BY TOM JACKSON
In this new age of remote working, and remote entrepreneurship, South African online community Startup Circles may have got ahead of the game.
Launched to help entrepreneurs launch and raise capital, Startup Circles guides people through the ideation, validation and fundraising phases of running a business.
“We provide weekly guidance and accountability, monthly webinars and coaching sessions aimed at helping aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs to make progress in their ventures. We have world-class mentors and experts who help people launch businesses quickly and cost effectively,” founder Sandras Phiri told Disrupt Africa.
Startup Circle was launched to address three main challenges for entrepreneurs.
“Firstly, we found that aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs spend too much money and time building products that nobody buys. Secondly, we also found that world-class coaching and mentorship from people who have actually built startups was very expensive and hard to access,” Phiri said.
Thirdly, it is hard to access potential investors unless via an introduction from a trusted source.
“Startup Circles was built to democratise access to the circles of founders, mentors and investors so that anybody with a great idea should have a fair shot at building a company, whether they were in Cape Town or Lilongwe,” said Phiri.
The platform’s main competition are other communities that offer mentorship and incubation, but Phiri said Startup Circles’ key selling point is that it does not restrict membership so as to serve thousands of people at the same time.
“Our membership is open to all African countries. Our bringing together founders and entrepreneurs from different countries creates a cross-pollination of ideas and execution that cannot be replicated when working in one geographical location. So far we have mentors from Silicon Valley, Europe, China, Australia and Africa,” he said.
The platform was initially bootstrapped, but has now secured a key partnership with Enygma Ventures, the US-based VC firm founded by award winning entrepreneurs Sarah and Jacob Dusek that last year launched a fund with a focus on investing in women entrepreneurs in the SADC region.The fund made its first investment earlier this month, but Phiri is now likely to be even busier after Startup Circles was also named as partner in a ZAR20 million (US$1 million) fund to support African startups, entrepreneurs and innovators that are building solutions for the post-pandemic world.
Enygma Ventures is expecting to provide seed capital for 20-40 startups and provide mentoring, training and business validation scholarships through Startup Circles, boosting activity on the platform. But Phiri said uptake was already growing steadily.
“We spent all of the first quarter finishing the product development. We’re now focusing on customer acquisition and delivering lots of value to our members,” he said.
A fully online business, the Startup Circles team – including those at Enygma Ventures – extends across London, Cape Town and Johannesburg, and it has customers across the African continent. The platform charges a subscription fee to entrepreneurs, and is also rolling out short, paid accelerated programmes.
“We had the usual difficulties of iterating and refining the offering and trying to understand what customers really want. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic we decided to help out entrepreneurs who are in lockdown by offering free Startup Circles Friday Social events. These virtual learning and networking events which have been well received,” Phiri said.
COVID-19 may assist the company in providing validation for its model much earlier than it may have otherwise expected.