The Underdogs: A MarketForce Story
Startup founders are the type of people who find motivation when there is no predictable path to follow, the odds of success are low, and they have to take personal responsibility for failure. On their entrepreneurial journey, the hurdle they consistently face is ‘NO’. No, this idea won’t work. No, you are too young. No, you are too inexperienced. But, the underdog mindset is about being defiant. The underdog mindset is about turning disadvantages into advantages. It is about the possibility, It is about vision and self-belief.
The MarketForce journey is one of relentless ambition, and like many great startup stories, it involves two friends who met in college. In 2018, Tesh Mbaabu and Mesongo Sibuti conceived MarketForce, a sales force automation software company that offered real-time market visibility for consumer brands on the performance of their agents, products, and services. But the growth was slow; the sales cycle incredibly long; and venture capital funding elusive. Our founders bootstrapped for a year before finally convincing friends, family, and angels to inject $200K; most of them entering the foray of venture capital (VC) investing for the first time. Underdogs have grit, passion, and courage.
Covid-19 nearly killed our business. We lost most of our recurring revenue when the pandemic hit, and our largest client threatened to pull out, in favor of building the software internally to reduce costs. It dawned on us that the end was near unless we made a bold move. The founders informed our early investors about intentions to pivot from a SaaS company selling enterprise software to large FMCGs and Financial Service Providers to a B2B Marketplace directly serving neighborhood merchants and last-mile African communities by extension. A few of them warned us about making the pivot because e-commerce startups were known to be horrible cash-combusting businesses with no proven path to profitability. They didn’t believe that we could build brand equity or raise enough capital to compete with the incumbents. Despite the apprehension, some early-stage VCs committed to the underdog journey, one where we co-create a different future and bear no allegiance to the past.
This pivot got us into Y Combinator (YC). We knew we had too much to accomplish, too little time, and not enough expertise to pull it off. But we couldn’t attract the highest-ranked VCs, couldn’t hire the most sought-after engineers, and were constantly fighting to stay alive and prove we had what it takes. Before YC, most investors ignored us. But we understood one thing, we were at war and the battle was not only one of the ecosystems and business models, but also one for the merchant’s heart. We were the underdog, idea-rich but resource-poor.
In our four years of existence, MarketForce has faced two market downturns and almost died on three separate occasions. Yet the team has remained committed to serving our merchants despite pay cuts, and months of deferred pay on several occasions. Instead of deterring us, these adversities have kept us hungry and with our eyes firmly on the prize. In early 2021, with a business that resembled a ticking time bomb, we turned down an offer to sell a significant minority stake in the business to a market leader for $500K. Instead, we bet on ourselves and raised $2M later that year on the back of demonstrated early traction, followed by a record-setting Series A round in early 2022. We learnt an important lesson, market leaders have committees, and underdog teams have commitment.
We have always known that building a high-growth startup was going to be hard. But it’s been even harder to build whilst also facing a global pandemic and an economic downturn. Yet, we still believe it is worth it. We remain committed to reimagining a better future for neighborhood merchants and the communities they serve. We are indebted to the team for the personal sacrifices they have made in service of this mission. To our merchants for trusting us with their business, to our partners for their unwavering support, to our investors for backing our audacious vision; and to the ecosystem for encouraging us to lead from the front, we will make this journey count. The impact of what we stand for is too important not to. We are the underdogs.
Co-Authored by: Tesh Mbaabu and Muthoni Wachira