Care a lot and try hard

Joyce opened the backpack and dumped a heap of cash onto the table. A powerful odor of fish filled the room. She and Ben looked up at me: wide-eyed, fresh off the plane, first time in Senegal. “Don’t worry,” Ben deadpanned. “This is a totally legitimate company."

Mbour, Senegal, July 2018. I had just flown in from Myanmar, where I’d been working on conflict prevention, to interview for a job at Wave. That was how I found myself, in a sweaty two-story building in Mbour’s bustling central market, confronted with a heap of fishy cash.

Joyce began to explain.

Last night, a prominent fish wholesaler had signed up for Wave. He was expecting to receive a large payment from one of his customers in Dakar, the capital, in the morning. The problem: too many other fishermen in Mbour were already doing the same thing, and draining all the cash from Wave’s local cash-out points. Unless Joyce and Ben figured out a solution, the wholesaler wouldn’t be able to withdraw his full balance. They didn’t want such an important customer to have a bad first experience, but they didn’t have time to ship cash from another city.

So they did what they had to. Overnight, they toured Mbour’s ATMs until they maxed out the daily limits on their personal debit cards.1 At 6 AM, they hit the fish pier and collected the rest of the cash they needed from Wave users sending to other cities—hence the smell. All that cash was now piled on the table, to be counted and delivered to a nearby cash-out point before the wholesaler arrived to withdraw it.

They were sleepy but excited: the new customer would be able to withdraw, and would go on to tell his friends about this new company that made it easier and cheaper for him to run his business. Which would put Wave one step closer to achieving its mission.

That was when I really understood how hard I was going to have to try at this interview.

I wasn’t just there to talk to people—my first task was a supervised project that would mimic a day at Wave. My mission, Ben told me, was to identify the largest employer in Mbour, then visit them and convince them to pay their salaries using Wave.

In the next three hours.

As resources, I had my laptop and phone, a Wave t-shirt, a local Wave employee named Gallo, a translator named Oumar, some money for a taxi, and my grade-school French. Three, two, one, go!

I started by Googling. I wasn’t expecting much, but the Wikipedia page for Mbour helpfully noted that the top three industries in the city were fisheries, peanuts and tourism. Ben quickly steered me away from the fisheries: Wave had already done that research, and even the largest ones didn’t employ that many people. Gallo told me that peanuts were out of season and the warehouses were closed. So that left hotels.

I knew that no international hotel chain, managed from abroad, would be able to go from a cold call to a new payroll process in the next three hours. So I asked Gallo to list the biggest locally-owned ones. I gave Oumar talking points and he started making cold calls, but no one wanted to meet us on such short notice.

When we got to the last hotel on our list, Hotel Les Amaryllis, Gallo mentioned that he used to work there. I asked him to make a call to one of his friends in the head office, and—tada!—we had a meeting in half an hour with the General Manager.

I pulled on my Wave t-shirt and Ben, Gallo, Oumar and I piled into a rattling taxi. Sandwiched in the back seat, laptop out, I grilled my co-riders about Wave, hotels, payroll, and anything else that might help us craft a pitch. We would focus on a newly-built web portal that the hotel could use to instantly pay out hundreds of salaries to their employees' Wave wallets.

The General Manager welcomed us politely when we arrived. But as Oumar, and I in my best Franglais, laid out our pitch, he sat stonefaced. When we finished, he kept quiet. My stomach sank.

Finally, he let out a big sigh and started telling us about his payroll problems.

The hotel had over 100 employees who had to be paid in cash because they didn’t have bank accounts. This required an enormous amount of cash on hand. It took the finance department two days of painstaking work every two weeks to do payroll—mostly because keeping track of so much cash was such a nightmare. And cash would still go missing.

After answering his questions about Wave, our fees, the web portal and everything in between, I finally asked him if our portal would solve his problem. “Definitely”, he said. “How soon can we start?” Oumar and I had signed up Wave’s first ever bulk salary payer!

Back at the Wave office, after some more conventional interviews, Ben told me that I got the job.2

Thinking it over that night, I found myself coming back to two things that struck me about Wave’s team.

The first was how much they cared about making users happy. Most people would have called up the wholesaler and asked him to wait for a while to withdraw. But Joyce and Ben weren’t willing to accept a delay of even a few hours. As we’ve grown, I’ve seen this fanaticism in action again and again—whether it’s calling hundreds of users to apologize for a bug, or tweaking an error message for the fourth time to get the wording just right. And it’s always been repaid with equally fanatical love from our users.

The second trait that struck me was how hard they tried to make it inevitable that they’d succeed. Joyce and Ben didn’t give up when they realized they couldn’t get cash from another city—they found a backup plan, even if it seemed, er, creative. And that’s what they were looking for in my interview: that I wouldn’t give up after hearing “no” from tens of hotels; that I’d be excited to jump in a car and pitch a product that I’d learned about two hours ago. That determination is what’s kept us going through the hard parts—whether it’s products not working, partners failing, or competitors resorting to sabotage.

In retrospect, I couldn’t have asked for a better first day than this. It was a perfect representation of what I love most about Wave.

A lot has changed since my interview. Joyce and Ben no longer have to stay up all night emptying their bank accounts and our team has grown from dozens to hundreds—these days, almost all people from the countries where we operate. But a lot has also stayed the same. We still look most of all for people who care a lot and try hard. That fish wholesaler and his friends still use Wave to withdraw a backpack’s worth of cash every time they send a truck of fish to Dakar. And Hotel Les Amaryllis still pays its salaries with Wave :)

  1. Of course, Wave immediately reimbursed them from the company’s US bank account. ↩︎

  2. the interview described in this post was scored on the process I used, not the outcome↩︎

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