Failing to Win
Lessons from an entrepreneur who went ‘all in’
After backpacking across Africa in search of changemakers building scalable, high-impact businesses, Canadian entrepreneur Mike Quinn convinced his retired parents to mortgage their house and lend him $100,000 to co-found Zoona, one of the continent’s earliest fintechs. That risk paid off big time, as Zoona went on to process $2.5 billion of transactions and generate $26 million in income for thousands of micro-entrepreneurs across Zambia and Malawi.
Ten years later, following a series of currency crises, competitor attacks and investor dramas, Mike stepped down as the company’s CEO and wrote a book about his experience of going ‘all in’ as a purpose-driven entrepreneur. Giving a rare and honest glimpse inside the blackbox of a pioneering start-up, this is the story behind Failing To Win.
It was April 29th, 2019. I woke up after a restless night to a bustling household before kissing my wife goodbye and shuffling two small kids off to primary school. I returned home and made myself a cup of coffee before opening my laptop to check my emails and start my day.
Oh wait… there were no emails to read! For the first time in ten years, I didn’t have a job. The Friday before, I had left Zoona, the company I co-founded and served as CEO. It was also a company that was so closely intertwined with my identity that my dog had been named Zoona and all my social media handles were @ZoonaMike.
My exit was the opposite of riding off into a blaze of glory. Ten years of blood and sweat building one of Africa’s first fintechs into a global case study with 2 million active consumers largely ended in tears. During the previous year, we had barely survived a $40 million investment round collapse and ruthless competitor attacks from two deep-pocketed mobile network operators, only to be forced into a corner by our old foe: cash flow. Suddenly, I could no longer see a viable path for me to stay at the helm or even be involved in the company. I handed the reins over to my co-founder Brad and stepped out into the wilderness.
Time seemed to slow down in the weeks that followed. I went for long solo hikes, runs, and mountain bike rides. I dropped off and picked up my kids to and from school, and tried to just be for a while. But as hard as I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about Zoona, what happened, and what might have been.
With some steady encouragement from several people, I reopened my laptop in late July 2019 and started writing. What followed next was an outpouring of emotion. I wrote about the hard times (of which there were many) and the good times (of which it was healing to remember that there were also many). I didn’t put much thought or planning into what I was writing — I just wrote as honestly and vulnerably as I could.
Soon I had a “120,000 word letter to my therapist.” And I felt a lot better!
I started feeling ready to move on, and developed a vision for my next venture, Boost. This time, I would have a decade of experience under my belt that I so badly lacked as CEO of Zoona.
But now that I had written a book, I had to figure out what to do with it. I wanted it to be useful and helpful to other entrepreneurs who were tackling hard problems and could learn from my experiences. What I didn’t know at the time was that editing and publishing a book is harder than writing it!
I reached out to people I knew who had published books, and quickly learned that I had two options. I could either take the traditional publishing route, which would require writing a “book proposal” to find an agent to find a publisher. Or, I could self-publish, which would short circuit the process but would still be challenging and expensive to do well. Since I had already written the book and wanted to stay in control of the process, I opted for the latter.
I wanted the published book to be my best work, which I knew would require professional editing and therefore money. However, I was broke and far from being able to draw a salary from Boost. Luckily, I had time, so I launched a crowdfunding campaign to pre-sell the book in different packages. The support I received was overwhelming, and I especially appreciated reconnecting with so many people who have been important in my life — even as I harassed them for pledges (thank you everyone!).
Fast forward to September 2020. The world was in the midst of a global pandemic and I received a fully edited and proofed 80,000 word version of Failing To Win, ready to publish. I was excited but anxious, so I shared it with a few people close to me, hoping for ecstatic praise in response. Instead, I listened to the tough feedback that the book still read as an 80,000 word letter to my therapist (albeit a much better one). It was not yet my best work.
I absorbed the feedback and re-wrote much of the book, committing to an entirely different structure. By December, it was once again complete and this time I was sure it was ready! I shared it more widely, with more hopeful expectations.
Not so fast. It was definitely better, but still not ready. One Sunday night in January 2021, my friend Alex Lazarow (author of Out-Innovate) called me with “a big idea” to make it better. Alex encouraged me to commit to what the book was actually about: Failing To Win. I had this title from the very beginning (after it popped into my head while on a run), but the text wasn’t yet true to it.
I knew instantly Alex was right, so I got back at it and mapped out a new structure with three parts: Founding, Failing, and Winning. I wanted to tell the origins of Zoona and fintech in Africa, but most of all I wanted to lean into our eight biggest failures and reflect on what I learned from them. And I wanted to demonstrate how it was possible to take these learnings and apply them to a brand new venture that would carry on from where my journey at Zoona left off.
This last rewrite was the easiest to strategise but hardest to execute. My family had just moved to London due to my wife Isabelle starting a new job, and we had left our home, friends and pets behind in Cape Town. Right after we arrived, the UK went into lockdown with schools closing, confining our friendless kids to an unfamiliar small flat with two full time working parents. Boost was taking up more of my time, so I squeezed in writing during evenings and weekends, always surrounded by lego and dinosaur toys, and supported by an amazingly patient wife.
What emerged was a manuscript that finally clicked. I teamed up with a new editor, Tim Richman, to get it over the finish line. Tim offered to publish it in South Africa through his company, Burnet Media, and help walk me through the self publishing journey. I also found a studio in London and recorded an audiobook.
In many ways, my journey of writing, editing and publishing Failing To Win is an example of what the book is all about. Any win is always preceded by (a lot) of failing that is rarely seen or talked about. My mission for this book is to help demystify failure by turning it into something that can be embraced and harnessed as a force for good. With this framing, “failing” does not have to mean “being a failure” — it’s just a necessary precondition of winning.
Mike Quinn is co-founder and CEO of Boost, with a mission to enable 10 million small businesses to thrive in Africa’s emerging digital economy. Prior to Boost, he was co-founder and CEO of Zoona, one of Africa’s earliest fintechs. For his leadership, Mike was awarded the Accion 2017 Edward W. Claugus Award for Leadership and Innovation in Financial Inclusion and was one of the Schwab Foundation’s 2018 Social Entrepreneurs of the Year.