On Saturday, 4 August 2018, I attended a talk given by my business partner Masharty Tembo, at The Cape Quarter Lifestyle Village in Greenpoint, Cape Town, hosted by the Allan Gray Association. His talk was titled ‘Turning Ideas Into Problem Solving Products’ and during this talk, he eloquently broke down the ins and outs of business, entrepreneurship, startups, ideation and minimal viable products (i.e MVPs).
I had initially attended with the primary goal of showing support without any expectations of learning anything new, because I felt that I had a pretty good idea of what he was going to talk about, despite the fact that prior to the day of the presentation I had not heard him utter a single word from his talk, or seen a single slide from his slide deck. This confidence comes from the fact that the two of us have been in the battlefield of business together for the past 5 years, focusing our energy on multiple ventures from a diverse range of industries that include: education (Quweza), e-commerce (Fleekly), mobile app development (Simplimantis) and fintech (SimpliGive). In addition to our many adventures in the wonderful world of business, we have also been living together for almost 3 years now. Over this time we have worked on the same projects, attended the same events, met the same people, faced the same struggles, shared the same excitement, and made the same sacrifices, so it is not hard to believe why I didn’t think I would gain any significant new insights from his talk. I have literally either seen his face, read his texts or heard his voice every single day for the past 5 years of my life. However, to my surprise, he proved me wrong as he managed to give an extremely captivating presentation that kept me fully engaged throughout the entire 45 minutes that he was on stage.
During his talk I was reminded of the treacherous journey the two of us have been through over the past few years, the numerous risks we have taken, the many victories we have had, the countless losses that we have succumbed to and the many soldiers that have fallen by the wayside. It was a presentation that spurred within me feelings of joy, sadness, pride, and nostalgia. However, out of all the things that he said on the day, the one topic that really struck a chord with me was when he began to explain to the audience the importance of knowing why you are getting into business. He said that in whatever you do in life, you need to ask yourself the following question:
“What am I optimizing for?”
And the answer to this question will always help you determine the next move you make on your way towards your goals. In any endeavor that you undertake there will be a wide range of variables that you could be optimizing for, like money, time, performance, speed, relationships, experience, pleasure, and knowledge just to name a few, and out of the infinite list of variables in this somewhat unsolvable differential equation of life you need to decide what you are optimizing for, so that you are well equipped to make the tough decisions when the time inevitably arrives. Masharty then went on to say that when he looks back at the journey that we have had up until now, it is very clear that the two variables we have both prioritized over and above everything else are:
- Learning, and
- Personal growth
Regardless of whether we will succeed or fail, we know that at the very least we will come out with lessons learned and a wealth of new knowledge to carry us onto the next venture. It was at this point on that Saturday afternoon when I realized why Masharty and I have somehow managed to remain so tightly aligned over the years, and this is because we have both been optimizing for the same things for such a long period of time. Even when the situation seems dire and we literally have no idea who or what is going to come to our rescue, we still manage to pull through intact, time and time again.
When it comes to any sort of serious long-term relationship, whether it is business, platonic or intimate, it is extremely essential that you partner up with people that are optimizing for the same things as you, otherwise as soon as there is a situation that creates a fork in the road, there will be no guarantee whatsoever that you will both decide to take the same path going forward. And it is at this pivotal moment that relationships begin to break down. I can very easily recall two separate business relationships – with individuals that were supposedly good friends of mine – that went sour simply because we were optimizing for completely different variables. In the one situation, we were working on an online cleaning service for university students (way before SweepSouth and Domestly were even on the radar) however the person I had partnered up with was optimizing for money and speed, with the main intention of getting to market quickly, whereas I was optimizing for quality data and research, in order to make well-informed decisions. In the other case, it was a veteran friend of mine who I had partnered up with on multiple occasions in both academia and business, however, over time it was evident that he was optimizing for money, stability and short-term gain, whereas I was optimizing for independence and a long-term ROI. In both situations things rapidly fell apart, the business relationships failed and the – once solid – friendships quickly followed suit. To be honest, I was quite touched at the time, and to this day I still harbor a bit of resentment but now at least I have a much better understanding of why things turned out the way they did.
Ever since Masharty’s presentation I have made it a point to consciously ask myself “what am I optimizing for?” in whatever situation I find myself in, and as soon as I answer that question I am able to take actions and make decisions that I feel extremely confident and proud of, regardless of the outcome.
I know what I am optimizing for. Do you?