Your biggest competition


One of the many things they taught us at Babson is that it’s a total fallacy to say you have no competition. Only inexperienced people would make such an ignorant statement.

Substitutes are your competition. Inertia (no purchase) is your competition.

But there’s a bigger one: your customer.

It’s an insight I had while speaking to the entrepreneurs at a startup acceleration programme called Sw7 (I think of Sw7 as mini MBA bootcamp). I was describing what our go-to-market approach is. It’s no secret: we understand the sorts of value-adds that can be delivered over a Wi-Fi (or other) network. We don’t tie ourselves to any specific vendor or supplier in the value chain, so we can be relatively independent. We bridge the gap between venues, advertisers, customers, and operators.

Oh, and the key thing? We partner with the telcos. Because with the value chain as it is, if you’re not partnering with them, you’re competing with them.

I remember, back in the day, after I figured out what mobile data offload was and before I knew how silly Wi-Fi presence analytics was, sitting at Skyrove HQ in Cape Town and wanting so badly to partner with the big operators. But what did we have that they didn’t?

Scene of a conference I spoke at

Scene of a conference I spoke at

Well I figured that out. It took me 6-9 months to identify the problem, 6-9 months to come up with a solution (there were some overlaps in there), and now, especially with the credibility of my French partners and my rock star CTO, now, it’s like we’ve cracked a code. Except that the big players are slow.

I’ve said recently you need four things to succeed in the South African market:

  1. CVP. A real customer value prop. Not a gimmick; not a feature. Real value.
  2. Credibility. Your customers and partners must believe you can deliver what you say.
  3. Connections. You’ll never get a partner or a big customer by calling the main number, so you have to develop your network, build trust, and work it for qualified intros.
  4. Patience. Because this stuff doesn’t happen overnight.

Lucky for me, I’ve always been a long-term thinker, and a collaborative thinker. My plan is to form partnerships that are greater than the sum of the parts. Complement your partner where they are weak, and let them complement you where you are weak. Understand their business well enough that you can position it to them, and be credible in doing so.

Check the lawn! Jozi is so dry in winter!

Check the lawn! Jozi is so dry in winter!

THIS is my strategy. Because back to the beginning statement: your biggest competition is your customer. At least in a B2B sense, I don’t know B2C from a pile of rocks. Although, for my sins, I’m learning it.

Your customer has bought from you. That means you’re adding value. But the next thing your customer will naturally try to do is figure out how to cut you out of the value chain and either do it themselves (cheaper, or more control), or buy this product or service from one of their existing service providers from whom they purchase multiple other products and services. It’s all about simplifying logistics and supply chain.

So how do you not let that happen? Stay relevant to your customer, but even that is secondary. First and foremost: don’t try to maximise short-term profit at the expense of a long-term relationship. Sometimes you must take the bird in hand, but don’t be stupid about it.

Baby's a bit confused if she wants the coffee or the bird!

Baby’s a bit confused if she wants the coffee or the bird!

There was a case a few months back where the distributor could NOT understand why I wanted them to send the quote directly to our telco partner. ‘But don’t you want to make money?’ Sure, but not by selling them kit they could buy directly. Why would they trust me if I did something like that, when we were supposed to be partners and they were doing me a favour by buying the kit so I could run my software on it?

What the lovely Kate Mosteller taught me a few years back about product marketing applies here as well – you must make it very clear to your potential partners why you are relevant. Don’t expect them to figure it out. They are incredibly busy!!

I have seen so many people here focus on product and not route to market. Here’s the secret of the four Ps – Place is the most important one. Doesn’t matter how cool your mousetrap is if no one ever sees it.

Enough philosophy. Clearly there was some business development and partner development going on, and some implementation work that resulted in Neelay wanting to kill the guys at my favourite ISP. I told him: it’s like a marriage. You take the good with the bad.

Kinda like Johannesburg and traffic!

Kinda like Johannesburg and traffic!

Now is as good a time as any to relay just how great my CTO is. First, he’s a nice guy. Second, he’s hilarious. Third, he knows his sh*t. Fourth, he’s honest, ethical, and can see the big picture which enables me to have someone I can really vent to about the stupid that I see on a pretty much daily basis.

Fifth: I didn’t quite realise the implications of Jens’ statement that Neelay was well-respected in the industry. But he is. And that means he gives us credibility, and he comes with connections. Same as my status as an American MBA with a handful of connections of my own.

But he’s a real partner. And I love that. I am so lucky.

I’ve not spoken much about my non-telecoms life of late. CrossFit has been boring because I’m not allowed to do anything with my arms or shoulders because of the rehab. Squatting and deadlifting and running and jumping and lunging gets boring after a while, don’t you know. Especially deficit deadlifting. Ugg. So not much to speak of there other than getting continuously annoyed/impressed with the athletic prowess of a certain top male athlete who either feels like showing off on a daily basis or doesn’t consider doing sh*t most people couldn’t even attempt, without so much as a warmup, to be showing off. My favourite was when he handstand walked up to a barbell, then over it, then back. That was until he did a box jump that I swear is eye-level for me. No warmup. Nothing. I know it’s wrong to be jealous of a guy. But I am a little jealous. I’m not gonna lie!

After returning from Paris I moved my cat up to Joburg as quickly as I could. This involved a road trip of epic proportions which I, foolishly, thought would be fun. OK, the first half was fun. Then the turbo died and the scenery in the Free State leaves a lot to be desired. It makes Missouri seem like New England in the autumn. By the time I got us to Johannesburg I had never in my life been happier to see an e-toll plaza.

From the guest house mid-way

From the guest house mid-way

My cat was such a sweetie for the whole trip. Didn’t cry after the first 5 minutes. As long as she’s with Mommy she’s happy, high maintenance tortie that she is! Wonder where she learned the drama queen thing from, ha!

Another one. Small town South Africa.

Another one. Small town South Africa in winter.

The next weekend I went down to Durban to see my friend Amy and we were supposed to compete in a race but I got slammed with illness. Bad. Bad, bad, bad. It was actually a virus and a bacteria at the same time. But seeing Amy was great, and we also attended part of the Durban Film Festival, seeing two films: Omar, and Concerning Violence. Omar in particular I thought was striking; a fantastic composition of fear, fate, loyalty, trust, ethics, and luck.

I wish I’d been healthier to be a bit more present in the moment with Amy. Illness and exhaustion will get to you, hey. But I was very happy to get to listen to her talk about the good and the bad of her work. It’s fantastic, from time to time, not to have to think about your own life or your own work, and let someone else talk.

Scene from our guest house balcony

Scene from our guest house balcony

The next weekend I spent mostly in Cape Town, a great combo of training, attending a birthday party where I didn’t have any desire for either alcohol or sugar (even I found this weird), but the company was fantastic even if slightly inebriated. And then I went for a sleepover with my fantastic friends Hes & Ryan.

One of the things that I realise periodically when I fly from Cape Town to Joburg is the friendships I am missing out on by not being in Cape Town. And these guys are some of the first that I think of.

Well: you don’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Or sometimes a whole lot more than that.

One of the things that surprised me about becoming a CEO was the degree to which you are just forced to grow a thick skin. But yet I take it personally when things don’t work. Sometimes people are unpleasant!

If people are just rude, or unreasonable, that can be unpleasant but that’s them. I am never one to complain if there is a legitimate reason not to do a deal, or to terminate a contract, etc. That’s business. It’s not personal.

And another beach - this time Cape Town!

And another ocean – this time Cape Town!

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. But when we’ve done our best or I’ve done my best and people are still angry and unhappy? That does get to me. Both because I’m human and because I try to be understanding of my staff and suppliers.

You catch more flies with honey. Someone should tell that to my Cape Town rental agent!! What an unnecessary bunch of unpleasantness and posturing. Probably trying to make me so annoyed I move out when my lease is up so they can jack up the rent. Mission accomplished. My life is too busy to deal with unnecessary drama!

There was an earthquake in Johannesburg this week. 5.5. It mildly shook up our telecoms conference. I didn’t realise there were earthquakes here and since I was on the top floor of a modern building it didn’t really feel like the dramatic up and down that a normal quake feels like. I remember being woken up by one such in Berkeley. Terrifying; the very world beneath your feet isn’t reliable any more.

I suppose that could be said for a lot of worldviews. Are you ever really safe?

I guess what I’ve learned is to be able to roll with the punches. Employee quits? Car needs a major repair? Customer leaves you? Relationship ends? Shit happens.

Adapt. Don’t hide. It was like that time a few years ago when I was too lazy in the morning to take out the trash. Sprained my ankle so badly I couldn’t walk, and then in the day the maggots had gotten into the trash. Deal with problems when you see them, before they get worse than they need to.

  • “If you told me that a fibre guy told you were crazy for going with wireless is one thing. But to have a wireless guy say that about fibre. That’s really insane!” – Ellie
  • “Kind of like you did to me. You’d think you’d done this before.” – Justin
  • “When you get over your crisis, get me the information.” – Neelay
  • “Oh! ICASA is happy not to have Skyrove as a licensee anymore? Ha!” – Ellie
  • “I took his money. And I told him ‘no.’” – my favourite lawyer
  • “That’s a nice jacket. Is that a VODACOM jacket?!?” – Tristan
  • “This industry trades on loyalty and gossip. Just like high school.” – Ellie
  • “You playing in the sand pit with the big boys.” “I thought you were going to say with snakes!” – Neelay & Ellie
  • “The plot thickens.” – Dom
  • “You’re catching on to this faster than anyone else has.” – John
  • “Brilliant. Well done.” – Doug
  • “Always, in life, it’s your fault.” – Fred
  • “These guys are smart but they are playing. And their play can be very destructive.” – Cedric
  • “21 days! I told him that was not the right answer. He should ask again.” – Ellie
  • “Acquire me on price, you’ll lose me on price.” – Tim
  • “Data without insight is just data.” – Megan
  • “it’s often not the front line that’s the problem. It’s the back office systems.” – Charlene
  • “There is no loyalty without trust.” – Saiful
  • “I call them parasites. They call themselves data enhancers.” – Bill
  • “If you don’t understand your brand, you can’t build a customer service experience.” – Megan
  • “We’re not venture socialists. We’re venture capitalists.” – Keet
  • “Why are you doing a site survey? It’s one of your sites.” – Neelay
  • “Well we wanted a partner. We got one.” – Neelay
  • “None of what you just said is normal.” – Nitesh
  • “Bwahahaha! You just said ‘unlimited voice.’” – Ellie
  • “Duhhhh!” – Jacobus
  • “What’s he done now? … Wait. I’m sorry. That wasn’t professional. What I meant to say was: ‘You were saying?’” – Ellie
  • “These breakfasts are cool and all. But when we sign this teaming agreement, we’re going out for drinks!” – Ellie
  • “There wouldn’t be enough string.” – Cor
  • “No I think the guys at — went drinking today, they were all AWOL.” “As a matter of fact, you are correct.” – Neelay & Ellie (He didn’t ask how I knew. But I guess, obvious!)
  • “What are you up to?” “World domination.” “No, that’s not f*cking vague at all!” – Jaco & Ellie
  • “But aren’t you kind of the exception to the rule?” – Jaco
  •  “That’s like drinking Miller Lite.” “No, Boet. This is SAB.” “SAB makes Miller Lite.” “…. Yeah. That’s very true actually!” – Paddy & Ollie
  • “Are you really using espresso cups as shot glasses?” “Yes.” “OK. Just checking.” – Ellie & Sara
  • “I realised I’m taking this bachelor life too seriously when I woke up with a half-eaten pizza on my chest.” – Ollie birthday guest #1
  • “I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are white!” – Ollie birthday guest #2
  • “The only problem with him is that he’s possibly too nice.” – Ellie

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