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Selar: End-to-end eCommerce platform for Africa’s passion economy
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FULL TRANSCRIPT

Narrator: Since 2008, after the likes of Uber and Airbnb ushered in the era of on-demand marketplaces, hardly a quarter has gone by without a new ‘Uber for X’ launching, at least in the US and other developed countries.

On-demand marketplaces made the sharing economy thrive. An economic model for peer-to-peer-based activities, the sharing economy allowed people to monetise their time for specific tasks or services. These marketplaces also automated the matching of supply and demand, as well as pricing.

Despite the many benefits of the sharing and gig economy, workers usually find what they do one-dimensional, prioritising consistency and efficiency over individuality.

Enter the passion economy, a model that allows individuals to monetise their skills.

On this episode of Built in Africa, we put the spotlight on how eCommerce platform, Selar is working to grow Africa’s passion economy.

Digital platforms that employ the passion economy model like YouTube, Substack, and OnlyFans highlight the user’s individuality. These platforms can be very niche, though, leaving a variety of content uncatered for.

In the same vein, some kinds of content would flop on these global platforms. However, they’d do well on a niche geographical platform.

Selar is one of such startups trying to take advantage of this opportunity. Based in Lagos, Nigeria, Selar (spelt S-E-L-A-R) wants to help Africans monetise their skill, knowledge, and content from anywhere in the world.

Douglas Kendyson: So if somebody is like writing like an eBook or if somebody is creating like a course.

Narrator: That was Douglas Kendyson, founder and CEO of Selar. Douglas says that when he started Selar, African digital product creators weren’t regarded as people who create much value.

Douglas Kendyson: I mean, maybe people rate like influencers. But nobody has really thought of digital product creators as a thing. However, for me, I just always felt, even while we were building it, that this sort of should be a thing.

Narrator: However, that notion is gradually changing, and he believes it’s thanks to the work platforms like Selar do, enabling digital creators to sell eBooks, courses, provide training and coaching, among other content.

Douglas Kendyson: So many people are creating very sensible value on different fronts and in different formats that they’re worth selling locally, and they’re selling locally. I mean, I have like coaches that sell coaching memberships and programmes for like 350k, 600k. It’s weird because you would think, I mean, Nigerians don’t have money for that, but people are paying for that a lot.

Narrator: For perspective, ₦350,000 to ₦600,000 converts to anywhere between $700 and $1500, depending on the exchange rate. For many Nigerians, this is worth way more than their combined salaries for a couple of months

The journey to building Selar started in 2016 when Douglas was a Customer Success Expert at Paystack. You may remember Paystack as the YC-backed Nigerian fintech startup that was acquired by Stripe for $200m in 2020.

In 2016, Paystack only worked with businesses and rarely with individuals.

Douglas Kendyson: But then we kept on getting like emails of people that just want to sell their… either like eBook or something and I was like, well we can’t serve them at Paystack. So I was like, “oh let me make an MVP”.

Narrator: With the help of a couple of friends, the MVP was completed in 2017. 

To sell, well, Selar, Douglas relied solely on one-on-one online discussions with creators, rather than placing ads.

Douglas Kendyson: I was never comfortable with ads because I’m a very poorly-obsessed person. I think I was always very concerned about ads because I don’t want to do ads and then bring a thousand people, only for them to be disappointed.

Narrator: Douglas recalls that they sent at least over 500 Instagram DMs to potential users during this period. Of course, you can imagine how slow the conversion rate for that approach would be.

 So Selar remained in a semi-stealth mode for over two years. Meanwhile, Douglas remained gainfully employed, so his attention was divided.

Douglas Kendyson: I’ve always just kept a job. I was at Paystack from 2016 to 2017. I worked at Flutterwave from 2017 to 2018. Then I moved to Dubai to work for a robo-advisory startup.

Then recently, I also worked for another YC-backed payments company in the UAE building like Plaid for the Middle East and emerging markets in general. I only just quit my job this month. So this is the first time that I’m probably jobless in the last 4 years.

Narrator: Despite Douglas’ divided attention, things began to look up in 2020 when he decided to approach things differently 

Douglas Kendyson: All of 2020 was now a process of me trying to be more intentional about how we did things. Whether it was with the product, whether it was outreach, whether it was sales or content marketing – which was very key – on Instagram reaching the right people.

Narrator: The effort paid off as Selar began to pull in impressive numbers by the second quarter of 2020, keeping up the momentum until the end of the year.

For someone who has worked in two prominent Nigerian fintech startups, the comparison and competition between Flutterwave and Paystack isn’t alien to Douglas. 

In 2020, both Flutterwave and Paystack launched storefronts, which Douglas prefers to refer to as checkout pages, for individuals looking to sell their products online. Naturally, one would expect these to spell trouble for Selar, given the competition’s financial strength.

But Douglas is careful to brush off any comparison between Selar and the other two platforms. In his opinion, Selar is more than a checkout page. 

Douglas Kendyson: I think, at the end of the day, for Flutterwave and Paystack, they have a lot of physical product sellers that would need to use their platform. And the cost of making a website is expensive so they made a simple page for them to add their products and a checkout page for everybody to move. That serves the purpose it’s meant to serve. 

Narrator: But with Selar, things are different. Most of the platform’s features are centred around how best creators can sell their digital products. From how files are being accessed, to hosting video-based courses, to issuing coupons to early buyers, among other things.

Douglas Kendyson: While I definitely don’t want to make it about “oh we have more features than them”, because that sounds dumb, but I think you probably want to start from the approach in which we take things. We are helping people sell digital products and everything around that, everything we’ve built, in terms of the product, in terms of the different things that these guys can sell on our platforms, whether they are eBooks or courses, tickets, etc.

If you were to try to do that on those platforms, you would have to end up doing a lot of engineering on that front, which doesn’t serve the purpose. However, with Selar, you get a simple platform that actually helps you achieve that purpose of selling your digital content.

Narrator: This doesn’t mean that Selar excludes  physical product sellers.

Douglas Kendyson: I have a lot of wig sellers that sell natural wigs to a lot of customers in the US. The whole point is giving everybody that unique, smooth experience to sell their content, locally and internationally.

Narrator: On one front, Selar is an eCommerce store builder for creators to sell almost any digital product. On another, the platform facilitates cross border payments, leveraging the payment channels on Paystack, Flutterwave, Stripe, and PayPal

Douglas Kendyson: And all that comes fully integrated into Selar. So someone that signs up on Selar today has 6 currencies by default. All they have to do is set the price they want, like naira or something, and then when somebody from Ghana visits their page, it will show them the Ghana equivalent. They pay and the user gets their money back in naira.

Narrator: With most of its progress achieved last year, Douglas says Selar has facilitated cross-border digital trade between Africans; Nigerians, for example, are selling so much content to people in Ghana and Kenya, and vice-versa.

Selar is free to use. Any digital creator can create a profile and start selling. But Selar then begins to charge creators when they make a sale; between 4% to 10% per transaction, depending on the currency used.

In December 2020, the startup introduced a subscription model where creators were to pay between $15 and $30 monthly for more features. Although it was received well, it’s still up for review and remains a secondary source of revenue to Selar’s commission fees.

Douglas Kendyson: Making money via processing is definitely still profitable for us. But I guess we are definitely also going to try to push our subscription model. I mean, I’ve always heard that MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue) is nice. But just seeing the numbers, I’m like “wow, I actually kind of really love the idea of this”, just money coming in every month. Obviously it would just have to depend on us giving value that people are happy to pay for.

Narrator: So far, the startup has no less than 17,000 merchants from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa. And in 2020 alone, they processed $270k (₦100m) in gross merchandise volume (GMV). 

While Douglas admits that these figures don’t paint the full picture, he believes they prove that there’s lots of room for growth, and Selar is barely scratching the surface.

He often reminisces about the little progress made after years of iteration and how challenging it was to acquire customers at first due to a lack of credibility. Nevertheless, customer referrals were crucial for Selar’s growth, which, according to him, speaks to the platform’s stickiness.

For now, the Selar team has Douglas as a solo founder alongside two content writers, a software engineer, and a salesperson. 

Douglas Kendyson: I kinda did start it with friends but they didn’t have the bandwidth for it for the longest time so they sort of left earlier

Narrator: From launch till date, the only outside investment the startup has gotten came in 2018 when it received the $10,000-Tony Elumelu Foundation grant.

While it’s too early to talk about profitability, Douglas confidently remarks that Selar makes a decent profit to handle any recurring expenses ‘for quite some time’. 

Raising money to accelerate growth is one of his plans for 2021. However, it’s not a priority.

Douglas Kendyson: I’ve just grown my team from 3 to 5 so I kinda really want to build a system that works, make it a stable process, and just keep building our product, because we have so many people that depend on this. Hopefully, I guess once the dust settles (of which, will it ever settle?), then maybe I will open that conversation again 

Thank you for listening to  Built In Africa.

This script was adapted by Heritage Kene-Okafor and edited by Muyiwa Matuluko

Research and interview by Heritage Kene-Okafor 

Sound design by Oghenekaro Obrutu

This is a production of Techpoint Africa

I am Muyiwa Matuluko

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