by Craig Taylor
I can’t remember the day I decided I’d like to start a company…
I left Strathclyde University with a BSc Computer Science and went straight into a services company called Charteris to sell IT consultancy. This was right at the start of the recession in 2008, being my own boss didn’t seem like a realistic option then. It certainly didn’t during some very tough years as a sales executive fighting for every piece of business we brought in during 2008 - 2011. Looking back, the experience I gained during that time was vital, times of austerity really make you realise how to help customers and businesses get more from the investment they make in technology (and they make you justify it!).
As the economic outlook started to improve and customers started doing stuff again, a high point for me was Charteris’ recognition as Microsoft UK Partner of the Year in 2011, we were a close team with outstanding technical skills and we ended up receiving the award in L.A at Microsoft WPC. I turned 26 that week and the irony wasn’t lost on me as I partied away in the famous Whisky a Go Go with Bran Van 3000 - Drinking in LA, playing in the background, life couldn’t have been much better.
So much happened between 2008 - 2013 I don’t think it would fit on this blog, but in summary I learned partnering and working together is really effective, an incredible amount about how to do business from my managers and mentors, Roger Woods and Barry Milligan and all the Charteris staff plus most importantly, incredible things can happen if you apply technology in the right way and work with great people.
I guess what prompted this post was being back at Microsoft UK Headquarters, Reading, around 12 months on from the first signs there may be a viable business offering for Cojengo (we weren’t called that at the time, in fact Cojengo seemed like a distant dream).
It was in February 2013, sitting in almost the exact position I am now, I read this article - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-21325535 and had (for the first time in my life!) a lightbulb moment. Could I bring a project I’d worked on as student helping farmers in East Africa, coupled with industry experience and an understanding of how Microsoft operates, to market and make a business devoted to creating and selling mobile apps?
It was a question I asked myself for a long time, having never started a company before, I didn’t know where to begin. The first thing I knew was I couldn’t update/re-write the app myself, my coding skills were always terrible and they had only gotten worse since leaving uni, so I sounded my great friends and now colleagues (CTO and Product Lead), Iain and Sami out about the idea. I think we were all in the same position, having studied together and been fortunate enough to have found steady employment since graduating, it was a tough call to do something unknown, but we were all getting a little bored of the routine and familiarity of the jobs we really enjoyed but felt there was more out there.
Given it took a while to pluck up the courage for the three of us to decide we would start up, it didn’t take very long to get Cojengo going and moving in the right direction. The BBC article served as a catalyst and gave us the confidence there was a big technology player investing in the areas where we would need support. I mailed Microsoft Africa and was introduced to Ivan Lumala, the CTO of Microsoft 4Afrika initiatives. He’s supported us for over a year now as we make progress in developing our business in East Africa. The 4Afrika initiative is great as it really ties in with our shared principles and goals.
The next step was to get some advice about the practicalities of starting the company and some investment. Somewhat foolishly I had expected us to be able to build the business off customer sales, no investment required, but given we still had a lot of work to do finalising the product, validating the design and acquiring our first set of paying customers, we needed help!
Naturally I returned to Strathclyde University, which had won UK University of the Year the previous year but followed that up with Entrepreneurship University of the year…it seemed like a sensible place to start as an alumni. They had been busy since I left…
Through the Strathclyde Entrepreneurial Network (SEN) we set about establishing ourselves. We became formally involved with SEN through the Rising Star programme and were introduced to the Gabriel Investment Syndicate, who provided our seed investment funding along with Scottish Investment Bank. We’ve received fantastic public and private sector support over the last 6 months including Scottish Enterprise, Business Gateway, Gabriel, Microsoft and Strathclyde University.
Fast forward to August 2014 from the day we completed on the investment deal (just before Christmas eve 2013, the best Christmas present!), we’ve made steady progress finalising our product, VetAfrica, and establishing customer relationships in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania. It has been a crazy and enthralling ride, having had the opportunity to do stuff I simply wouldn’t have before…from meeting the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, to appearing on national radio and being interviewed at Microsoft WPC in Washington this year by Clare Barclay during the UK Keynote. Sometimes it all seems a bit surreal, not to mention the great experiences we’ve had travelling and working in Africa this year, we’ve learned and experienced so much I genuinely think it has changed the Cojengo team for the better.
Sometimes it feels as though everything has come full circle and we all reflect now with no regrets…this is just the beginning!
To try and answer the question of where it all began…I don’t know…to me it has been more like lots of small moments that have led from one thing to another and now I’m living and breathing Cojengo every day.