“Dial or get out of the phone booth.” – Riaan Conradie
It’s no surprise to anyone who has seen me lately or even read this blog that I’ve been a bit off the rails. I keep it together at work, where it matters, but pretty much everything else has ranged between ‘a bit of a disaster’ and ‘just short of approaching a train wreck’ lately.
I’m actually quite peeved at myself because if I’m really, really honest, as I normally tend to do once I move quickly through the stages of denial and self-justification and anger, I know better. I do know better. Actually literally everything in my life that I could perceive as a ‘problem’ is something that I could fix quite easily if I decided just to do so.
So on Sunday after Bootstrap Camp finished, I was sitting in my car in the 35 degree heat in the middle of the back roads of Stellenbosch, on chat to a friend, and I realised that actually I was externalising or projecting a need; something that I thought I was looking for, and actually I was completely backwards. No, I really don’t need an external force of any nature – sport, personal, or professional – to tell me to get my act together. I just need to get my act together and stop making excuses.
So what this means is competition season prep starts now. Tomorrow as I write this: December 9th. I’m doing it a little bit differently this year but the basics will remain the same, and obviously I’ll have some sugar on Christmas and I’ll go wine tasting with Cathleen, and I’ll probably finish a bottle or 3 with J in our yearly catch up. God I’m looking forward to those connections again; as I said before, the people you just have such an intimate connection with that you can not see each other for a year then within 20 minutes be into the deepest challenges and personal stuff, and emerge hours later wondering where all the time went.
Competition season has its plusses and minuses. I tend to feel very lonely in this season, or I have in the past, because I get very internally focused as my top priority becomes sleep, food, and training, in that order, and everything else must fit around that. Most people don’t live their lives that way so it’s lonely. On the other hand, I feel physically amazing in that period and the mental clarity is also precious.
It’s one of the things I now associate with summer. Heat, extreme saturation, lots of white on the Cape Dutch whitewashed buildings, and clean eating.
Try and knock me off my rocker when I’ve had 8 hours of sleep for the last month. Just try.
Anyway, this is actually an extremely sad time. Nelson Mandela passed away on Friday, and the few days since were spent in a form of semi-shock and sadness; relief that there was no outpouring of anger and frustration at the stagnancy of living conditions of most of the population in the years since he came to power; and in a big way, surprise at how quickly we all moved on. It was one of those events that you will remember probably forever, and I’m very glad I was at home here for it and not overseas. The man was revered, at least so social media tells me, and of course he had his flaws too. I’m not informed enough to comment further than that.
But emotions run high at this time of year, or at least mine have been due to the aforementioned lack of sleep and misplaced priorities. I’m not going to kill myself. I’ll work hard, sure, but it’s not like I get any gratitude other than from my staff, which, when I think about it, means more to me than anything. But everyone else, of course, may like me so far as that goes but shareholders want to see money and partners want to see sales and delivery. It’s normal.
You set an expectation, you start down a road, you make a bed, you lie in it. Easy as that. Or if you run off the road or realise the road is long, you communicate such and everyone re-adapts. That’s life; that’s how you play the game. No magic there.
I was telling Dave, who I adore (how could you not??), that I thought there were three natural salesmen in the room, and could he guess who they were. He got it without even blinking (the answer is me, Nic, & Sheraan). You can tell. Mostly mavens; passionate product people. It’s funny how circumstance will force you into a situation where you all of a sudden start doing something you didn’t know you could do.
Last year I talked about my surprise to find out that I enjoy sales. Now; pfft, I love it. Just put me in the room.
Problem is, the same thing applies outside of a sale. Presuming that people are rational, or don’t come in with crazy bad attitudes that are their own problem or weird biases or whatnot, they are very predictable and very easy to manipulate. Including me.
The trick is to control your power. Doug Reed was telling me this a few months back; that his read on me was that my big challenge was going to be to control my power.
I mean, my goodness. I was looking at my slides from a year ago, where I basically said I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m going to do my best to figure it out. This year, I walked everyone through my thought process as the year unfolded: what business do we want to be in and why? What does it mean to sell Wi-Fi? Why should customers buy from us? How does telecoms work?
Now at the end of the year, I know the industry well enough that I was able to relate an example about how you find out what’s going on by reading between the lines. There’s not much that goes on that relates to me that I don’t know about or find out about far in advance of public release, and that’s from being based in Cape Town when the context fire hose is a 2-hour plane ride away. So I know how the industry works, kind of, and it’s starting to understand me. I’m drafting position statements for WAPA while massively sleep-deprived, that are essentially right on point; so I must have learned something.
More fundamentally, it was fascinating to list our actual accomplishments for the year; the exact rationale for the pivot, to be able now to answer the burning questions of what’s the value prop and why buy from us. The complexity is that unlike my sister companies that, with one exception, are just one company, I have a variety of partnerships. That’s what you must do when you have a small brand and a small amount of cash in a business that requires both. I had to find other people to want to partner with us and fund my dreams.
And actually, when you look at that list of who’s agreed to team up with me, that alone is pretty impressive. To think just one year ago how unsophisticated I was. I did get what I asked for even if I didn’t know I was asking for it. Life is funny that way, it hands you just what you need at that time.
Or doesn’t hand you what’s actually not right. I am not sure I wrote this here before but not long before I moved here, I applied for a job at another Boston-based company. I really wanted that job as I thought it was a cool company. Not sure what’s become of it now, but long story short I didn’t get the job; they liked me but there was someone else they also liked who had more experience. Now you never know about the road not taken, but when the road you’re on turns out all kinds of awesome you can look back and think ‘well I dodged a bullet there.’ Like that shopping mall I tried to sell Meraki to back in the day before I learned that Meraki wasn’t really the best thing for a shopping mall. So glad we didn’t win that deal!
But there is, as always, a problem. I’ve let happen one of the things I was always afraid of, where I become the company and it becomes me. That’s gotta change, for everyone’s sake. I know how to do the former, intellectually if not emotionally. The latter I’m not so sure. And the degree to which I’m motivated by that chip on my shoulder is actually not cool. No; I don’t like weird. Weird is just weird.
I really had no idea what I was getting into. One never does, or else one would probably never start.
Still, it’s not enough. Never enough. Never enough hours in the day, not enough people yet with the right skill sets to do what I want to do, and all I want to do is be in Joburg. At least I’ve figured out something pretty darn key about myself, and that’s what I really do enjoy doing.
All the people in the room and I of course found myself resonating the most with the other salesmen. Nic talking about being unemployable and starting to drink your own Kool-Aid; Sheraan talking about entrepreneur fatigue, and burnout, and that exercise balance.
Dave and I also had a giggle; last year we were considering trying to fool the other companies into thinking that I was based in Joburg. This year I actually did fool one of the new companies; unintentionally. There is a sort of friendly but subliminal Cape Town/Joburg split in the room, and I’d aligned myself with the Joburg crew through a couple of offhand remarks.
That, and my reaction, including a reluctant answer to the direct question of where exactly is my flat, indicated to me more clearly than anything where my heart actually lies. But it’s sad. It is. To understand you need to move on is sad, and the process of actually moving on emotionally isn’t easy!
I’ll close the way that I started my presentation. Second year in a row I anchored the weekend. Last year I talked about how I thought that Skyrove and I stuck out like a sore thumb as not fitting the portfolio. What I specifically meant was that we weren’t a software play selling into the U.S. Now, one year on, I feel much more at home partly because the portfolio now has other companies selling to Africa, but also because we do, as a matter of fact, have a software play.
But also there is this. Four years ago I was writing my final paper for my Babson class that was the South African offshore course. I wanted to write about high tech entrepreneurship in the context of general entrepreneurship in the country, so my primary research led me to FireID, and specifically to Justin Stanford and Malan Joubert. Which makes sitting in the same room with them a few years later, literally as peers, strange and wonderful. Marvelous, perhaps.
I learned less this year than last year. Makes sense. There’s actually very little new in terms of business fundamentals, but we spent less time talking about our problems this year than just telling everyone our business.
One thing I did learn this weekend is the notion of something called a subtweet. Which is not at all what I would have thought it would be.
I’ve often been accused of saying things between the lines in this blog. And it’s true. I do. But sometimes stuff is completely misread. And in either case I always find it interesting: you see what you want to see, so it illustrates well the projection involved. If you think I’m talking about you maybe I am. Or maybe I’m not but you think I am. Either way does it bloody well actually matter? We always feel a lot more than we say, and words often fail to express what’s really going on. At the end of the day, all human relationships are based on connection and communication. They are also all mostly transient. The older I get, the more and more I realise you just have to be OK with not knowing where you’ll live or who your friends will be or who you’ll spend your time with in future. Five years ago I would have never predicted this.
Subliminal this: it’s hard to go the right direction when you don’t know what you want. It’s also hard to move forward when you’re in limbo. I feel right now actually exactly the same way I did when I was sixteen, my last term at St Paul’s. Even down to stopping to smell the roses, because I know what comes next.
Some hard conversations to be had in the next few weeks.
I can always see the silver lining in a cloud, and the days that I’m blue are few and far between. So I’m taking a page out of a friend’s book and enjoying moping around feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t fall off the wagon, I jumped. And when I tried to jump onto a moving train, I was gently encouraged to get off at the next stop.
If something feels right, it probably is. If not, then something fundamental must be reassessed before you move on. That’s why you don’t rush into strategic partnerships. You only go back to the contract when something is either going very badly or very well, not for those middle-of-the-road type deals. In either case, you’d better have thought it through.
I miss how I felt in competition season last year. So I know what to do, and I don’t have long to wait.
- “No other industry is like this! OK maybe espionage.” – Rudolph
- “Stop thinking about Wi-Fi.” – Sam
- “Ellie has caught wind of your latest endeavours.” – Dominic (thanks to my eyes & ears in Johannesburg!)
- “It’s like they can sense, or smell, our fear.” – Michelle
- “I can see you’re going to be a good partner to work with.” “The feeling is mutual.” – Ellie & Francois
- “In an ideal scenario we don’t even exist.” – Dave
- “Actually I do know a place just like this in Joburg.” – Ellie
- “Are you from Cape Town or Joburg?” “Both.” – Len & Ellie
- “You’ve all probably touched William at some point.” – Justin
- “Then you start to believe your own bullshit.” – Nic
- “Most of us will never retire. We just won’t.” – Nic
- “Everyone can build the tech but you can’t get people to use it.” – Malan
- “We think we’re different and special. But we’re not. Everyone’s competing.” – Nic
- “The difference us is people like us are slightly broken. We enjoy the struggle.” – Nic
- “Then you understand that it’s not about the exit. It’s about the journey.” – Nic
- “No I saw that coming. I just wanted to hear him say it.” – Nic
- “I don’t know what’ll kill an entrepreneur. But we keep trying.” – Sheraan
- “Something good must happen at some point. Just don’t die.” – Sheraan
- “The guy was telling me how he performed miracles. It was very interesting.” – Sheraan
- “Your body is like an ocean.” – Riaan
- “Did you solve movement problem?” “Yes.” “Are you the only ones to have solved it?” “Yes.” – Sheraan & Riaan
- “One of the other things that came up was ‘Dial or get out of the phone booth.’” – Riaan
- “They’ve been looking in the wrong place.” – Justin
- “Dude. Your name is Ian Barnes. You’re not Afrikaans. You may as well be Mike Smith.” – Justin
- “Businesses are about power and ego.” – not who you’d expect
- “And the ironical thing…” – Laurie
- “We’ll burn that bridge when we get there.” “Said every entrepreneur, ever!” – just us
- “I got him a crossbow for Christmas. Don’t tell him.” – Laurie
- “They stick to their guns.” – Sheraan
- “They shipped it over?” “They shipped it over yes.” “What, like sideways?” – Sheraan & Laurie
- “Isn’t that what you would do with the paws of a giraffe? Make a lamp?” “I’d use it to prop open a window.” – Nic & Justin
- “They took my owl can you believe it?” “They let you have the giraffe buy they took the owl?” – Laurie & Nic
- “If only I could lie in business like I lie in my personal life.” – no way on earth that’s getting attributed!
- “Dave lives in central Sandton. There’s no living things there.” – I honestly can’t remember, sadly!
- “No that part’s a lie. But the spider’s true.” – Dave
- “It’s actually many sprints within a marathon. If it was just a marathon it would be fine.” – Laurie
- “Then this too will pass.” – Sam
- “The point is not to.” – Sam (a different one)
- “We’re clearly both in the industry when neither of us catches ‘Consumers will be able to consume.’” – Ellie
- “Nice.” “There’s more where this came from. Next year is going to be fun.” – Lance & Ellie