Interview with Melvyn Lubega – EdTech, business inflection points and Go1’s ambition to reach 1 billion users

Melvyn Lubega is an experienced technology entrepreneur and executive, who has built businesses that serve customers across the world. He founded Go1, a learning & development ecosystem currently at over $3B valuation, after acquiring book and podcast summary subscription service Blinkist. He’s been an Endeavor Entrepreneur since 2017, and he is a Board Member of Endeavor South Africa.

You managed to navigate hypergrowth, investment rounds and global expansion. What kept you motivated throughout the process?

I think from the beginning what kept me motivated was the purpose. All of us have our motivations, but the common one is the ambition for business. So what we do at Go1 is ultimately help people unlock their potential through learning – be more employable, and have more career prospects. And in doing so our goal is to have 1 billion learners. Today, we have fewer than 50 million learners, so we’ve got a long way to go, for us it’s just day one. That’s how we keep ourselves motivated, because we know that given the platform we have and the team we have, we can build something really big.

What were some of the challenges on the way?

Definitely different points of scale come with different experiences and challenges. How to maintain our culture as we grow our business is one of our current ones. It’s easier to create company culture, but within a myriad of countries and geographies, the question becomes how to do it at scale. Right now we’re bringing different people who’ve been there, done that in big organizations to help us as leaders adapt how we lead and manage.

I would say that thinking of problems of scale is another current challenge, which is a good problem to have. We could be having different conversations if we were asking how to stay afloat and survive, but fortunately, we’ve built a business to a point where we don’t have these pressing challenges.

Do you think there’s a direct correlation between your relationship with learning and your business success?

100%. Ultimately, business is people. People are the most important asset in any organization and it’s determined by their environments. An organization’s ability to learn vis-a-vis the people in that organization and the overall culture will determine the organization’s ability to react and succeed in a changing environment, whether that’s internal changes, micro changes in the industry or anything else.

As an organization, you have to learn to adapt and change and to make use of the tools of the day to have the best success. So I would say that there’s a strong correlation between having an organization that learns and a learning culture and business success. For a business to succeed it needs to be agile and hyper-responsive to changes in the world.

You were born in South Africa, with a Ugandan origin. Do you think that your family roots contributed to your resilience and success?

Definitely, resilience, but it’s also given me an understanding. Business is people, and being able to have understanding, to have empathy in this context of huge diversity of cultures, races, and ethnicities helps if you come from a point of wanting to understand a different perspective.

In building a business, having different viewpoints is important, because it allows us to relate to people differently, and that’s one side of it. Another side of it is that when you grow up in a resource-restrained setting, you’re almost forced to think of things differently. I remember speaking to one of the board members of Endeavor, who said that during Covid businesses in emerging markets tended to perform better compared to Western businesses, because Western businesses expanded and grew at all costs, whereas often in resource-constrained settings with less capital, you tended to acquire more higher quality, more profitable businesses.

A bit of this also influences how we think of profitable growth as opposed to growth at all costs.

People often think of Africa as a unitary market. In reality, it’s highly divided in terms of opportunities and capital investments. From what point on does access to a global network like Endeavor become vital for a start-up’s growth? And does it differ a lot from one country to another?

Africa means 54 different countries, and there are some similarities among certain common cultures, but not to the point where it becomes a monoculture. When you think about expanding, it’s the same as thinking about Romania versus Czech versus Poland, there are particularities, and it comes down to which markets you want to go to. Once you understand the specific markets, you’ll know where your product or service is best placed to scale and grow, based on where you’ve already had success. So for instance, if you’ve had success in Egypt, you’re better off scaling to the Middle East than you are to East Africa because of the cultural similarities of the Arab nations.

But then, not all businesses should scale to other countries. And not all businesses should scale globally. What you find through Endeavor are businesses at an inflection point, and for many companies that means expanding into new markets geographically or product-wise.

With Endeavor, you can unlock that network, but it doesn’t necessarily make it true that every company should go global. Sometimes your problem-solving is localized. But whether you’re solving a local problem or a global problem, it’s often the same pain and effort and trouble, so might as well do something big.

For a start-up at this inflection point, what’s most important aside from capital?

It’s important to know beyond capital, what inflection point means for your business and what comes after. Once you understand this, you can then ask the question of what is required to do to actually get there. Sometimes it might be the right people, or the right advisors, the right strategy or different types of capital. But this is often a secondary conversation, following what you’re going to use it for.

How do you calculate the perfect balance between staying true to your competence when scaling and trying to fit different market needs, which often require flexibility? How much flexibility is too much flexibility?

A business that doesn’t change won’t exist, think Kodak. But also if you change too much and you don’t consolidate and you don’t get a good understanding of what your core is, you may have no purpose in the market. Ultimately every company is its assets: people, the brand equity, its customers. There’s a level of brand trust between your organization and your customers. If you stand for something as an organization and that something is lost as you change, you may also lose the trust of your current customers. This is only okay if you’re thinking of building a new customer base.

When I think about business, I think about Apple. And not about the features, the fastest camera here and the x feature there, but the lifestyle, a value promised to consumers. Whether you’re selling cars, cell phones, radios or Airpods, there’s a certain value associated with those products. When you think about change, you think of ways to do it in a way that grows and enhances the trust you’ve already built with your customers. The question then becomes: ‘What is my core value proposition?’ and you use that to pivot and scale.

Having such a clear perspective on where your business is headed, what other plans do you have for the future?

What excites me personally is that I want to create 100,000 jobs in my career, that’s my professional and personal goal. How I keep myself honest is that I want to build businesses so exciting that keep me up at night, but I want to invest in businesses that I wish I started, whether that’s because of the quality of the entrepreneurs or the quality of the problem they’re solving.

So I’m currently wearing these two hats. As an investor, I think of the co-founders and the problem and the impact, and when it comes to building products myself, I think education is such a large, key problem to solve, a truly transformative element in the global ecosystem, one of the many challenges of my lifetime that I want to try and tackle with technology.