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Startup Stories: Esca

Startup Stories: Esca Startup Stories

The show that saved his startup – Shalom Osiadi on his experience on Ready Set StartUP

I sat down with Shalom Osiadi, winner of the new entrepreneurial TV show Ready Set StartUP and founder of Esca, a stablecoin savings and payments startup. We will be talking about his experience on the show, so get ready for some behind-the-scenes insights. Also, Shalom shared how he pivoted after the show, what’s ahead for Esca, startup funding, his take on the future of crypto, and much more.

What got you into entrepreneurship?

Shalom: My entrepreneurship journey started during my teens, around the age of 15 or 16. Despite my parents’ professional careers – my mother as a nurse and my father as a pastor – they always had a knack for business. They wanted to get into e-commerce but lacked the technical skills, and asked for my assistance. I tried it out, made some money during one of my summer holidays in high school, and fell in love with the process. Originally, I planned to study law at university, but I quickly changed all my applications to focus on computing and business.

In college, to support myself and earn some extra pocket money, I started a few businesses. My friends and I were importing items like ‘snapback’ hats, which were quite popular at the time. We would then sell them to students looking for rare brands that weren't available in Ireland.

Later, I moved on to importing electronics like headphones, which I'd also sell at a margin. This early business experience fuelled my entrepreneurial spirit. Throughout college, I kept nurturing it, and by the time of graduation, I was nominated for a President's Award for innovation in the university. I also won the Faculty of Computing and Engineering Innovation Award, which came with a cash prize of €3,000. This made me feel quite accomplished after my four years in college.

What was the initial idea for Esca?

Shalom: Esca began as a peer-to-peer food marketplace. We wanted to enable individuals with a passion for cooking to create their own food brands and sell their products to the public through our platform. That's the concept we pitched on Ready Set StartUP. At the time, we'd been operational for a few months and had about €5,000 in revenue. However, there were issues that led us to pivot later.

The diversity in a country like Ireland, in terms of cuisine and thought, is still not great, although it's improving. During the pandemic, I realised how hard it was to find good food, which inspired me to start this business. The idea of Esca, the peer-to-peer food marketplace, originated when I was in college in 2015. I was ill due to my poor diet, and a friend started cooking organic food for me. That greatly improved my health. She could cook, I couldn't. That sparked the idea: why not let people who can cook sell their food? That's how Esca was born. My friend, who's Nigerian, has since created a thriving business, and she was the inspiration behind Esca.

“On the first day of my new job, I received the call from the Ready Set StartUP team”

How did you end up in Ready Set StartUP?

Shalom: I somewhat fell into it. I'm part of several WhatsApp group chats with other entrepreneurs. One day, a link to a new business show offering a grand prize of £100,000 was shared, suggesting that anyone interested should apply. I was sceptical, but Esca needed funds and traditional methods weren't working for us. 

I decided to apply and see what happens. I completed the application in less than 5 minutes and then completely forgot about it. At that time, I was looking for jobs as Esca wasn't doing well. On the first day of my new job, I received the call from the Ready Set StartUP team about my application. This took me by surprise and led to a series of interviews. We ended up getting through, all based on a whimsical decision.

Eventually, I had to decide between quitting my job to pursue this opportunity or figuring something out. Luckily, my manager gave me a sabbatical which allowed me to participate in the show and work on Esca.

What were your initial expectations going into filming the series?

Shalom: I was expecting a very Dragons Den or Apprentice-style thing, as that's what I had been told. I grew up watching The Apprentice and Dragons Den, so I was expecting a business-oriented show. I was there primarily to raise money. So I wasn't quite prepared for what I encountered when the show actually started. However, things worked out in the end.

How was the experience on set?

Shalom: It took roughly five weeks to film and it was tough. We would begin filming as early as six or seven in the morning, and sometimes it would go until midnight or 2 AM. On top of that, I had a company to run. It was a challenge, but I think that's the nature of show business.

There was quite a bit of drama but the events that unfolded on screen were all organic – the result of the contestants genuinely falling out with each other. To be honest, there might have been some slight nudging from the producers during the reflective moments to heighten the drama a bit. As things progressed, it became more about the business aspect, which I personally enjoyed more.

“I knew I was going to win”

How did you feel on the way to the final?

Shalom: Leading up to the final, I lost a bit of confidence due to the team tasks. We were often at the bottom and never won any challenges. As an entrepreneur, this hurt. But as the show went on, I felt more and more confident about my ability to win. When we got to the semifinals, the final four, there was still some uncertainty. I was preparing my team for any outcome. But when we reached the final three, I knew I was going to win. Despite my previous doubt, I believed in my business acumen, my skills, and my business potential. Compared to the other finalists, I felt my business had more scalability and potential for real-world application.

Then, on the final night, we had a wrap party at the Mayfair Hotel. We got to break down the barriers between contestants and judges. It was great to communicate with them personally. We hadn't had the chance to do so until then. After the party, it was back to business.

How was the interaction with the judges & mentors?

Shalom: The only time we interacted with the judges was in the pitching space. It was as if they were the Dragons we had to impress. They were always sceptical, especially Tom Blomfield. He looked at me as if unsure whether I was a genius or an idiot.

The mentors were great. I'm still connected to most of them today. They opened our eyes to critical aspects like market segmentation and financials, which entrepreneurs sometimes overlook when they're consumed by a good idea. Their insights, coming from their accomplished personal and professional lives, were invaluable. The critique sessions were as intense as they seemed, trust me. It was like defending a dissertation. You're on the spot, and it's incredibly stressful.

Why was Angelika deemed the ‘Queen of Mean’?

Shalom: For a long time, I thought it was physically impossible for her to actually smile. Until one day, I was able to make her smile and I realised she was human too. She was the most intimidating judge – all the contestants were very scared of her.

She was consistently stoic. Whenever she asked a question, there was no emotion behind it. It was simply facts. It felt like she was saying, 'This is the question, give me an answer.' And even if you provided an answer, she remained the same. It was hard to tell, as you could never really read her.

How were the premieres and seeing the other contestants again?

Shalom: It was wonderful to see everyone involved with the show again at the premiere, including Angelika, the judges, and the contestants. As for watching the show, it was more nostalgic than anything. It reminded me of where we were two years ago. It brought back many memories and reminded me of our hustle spirit at Esca, and how we managed to reach that point. It was definitely a nostalgia-filled experience.

What kind of feedback have you received from friends & family about your performance on the show?

Shalom: Some of my friends and family have seen it, but I've gotten messages from some of the contestants' family members, saying that they thought I came across well. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm happy about that because I was just being myself. It's always a risk when you're vulnerable on a public stage, so it was great to see people resonate with my authenticity.

“I don’t think Esca would even be alive today if not for the show”

How did the show impact your business?

Shalom: I'll be perfectly honest – I don't think Esca would even be alive today if not for the show. It provided the capital needed to run a lot of experiments. Esca continued as a peer-to-peer food marketplace well into 2021, using the show's support as fuel to test different strategies. We expanded our engineering team, which in turn attracted more people and customers to our business. After the show, we also landed our first corporate customer, Stripe, followed by a university in Dublin. This led to interesting growth, but we eventually pivoted for scalability reasons. But overall, the show was a game-changer for us.

Enterprise Ireland invested soon after the show. We were considering co-investing alongside another fund but went with Enterprise Ireland alone. It was due to the Enterprise Ireland investment that I left my previous role.

How did you pivot after the show?

Shalom: Esca continued as a peer-to-peer food marketplace until May 2021. We built out a platform with a crypto cashback element, but quickly realised our customers were not interested in food. They were simply there to make money. We then stripped away 60% of our code base and focused on making Esca a stable coin savings and payment solution. Businesses could connect their operations to our solution, transitioning their inflows from volatile local currencies to U.S. dollars. This allowed them to hedge against economic volatility and increase the value of their businesses. Since then, growth has been steady.

Now, we have over 40 active customers, which is a 17% growth from last month. We're also serving a significantly underbanked population in northern Nigeria and we're processing between €50,000 and €70,000 GMV a month. We're aiming to scale this to roughly €5,000,000 within the next six months.

What will be the biggest challenges in achieving this growth?

Shalom: There's a lot of uncertainty in our initial market of Nigeria due to a new government taking power. Additionally, there are regulatory and compliance issues to navigate. Cryptocurrency is still largely unregulated in many parts of the world, and Nigeria is not an easy market to build a crypto business. However, we're working directly with regulators like the Central Bank to develop solutions that allow Esca to operate efficiently and compliantly. These efforts are still ongoing, but we're optimistic about the future.

Nigeria is the most crypto-curious country on Earth. However, the government has viewed crypto as a threat to the economic viability of the local currency, the Nigerian Naira. They've attempted to crack down on financial services companies working with digital currency companies to eliminate the bridge between fiat and crypto. But this hasn't been successful, it's pushed more people into crypto. Since the ban on crypto in 2021, there's been over a 30% increase in trading volume in Nigeria. This technology isn't going anywhere, the regulatory hurdles are the main issue. Despite this, the market is still hot in the country.

We've just raised some funds and are interested in raising a pre-seed round of around 800,000 EUR. However, this round won't open until August. Between now and then, our core focus is on revenue growth. The goal for us is to be a de facto fund manager for businesses in emerging markets. Building a business in a currency volatile market is challenging, but we see this as an opportunity to not only help stabilise this volatility, but also to maximise profitability and value for these businesses.

“The crypto industry still feels like the pre-Apple, Microsoft boom of the 80s”

Where do you see the future for crypto businesses and digital currencies?

The future for crypto is bright, despite what regulators might make us believe. A lot of the current sentiment comes from traditional finance, which I think is genuinely afraid of crypto's potential. However, I see the long-term future of crypto as being less about tokens and more about the tokenization of real-world assets. I believe that stablecoins are the future of digital currencies, and things like Bitcoin will become commodities and slowly fade into the background. Stability is where crypto shines, putting real money on the blockchain and decentralizing it. I think that digital currencies, especially stable coins and the tokenisation of real-world assets, could be saving many emerging markets from economic strife if implemented correctly.

The crypto industry still feels like the pre-Apple, Microsoft boom of the 80s. While it's well-understood within the industry, explaining it to someone outside of it can be a challenge. I think there's a need to bridge this communication gap. Esca is working on bridging that gap. I believe we should focus on making a real societal impact in markets that need it, rather than simply dressing up existing systems.

What's your perspective on Nigeria's future?

Shalom: The future for Nigeria looks extremely bright. Nigerians are the most educated Africans and hold the most leadership positions of any other African country in the world. The infrastructure is already in place. However, what's missing is the political bridge that will enable us to become economically prosperous. We have an issue of talent retention due to political and economic divides, causing people to seek opportunities elsewhere. However, once these political issues are addressed, I believe the possibilities for Nigeria are limitless. Nigeria has vast natural resources so if we can tackle the corruption in politics, I don't think there's anything Nigeria can't achieve. Consider this – out of the 7 unicorns in Africa, 4 are Nigerian.

What advice would you give to founders that are just starting out?

Shalom: What has helped our startup, Esca, to reach where it is today, is persistence. Esca, before I participated in Ready Set StartUP, was a completely different business. There were many instances where I could've quit, even during the struggle of juggling a nine-to-five job alongside building the business. Being a founder is arguably the most challenging endeavour one can pursue. If you are committed to manifesting your vision and doing something intrinsic to you, I'd advise you to go for it, but be prepared to persevere. Don't give up too easily, even if progress seems minimal. Remember, both the good and the bad days are temporary. So, stay persistent, have faith and keep going.

As we wrap up, would you like to mention anything else?

I'd like to give a shout-out to SFC and Angelika for their support. Angelika has been a great help, especially with advice on our fundraising. The last few weeks have allowed me to meet some really cool people, and our appearance on the show was a significant boost. A big thanks to the entire team, to SFC, Stephen, and Angelika, for this opportunity.

Niklas Föltz Niklas Föltz
Marketing & Communications Manager