In Conversation:Solo Kombani (Chief Operations Officer,Aiculus)

As the COO of Aiculus, a Melbourne-based cybersecurity startup specializing in API security, Solo's job is to ensure the smooth running of the business and that it reaches its goals. In this interview, the Matobo-native takes us through his early beginnings in Francistown, moving to Australia, joining Aiculus after a long stint in corporate and so much more!

In your own words, tell us who Solo Kombani is  

Solo is the Chief Operating Officer of Aiculus. I was born in Botswana, raised in both Gaborone and Francistown, and moved to Australia initially for university, and then later for work. 

In my role as COO, my chief aim is to ensure the smooth running of the business and that Aiculus is able to deliver on its goals.

Briefly take us through your career journey from tertiary education to Aiculus

I grew up in Francistown and Gaborone, finishing my Form 5 at Naledi Senior Secondary school. I was accepted into the University of Melbourne and commenced in 2002, completing my Bachelors of Commerce majoring in Finance and Economics. Upon graduating I returned to Botswana, but would later circle back in 2006 to take up a role at Citigroup in Melbourne as an operations analyst.

After 3 years and having survived the job cuts related to the Global Financial Crisis, I moved from the world of banking to funds management, kicking off an 8-year career with Vanguard Investments. In my time here my roles spanned operations, performance and analytics, business optimization, and in my last role, product management.

It is around this time that the CEO of Aiculus, approached me about joining Aiculus, a then one-year-old cybersecurity startup founded by Dr. Omaru Maruatona here in Melbourne. It was the two of us that year, but we would go on to open an additional office in Singapore, and raise P7 million pula in seed capital from a venture capital fund. We have since gone on to build a fantastic team.

Your academic background is in Finance & Economics. What inspired you to pivot towards tech?

To be fair, the thought had not crossed my mind until the Founder and CEO of Aiculus approached me. I had concerns about being out of my circle of competence and wondered if I could step into an entirely different arena without throwing away all the progress I had made in the finance world. 

It turns out it was the skills and experience I had acquired in my field he was interested in and not my non-existent coding skills. My lack of experience in cyber also best positioned me to assist in broadening the message to the broader public and my finance background bode well in meetings with banks and fintech startups. That was a lesson in perspective.

The inspiration to make the leap of faith, however, came when Aiculus’ vision was laid out to me. To impact the world, and make the technology safer. On a personal level, here was an opportunity to lead, apply my experience and be in an environment where I could learn and absorb different expertise, without having to return to university.

You were initially in corporate before joining Aiculus. How did you find the transition from corporate world to a startup?

That’s a good question. My experience is on the extreme end of corporate with multinationals, but overall corporates exist due to prior success, which must be maintained. The sheer number of people and resources means processes and multiple rules need to be in place to keep everything moving in the right direction. Talented individuals and underperformers can slip between the cracks; decision-making requires longer time frames to make and execute due to the number of stakeholders.

I am also on the extreme end of startups. Having joined at the 1-year mark, we started with 2 people. We had to build everything from scratch, so there was more ambiguity. We had to be nimble and about our wits. Coming from corporate I was surprised at how much more effectively the budget could be used, and things delivered. In a startup, everybody really needs to do their bit. It is hard to miss when something is wrong so your colleagues can’t just be people you tolerate. They have to be people you trust and think highly of.

All in all, I think each has its pros and cons, and they do well to work together.

Please tell our readers more about Aiculus and what your role there entails

APIs have become the backbone of the internet and digital innovation. Aiculus uses AI behavioral analysis to protect APIs from fraud and abuse. We have offices in Australia and Singapore and cater to a global audience.

My role as COO is to look over the day-to-day running of the business and ensure that we are maximizing the productivity of our people, processes, and technology. Over the last year, I have taken a focus on our marketing efforts.

What is your favorite part about this role?

My favorite part about this role is that it plays to my natural dispositions. I have always enjoyed public speaking and this job has afforded me many opportunities in this space from Turkey to Singapore to Australia and to many more places virtually. For a kid from Matobo, this is a dream come true.

On a daily basis, I love the mission, the team and enjoy the work we do, and what it means for society, at large.

You have been based in the diaspora for most of your career since tertiary. What have been your experiences working in tech abroad?

It was not until I moved from Finance to Cybersecurity that I started to appreciate just how much innovation is happening in the world. In Singapore, I saw a MedTech startup create a Dengue fever AI-based diagnostic tool that reduced hospitalizations north of 60%. 

There are so many problems we can solve while earning a living. The good thing is, not everything has to be built from scratch. We need to invest more in solutions and ideas that will improve our lives for the better, and both entrepreneurs and investors need to do their part and be on their best game.

If there have been any challenges, how have you been able to surmount them?

Life as an adult is just riddled with challenges. I used to take issue with this but I’ve since realized that yes challenges and struggles are always there, but I can choose to be a victim or a survivor. 

I think it’s important to always put progress over perfection. Even capturing 1% on a bad day is progress. Compounding is a powerful tool if we exercise patience and consistency over time.

On a final note, I have learned I am only ever as strong as my self-care routine. And having meaningful relationships at work and at home goes a long way towards that. 

On the other hand, what have been some upsides of being based abroad?

The upside has been exposure. I am well aware of the privilege and opportunities I have enjoyed. The ability to participate in large markets, and be in touch with some of the best innovators in this space. The real question is how do we democratize this. How do we share these learnings, networks, and experiences at home? Getting from discussions to proper momentum and progress on the ground would be the real upside.

Compared to countries like Australia and Singapore where you have been based, Botswana’s tech industry is still very much behind. What learnings do you think we can get from such countries to grow our tech industry?

I think there is an illusion that all the best minds and ideas are everywhere but home. What I’ve noticed is that in other places folks have organized this knowledge and these ideas, and built it into businesses that solve problems in their locations. They usually then export the idea. But it starts at home. We have to foster our own. This is for all of us to come together to do. We must not let our hopes and dreams wither with time.

For startups in Botswana, acquiring funding from VCs, etc is still very much a challenge. Having gone through and been successful in acquiring funding for Aiculus, what tips can you give to startup founders planning to pitch to investors?

I’ll share three:

-Think like an investor: I have to be blunt here to get my point across. Investors don’t care about your dreams of making it big and living the good life, or how hard life has been for you. They want to earn a good return, and they may have some values around that but they are not based on your personal desires. Out of all the other options, why should they invest in you? Are you up to the task? Can you be relied on? The earlier stage your company is at, the more important the team is than the product.

-Fall in love with problems not ideas: Everyone has ideas, we all do even when we aren’t trying ideas pop up in our heads all the time. Customers will pay for solutions that solve real-world problems. Investors know this.

-Have a good story: And please let it be true. There is a reason our ancestors handed down lessons in stories. They are memorable, they linger way longer than the details. Have your facts for sure, you need them, but the story is what will keep you front mind to investors who see many pitches on a regular basis.

Aiculus has been a beneficiary of numerous accelerators/incubators. Botswana also has numerous accelerators and incubators for tech startups but their results have not been seen and felt over the years. In your experience, what are the important elements that make an accelerator/incubator tick?

In my assessment, accelerators/incubators boil down to two things: experience and networks. 

A good one will have a diversity of folks with hands-on experience to guide and mentor the companies in the cohort. 

The networks are also key for access. These are going to be the industry folks and investors who are brought in to give feedback and help you validate your ideas.

Unfortunately, Botswana still does not have a regulatory framework to facilitate the open and free usage of APIs.From your experience as a cybersecurity professional, how important is such a framework in facilitating innovation that is enabled by APIs?

It’s very important. Unfortunately, a lot of countries are still behind on this. As heavily as APIs are being used, they are not always understood (the apps on your smartphone are all API-based, especially your mobile banking). The more powerful a tool, the more important it is that it is not misused. A quick online search on `API breaches will show the scale of the problem.

The startup environment can be quite daunting mentally especially for those in management. Having been in such an environment for a while now, how have you been ensuring that your mental health remains intact despite the pressure?

Rest is important. I try to stay in touch with family and friends as often as possible. I also really enjoy spending time in nature away from it all.

Is there anything you would like to share with our readers regarding any exciting products or ventures Aiculus is launching in the near future? Perhaps a Botswana office soon, haha

Aiculus has been engaged in Botswana for a while now building our relationships and talking to potential partners. Some of your readers might have caught us at some virtual events. For me personally, Botswana is not just a market. It's a love affair. We are looking to approach the market in a way that makes sense with like-minded innovative companies and industry leaders, who share our passion for technology and innovation in Botswana. That’s all I can say before the snipers get me, haha!

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

That’s a hard one! Being in the Top 4 cybersecurity companies in Australia to be awarded a 3 months residency in Singapore and then going on to raise P7m in Singapore where we had no friends or family. Just two guys who grew up in F/Town and met here in Australia. What I’m really proud of, is that we are still here, 4 years on and growing strength to strength.

What’s something you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career?

People and solid relationships are some of the most valuable things one can collect through life.

If any, what is the best advice you have received in your career?

“I know” is the conclusion of learning. Everyone you meet knows something you don’t. Thus it’s important to not let ego get in the way of growth.

What advice can you give to young people who are interested in starting their own or getting involved in a tech startup?

If you fall in love with problems. Your ideas are a means to an end. You will adjust or change them to get to the solution. However, if you’re in love with ideas, you’ll be defensive when they’re challenged and when they fall apart you have nothing.

Lastly, please share with our readers your contact details in case they want to get in touch with you. 

NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity

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