Mike Sharman chats to Musa Kalenga about challenges and opportunities in a business world that is busy trying to survive the COVID pandemic.
What do you call a person who has been a choreographer, events marketer, advertising guru, entrepreneur, a banking executive, and Facebook Africa representative, and who’s not even 40 yet? If you’re not out of breath, you call him Musa Kalenga.
Let’s take a slightly slower amble through that career trajectory.
Musa has always had to balance competing forces of creativity versus analytics all his life. He says he’s always been aware of that tension and feels that people like him, who are good at both, tend to become generalists. The trick is to find work that stimulates more than one part of your brain.
In Musa’s case, his parents supported his attempt to complete an actuarial science degree at Wits – a hyper specialised course that only held part of Musa’s attention. The thing is, he was also an accomplished dancer and choreographer, a business person with a secret passion for the arts. He started dancing at church (“that’s how I blended my parents into it”). At university, he started an events business, Monatefellaz, which started out holding theme parties in Braamfontein. “Doing it all” became untenable and he failed his first year.
Musa credits his parents’ insistence on completing projects with the fact that he went back to school – but chose a more general B.Comm degree while he tried to figure out where his passion lay.
He was also the chair of the youth advertising board of SA, so Monatefellaz morphed into an insights agency, as Musa saw what he considered to be “irresponsible marketing to young people with no accountability” by some brands he encountered. “It was the perfect storm in which to position a business around youth insights,” he says. “After the 2008 credit crisis, there was suddenly an awareness of not offering easy credit to young people, for example.”
The Brand Leadership Group acquired Monatefellaz when Musa was just 21, and he started to work there under the mentorship of Thebe Ikalafeng. “I had stalked him since my second year and told him I wanted to learn about the economics of branding.” This branch seemed to balance Musa’s creative and business interests.
The Zambian-born entrepreneur says at the time there was no real appreciation of what online marketing would soon become. After he and The Brand Leadership Group parted ways, Musa planned to go to Japan. Three weeks before he was due to leave, Sydney Mbele, who had just moved to Nedbank from SAB, asked him to join the bank. Musa eventually decided if he did not explore this corporate opportunity, he would regret it, and it would gain him excellent big business experience. Japan was cancelled.
Digital marketing in the mid-2000s was interesting. “We did some good social media marketing, won a Loerie for the Nedbank Cup, and did some ground-breaking things in new media…”
It wasn’t long before Musa had done what comes automatically to a business owner: aimed to make himself redundant, rather than focus on legacy building. He became bored because corporate is a sluggish beast that could not keep up with Musa’s speed – so he did his MBA (at 28) and decided he was ready to go back to entrepreneurship.
“And that’s when the email from Facebook landed in my inbox.”
Zuckerberg’s company was seeking a tech/marketing/entrepreneurial person. Musa fits the bill.
Musa says the tech giant was a “great learning experience”. He appreciated the difference in scale: 5 000 software engineers were employed in the US, as opposed to a maximum of 5-10 in any building in South Africa at any one time.
“For instance, the Nedbank App Suite launched when I was there, and version two launched 18 months after I left,” Musa recalls. “Facebook used to update 6-8 times a day.”
He found the conversation around black executives “superficial”, though. “Instead of strategising about how to increase the numbers of black execs, the conversation was around how to maintain our place.” Additionally, Musa had just had a son, and his family was seeing precious little of him. It was time to move on.
“I knew I wanted to create an opportunity for young software engineers and marketers to find a place where they could be inspired by the work that they do. But knew I wasn’t technical. I’m not a software developer.” He needed to collaborate with someone.
“In 2015 I got introduced to my now co-founder and partner Kola Olajide, who was the head of technology at the Africa Leadership University in Mauritius, and who is a techie through and through. We had the same vision. He realised there was a new opportunity for technologists and people in marketing and creative space to work cleverly together, without getting sucked up by big corporates.”
Musa says they wanted to find problems they were passionate about and try to solve them. “The temptation is to call yourself an edtech or fintech company, but we didn’t want to stay in a lane. We wanted to go with the industry-agnostic approach, recognising that African problems are different to solve.”
BridgeLabs was born. Its first product was called Minute, created to enable small enterprises to create Google ads in under two minutes. “We learned how to make a product and take it on the journey of taking it to the market. We never even launched that in the end, but since then we have gotten good at shipping products. And then we have to maintain and innovate.”
Mike Sharman encourages tech B2C businesses to solve small problems – the GP’s reminder app, video conferencing – solutions to real problems that will be taken up, rather than a big, risky idea. “Have the audacity to design something, put it to an audience, and then listen to your audience and believe their feedback!”
Musa echoes that “make it” philosophy, and makes the point that professionals are professionals because they like having concrete answers. “Doctors and accountants have to be meticulous about not being wrong. But that can be a paralysis that stops you experimenting.”
Musa adds that learning has evolved past formal education, especially in Africa, where you’d be hard put to find a formal qualification for learning about indigenous medicine, for instance. BridgeLabs launched a learning management system (LMS) called Clock which delivers and tracks educational content. They have a group travel app, a remote working app to track, monitor, and audit trail decentralised teams, and a CRM for car dealerships.
Musa Kalenga certainly channels his inner performance artist in this role that balances his diverse talents, says Sharman. Speaking of audacity, Covid-19 was and is audacious. We are plunged into a pandemic. How asks Sharman, are we going to become future-fit?
“There is hope!” says Musa. “I am an eternal optimist. This is such a huge wake-up call, in terms of family, socially, economically. We are feeling a collective micro and macro grief, but within the grieving for what’s lost, there is also a lot of positivity. Even to break is a win right now.”
Musa says he evaluates business along with quadrants of implementation agility and mental resolve. Implementation agility refers to how quickly you can move in response to changes in circumstances – “big corporates struggle with this”, he says. Mental resolve is how easily you can make peace with the fact that things have changed and won’t be the same again. “If you’re in the quadrant where you acknowledge things are tough now but you hope it’s going back to normal, that’s problematic. Your hope of normal is over, and if you can’t adapt, you’re tail spinning.”
Instead, says Musa, “Try to achieve mental agility. Be honest that things are not going to be the same again. Get your brain working. Some guys are learning entirely new things. Get yourself on a new trajectory as a business and individual.”
Each professional in South Africa employs on average 12 people. If you are a professional, you have a big impact on those around you. And Musa’s advice to you? “Focus on the core problem you have today. Think about the right-now problem and what would help solve it. Facebook started in response to a desire for Harvard students to form relationships with each other. What’s your right-now problem?”