street in New York City, I’ve never had a conversation with Muhammad Yunus. I did meet Iqbal Qadir in Nairobi, though, and was thrilled he was familiar with our work.

5. If you had to do it all-over again would you be an entrepreneur?

Yes. In fact, I’d start sooner. Many of my teammates are in their late teens and early twenties, and I’m inspired by the possibilities ahead of them. I never dreamed I’d be doing what I’m doing, but I’m grateful it’s worked out this way.

6. How long did it take to come up with the name?

I co-founded Kopo Kopo with Dylan Higgins and Tom Bostelmann in 2010. Tom and I had recently spent a month together in Freetown, Sierra Leone, so we proposed the name “kobboh kobboh” (Krio slang for “money”) during a brainstorming session. We all liked the sound, but thought would be a long website, so we shortened it to “Kopo Kopo.”

In Swahili, the word “kopo” is often associated with a loan. We thought we’d come up with something fun and meaningless, but customers in Kenya tell us it makes sense!

7. Why did you want to get into the mobile money industry?

Dylan, Tom and I were all fascinated by mobile money, especially with regard to how it could impact the microfinance industry. We initially wanted to help microfinance institutions lower their operating costs by leveraging mobile money, but pivoted away from microfinance in 2011 to focus on SMEs in general. After operating from a basement in Seattle, Washington for a few months, we packed our bags and moved to Nairobi, Kenya in late 2010 to start building services on top of M-PESA.

8. How did CNN take notice in you?

I’m not sure, really. Kenya’s received tremendous press because of M-PESA and the ‘Silicon Savannah’ and we happen to sit between the two. That said, I think we were in the right place at the right time.

9. What does the future hold?

We now service ~ 15,000 businesses throughout Kenya and recently processed our 1,000,000th transaction. But that’s just the beginning. Our vision is to become the “business operating system” for SMEs in emerging markets. In the coming months, we’ll be releasing a suite of new tools to help our customers better make and receive payments, access capital and build relationships with their customers.

10. Tell us something someone may not know about you.

I’m actually not a techie. I studied Economics in college but didn’t do that well, especially in econometrics and statistics. And now I’m working with a tech company in East Africa, which is at the same time a little bizarre and a little fantastic.

Ben Lyon is one of the co-founders of Kopo Kopo, Inc, a merchant services platform available to banks, mobile network operators and 3rd parties worldwide. Prior to co-founding Kopo Kopo, Ben studied Economics and International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he specialized in informal economics and microfinance.

Ben has served various roles while with Kopo Kopo – from product management to business development to international expansion. He is currently focused on building new products and partnerships to accelerate the growth of the business. Ben moved to Nairobi, Kenya in November 2010. 

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