Zero To Scale is a new web series that focuses on the journeys of African founders and their startups from day zero until the day they achieve scale. Zero To Scale is produced in partnership with Oneroute.io, an all-in-one tool for your customer communication needs.
In 2020, Field tracked that they have completed a total of over 135 million pharmaceutical interventions in Kenya and Nigeria, making them one of the most important healthtech startups in Africa.
In this second chapter of Zero to Scale, we talk to the man driving growth for Field Intelligence. Peter Bunor is a Cofounder at Field Intelligence, where he doubles as the Global Growth Lead. Peter shares the company's journey from ideation, to execution, to scaling, dropping some actionable insights along the way
What was it that inspired the formation of field intelligence?
Field Intelligence was really about us trying to solve problems in the healthcare supply chain. We had different complementary skills that we believed could be useful. Two of the co-founders already had experience in that industry, I brought other complementary skills and we tried to see how we could use them to solve the industry’s challenges.
I find that with a lot of founders, you start first with an exciting idea and refine it until you get to something that works. What was the idea refining process like for Field Intelligence?
It was a lot of discussion, but we took a very design-led approach to it. So, there was a lot of research and testing. The approach still influences how we work today.
When we have an idea, we have very intense discussions internally over it to arrive at some basic points. Then we try to get early feedback and figure things out quickly.
For us, we needed to figure out if we could orchestrate the supply chain with technology in the way that we thought we could, get the logistics and transportation assets to move around the way we wanted, get the buy-in of the other partners involved in the space. We had to do a lot of talking to different stakeholders to figure out where they were. Then we got to a place where people were saying “This looks interesting, how do we take this forward?”
So, you settled on an idea. What was taking the idea operational like? Did you have to make adjustments?
There are always adjustments when dreams meet reality. There was significant learning and ground-pounding. We had to go out ourselves to figure out if the solution we were building was what people wanted. What we found was that people like to think they know what they want, but they are often clear about what they don’t want.
For Shelf Life, which is one of our major products, we spent a couple of months going out and talking to pharmacists, suppliers, and distributors. Interestingly, when we initially went to talk to suppliers, we didn’t have the current model of Shelf Life. They weren’t interested in the model we were proposing, so we had to rethink it and come up with something interesting for them, and that just stuck.
Did you face any challenges when you decided to go to market?
I think one of the biggest challenges was moving from paper completely. For the first few weeks, I would pick up the products from the suppliers myself and take them to the pharmacy myself. The accounting, invoicing, and billing all happened on paper. It teaches you about the things people are sensitive about and what they need. Eventually, we had to move off paper because it was getting complicated. It was problematic because a lot of the pharmaceutical industry runs on paper.
Secondly, we knew we couldn’t grow without getting on the right side of certain government regulations. It meant talking to the PCN and government regulators who were not used to seeing people like us. They were intrigued by what we were building and gave us provincial approval to test our solutions and come back with reports.
Another thing was that we needed specific fintech solutions that were not available at the time, so we had to build them in-house. There were a lot of reconciliation issues to build for. The industry largely runs on checks which takes a while to clear. Sometimes, we’d be preparing supplies for a pharmacy without knowing if their payments had cleared or not.
Then finally, there were hiring issues: finding the right talent, the right culture fit, whether these people work well in a team, etc. We were dealing with all these at the same time, and we were self-funded. It forces you to be very scrappy and figure out how to maximise every naira. I don’t know if I’d recommend it, or do it again, but it was very important for us then.
Was there any point you felt it wasn’t worth building?
I’ll admit that at some point in the pilot, it was really tough. Sometimes you’re not getting the kind of traction that you want, you’re not getting funded, etc. and it gets to you. Then your family asks you if you’re sure that you want to build it and offers to help you get some government job.
The extra hours of work, your potential earnings from paid employment, all add up to the frustration. I know that I and the cofounders had discussions about how we could be earning more in paid employment.
So, what was the “light at the end of the tunnel” moment?
It was actually a couple of things. First, it was when we were able to convince a couple of people to join us. Some of them had to leave huge multinationals and take pay cuts to work with us. It was encouraging to know that they believed in what we were building enough to join us.
Another indicator was one pharmacy we worked with. When we first started working with them, things were not looking great. A few months down the line, they were renovating, the guy told me he was grateful to have met us and was going for his Masters’ degree. It came in one of those moments when there were a lot of doubts. I left there feeling very proud of myself and what we were building.
Another time was when we got a grant from the Gates Foundation. It kind of validated what we were building.
What was the journey from having a provincial product to scaling?
We knew we had something good when we’d talk to people and they would take us seriously. But we were just in Abuja at the time. So, we had to ask ourselves if this was just an Abuja thing or if it would work elsewhere.
So, we started to think of how to get our operations into states we—the cofounders— weren’t going to be physically present in. That required us to think around hiring, training people, finances, logistics, etc. There were also infrastructural issues to deal with.
One of the tech-enabled businesses like ours is that we have a lot of physical touchpoints. This means that while the broad markets are similar, there are peculiarities in each market that you have to account for.
Lagos was the next logical market for us to launch in after Abuja. Certain people might ask why we didn’t launch in Lagos first and I’ll tell you why. There’s a lot of attention and competition in the Lagos market, so it was a lot easier for us to launch in a smaller, quieter place where we could learn and execute faster. So, while everyone was in the Lagos bloodbath, we were learning and executing fast. By the time we had moved to Lagos, we had developed the muscles to test things and change them quickly.
Did you have to make a lot of changes to scale?
Interestingly, we really did not have to make a lot of changes because it kind of just worked. The service we took out from Abuja is what we operate in Lagos. The only difference might be the mode of delivery because we have to use bikes in certain parts of Lagos.
However, the primary service has always been the same. The fact that we had a bit of time to really test and refine within a smaller, confined market, helped us get to the point where we were fairly clear on the things that worked and those that didn’t.
The biggest takeaway for me is to figure out a place to start, learn as much from there and take that product elsewhere. We took those same lessons from Abuja and Lagos to Nairobi, and then Port Harcourt.
What were the distribution hacks that helped you expand?
For our kind of business, one of the things we had to estimate was the size of the market i.e. the number of pharmacies in that market. A large part of what we do is giving inventory to pharmacies instead of cash, which is typically cheaper. There’s a pharmacy we’ve been working with at the FTC, we’ve provided them with nearly N28 million worth of drugs on their shelves, and they’ve paid maybe 1% of that. We’re probably the cheapest financing company.
Figuring out how to operate means we have to find local suppliers, fulfillment partners, etc. Because we’ve done this over time, we have learned how to do it really quickly. We can quickly set up in a new city. The next step is figuring out how to do it for countries.
We operate an asset-light model, so our set-up cost is very little unlike most people in our space. Interestingly, this was borne out of having a tight budget early on.
Final question: what are the most important lessons you’ve learned from building Field Intelligence
First thing is that the people you choose to build with are very important. You need to be able to back each other up. There will be low lows and high highs all the time. Knowing that you have people who have your back is important.
The quality of the people you hire is important. We’ve made mistakes with the people we hired, but we’ve also hired some very amazing people.
There’s also being truthful to yourself about when something is not working. A lot of founders get attached to their ideas and the sunk cost that has gone into them, so they’re not willing to admit when things are not working.
Also, fundraising is hard. I wish there was some easier way to do it. You need to learn how to take no. Interestingly, I think most young people should work in sales, so they get used to hearing no. It’s character building. You’ll hear a lot of nos when fundraising.