Malaria taught me to delegate

For most of 2015 I had three full-time jobs.

Back then I suffered chronically from ‘saying yes to everything’ syndrome and had gotten myself into a position where my workload was simply unrealistic for a human being.

Job 1: CTO & Co-Founder of Bitwala

I was responsible for the tech and product of a very early Bitwala as well as all the demands of a 3 person co-founder team.

We were still entirely bootstrapped back then and we were not paying ourselves a cent.

Job 2: Founder, CEO, CTO & just about everything else of MeteorFactory

To solve the problem of having zero income from Bitwala, I decided to start freelancing. The idea was to hedge my bets: I had a startup which was high risk, high reward and a web agency which was low risk & steady income.

I started taking odd WordPress jobs in Berlin and eventually made a name for myself in the MeteorJS scene. Meteor was an up and coming technology and the work kept coming in. I began to hire freelancers to help me with odd jobs and eventually incorporated a Hong Kong Limited company. Meteor Factory was born.

I was responsible for everything: sales, coding, client relations, hiring, payroll, finance. Looking back, it was a very formative time!

Job 3: Teaching Tech at MEST

In a Bitcoin meetup in Berlin, I heard a talk from an entrepreneur trying to start a bitcoin exchange in Ghana. This sounded pretty crazy, but actually made a lot of sense because problems like access to banking and remittance fees is a massive problem.

At the end of his presentation, he said, “Oh, by the way, if anyone wants to teach programming in Ghana for a year, come talk to me.”

This sounded like a sliding door moment. I went up and chatted to him for 10 minutes and he came to interview me the next day. The job sounded amazing.

I could live in Accra to teach at MEST, a school which took the top graduates from all over Africa and trained them to found startups and become entrepreneurs. What’s more, the flights were paid and we received a $1000 a month stipend.

This was something I absolutely had to do.

Way too much

In a typical day, I would start working on Bitwala, fixing bugs and implementing features from our Trello backlog. It was advantageous being the only programmer (we couldn’t afford others) so I was entirely independent.

I’d then take the dusty walk to school and teach my daily lecture. This would be me standing up in front of the class, showing them some new aspect of building a web app and they would have to implement it.

In the afternoon, I’d code the projects for my clients, make sure my freelancers were busy and take care of all the operational overhead like chasing up invoices to make sure the business was running properly. I would also have to have sales calls with people to convince them that we were a performant and reputable business — somewhat of a challenge when you’re dealing with regular internet outages!

It was a pretty insane schedule, but at the time it seemed completely and absolutely necessary and I was adamant about one thing: I wasn’t about to give any of these projects up.

“You probably have malaria”

I had trouble finishing my beer one Friday evening with colleagues — a worrying sign for those who know me! I didn’t feel unwell per se, but something was definitely off and the best I could describe how I was feeling was ‘weird’.

My boss, Todd, suggested that I had malaria. I froze. Malaria had always sounded so scary. A quick conversation educated me that malaria is not a big deal for expats in Ghana. You take a few pills and it’s gone.

The next days were not fun. I stayed in bed in a sweaty haze. The most prominent change was that my ability to concentrate went to zero. Even something as simple as watching movies was too much for me and I struggled to follow the plot.

I opened my laptop to work and realised soon afterwards how ridiculous this idea was… but there was so much to do! I had to do a deployment, have a call with a client, pay an invoice etc. etc.

I ended up concluding that I could do about 20 minutes of work a day before my brain and body gave out.

There was no other choice — in my extremely limited time I was only able to hand off tasks to other people. Amazingly, over the next 2 weeks of recovery, my world did not break down. It wasn’t perfect, but overall it went pretty well!

Without meaning to, I had achieved the “4 Hour Work Week”!

Delegation is often learned through force

If you had told me that I could have shared my responsibilities like that, I might have agreed with you that this was a good idea, but I never would have done it.

There’s always a reason not to delegate. “This person hasn’t done that before.” “It would take too long to explain.” Especially for young entrepreneurs, the idea of handing off work is really difficult.

I don’t know how much longer I could’ve worked like that, but it would have almost certainly led to burnout. After malaria held an ‘intervention’, I was forcefully shown that you can only scale yourself to the extent that you delegate.

There are many entrepreneurial lessons that you can read about 100 times, but you can only truly learn through experience. Delegation is one of those lessons and it took something extraordinary for me to internalise it.

The two rules of delegation

1. Delegation seems impossible until you do it

2. You won’t delegate until you are forced to

How delegate without getting malaria 🚫🏥

If only for the scarcity of malaria in many parts of the world, I would not recommend this as a pedagogic method.

Since my Ghana experience, delegation has become even more critical as Bitwala has now scaled to 70 people. I find the following an extremely usual exercise for new managers and myself alike.

1. Make a list

Write down all your tasks and order them by how easy it would be to delegate them. In my current role as CEO/CTO of Bitwala, this looks something like this:

1. Clearly define company strategy and align management

2. Be point of contact for investors

45. Organise team building events for office party

46. Look for new office space

(You can also add the %age of time taken by each task for more visibility)

2. ‘Get malaria’

How would your list look like if you only had 2 hours a day? If that was absolutely and entirely the amount of time you had, how would you prioritise your time?

Go down your list and ask yourself again if it really needs to be you, personally, who is taking care of this. If it weren’t you, who would it be and how would it work?

3. Make a plan

The goal of step 2. is to force you to revisit your assumptions about the possibility of delegating your tasks.

Now it’s time to make a real world plan. Exactly how much to delegate is a question only you can answer, but given new things are always coming up, I would aim to delegate a little too much rather than too little.

Go down your list and make a plan of what you are going to delegate and when.

E.g. Within 1 month, I don’t want to be operationally involved in the planning of office parties any more. Within 2 months I want to be completely out of this topic.

4. Be held accountable

When asking someone ‘why don’t you delegate that?’ they will have no problem to give you a long list of reasons why this is impossible. On further inspection, most of those reasons evaporate.

Check in with someone once a month and have them hold you accountable. Have you delegated something? If no, why not? What is the blocker?

Delegation is a really hard skill to master, but a critical one if you want to scale yourself in a fast-growing company. Bitwala is looking for talented managers to help us aim for the moon. Check out our job postings to see if there’s a position for you

Startup advisor | Co-Founder & CEO/CTO @Nuri