Timing of this post: mid-August. I’ve been a little busy.
Every once in a while, while driving about in Johannesburg, I take a look around and wonder why on earth I am here.
Not that I don’t love it here, but one of those moments like in that Talking Heads song, where I find myself thinking how strange. How did I wind up starting a company in a foreign country? Why am I not still a corporate drone and married but with now 2.3 kids?
There are indeed some of those: “my God, what have I done” moments. But mostly the feelings are of happiness or even relief that I’m not living a life that I now regard as limiting.
Limiting because you can’t think outside of the box that you are in. As much as I love my home, my country of birth, I get upset when I go back because of the polarised media, the cultural focus on Team USA rather than Team World, and the subtle but pervasive cultural nudges. Someone was saying the other day how South Africans as a culture are trained not to question authority and to be subservient. Without saying that either culture is actually that, let me say that South Africans tend to be a tad more open with their disagreements than Americans. It’s a generalisation, of course.
So here I am, and living a life that surely isn’t perfect: obnoxious rental agents – any Cape Town landlords, beware Perfect Property Solutions like the plague, too many plane rides, shoulders that heal more slowly than I would like, an industry that moves slower than I would like in some ways, but it’s mostly pretty awesome.
Neelay keeps saying (even exclaiming) how much fun he’s having and wondering how many other people in the industry are busy having the kinds of conversations we are having? Not many.
It’s a luxury; a gift, really, for those of us lucky enough to be able not only to love our jobs but to get to create something. I’m afraid I’ve spoiled Neelay for life now because he has realised that it’s not just about getting good work done or even being recognised for it: it’s about being able never to be bored, and to do things that no one has ever done before, at least not quite in the same way.
I was on a chat with the guy that I often refer to as my strategic soulmate and said look, I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. How interesting is that? It’s not. Take this thinking to its logical conclusion (as I have), and if I’m not adding value in the value chain, I don’t want to be performing the activity. No one likes a middle man who is taking a cut for doing nothing. What could be worse??
This is why telecoms is so perfect for me. A mix of long-term thinking which I have always taken (sorry but I will sacrifice short-term good for long-term good 9 times out of 10), rapid change, and general silliness. Where else can your drama of the week be about a rack mount server that comes without rack mount kit?
In many other ways I am lucky. Lucky that a few months back the police showed up in the nick of time to save me from an opportunistic would-be robbery when my car broke down on the N2. Oddly enough in exactly the area where they are now specifically targeting cars to disable and attack.
Lucky that I have good enough spatial awareness, peripheral vision, and presence of mind to drive through a red light and get the hell out of dodge when guys fly out of the dark and up to my car & the car in front of me at a relatively remote intersection in Sunninghill on my way back from the gym. Attempted carjacking? Quite possibly; maybe something quite innocent, but I sure as hell wasn’t sticking around to find out. Your gut is normally right. Even when you ignore it.
That physical danger bit is always with you, and it’s not fun. But you take the good with the bad. I get to do really cool stuff too. Like go to hearings at the telecommunications Regulator, present to panels at the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services, speak with the Competition Commission, go to Paris, figure out new business models and routes to market that literally no one in the world has done at any sort of scale yet, speak in public on such a regular basis that it no longer scares me in the slightest, and get named to lists like 200 Young South Africans.
People complain a lot about the corruption and threats of physical violence in this country. It is true that you listen to the morning news and there’s riots and highway blockades and fires and the scandal that is Nkandla. But hell, there’s corruption on a grand scale in places as diverse as the United States and Russia. In the latter, don’t challenge the government or you’ll be thrown in a Siberian prison forever. In the former, don’t challenge the government or you’ll be stuck exiled in Russia. I exaggerate a bit, but really.
When it comes to personal safety, no we’re not completely safe. But like I was explaining recently to some American visitors who were horrified of the people randomly crossing the street (playing Frogger), and the donkeys, and the vendors with their carts: it’s your responsibility as a pedestrian not to get hit. It’s also your responsibility as a driver not to hit anyone. It’s not like Cairo or Hanoi, both of which also seem to operate fine.
And we’re also not in Israel, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria (shall I go on? You get the idea).
I think it might have been the move to Johannesburg that changed my perspective a bit. Cape Town is easy to love. It’s one of the most fantastically beautiful places I can imagine. It was a special place to live, and it’s a great place to return to. It has an African-European-Victorian-hipster-ancient-modern juxtaposition going on. And that mountain. And the beach. And the winelands. It’s like a bloody poem.
You have to see the beauty in Joburg. Or like the pace of the place. I do see the beauty, and I like the pace, and I love sitting in my garden with my laptop, and I love my gym to pieces although there are too many boys. But they’re my boys; crazy things.
Speaking of CrossFit, I’m still not able to compete but I did go watch some of my friends compete at a local competition. Funny mix of wanting to mix it up and being glad I did not, because sometimes competitions take more out of you than you get out of them.
The same can be said for jobs, or even for one’s whole life, if you think about it.
There are definitely days when I look around and wonder: how did I get here?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: inertia is a powerful thing.
Some of the bigger telcos I work with seem to have two speeds: stationary, and sprinting. As Cedric once said, once you get those wild porks running in unison, it can be hard to stop them. But to get them going takes patience.
I often say I’m not known for my patience. But I suspect this is actually not entirely true.
It is quite strange, to be where I am doing what I am. I’m the only one in the country talking like I’m talking, which either means I’m completely nuts or onto something interesting. It would be a hell of a lot easier in Boston. But in Boston, I would never have met the people I’ve met to be able to have the inputs to think about things in the ways that I have.
Jozi is an incredible melting pot (in some ways, the separations are most definitely still there). It’s a condensed version of the diversity that I love about South Africa. Where else can you have a meeting about Wi-Fi for the crown jewel shopping centre in the country in the morning, and advertiser-supported models combined with approaches to using the internet to help people educate themselves and get jobs in the afternoon? Not Boston, London, or Paris. That’s what makes the BRICS a fantastic place to live and innovate.
I’ve been saying recently that to succeed in this relatively small country you need the following things:
- The right ideas
- The credibility and capability to deliver on your ideas
- The right connections
Like it or not, I’m developing my patience. Same as going to CrossFIt for months and not being able to do any of the fun stuff that requires your arms, but trusting the process. When I do go back, it will be better. At least, I’ll appreciate it more.
- “Rack mountable means being able to rack mount it. Not having to ask later for the rack mount kit. ” – Neelay
- “Every time I look at that list from Neotel I just want to cry.” – Ellie
- “I only do business with people that I trust.” – John
- “What are you going to do with all this extra time, since you’re not travelling?” “I dunno. Sleep?” “Train???” – Rick & Ellie
- “Oh, you too? Please tell me you at least have two apartments.” “I do. And two cars.” – Ellie & Joe
- “When you’re new, it’s best to stay under the radar.” – Johan
- “Would it be inappropriate to say I love you? In a completely professional sense of course?” – Ellie
- “Who gets 8 hours sleep???” “Me!” – Neelay & Ellie
- “You take it with water. Not up your nose.” – things that get said in CrossFit gyms
- “Seems like we share the same concerns.” – Louis
- “So you actually stalked the Afrihost CEO?” – Ellie
- “I’ve discovered that most people have no idea what they’re doing.” – Jacques
- “Not knowing where Tasha’s is is like not knowing that the Earth is round.” “Right? This is my second Tasha’s for the day, in fact!” – Tasha’s Morningside manager & me
- “This meeting was at the house of the Sisulus!” – Neelay
- “It’s carrier-grade or nothing.” – Frits
- “I did that alone last year.” “Well. We’re sitting in the right room right now, aren’t we, Neelay?” – Neelay & Ellie
- “I agree with MWEB for what its worth.” …. “I can’t believe I just wrote that.” – Ellie
- “You’re American??” “What, did you think I was from the Free State?” “Yes!!” – Previn & Ellie
- “When I see him again I’m going to be like: ‘Shall we have a chat about what rack mountable actually means?’” – Ellie
- “The more I say we’re not building base stations, the more they want to look after our base stations!” – Neelay
- “I’ve tried to get out of it before. But … I can’t imagine anything I’d find as interesting!” – Neelay
- “Same as us. Add value. Or else you’re a dumb pipe. That loses money.” – Ellie
- “I’m training twice a day.” “I’m so jealous!!” – Lorinda & Ellie
- “They had to stop the competition because I kept winning it.” – Rick