Timbo Drayson: The Tech Pioneer Redefining Address Verification in Africa

Oui Capital
8 min readMar 31, 2024

If you have ever used Google Maps or Chromecast, you’ve indirectly interacted with Timbo Drayson, an ex-Googler with a passion for technology and innovation. While traveling across Africa in 2014, Timbo discovered that Google Maps did not function optimally in the African context. This realization sparked his journey to address the challenge of unreliable addressing systems in emerging markets. With a background at Google Timbo founded OkHi in Kenya. OkHi provides address verification services tailored to businesses, including eCommerce and ride-hailing startups.

Timbo’s experience at Google equipped him with valuable insights into leveraging technology to solve real-world problems. His vision for OkHi goes beyond merely providing addresses; it’s about empowering individuals and businesses with a reliable means of identification and access to essential services.

Can you tell us about how you got into the tech space?

I was at Google for seven years, where I worked on three distinct projects. First, I launched Google Maps across emerging markets. Then, I focused on building out the developer ecosystem in the same regions. Lastly, I invented Chromecast, taking it from idea to launch and filing seven patents along the way. All of this was based out of London.

Eventually, I was planning to move full-time to San Francisco, but instead, I decided to take a sabbatical. During that time, I traveled around East and West Africa, including Nigeria, in 2013. I spent four weeks meeting entrepreneurs, visiting hubs like CC Hub in its early days, and engaging with many e-commerce founders. It was a humbling experience because the technologies like Chromecast, weren’t as relevant here at the time. This exposure led me to quit Google and start a business in Africa. I moved to Kenya and spent six months interviewing hundreds of businesses. I noticed a significant problem: the lack of a reliable physical addressing system, not just in Africa but affecting 4 billion people worldwide. This realization led to co-founding what is now Okhi, almost 10 years ago.

A few things solidified my decision to start Okhi. Firstly, I observed the inefficiencies in moving physical goods and people, resulting in multiple phone calls just to locate a destination. Secondly, I encountered difficulties obtaining a SIM card due to the requirement for proof of address documents, which many people didn’t have in Kenya at the time. Lastly, I witnessed how the Red Cross ambulance service struggled to locate individuals, leading to tragic outcomes. These experiences underscored the critical nature of the physical addressing problem, affecting billions of people and costing the world’s economy $200 billion annually. This was a big enough problem to go out and try and solve.

How did you meet your co-founders?

I have three co-founders, two of whom are based in Kenya and one in the UK. So, two of them I met in Kenya. Both of them were introduced to me by mutual acquaintances who shared an interest in tackling challenges within the technology sector. The other co-founder from the UK is someone I’ve known since we were eight years old and went to school together.

How are you navigating the co-founder relationship?

Well, I think probably the fact that there’s four of us means it’s actually easier somehow because it’s less intense than having just two founders. We meet regularly, and ultimately, we really live by our company values and ensure that we’re open with each other. We’ve never had any arguments or falling outs, but a lot of that has been driven by the culture that we’ve built as founders. And hopefully, that runs through the rest of the business.

How did you come up with the name, “OkHi”?

Well, firstly, I had a startup that I ran at Google and it kind of failed. beautifully. One of my learnings was that we spent too long worrying about the name. Obviously, that just did not matter in the grand scheme of things. That time would have been much better focused on how to get users rather than worrying about the name of the business. So when it came to OkHi, we really only had a short conversation, and the name was actually recommended by a friend who later became an investor. If there are any two English words that people know anywhere in the world, it’s “ok” and “hi,” given that we’re solving such a global problem. That’s why we ended up using OkHi. We also liked the fact that it didn’t mean anything. When you searched for it on Google, there was no SEO content. So it was kind of gobbledygook, and okhi.com, a four-letter domain, was available.

Can you tell us what problem OkHi is solving in a one-liner?

OkHi is addressing the lack of formal physical addresses for the 4 billion people worldwide, enabling access to essential services and reducing the $200 billion annual economic cost associated with the absence of a formal addressing system.

What do you love about building OkHi?

I love that we have a very clear mission that is very audacious and can have a huge impact on the world. I also love the team that I work with every single day and the passion and resilience, the sort of shared passion and the shared resilience that we have together. And then I’d also say that by building this company, it’s given me a deeper understanding of countries that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Being from the UK, being able to experience, live, understand, and do business in Kenya and now Nigeria is, I think, just very privileged.

Who was your first hire? And what struck you about him/her?

Our first hire was Dennis out of Kenya. He was a doer — someone who just got stuff done and had a broad range of skills that he could apply. He was excellent with people. We did a lot of product testing and work with delivery drivers. He was also intelligent, quickly learning new skills and becoming quite data-driven, providing valuable insights into the company. Dennis was like a jack of all trades, always maintaining a positive attitude and eagerly jumping into any project or task required. He was truly a valuable addition to our team.

Have the recent developments in technology impacted the terrain you operate in?

Yes, recent technological advancements have significantly impacted our operations. Firstly, the constant increase in smartphone penetration has expanded our market size, as our solution requires smartphones and GPS. Secondly, the widespread adoption of Google Maps and the improved ability of users to navigate them has been a big shift from when we started. At the beginning, people were hesitant to use GPS due to concerns about charges and not being able to use the mapping tools. Increased smartphone usage and educational efforts have addressed these challenges. Smartphones have become more affordable, driving growth, and GPS accuracy has improved over time. These developments have made it easier for people to obtain OkHi addresses with less need for user education.

Another significant area is AI and machine learning. We now use AI to power our digital Address Verification Service, a task that would have been challenging and expensive a decade ago. With the availability of advanced tools and technology, we can leverage AI to enhance our services efficiently.

What would you say is most important when building a sustainable business?

Ultimately, revenue solves all problems especially when you can achieve profitability. So I think it’s crucial to have a clear business plan and a path to profitability from the outset. While building a financial model may seem frustrating initially, I’ve come to realize that it’s one of the most important exercises for any founder aiming to establish a sustainable business. Although the model may not be entirely accurate or predict exactly how the business will grow, it serves as a valuable tool for thinking through the details of business growth, including assumptions and strategies to achieve sustainability.

Did you encounter any unexpected lessons when you set out to build that you had to learn on your own, without prior guidance?

Firstly, I realized the importance of owning the cap table from the beginning and ensuring that it’s structured in a way that incentivizes the right people. Managing the cap table effectively can be a bit of a dark art, and while there are some resources available, there’s limited discussion among founders on this topic. It’s crucial to get it right early on. Talk to more founders, particularly those who have successfully navigated series A, B rounds, or have had exits. They understand some of these early problems and are often empathetic and willing to share their experiences.

I implemented a “shadow a CEO” exercise, where once or twice a year I spend a day shadowing a CEO who is a few years ahead of OkHi. This experience provides invaluable insights into business operations, culture, and leadership, allowing me to learn from their successes and challenges

What is that one piece of advice you’d give to aspiring founders?

You have to have a clear mission for the business, and ultimately, the mission is why you’re building a business. You need to be very truthful to that. Whether it’s to make money or to solve a problem and have an impact, it’s crucial to understand your true motivation. The only reason why Okhi is still not just alive but focused on doing what we’re doing is that we have a very clear mission. aThere have been opportunities to pivot or chase bigger deals, but we’ve stayed true to our mission, which has been key to our success. For example, when we moved from deliveries to financial service address verification in Nigeria, it was because it was still aligned with our mission.

Defining values early on for the business is also crucial. These values should be based on the existing DNA of the founding team and help drive the business forward as it grows.

Lastly, spend ample time understanding the problem and talking to users. Even after nearly a decade, we’re still learning, and if I could change anything, I would have invested even more time in researching and understanding the problem deeply from the beginning.

What do you do to get over a bad day?

I do some exercise. It could be as small as a 20-minute run or a workout. But for me, that’s what helps completely reset my headspace.

If you weren’t building OkHi today, what else would you be doing/pursuing?

I think I’d be building a product somewhere, probably for a company similar to Google, rather than building my own.

In the long run, what is Africa benefiting from OkHi?

When our vision is realized and everyone with a smartphone has a verified address, we will unlock a lot of economic growth across Nigeria, Africa, and pretty much every emerging market. This will unlock the $200 billion currently lost and enable businesses to be more efficient, reduce fraud, and increase their revenue by reducing costs. It will also enable government services to operate effectively and ultimately include consumers and give them access. We believe that a physical address is a human right, and by giving everyone an address, we help democratize access to services, which is currently limited. This comes down to trust. One of the biggest challenges for any business is to be able to trust their customers, and when they can’t, it limits the services they can offer. If we can give everyone a verified address and enable businesses to have access to it, they can better trust the customer and deliver more access to services.

To learn more about Timbo and the team at OkHi, connect via:

Twitter: @Letsokhi

LinkedIn: Timbo Drayson | OkHi

YouTube: www.youtube.com/@teamokhi2204

Website: www.okhi.com



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