How Kenya’s Ongair Goes Global with Enterprise Messaging Intergrator

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Ongair CEO Trevor Kimenye (Left) and CTO Charles Gichuki
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Ongair CEO Trevor Kimenye (Left) and CTO Charles Gichuki

Let me introduce you to two brilliant people and their simple yet convenient solution. Meet Ongair CEO and CTO, Trevor Kimenye who defines these traditional roles a bit differently. “I am the Chief Errand Officer, where I basically run around and make things happen, look for investors and be the face of the company.” He is also the CTO being a software engineer for about 10 years.

Charles Gichuki picks up from there explaining his role at Ongair. “When Trevor is off being famous, I deal with operations. I make sure everybody has a desk and a chair and a computer to work on. I have also been doing the design work for a long time, the website, marketing material. For some time I was also the CTO, Chief Traction Officer, doing the growth hacking, making sure there is traffic on the site and converting that to sales.” This is the duo that co-founded Ongair, which offers companies a social customer service experience by using Whatsapp and recently WeChat, among other messaging platforms in the future.

Ongair, a team of eight has 515 clients signed up currently, spread across 40 countries. It is clearly a global company, with 70% of its users coming from overseas, specifically Brazil, Netherlands, India with only 23 % usage here in Kenya. According to Trevor, they are at the growth stage of the company. “We have put in blood and sweat into this company,” says Charles. They base their solution on Whatsapp which is widely used globally, but have also recently launched on WeChat use to expand into the Asian market, especially China where it is most popular. “Although it is not yet complete, we have raised about $125,000 in our seed round, which is essentially just for growth. Investors are coming in when we already have a product and market, so it’s just about growing.” says Trevor.

Met at a Hackathon

Some of you might not know what Ongair is. Here is the story of how it all began to make things a bit clearer for you. Trevor and Charles met at a Hackathon 4 years ago. “We met at a Hackathon where we had to build something in 48 hours. When I saw Trevor’s team, I decided to join them. They had a complicated idea and he (Trevor) seemed like a hard core programmer, so I knew I could learn a lot from them.” Recalls Charles.

They must have hit it off at that point because they went on to start Sprout Digital Agency, which Trevor explains aimed to make useful stuff out of the Internet. “The Internet is full of cat videos and memes but we wanted focus on utility, especially focusing on helping companies make use of the Internet.”

They did this for about 4 years and came up with a number of different solutions. Charles reminded us of a saying that for every 10 startups, 9 have failed. “We have had around 7 failures between us.” He says. They built a myriad of things over the years, from an online card game, to a social network for pubs and an emailing software (like Mail Chimp) but they always said that when one of the things they created took off, then they will close everything off and focus on it, and that is what happened when they made Ongair.

Client Project

“It started off as a client project last year after Valentine’s Day. Chase Bank had been our client for a while. We did their blog as well as being their digital think tank, where we could come up with ideas of what they could do. They were running some fundraising campaign after Valentine’s where people would contribute via M-PESA. The confirmation SMS that they got from M-PESA, we thought, seemed a bit too impersonal. We wanted to send something more personal. Since we had the contributor’s phone numbers, we decided to use Whatsapp. Once we got an SMS from Safaricom that someone has made a donation, we check if they have Whatsapp. If they did, then we would send a pic of a rose saying thank you. We did it and they were happy about it and then asked if we could implement this in their customer service, since they have a lot of clients overseas and this would make contacting them easier.” Recalls Trevor.

So they went on and built a dashboard, which they described as ugly (at the time) but functional. This was where you could receive messages and reply to them. Trevor admits that it took some time to explain to Charles what that thing could do. Chase really found it useful and took it up and started rolling it out to its customers. Trevor and Charles then did a mini launch for Ongair, followed by a 3 month beta testing period. They then started accepting customers from around the world at the beginning of this year.

Expectations for Ongair

Once you start something, it is normal to have big ideas for how it’s going to work and the direction it takes. Many startup founders that I have interacted with say that the way they expected their solution to be used isn’t necessary what happens. This is what happened to Ongair.

“When we started, we wanted to close a couple of Telcos and banks, thinking that was where the money was. We found out that the sale cycle could last up to 6 months. There are people we have met almost 5 times. They tell us that they are impressed and would like to buy in, then they introduce you to their compliance team. This now leads to a string of more interviews, asking for many forms, even your mother’s birth certificate!” Charles says jokingly.

That is when they decided to go online with their sales, reducing the long sale cycles to simple, no-touch online sign up. This also opened up their business to the global market, who seemed more receptive to the technology. Going global presents its own kind of problems as Trevor explains, “Running an online sale model from here is tricky. We want to use Stripe to do our online payments but it is not available in Kenya, or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. However Kenya isn’t so bad. We get some breaks for example, not having to pay VAT for software export. Plus our runway here is longer because our costs are not like Silicon Valley in terms of cost of talent and office space.”

They also have to work around different time zones. “Our day starts at 8 and by this time, our clients in India are having lunch and have already sent us support tickets. We work on those and relax until around 4 pm where South America is up and sending us their support tickets. We understand that customer care is 24hrs so we try to keep up.” Says Trevor. Charles also adds that they eat their own food, not in the literal sense however. “We use Zendesk and Ongair to be able to reply to a ticket assigned to you from wherever you are, whatever the device. We have a primary support team but everybody can do it, even Trevor”

Unique Product

“It is easier to sell to someone in Brazil compared to Kenya. You just send them an overview of the solution and they say that is what they are looking for. Doing the same here, you get a lot of questions like, what is it? How does it work? Why is it so expensive? It is much easier selling it in other countries where Zendesk penetration is high or they have similar productivity tools,” says Charles.

They said that the uptake by first time adopters is low. They also believe that they have had to rewrite a lot of code on the website because they were thinking way ahead of the consumer. “We had to re-position it to where people are,” says Trevor. Something that really helped their cause however, was Whatsapp for Web.

“When it came up, my phone went crazy with people telling me that it is the end of my business. I didn’t see it that way because now people understood what it was like to get your Whatsapp messages on your computer, which was the biggest barrier we had. Sometimes you need something big to happen for people to understand what you are doing,” says Trevor.

 6-9 Months ahead of competitors globally

‘This thing is so good, so you guys are the resellers for a US company?’ Sometimes it is just easier to say yes because if we say no, they get cautious and start asking who we are…”

They keep track of their competition and they are clearly a cut above the rest, as Trevor explains. “Wasify from Spain are doing the same thing but only on Whatsapp. Grata also provides the same service but on WeChat. We are the only aggregator worldwide as we offer both Whatsapp and recently WeChat, with plans to add more. Additionally, feature-wise, we are about 6-9 months ahead of the competition.” Charles also adds that they are the only WeChat-to- Zendesk and Whatsapp-to-Zendesk integrator globally.

It is not a surprise then that some people think that they are just reselling a US product here. “After presenting our product, they say ‘This thing is so good, so you guys are the resellers for a US company?’ Sometimes it is just easier to say yes because if we say no, they get cautious and start asking who we are, how big our team is and even our birth certificates!” says Trevor laughingly.

Working with open APIs is something that they do carefully. Developing for platforms you have no control over can be risky. “We have steered away from the core of what those platforms do because once they see that your product is gaining traction, they will probably want it. Twitter saw Meerkat, which is based on Twitter and soon Periscope came by and they made it harder to work on Twitter APIs. Its definitely risky but that is part of business.” Charles says that they mitigate that risk by being an aggregator. “For a long time we only had Whatsapp but being able to add WeChat and in future adding Viber, Line, Kik who have open APIs and are friendly to developers building stuff on top of them gives us a buffer against that risk. When one shuts down, we still have more on board.”

Parting Shot

Ongair is at a crucial stage in development where all it needs to do now is grow. According to Trevor they have not yet been profitable yet, but they are bringing in quite a lot of revenue. For growth to happen, several things have to go right. One thing is the team. “For a team to work, you need the 3 H’s , that is the Hacker, who makes the product, Hustler, who make the deals happen and Hipster, who makes everything look good and pretty. Charles and I do a couple each. He can do Hipster and Hustler while I can do Hacker and Hustler. We do not have specific roles and we respect each others work.” says Trevor.

Another thing to be keen about if finding the right people to invest in your company. According to Trevor,  not everyone with money should just be able to. “There are people we turn down just because the first thing they say to us is that we are doing this whole thing wrong and that they will show us how its done.” Another thing that he points out is that the money they ask for is too much for angel investors and too little for VCs. Additionally VCs require them to join their accelerator, which they do not want to because they have been running their company for 4 years. “Our investors now are angels who have have high net worth and people from our own connections. Two of them include my mother, who invested $5000 and my former high school lecturer, who put in $10,000,” says Trevor.

Next year should be big for Ongair as they do their Series A funding then and going into the Asian market with WeChat aggregation. We will keep tabs on them and update you fine people on how they continuously grow and build their product globally.

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