Charles Kunene, Cofounder at Obaa

Who are you?

I’m Charles Kunene, co-founder and Product Designer at Obaa, Inc. I’m originally from Swaziland and came to the US for my undergraduate degree in Political Science and Graphic Design.

I’ve been an entrepreneur for 3 years, having already built a health company that is currently active in Ghana, called Peach. This company was incubated by MIT GFSA and the Merck Accelerator; having also received funding from the D-Prize and the Clinton Foundation.

Now I’m focused on a US-based company; called Obaa with the same team that worked on Peach. We have created a software platform for researchers to securely communicate and share their work. Aside from entrepreneurship I write sci-fi short stories and am working on a screenplay for a TV-series focused on a startup working in the artificial intelligence space.

Can you tell us the story of your business from idea to where you are now?

Both myself and my co-founder Cobby had previously founded a health company to digitize health records in developing countries. At the same time, we remained focused on creating a solution to make it easier for patients to reach doctors through telemedicine and augmented reality. It’s too early to tell if this space will become more active and investors are shy about investing in unproven technology.

This led us back to the drawing board and as we reviewed our learnings from speaking with different health providers, mainly dermatologists, we discovered that we had missed one of their central complaints. That it was difficult for them to collaborate with colleagues both internally, and with providers at other facilities.

As we expanded our customer research, we found that academic researchers had the greatest difficulty collaborating with their colleagues since they dealt with proprietary data and often had to coordinate research with colleagues not just in other institutions but also, ones in other countries. This meant that they used at least 3 apps to share their data and to communicate, often in ways that left their research vulnerable.

Instead of creating just another file-sharing app, we stumbled onto the insight that researchers not only needed to have their communications sent securely but also

needed a platform that was a hybrid of a file sharing platform and a cloud storage provider with a full-suite of file management controls.

Pursuing this idea, we’re currently in beta with close to 200 users on our platform with high engagement metrics from our users.

What has been your biggest failure or struggle?

As an entrepreneur, I struggle with doubt the most. One of the most important skills a founder can have is the ability to discern between useful and destructive feedback. It’s tempting to always follow advice from mentors, advisors and investors that you trust even when it goes against your instincts. I’ve found that maintaining a keen eye on customer behaviour and following your instincts leads to a better product.

And what has been your biggest achievement or success?

Having gone to a small liberal arts college in Iowa; I never saw myself as an entrepreneur nor thought of entrepreneurship as a viable profession. When my cofounder and I were accepted into MIT GFSA (now called MIT Delta V) I was in disbelief that our idea had merit enough to impress an institution like MIT. That accelerator led to many learnings that I’ve carried for years, the greatest of which, is that anything is possible regardless of where you come from.

What’s your must read business book?

Most definitely, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. This book gives you a ground zero perspective at what it’s like to run a company both in times of great success and also, when everything seems to be falling apart. My greatest takeaways had to do with management; from making sure that you hire the best people, to having tough conversation with current team members in a way that’s respectful and productive.

Who’s your most inspirational CEO or founder?

I’m most inspired by Slack CEO, Stewart Butterfield. Slack has had an outsized influence on design aesthetics for file sharing platforms and has changed the conception of messaging in the workplace, making it more exciting and engaging for employees to collaborate.

Slack has also kept itself true to its values as it continues to grow at a fast pace; by leading the way with women and minorities being highly visible in senior positions within the company. They continue to show that high growth can doesn’t require a company to compromise on its principles.

And can you tell us something weird or interesting about yourself?

In college I taught myself to model and animate in 3D using online tutorials because I wanted to become an animator and work for a special effects company.

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