News about the world's largest pre-seed startup accelerator

Happy Wednesday!

We’re back to our regularly scheduled programming. I hope you enjoy today’s Think, Build & Grow, jam-packed with exciting stories and inspiring entrepreneurs.

Don’t forget to check out Mergerous Growth Academy to accelerate your leadership and business growth like the people featured in this newsletter.

Oh, and be sure to read to the end if you want the news about the world’s largest pre-seed startup accelerator.

Let’s go!

In today's email:

  • Think with Jatin Solanki, an Indian entrepreneur whose wisdom caught me off guard

  • Build with Håvar Bauck, a Norwegian entrepreneur with a thriving business in Kenya that he didn’t plan to start

  • Grow with Kevin Lee, co-founder of one of only 25 B Corps in Korea

  • Watchlist: Five — yes, five! — entrepreneurial folks that should be on your radar

Think with Decube’s Jatin Solanki

When Jatin explains his approach to hiring, especially in the early stages of business, he highlights the importance of quickly establishing trust between himself as the founder and his new teammates.

He speaks calmly, like someone whose wisdom comes from having been in a leadership position many times.

I pause to think: How else could someone be so sure of the best way for early-stage founders to approach hiring?

Jatin elaborates, “I have [my] network connects, which helps me start — to hire people a bit faster. Most of my initial five to ten hires, the whole thing is either to my direct network or to a reference network.

“[This] is always the best way, but especially when starting something new, because if you just go with PR, hiring without any reference check… it becomes quite difficult to establish trust in the initial few months. You don't know how the person will react.”

Much of our conversation is centered around providing mentorship to first-time entrepreneurs (“Imagine, you know, a college graduate [who] wants to start a company, but they don't have mentors.”), So, I ask him to take me back to his early days.

When you were starting, do you remember any specific things you did to help build trust with new team members?

“I just started last year,” he says.

Indeed, Jatin founded Decube in July 2022. Our conversation is happening during the month of the business’s first anniversary.

I pause again and silently kick myself for the rookie mistake: not looking closer at his LinkedIn profile. Slightly embarrassed, I tell him he comes across as someone who's already built many businesses and “you know, has this, this wisdom of here's exactly what I would do.”

He admits that, at 36 years old, one of his (potentially) unfair advantages in building trust with new teammates is that most of his “people are way, way younger” than him.

Still, I want to know more — to understand how he caught me so off guard.

Where do you think you got that wisdom from?

Jatin explains, "First of all, academics [is] number one, which plays a vital role in laying the foundation. I come from a prestigious institute in India, and to get there, the acceptance rate is less than 1%.

“It has been a tough journey in terms of getting into the institution, getting to prove yourself, you know. But that has helped [me] to be strong at the same time. [To] have a good foundation, right?”

Secondly, Jatin says he still remembers “some of the thoughts or wisdom shared by Jack Ma. He (Jack) says, ‘You work until 40, right? Squeeze your experience and then start a venture. Because even if you fail, you have your experiences to teach you to rise again.’”

Jatin also attributes his past experiences (“I spent a lot of time in a job”), having witnessed the “ups and downs for many businesses,” as vital to his success as a first-time founder.

We wind down the discussion about his wisdom-gathering abilities with Jatin’s thoughts on personal development: “As an individual, I keep on learning new things, especially from the business side — how people are managing it, how people are running the show. Some of the case studies, which I constantly read, of how someone actually turned around [a] whole company.”

He tells me a quick anecdote about Microsoft’s leadership transitions from Bill Gates to Steve Ballmer to Satya Nadella, displaying a palpable admiration for the latter as he attributes Nadella’s investments in cloud technology and AI to Microsoft’s fast growth in recent years.

This is “just one example,” Jatin says, reiterating the importance of personal development and further explaining his thought process. 

He says, “I spend almost 90 minutes every day before going to bed to understand new trends, new stuff in the business. Not [always] directly related to [my] domain, but also something happening around the globe to unlearn and learn.

“That process has helped me to build a system within myself as an individual.”

A solid educational foundation, “a lot of time in a job,” building his professional network, and a commitment to daily learning and unlearning — that’s Jatin Solanki’s recipe for accelerating his growth as a leader and global entrepreneur.

Build with Norwegian entrepreneur Håvar Bauck

“Entrepreneurship is always two steps forward, one step back,” says Håvar Bauck.

“You start with an assumption, do your work, and then draw lessons from what you observe. Sometimes, you have to be humble enough to say that this didn't work here, at least not now. Let's keep that idea for later.”

When you’re operating in 27 countries across Africa, “this didn’t work here” is part of your daily lexicon. Bauck said, especially in the early days, adapting to different market conditions was HotelOnline’s modus operandi.

Before jumping into the venture full-time (he had a “really well-paid job” working remotely from Kenya for a Greek company), he and his co-founder were forced to go regional, “as this was during the last big Ebola scare.” They also saw a “dramatic drop” in business due to terrorist attacks in Kenya.

Bauck admits, “The Western media has a tendency of exaggerating these things when they happen in Africa.” Still, they had to find a way to mitigate unexpected ebbs and flows in revenue.

They decided to expand from Kenya to Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda, and, despite having to rapidly adapt to a variety of market conditions in East Africa, Håvar considers HotelOnline “a pretty big success from day one.”

But he didn’t start out to create the company he has today.

“Building a company is a completely evolutionary process,” he says. 

The story of his evolution, and ultimately HotelOnline’s, begins when the Moi dictatorship ends. 

Bauck arrived in Kenya from his native Norway — escaping the weather was only a tiny part of his motivation (I asked) — just as Daniel Moi’s near-25-year dictatorial rule over Kenya ended.

Reflecting on his arrival in East Africa, Bauck said, “Kenya really exploded into optimism. Everybody saw lots of opportunities, lots of possibilities.”

“The whole thing became very contagious,” he said. “And after that, I didn’t feel like leaving.”

Though his interest in entrepreneurship started to take shape at the beginning of his career, he decided to get “some experience from more established companies, [to learn] how to build companies.”

“After those first two years in Kenya, [working with] young companies at a pretty early stage of their life cycle, I learned a lot about how small companies operate, how you build companies,” Bauck said.

Nearly a decade into establishing a career as a high-earning sales professional, in 2013, Håvar reconnected with a “college mate who, by coincidence, became [my] neighbor in Nairobi.”

His friend ran a small guesthouse in their neighborhood while Håvar was “always traveling.” But when he was home, he said they were “always discussing business ideas, business opportunities.”

During one of these discussions, Bauck and his partner realized they “saw the travel and hospitality industry from different angles. And obviously, some gaps in the market.”

The largest gap? Despite being “one of the major 88 hubs in Africa,” there were no budget hotels next to the Nairobi airport.

So this is how HotelOnline started — not as a tech platform serving East Africa’s hospitality industry, but as an airport hotel. Nairobi Airport Hotel was “the first budget airport aparthotel in Nairobi and a pioneer in digital hotel marketing in Africa.”

In understanding HotelOnline’s evolution from budget hotel to tech platform (and service provider), it’s essential to realize that Håvar and his partner, like countless founders before them, were ultimately building to fulfill their own needs.

“We didn't have that much to invest, so we put together our savings, used some apartments in a budget neighborhood next to the airport, and put in some budget furniture. We started marketing this as a ‘budget airport hotel’ or ‘service department’ or ‘next to the airport.’ We started the digital-only marketing strategy. We were among the first in Nairobi to do that.”

Håvar Bauck’s story of building and eventually growing to serve 6,000 hotels, becoming the “#1 revenue partner for hotels in Africa,” is full of twists and turns and valuable insights for entrepreneurs operating across such a vast space, where market conditions require constant adaptation. We’ll explore it further in the coming weeks.

Grow with Kevin Lee, co-founder of EQ4ALL

Jovial, self-deprecating (“I can introduce you to some better entrepreneurs than me”), and “very talkative,” Korean entrepreneur Kevin Lee is growing a business unlike any other that we’ve featured to date.

Quick to point out he’s “too old” to make the “next iPhone, Facebook, or Apple,” Kevin tells me his primary objective is to “make a big impact.” After he explains the size of the problems and the potential for growth in his markets, it’s fair to say “big impact” is putting it modestly.

Lee is proud to be a social entrepreneur. He’s also well-prepared — so far, he’s the first entrepreneur to show up to our interview with a PowerPoint presentation — and he’s eager to help me understand the scope of what he’s working on.

“There are many opportunities,” he says. “The inequality in all of life [for deaf people], like family communication, the opportunity for equal education, the opportunity for social contribution, social participation, and the equal social system and opportunity for happiness,” to name a few.

The first problem Lee is tackling is sign language translation. “There are 466 million deaf and hearing-impaired people in the world, and 71 countries recognize sign language as an official language (including Korea, but not including the United States),” he says.

“69.3% of deaf people use sign language as their first language, and two-thirds have difficulty reading text.” 

“This is a Korean [statistic],” Lee says, “but if you want to see a United States statistic, the mean reading-grade level [is] 5.9 for deaf participants, while it’s 9.8 for hearing participants. So there is a big gap.”

Society often overlooks difficulty reading as a challenge that hearing–impaired individuals face. What is life like when your interactions with the world require you to read and understand signage (or written instructions)? Have we considered website accessibility? 

“The typical user experience is text.”

Kevin tells me to imagine this scenario: We have a fire on train numbers 5 and 6. Please evacuate as quickly as possible on the right side of the train. What happens if deaf people are on the train for whom these auditory and written instructions aren’t helpful?

He elaborates further, underscoring the significance of the sign language translation problem: “It is not very simple because sign language does not come from a verbal language. [For example], British Sign Language and American Sign Language are totally different. There is no single common gesture. Sign language is not only expressed by hand but also has non-manual signals like facial expressions, mouthings, eye expressions, or body movement.”

Lee moves through his PowerPoint by presenting several slides that explain his business from a technical standpoint. I nod politely through most of it, thinking studying computer science or engineering at university would have been helpful. We cover a lot of ground in machine learning, LLMs, and datasets. Now, I’m eager to learn about his revenue-generating model and plans for business growth.

“Currently, one of the cash cows is web accessibility. The web is full of tasks and is the most important source of information,” he says. However, he’s also noticeably excited about “an immersive AI-powered science-language education platform” for deaf children.

Lee is currently working to gain recognition for EQ4ALL by presenting at conferences such as United Nation’s AI for Good Global Summit (he was a presenter in 2020 and 2023), securing B Corp status in Korea, and pushing the Korean government to mandate sign language translation on all government-operated websites.

“For web accessibility, we charge about $8,000 - $10,000 a year. In Korea, like the government sector, they have over 22,000 websites. I'm pushing the government to make mandatory,” he says.

“And the good thing is that, until now, our retention rate is 100%.”

🔎 Watchlist

If you read this issue of Think, Build & Grow, you might remember that I teased a couple of BIG partnerships that were in the works. I’m happy to announce that we’ve partnered with the German chapter of Founder Institute!

Here are the first five people you’ll be introduced to through our collaboration with FI:

Stay tuned for more info about the European entrepreneurship community and news about our second extensive partnership in LatAm coming soon.

Until next time,

Nolan Bulger

Founder, Mergerous Media Co.

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