Tech firm finds niche in simplifying business processes for SMEs


It is not a must for a business to start with external funding for it to grow.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • The company has a team of 10 in Kenya, but hopes to double this number by the end of the year.
  • Applications they offer combine key processes such as communication, back office logistics and operations.

At the height of the pandemic, global software company Zoho, led by its regional director Ali Shabdar, officially launched its operations in Kenya after previously working for close to 10 years through various partners.

At the time, many businesses, especially SMEs, were in need of digital solutions to help them transition and adjust to the new normal. This offered an excellent opportunity for the IT company to expand its footprint.

“Being a technology and software service company, the pandemic gave us an added boost, compared to the rest of the market. While other markets were on pause, we were working more,” said Mr Shabdar during an interview with Powering SMEs.

He says their market entry strategy was simple. They would focus on providing tech solutions that would help businesses embrace new work models such as remote working and automation of work processes. Some of their applications would enable businesses to conduct meetings online, manage sales and inventory, among other tasks.

“The pandemic was a huge learning experience for us both internally, where we learnt to change our own processes, and externally, in terms of how fast we could respond to market changes and its requirements. We allocated more resources into upgrading our applications to make sure they were responsive enough to the needs of the SMEs,” noted Ali.

They would also focus on providing solutions that would abstract the complexities of running a business so that SMES could focus on the core business, which is making sales.

“These businesses already have a lot of bills to pay, then add on the complexity and high expense of technology. A SME owner needs to run their business, not to learn IT. The more time you spend on something, the more money you spend,” he noted.

The Zoho applications could combine key processes such as communication, collaboration, sales, marketing, accounting and back office, logistics and operations, business intelligence and automation in one platform, making them easy to use.

“Imagine a situation where you need to buy software from up to three different service providers, one for sales, one for accounting, one for emails... This would all be too hectic and expensive.”

To ensure their products were adopted when businesses had little to no cash flow, they opted to incentivise most of their products. For instance, they came up with a number of support-programmes which they offered to SMEs with up to 20 users, as part of the package.

They would sit with a SME to understand its needs and what they would like to achieve, then customise a solution to these needs. They would then offer free trials for the solution and once a business was satisfied that this was the solution they needed, they would then bill them on a monthly basis, according to the number of applications they signed up to, as well as number of people in the company who would be using them.

It was not very easy to onboard customers at the beginning because most of their software were still unfamiliar to many. However, through workshops and demos, they were able to get more customers.

Ali says the company has sold close to 50 applications to their customers to date, an achievement that has seen them grow. While happy with the growth that they have so far achieved, Ali believes that they have only just scratched the surface.

Currently, the company works with a team of 10 in Kenya, but hopes to double this number by the end of the year to meet the growing demand from customers and also to assist in developing more sophisticated software. They also plan to work with academia through trainings and workshops where they will coach scholars on digital adoption, observing that foundational work starts with education, and that the future is digital.

Advising SMEs and start-ups, Ali says that it is not a must for a business to start with external funding for it to grow. He says the right attitude and a provision of goods or services with a focus on the consumer, is enough to guarantee the growth and success of a business.

“This company has never accepted any external funding. It started with the founder’s savings, and it is completely bootstrapped. Indeed, it is possible to grow slowly and consistently,” he argues.


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