It may be a long way from home but it took just two years for a trio of young techies to take their web-based startup from a classroom in Ghana to the world's technology capital, California's Silicon Valley.
In November 2011, Ghanaian entrepreneurs David Osei, Kamil Nabong and Philips Effah founded Dropifi, an online tool that helps businesses sort customer feedback online. About 20 months later, it has become the first African company to join the 500 Startups program, a Silicon Valley-based seed accelerator and investment fund.
"I never thought of moving to the Valley as soon as this, because basically we want to build a global startup company right from Ghana that is going to service the whole world," says Osei, Dropifi's chief executive. "But coming to the Valley is definitely a step ahead of what we had imagined."
The team's journey to the world's biggest startup ecosystem started at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology in Accra, Ghana's capital.
"David approached me and said, 'this is the idea,'" remembers Effah, Dropifi's chief technical officer. "He realized that businesses lose a lot of information online because of this long and scary contact form (on their websites). I realized that there is a huge potential for it."
That idea became Dropifi, a widget that seeks to replace what it describes as "the era of long and scary website 'contact us' forms" and "still deliver business-critical insights and a spam-free customer engagement."
The tool helps business monitor customer feedback. It analyzes demographics, industry trends and the emotions behind the messages, to help companies respond effectively to customers. It also taps into social media platforms so companies can have a broader customer reach.
"We have the person's social media profiles online up here," says Nabong. "This gives you different channels that you can even contact people from," he adds. "So I can just go to this person's Twitter profile and tweet to him, or maybe send him a Facebook message, and this makes multichannel communication very easy for you."
The entrepreneurs received their first batch of funding for the company after taking part in the Accra Start-Up Weekend, a competition for entrepreneurs.
"We came out as the winners of it, particularly because we were able to convince about 20 companies in Ghana to become paying clients of the service," says Osei.
Dropifi also took first place in the Global Start-Up Open Competition in 2012 and won the top prize funded by the U.S.-based Kauffman Foundation. The team flew to Brazil earlier this year to claim that award and it was there that they first met Dave McClure, founder of the 500 Startups program.
Osei didn't hesitate to lobby McClure.
"I particularly was impressed by David (Osei) and him coming out to me and trying to pitch me something that was maybe a little bit too much of a long shot," recalls McClure. "Initially I was really cautious, thinking 'OK, what is this guy is from Africa doing in Rio, trying to pitch me.' Then it was like, well, I'd sort of heard of the accelerator before so we knew they were kind of legit (and) the product offering sounded pretty much on target with our investment philosophy."
About twice a year, 500 Startups picks a group of around 30 companies to fund. It brings them together for a four-month "boot camp," where companies learn everything from marketing strategies to sales tactics, to help them grow their business and attract investors.
McClure says this was the program's first direct investment into a company from Africa.
"For some people maybe when you are investing in a new region they are more cautious about that; for us it was an opportunity and we were really excited," he explained.
Dropifi today has over 6,000 clients in more than 30 countries. The team now hopes to expand their company globally with the skills and knowledge they acquire from their Silicon Valley experience.
"Our immediate goal is building a sustainable product that is going to deliver continuous value to our business," says Osei. "Currently we are focused on the U.S. and international market -- the U.S., UK, Canada -- but in a couple of years we want to become leaders in Africa."