The Zimbabwean Perspective

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Zoom’s recently rise to fame and infamy are a tale both Zimbabwean start-ups and established giants could learn from.

A case study about growth an scalability…….

American video conferencing Zoom has been an MVP story as of late, with COVID-19 and social distancing causing a huge boom in it’s user base and making it rise to an app equivalent of overnight fame. Yet, with that fame has also come a recent surge of infamy caused by the service’s privacy loopholes, design flaws and just more questionable distribution strategies which all bring up a lesson that Zimbabwean established tech companies and budding start-ups should all take note of: managing growth and scale.
Now just for a little background context, Zoom has been a respectable video conferencing and calling app/service with a well-established user base for years now, having a free service for general consumers but making a lot of its real money from enterprise customers including tech site The Verge. The service had the attractive feature of allowing people to start and join video calls without any sort of an account or signup, a feature which until recently competitors like Skype, FaceTime and Google hangouts definitely did not have, and also becoming the key contributor to Zoom’s recent and massive growth. The service has grown from around 10 million users overall in December to 200 million daily users this month alone. It’s the kind of unprecedented growth almost any company would dream of and it’s largely been caused by COVID-19 and worldwide social distancing initiatives. And while usage for most major video calling apps and services has improved in this period, Zoom’s easy to engage model of starting a call with no account and generating a code for everyone else to join has undoubtably made it the biggest winner of this rush and an apparent new darling in the tech community. Except in the past three weeks the service and its different apps have leaked recorded video calls online, been shown to track registered users and link their data with LinkedIn and install a webserver on MacOS in a way that essentially copies the same tactics as malware or viruses. And while all these expose’s haven’t exactly stopped most people from using the service, they have become a pretty big stopgap for a company that’s just finally having it’s big moment, making CEO Eric S. Yuan dish out constant apologies and pause any new feature updates for the Zoom’s apps while the company essentially reviews a lot of it’s security and implementation flaws. Hence bringing us back to our lesson on scalability and growth, and how Zim companies of all sizes need to learn from it. Zoom’s growth was unexpected, and the company simply got lucky as some might say, but a lot of its security flaws and design problems were not unexpected at all. The company chose to design it’s recording naming schemes the way it did (which led to some of its leaks), alongside intentionally choosing its encryption methods and LinkedIn tracking methods the way it did as well. And all these choices are now coming back to bite the company partially because of its newfound popularity. Simply put, a great foundation is always a must, especially in tech. Despite the tech industry being known for it’s flexibility, fundamental changes to your product’s design or infrastructure still cost time and money, with that amount usually growing the more established or relied upon the product is, making it hard to cough out for start-ups who usually don’t have the money for unexpected disasters, while established companies will lose a lot more money because of their strong foothold making it harder to change overnight. Hence the age-old advice of planning ahead, making sure you start strong so you finish strong comes to mind. Yet this often isn’t the case in Zimbabwe, with start-ups using whatever options they have available maybe due to lack of the exact needed resources, while larger players likely just rely on their monopolies to remain in operation, even if that doesn’t always work either. Terrible foundations for a tech product or service are simply poor scalability planning, a bad business practice no matter what industry you’re in.
In fact, it’s terrible foundations that led a number of failures from established companies in the past few years. Anyone remember in 2016 when everyone started relying on electronic transactions more, yet in Harare it became an almost well-known fact that from around 5pm to maybe 6:30pm the reception for Ecocash and certain bank cards would be borderline unusable. This was due to the rush-hour period where everyone would shop on their way home, and it caused congestion on the then available bandwidth for those services and would drag a whole business district to a crawl with everyone trying to transact but barely being able to do so. And if that one was too far back for you to remember then Econet’s recent infrastructure change should be a more recent blow to handle. And I’m sure some of you will rush to point out that that upgrade included changing to an entirely new system, yet as we already mentioned in our initial article about the issue, new system or not, Econet should have handled the situation a lot better, knowing they held the largest form of trade in the country. While the two systems differed Econet should have initially done more to work on the scalability of its older system’s or better yet, phase it out in stages rather than a full-blown, overnight overhaul that had customers missing their money from weeks on end. And that’s just on the financial end of the spectrum. Telcel’s are mad worse when the company doesn’t cover well areas where it has loyal customers, NMB ran out of Tap Cards for a while when a lot of people started adopting ZUPCO buses for transport and last year YoMix apparently went through some glitches that essentially gave user’s dirt cheap data because some of them found glitches in it’s system. All these problems come from poorly managing the scale of these companies’ products and services, and as we already said they rely on their monopolies to get past it, but little by little it makes customers lose their loyalty. Just look at the uptick in OneMoney usage for example, which is directly related to the Ecocash blunder last year. With size and scale comes all the responsibilities of keeping that size, and every company has to be willing to tend to that. After all it’s the increase in users that gave Zoom the increased scrutiny that brought all it’s flaws to light, and even here customers do eventually see here they are being sold short or where there’s loopholes they can take advantage of.  If you’re a start-up you should always think about this, and even about how your company can stick to its original goals and ideals once it starts getting larger and those ideals become a little more complicated to uphold. As for established corporations, living up to your standards and set customers’ desires would be a good start, as failing to meet your own market has become too common an occurrence in this country and it seems only more losses for said companies might make them wake up to their folly. Failure to meet the respective requirements for each type of company will yield negative results at some point, and often it’s only a matter of time.
And as such we come to the end of our lesson, or rather hopefully the beginning of it taking hold of whoever might be reading this. Whether you’re a company employee or just a consumer, it’s an important lesson to learn and it reminds consumers of their power, while reminding companies of their priorities. And in the case of Zoom, it’s a growing pain that the company will likely clear, perhaps keeping its stronghold after the COVID-19 epidemic and becoming a mainstay in people’s lives and workflows. Only time will tell, especially in the effectiveness of what its experiences have taught everyone reading this.

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