And The People Who Made It. Filed Under: How Problems Become Products, Pandemic Babies
Dikachim was nervous. His colleagues rushing home, like he was, were nervous. Across Lagos, people were rushing somewhere; to their homes, to the market, to a bar for the last time. There’s an urgency with which Lagos moves – to beat a queue, to beat traffic, to beat a traffic robber – but that evening, more than speed, Lagos was feverish with uncertainty.
It was the last Friday evening of March 2020, and the federal government had just declared a lockdown in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The news said people would be home for only two weeks, but no one knew how long the curfew would last.
At Flutterwave’s office in Lagos, where Dikachim worked in product marketing, an email came from HR informing everyone they’d be working from home until the lockdown ended, whenever that was. For Dikachim, living alone meant he’d barely have any other human interaction for the next few weeks. So he tried one final attempt at banter.
“I wonder what would happen to small businesses that don’t sell online,” Dikachim said to a colleague that had just reached her car.
Nigeria has over forty million small businesses, and eight in every ten will fail in the first eighteen months, mainly because of cashflow problems. These businesses wouldn’t last a month in the middle of a pandemic.
“But it won’t just be about trying to get them to sell online,” Dikachim explained, noting that they’d also “need to figure out the logistics of getting a thing delivered, especially with COVID and all.”
Dikachim has always been one with ideas and an urgency to execute them. Before joining Flutterwave, he worked at Anakle. He ambushed a designer, Mukhtar, who was just leaving the office way past closing hours. It was because he had an idea. Over the next few hours, that idea ended up on Sterling Bank’s social media; and became The Bank Wars on Twitter.
“This store thing sounds like a good idea,” his colleague said. “You should talk to Ted.”
The next afternoon, Dikachim was on a call with Ted, whose job title read Design-Something-Something. It was morning in San Francisco, where Ted was already one week into a lockdown while on a work trip. Dikachim didn’t need to make too much of a case about the idea he had because Ted was asking those questions himself.
Ted’s mum owned a neighbourhood shop in Lagos where she sold frozen foods like turkey, chicken, and fish. With the lockdown announcement, her problems were many-fold. She couldn’t sell her stock because of movement restrictions, but managing a perishable foods business meant she had to keep generators running for her freezers.
“We should do this,” Ted said. “Let’s hear what GB thinks.”
That evening, Flutterwave’s CEO – GB – had specific instructions: “Tell Ted to start working on it.”
It wasn’t an entirely new idea within the company. In 2018, Flutterwave experimented with a product – Rave Social – that’d make it easy for businesses on Instagram to receive payments.
They imported their Instagram photos in bulk, labelled stuff available or not, and received payments for orders. Then, shortly after it went live, Instagram pushed major API changes that made it impossible to import Instagram photos into any third-party platform. That was the end of Rave Social, at least in that form.
For most of its first three years, Flutterwave worked like a lab. They told everyone listening, “We’ll help you process payments.” People need payments for all kinds of things, so they built features for all sorts of needs. Did you want to move money? They made transfers possible. Did you want to make payments online at an international store? Here’s a virtual card for that. At the centre of these experiments was its central dashboard product – it used to be called Rave, just Rave. If the dashboard is a house, every feature they build to help businesses is a door to the dashboard.
For this new experiment, Ted revisited his mum’s struggle. She wasn’t thinking about expanding or growing her business then; she just wanted to cut her losses and stay afloat. And she wasn’t the only one with this problem.
Small businesses make up almost half of Nigeria’s GDP; a quarter of those businesses are in Lagos alone. Navigating an indefinite lockdown, COVID misinformation, and the absence of government stimulus cheques, sellers desperately needed a way to stay in business.
Their solution had to be easy – no technical expertise required to set up but with essential elements necessary for commerce to happen. For example, customers see a product they want on an online store, pay and have the product delivered to them offline.
Ted assembled a small team within the company to build the product, pulling together people from different units across the business: Nosa, Deji and Lara. On this product, he wasn’t just going to be a designer; he was also going to be the product manager.
When Ted joined Flutterwave in May 2017, he’d been hired as a front-end engineer and the forty-third employee. But he was also an experienced designer; he’d designed and written code at his previous jobs at Hotels.ng and Delivery Science.
Flutterwave had 42 employees – most of them working in customer support, business development, and engineering – but there were not enough designers. So Ted assumed the role of a product designer. Over the next two years, he focused on design, expanding the design team.
As Ted got deeper into products across the company, he started to take on more responsibility around improving the products. The online store was the first project where he’d fully be responsible for bringing a product vision to life.
Nosa was the front-end engineer working in the store. Everything Ted designed, Nosa made functional. In 2017, Nosa had made up his mind to start a post-uni life away from the chaos of Lagos as a freelancer working from Ibadan. Then one day, while attending the naming ceremony of an engineer’s new child, he heard about Flutterwave. By the time the day’s ceremony was over, Nosa had changed his mind about leaving Lagos and joined Flutterwave’s engineering team to work alongside the father of the day.
By 2018, Nosa and Ted had moved in together and were later joined by two other colleagues; Hamza, an android engineer, and Nujie working on infrastructure and security. They called their apartment Unit 4; there, a true sense of work-life balance didn’t exist – there was only work getting done. A typical day was Hamza watching a tutorial or experimenting with a new app idea. Ted would be brewing a fresh cup of coffee while waiting for some design feedback. Nuji would be investigating a hacking attempt at two in the morning. And then there’d be Nosa, calling it a night just before daybreak.
It was a vicious work routine they kept, but things moved fast.
When Deji left Hotels.ng, his original plan was to take up a job as an instructor teaching people software development. “For the peace of mind,” he said. However, the same engineer who pitched Nosa pitched him too, and he was on his way to Flutterwave to focus on backend engineering.
Lara’s first role at Flutterwave was as a product tester, coming off the back of a role working in customer support at Hotels.ng. Her new role made her the last line between the quality of whatever the engineers were making and what the customer’s experience was going to be.
They’d spent the past few years working on various projects together, and they made up for what they lacked in physical proximity with incredible chemistry.
The first version of the Flutterwave Store was ready in about three weeks – a minimum viable store through and through – a seller could set up a store, list items for sale, start receiving payments, and request a dispatch rider to have their goods delivered. But it didn’t have thumbnails for images – that came a week later.
The store team shared what they’d made on Slack for feedback near the end of April. Potential sellers would need references to create their stores. Dikachim set up a store for COVID protection kits. Ted made one for booze, then a second one for his mum.
Ted’s mum had been selling her stock over Whatsapp for the first few weeks of the lockdown. First, she’d send a list of the available things to a potential customer; the potential customer would text back what they wanted. Next, she’d send an account number, and the customer would make payment. Then she’d wait for payment confirmation after her customer sent proof of payment.
But when the store went live, she just sent a link to her store.
#KeepTheLightsOn; that’s what Dikachim called the go-live campaign for the store. To bring this to life, he worked with Wendy, who leads branding and storytelling at Flutterwave, to pull off a campaign video for it. What would have been a studio was her living room, and her entire crew – sound, lighting, editing – was her filmmaker husband. Ted made how-to videos from his room for the website.
On the last day of April 2020, Flutterwave’s CEO, GB, tweeted about the store for the first time.
The users came in trickles – a few dozen at best on the first day. It wasn’t the day one bang Dikachim hoped for, but interesting things started to happen over the next few weeks.
A woman who made dresses for a living pivoted to making banana bread, because who needs dresses in the middle of a pandemic? A self-published author cancelled her offline book launch plans and sold over two hundred copies in two weeks because she created a store for her book, and her friend spread the link for her.
The team was also getting some critical product feedback. For example, merchants didn’t like the offline delivery feature that went live with the store in partnership with a logistics company. The goal was simple: a merchant would receive an order, request a delivery, and a dispatch rider showed up to pick up and deliver.
Except, merchants didn’t use it. When they did, riders showed up late or didn’t show up at all. So the team tested a feature that allowed sellers to request delivery service or take care of deliveries themselves. Most sellers overwhelmingly chose to do it themselves, and the team got the message; they dropped the feature.
By July 2020, despite a slow start, there were 5,000 live stores on the Flutterwave Store.
Hello, Big Brother
The team’s next opportunity to put the store in front of more people showed up in the form of Big Brother Naija (BBN) – the biggest reality TV show in Nigeria. In advertising terms, you can call it Nigeria’s Super Bowl.
Flutterwave grabbed just about enough of this cake to help the store reach its widest audience yet. And it worked, not just for the store but all of Flutterwave. For the first time, people, tiny businesses, could see how Flutterwave was a place for them too.
Ted’s store-defining moment, where he felt like they’d “made a wonderful thing”, came in Nigeria close to the end of the year. Then, one weekend in the middle of November 2020, he was at his friend’s birthday photo shoot when he got a call from someone on the customer success team at work.
“Ted, there’s no way for merchants to download all their orders as a spreadsheet,” she said, immediately following it up with a request to add the feature to the store.
“Oh, okay,” Ted said. “But not right now. I’m currently at—”
She cut him off, “We have to do it right now.”
“Look,” Ted said, “we’ll start working on it on Monday.”
“No, no. Ted, you don’t understand me—”
For a fickle attempt at work-life balance, he ended the call and returned to help out with the photo shoot. But he got another call from someone else on the team.
“We have to work on this right now. A customer has a lot of sales and needs to be able to download her orders to make it easy for her to process them.”
When Ted ended the phone call, he headed back to Unit 4, and waiting for him at home was more information about the customer. He stared at the data for a moment, then picked up his phone to Lara and Deji.
“Omo, someone just made over ₦20 million in sales today, and they need to be able to download the orders on a spreadsheet.”
The business sold wigs and beauty accessories on Instagram.
He looked at the time. It was only mid-afternoon.
Ted knew a lot of work needed to be done on the store, but that day, he knew they had to move faster.
Before Jola joined Flutterwave in early 2021, she’d keenly watched the store’s progress from outside the company. Her interest in commerce began almost a decade ago at one of the fastest-growing e-commerce companies in Africa: Jumia.
So when Flutterwave Store came along, she was fascinated by what it meant for retail brands. It wasn’t enough, she believed, for independent stores to just exist across the internet. Instead, aggregation made for a richer experience for everyone; sellers would become easier to discover, and customers could find everything in one place.
Jola’s first move was to make a cold pitch about her marketplace idea. Then, in true LinkedIn fashion, she reached out to one of the 12 mutuals she shared with Flutterwave’s CEO, and an email intro happened.
That quickly became a thread of a few dozen emails with up to nine people across Flutterwave. In the end, Jola joined the company to become the product manager for the store.
The idea of a Market of stores wasn’t entirely new inside Flutterwave, but now, it had a new champion with Jola. So many things were happening at Flutterwave then, and making the store a marketplace wasn’t a priority. At the time, Flutterwave had just closed a Series C round of funding at a valuation of over $1 billion.
So, everyone focused over the next few months on improving existing products. So her store priority was improving the experience for merchants and customers. For merchants, it was figuring out the integration that’d help sellers receive payments in new ways. For customers, it was building trust, like improving the payment protection policy for customers against fraud.
Still, her sights were set on the Market, and about nineteen months after that first announcement for The Store, The Market went live. And so it was that a pandemic baby went from being a brain fart to a place where anyone could set up a store to having 40,000 stores in over a dozen countries.
As for the original Store team, they’re now scattered across different projects within the company, but when you ask Nosa about those three weeks and the twenty-something projects they’ve worked on together, he’ll say, “we did a madness.”
If you ask Deji – the most philosophical and reclusive of the bunch – how they were able to move fast, he’ll say, “It’s an unspoken agreement that we have.” Regular development cycles tend to put one thing before the other, doing one thing after another. But, perhaps, “because of our relationship since Hotels.ng,” Deji explained, “Nosa and I can work in a way that he doesn’t need to know how I’m building the APIs; he can start because he knows how I think. Nosa can create layouts even before Ted finishes designing because he understands how Ted approaches design.”
“It’s like a relay race,” Deji said, “the next person you’re going to give a baton has already picked up their pace before you get to them. The person ahead is running without looking back, knowing you’ll get the baton to them. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Try this: it’s when the sum of a team’s abilities outperforms the individual capacity of its best member, and everyone on the team trusts in this idea.
“Yes,” Deji said. “It’s synergy.”
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This one took an entire village, and a lot of over-FIFA, over-food gist:
It started over a little over a year ago with Ted, while we were reminiscing how we spent the lockdown. “You know, it’d be fun to write about it.“
And then, I had a draft by August last year. Alex beat it so much, that I dropped it. I especially regarded Alex’s feedback because he used to write a series I really liked called The Backend.
Then one day, I asked Nosa to tell me about the Store, and he just kept going.
Then one night, while at someone’s house party in November 2021, I went on a walk with Lara, and it started to take shape a little.
Another night, while at Dikachim’s house, he stuffed me with food and stories.
Jola got on the phone with me at short notice, and so did Deji D3.
And this was when I tested the editing waters. One year after the first draft, it started taking a beating from July. Anita was throwing a lot of the copy uppercuts.
Hassan came with all the “what is the context?“ and Toheeb came with the “whys“.
And when I ran out of energy, because I found it quite difficult to get this to the finish line, Ruka, Samson, and Alex carried it to the finish line with the structural feedback. You know, I think I found this difficult to write because of the writers who directly inspired it: Steven Levy and James Somers. Chasing them was exhausting, but we run again next time.
Penzu made the cover illustration, while Mariam made the COVID infographic.
The rest of Vistanium’s Little Village watched my headline meltdowns.
And talking about the headline:
At first, I called I framed it as “Eighteen Months Of The Flutterwave Store,” I’m considering exploring what 18 months look like in the cycle of things: people, companies, movements. 18 feels like a nice number, and so when I realised at the last minute, that the main event in this story happened in over 18 months, I dropped it.
Then some final, 11th-hour edits made it much clearer to me that this is not really a story about a product; it’s a story about the team that made it. So, I leaned in on that.
Anyway, if you read to this point, it’s only right that you share, so thanks.
Update (Sept. 6: An earlier version of this said that Lara was working as a Technical Account Manager. She was in fact working as a Product Tester on the team, with her role evolving to a much wider Quality Assurance role, which she still holds)
I read this with clear eyes even though I was feeling sleepy right before I started. It says a lot about your writing. You break down complex stories into easily digestible reads. I’m glad you finally published it.
I take my time to read your blog posts lol. Gifted hands🙌