This Nigerian-born Founder Would Rather Be Coding in the Basement, But Here’s the Story of How He Learned to Get Out and Talk to Customers
David Mark grew up in Nigeria and moved to London when he was 7. A techie, he admits to being happiest when he is locked in a basement, coding.
“That’s paradise for me,” he told me during a recent interview for my podcast, Back Yourself.
Mark attended the University of Edinburgh, where he earned a bachelor of science in mathematics and computer science, with a first-class honours degree.
His first real job came when he went to Credit Suisse, first as an IT technical analyst and then as a Java/C# developer. He then went on to be a lead C# full stack developer at Duet Group and was a contractor at EnTrust Global.
While Mark lived and breathed coding and tech, he always knew that he wanted to launch his own startup. After EnTrust he worked as a consultant at KLI Asset Management, a multi-commodity investment manager with an emphasis on directional trading and portfolio diversification.
It was around this time that Mark joined a hackathon, which he describes as a startup conducted in a microcosm. Teams of strangers have 48 hours to solve a business problem and pitch an idea for a product — in 2 days, you go from nothing to something you can demo.
Mark was on a team of insurance brokers, and the event was sponsored by Allianz, the German international financial services company with core businesses in insurance and asset management. During the event, the insurance brokers told him about their problems: a chief one being that when applying for commercial insurance, the applicant — usually a business owner — has to print, fill out, sign, scan, and send back stacks of pdf forms. They call it a “pdf bomb.”
“It was so manual,” he said. “It seemed like technology could digitalise the entire process and make it more simple. It seemed like tech should be able to solve this problem.”
And so a company was born.
Tips to Launch a Business: Get Out of the Basement and Talk to People
Just like that, Mark had an idea for his business, which he named Brokit. The company’s goal would be to transform manual data capture in the commercial insurance industry into a digitalised and automated process. Mark went to “paradise” — his basement — and began to code away.
Along the way, he got assistance from a London organization that helps early stage funding with training, and that is when he realised he needed to get out and get some sun.
“I needed to stop coding and go talk to people,” he said.
Mark also got help from The Mom Test, a quick, practical guide that teaches founders how to talk to customers to find out if their business idea is a good one. The premise is that everyone will lie to you a little bit — even your mom — and it’s your responsibility to find out the truth and see if your idea is worth pursuing.
“I had to go back to the drawing board,” he said.
Mark’s target market is insurance brokers, and he waded into LinkedIn, finding brokers and asking if he talks to them about an idea.
“People are just really willing to help you out,” Mark found. “You have to force yourself to do it, but by doing that, you just learn so much.”
Tips for Solo Founders: Bridge Your Skill Set Gaps and Relax
Today, Mark remains a solo founder — which is something of a rarity in the world of startups. Traditionally, startups rest on a three-legged stool of skills: sales, tech or product, and organizational.
“As a solo founder you really need to stretch yourself,” he said.
Brokit has won its first B2B customer and is continuing to build its product while also learning just how many people at a company need to sign off before a prospective client becomes a customer.
Right now, Brokit is bootstrapped, with Mark paying all the bills. Eventually, he says he is looking forward to raising money so he can hire staff and expand his operations. He’s remarkably relaxed for being a founder — which is something he says all founders should do.
“Being a founder, there is so much to do, and there can be a lot to stress about,” he said. “Relax. Take it easy. There is only so much you can get done in a day. If you are only a little bit closer to your goal at the end of the day, that is a good day.”
Mark has two productivity hacks: The first is to schedule time for specific tasks, and do nothing but that task during that time period. The second? He’s got a custom keyboard with custom keys that enables him to save time and be productive.
You may have a great idea for a product, but do people actually want it? Perhaps, but you won’t know until you get out and talk to people. For Mark, that was the key to his startup success.