Laterite started with two friends brainstorming in a café in Nairobi in 2010. Today, Laterite has about 60 full-time staff in five countries, working on impactful research projects across East Africa. It sounds straightforward enough, but Laterite’s story is one of ruggedness, trial and error, good luck, and, occasionally, a dose of bad luck too.
In this blog, we want to share what we learned when we’ve struggled, pivoted and, sometimes, reversed course. It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve learned a lot along the way.
Knowing when to pivot and when to commit
Laterite started as a social enterprise set up to increase access to high quality, affordable and local advisory services in underserved markets. The idea was to build a (100% locally staffed) company in one country, spin it off within a few years, and then move into a new market, and repeat. Though our passion was research and public policy, in the early days, we thought that Laterite could play a role in providing other types of management and public sector advisory services too.
There was (and still is) an idealized and self-congratulatory appeal to the social enterprise movement and, looking back, we were seduced by it too. Before we had done anything of substance, there were articles and blogs about the great things that Laterite was about to do (cue: embarrassment with hindsight). Friends were quick to point out that they did not quite understand what our focus really was. We had many ambitious ideas, but it quickly became apparent that what we needed was focus.
We were naïve and idealistic – no question about it – but we were also quick to adjust course and narrow down on a model that combined our interests with our values. The goal became to provide high-quality research services, using data and evidence to deliver policy insights, with teams on the ground and embedded in the local context. Laterite’s laser focus on the quality of our research and the importance of understanding the local context is what has enabled us to build this organization, with the values that it holds today.
The lesson we take away from this early experience, and which has played out again and again over time, is that to succeed an organization needs to balance the flexibility to pivot and question its assumptions, with the ability to commit itself to long term investments and provide clear direction.
Sometimes you have to let go, no matter the sunk costs
Today, Laterite works in five countries – Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Netherlands – but this does not tell the full story.
In 2013, we made our first attempt at expansion, to Malawi. But Laterite in 2013 was simply not ready for this step. The demand for our work in Rwanda was greater than what the team could handle, and we underestimated the difficulty of setting up in Malawi. The expansion attempt was premature and it cost us time. We had to accept that this was not the right time for Laterite as a company to expand.
Another attempt at expansion that didn’t work out was in 2017, when we set up an office in New Delhi. The idea was not to replicate the Laterite model in India, but rather to build a support team for our research activities in East Africa and eventually also an innovations team. We were attracted by India’s large talent pool and its shorter recruitment cycle, which we thought would give us some much-needed flexibility to scale up in times where we needed additional support.
The equation we had in mind didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. However, having invested a lot of time and effort, and not wanting to disrupt the life-plans of colleagues that had just joined, we were reluctant to reverse course. Laterite’s senior management team eventually convinced us that it was in Laterite’s best interest to press the pause button, and they were right. Though it was the right course of action for the company, it felt very unfair to our new team members for whom the decision created a lot of uncertainty.
It is important to accept when you’ve made the wrong call, and be willing to correct course. In a sense, we experience that feeling in miniature many times in our day-to-day, be it small things like dropping parts of an analysis you’ve spent days working on or finding yourself in a situation where you’re the only one in the room that thinks something is a good idea. In these moments, it’s important to not take it personally and be willing to consider alternatives.
The impatience to deliver change through research
Change and social impact are concepts that inspire and motivate us, but it took us time to realize just how complicated change can be, that research can open up more questions than it provides answers, and that the distance between an insight and a solution can be very large. As a result, we’ve also come to be more patient and acknowledge that our work may not lead to direct tangible change in the short term.
With time, we’ve come to think of impact as a long term-endeavor that requires an excellent understanding of the local context, building relationships, acquiring lots of knowledge in specific sectors and then trying to contribute in an active way to the policy dialogue. It’s not one research project that will drive change, but the body of our work in different sectors that over time will shift the needle of the policy debate.
Taking this long term view has helped us to put things into perspective. Patience with respect to the outcome, but impatience with respect to the process – we’re always looking to keep the ball moving – has been a recipe that we have come to embrace.
Finding the equilibrium between ambition and capacity
Since day one, we have pushed to make Laterite a great place to work, deliver impactful research, innovate with every new opportunity and create new opportunities for the team. At times we’ve moved faster than we could plan, figuring things out along the way; at times we’ve over-estimated our ability to take on more work given our resources; at other times, the size of the team outgrew our existing systems.
It has sometimes felt impossible to reconcile Laterite’s commitment to go the extra mile for our clients, to meet our revenue targets and, simultaneously, to live up to our ambition to make Laterite a great place to work, where staff learn continuously and maintain a strong work-life balance. This is partly because delivering high quality research is inherently time intensive; partly because our revenue stream relies on delivering projects for clients; and also because project timelines are not fully under our control because of approval issues. But we have also over-reached at times or miscalculated, leading to unnecessary pressures on the team.
We have made many incremental improvements over the years that have helped us tip the scales into a healthier balance for our team, but it is still a work in progress. Things that have helped include: investing in operational functions and bringing new skills into the organization (the finance function, business development & communications and, this year, a focus on HR and innovation); building slack into the system by having a floating team of analysts that can provide cross-country support; improving our resource planning and project management; being more selective with respect to projects; and setting clear boundaries with clients.
This remains a top priority for us. We have always had a lot of respect for the fact that everybody that works at Laterite has dedicated part of their lives to this organization. That, to us, is sacred and bears a lot of responsibility. When you respect people and their jobs, they respond in kind.
The delicate balance of personal and organizational priorities as Managing Partners
As much as we both love Laterite, running the organization has been personally challenging at times and requires constant dedication. If anything, the pressures on our time and our sense of responsibility towards the team have become harder and not easier as Laterite grows. The process of gradually removing ourselves from the day-to-day operations of the organization takes time and raises challenges that are not always easy to resolve.
What has kept us going is the strong partnership, which is founded on an alignment in values, that has stayed constant for the last ten years. We have had continuous conversations on how we see the company developing, and on how to balance personal and organizational priorities. We have been flexible and understanding with one another; and never questioned our commitment to the work or our individual personal decisions. Lesson learned: being best friends has made things so much easier.
Looking forward to the next decade
As we open Laterite’s new decade with an ambitious agenda, we remain eager to learn from our mistakes and successes. 10 years on, hopefully now less naïve than at the start, we still maintain our idealism and hope that Laterite can inspire the great people it meets on its trajectory.