Tonye Membere-Otaji, Founder and CEO at MVXchange tells us about business and trade logistics.
First, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: I am doing well, and my family is great too. I had a few family members that caught the Coronavirus, but they’re all better now. My team members have been great too. Thankfully, we’ve had no COVID-19 case.
Tell us about you, your career, and how that has made you a better CEO for MVXchange?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: My background is in business management, but I’ve always had an interest in technology. My first real exposure to tech was when I was 14 during a summer camp at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. There, I learned how to build websites using HTML.
I began exploring my entrepreneurial side a few years later. When I co-founded a now-failed design and tech startup: Membere & Longe, after that educational foray into the startup space, I spent the next five years as the Head of Strategy and Chartering/Commercial Lead at Elshcon, a maritime logistics, and engineering company.
From my first startup, I understood how to be deliberate about early team building. Then, I learned product management and got first-hand experience and insider knowledge of the maritime sector from my roles at Elshcon. Those were some of the most important skills I needed as a founder.
How did you start MVXchange, and what problems are you trying to solve?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: While I was at Elshcon, I noticed the demand and supply mismatch problems in the African maritime space. But I didn’t understand why there was no existing platform that used technology to organize and improve the maritime ecosystem.
I attended events, workshops, and trade fairs that targeted small and medium-sized businesses. In those spaces, I heard shared complaints from business owners about fragmented import and export logistics processes. And limited access to working capital to meet and scale international orders. I couldn’t help but think of a solution to these problems, and that’s how it all started. Today, thanks to the incredible team that has helped transform an idea into revenue-generating and impactful products, we are celebrating the second anniversary of MVXchange on March 1st.
How did the coronavirus pandemic affect your startup, and how are you coping?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: MVXchange is a maritime trade and logistics service, and we have two product offerings, MVXenergi and MVXtransit. MVXenergi is a digital vessel chartering platform connecting specialized ships to offshore energy businesses. MVXtransit is a digital freight forwarding and customs brokerage platform. The first few months of the pandemic were brutal; it challenged our business model and caused us to focus on long-term thinking.
Besides that, the globally dwindling oil prices had a negative effect on MVXenergi that led us to months with no vessel charter requests. However, with MVXtransit, we experienced slow but steady growth. Interestingly, in Q3 of 2019, we had introduced a remote work policy and started transitioning to a distributed team model. In hindsight, you could say we expected the change, but not this level of disruption.
Did you have to make difficult choices because of the pandemic, and what are the lessons learned?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: We used the downtime to rebuild our business. We operate a lean and agile team, so; we didn’t go the route of downsizing and slashing salaries. However, the hard choices we made were reviewing our business model and making more long-term plans. That process helped us redirect the business and made us bullish about our purpose and value proposition.
How does MVXchange innovate?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: MVXchange itself is an innovation that started because of market insight and customer pain-points. We’ve stayed true to that by being in sync with the market and always listening to our customers through service feedback and periodic customer check-ins.
We have a simple process. First, a team member identifies a market trend/customer insight or pain-point. Then, we set up a team with the software engineers, product manager, customer success, product designer, and the leadership team to develop the idea into a minimum viable product (MVP). Afterward, we test our MVP with a sample of users to get feedback and iterate before rolling out a live product. We try to make our iteration cycles as short as possible so that we’re constantly building, testing, and ultimately, innovating.
What are the most significant opportunities in your industry, and how does MVXchange plan to win?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: The pandemic sped up technology adoption in the maritime trade ecosystem. Now, businesses are more inclined to use tech-enabled solutions. We noticed these trends and have built simple solutions to onboard more companies online. One tool we have developed is Tania, a WhatsApp chatbot that helps small and medium-sized businesses create import, export, and land-haulage shipment requests while on the move.
While an MVX mobile application will be proper, our research showed that our customers would prefer to use a familiar platform. However, once we hit a specific enterprise customer milestone, we will launch a mobile application.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is another landmark opportunity in the trade industry. If adequately implemented, AfCFTA will significantly grow intra-African trade from 17% to 50%. For more context, intra-regional trade in Europe and Asia is over 70% and 60%, respectively.
With an increase in Africa’s export, businesses will require trade workflow automation tools to drive efficiency and reduce trading costs with global companies. We see these as opportunities for MVXchange to become a critical customer-centric platform speeding up Africa’s trade.
What specific tools, software, and management skills is your team using to navigate this crisis?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: As a distributed team, we rely heavily on communication and productivity tools. At the top of the stack are Slack, Google Meet, and our internal business management dashboard we call Crystal-ball (built internally). We have had team members working in Sierra-Leone, the UK, and a few of us working in various states in Nigeria. At some point, we struggled with internal communication, but this is no longer a challenge. Workshops and weekly check-in meetings have improved that, and operations have been much better since then.
My leadership style grew in the pandemic. I have learned to delegate better and trust my team with tasks. My job is to lay out the vision, provide context and clarity to function then get out of my team’s way to execute. I’m always available to collaborate with team members to resolve roadblocks or issues when they arise.
If you could start again with all the knowledge you have today, what would you do differently?
Tonye Membere-Otaji: I’ll start with building a community early around our products and focusing on them. In the past, we tried to be everything to all customers. But the moment we realized we couldn’t be everything to everyone, we focused our core capabilities on early customers that required our services. It has been one of the best decisions we made.