Africacom 2014


Africacom is like a high school reunion. At least in my world where telecoms is like high school.

Except this time around I’m one of the cool kids.

I suppose the main thing that happened in November was that I started to lose patience. Not in a bad way, but it definitely started to happen.

If you’re going to think for the long term you cannot be distracted by short-termism. But you need the short term priorities to align to the long-term priorities.

One of my pet peeves is, and has always been protection of one’s own [department, normally] over the greater interests of the whole. That and laziness. OMG ‘not my job’ when it’s actually no one’s but someone has to do it is my absolute worst. Want something done? Ask a busy person. Until they eventually get mad.

One of the parties

One of the parties

Actually another pet peeve? Continuing to bark up the same tree over and over again. If something isn’t working, figure it out and fix it.

When I was at Africacom I received a very interesting email of the sort that might have made me fall out of my chair if I was prone to drama. I actually did exclaim out loud that such an email doesn’t come through every single day. Not par for the course, but not such a stretch, either.

So it is a good time, as the year is kind of ending and everyone is together to reflect on where we are as a new company. I think the conclusion is that we are right about where I expected us to be, given the inputs and macro forces. Building a bakery takes time, but my oh my are we assembling some fantastic ingredients.

Another party ...

Another party …

I’ve finally figured out what does and doesn’t sell, and where the problems and weak points are in the model.

I’ve also figured out that no one, at least in this market, sees Wi-Fi business models quite like I do. Which is fantastic, at least in the Peter Thiel sense.

My speech went off well despite to a relatively small crowd on the graveyard shift but it got some good press, and the more I can start to educate people about how the business model isn’t the same as what you might simplistically think, the better. I probably spent 10 minutes talking about all the problems with traditional ways of thinking about Wi-Fi & business models.

I honestly could speak for 30-45 minutes, easily, about all the reasons that traditional approaches to Wi-Fi and carrier Wi-Fi are broken, unoriginal, or just plain stupid. But 10 minutes to tee up my point of what actually to do worked wonders, because people can identify. When you identify all the pain points that no one really wants to talk about but then still come through with why you’re advocating something, it gives you a lot more credibility than a user car salesman.

Drinks at a wine farm

Drinks at a wine farm

Fun & games continued between the speeches, meetings, secret meetings, and cocktail parties, including a double ambush by a guy who I have actually come to quite like although I tell you what, when I first met him in the bowels of Dimension Data I didn’t know what to make of him. Still not sure I do. Except to watch out for ambushes!! It’s all in good fun, after all. Until somebody loses an eye, which is not, in actual fact, too likely.

The double ambush was classic though. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me for not anticipating it!

Most importantly, I got to see one of my favourite humans. You know, it started off as bewilderment. Then it turned into respect. Then a little bit of adoration (ok maybe more than a little). Now? It’s pretty much just affection. He is always late and I don’t mind, accuses me of ordering him to eat pizza, can’t tell the flavours of ice cream, and lets me kidnap him to go see my friends at HealthQ for a Saturday field trip.

I have no words

I have no words

And I suspect he appreciates the tete-a-tetes as much as I do because I ask him things like ‘What have you learned in the last year?’ It was interesting what he said, which was a lot about differences between countries and central vs local context, authority, and knowledge.

But of course I was also stupid for asking such a question because I would surely have to answer it for myself, and my year has been pretty complicated. Definitely a year of growth and learning – starting two new companies, taking  leadership role in a trade association, discovering that I love policy work, finding new shareholders, team members, and deciding on alliances.

All without a formal support structure, although I have an excellent informal support structure in the form of industry experts from overseas, the guy I call my strategic soulmate, and some people running investment funds. And also, Neelay, to whom I tell everything (ok almost everything … I have on occasion promised not to tell a soul what was told to me).

One thing about high school: the stakes for sharing secrets were much, MUCH lower. Which, of course, makes the current world I’m in a lot more fun!

Someone has a sense of humour ...

Someone has a sense of humour …

Then again, to be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a formal support structure. There were structures of authority; but support? Good point for me to consider: to what degree do I actually properly support my team? Probably more than some and less than optimal, but that goes without saying. Would that I was always the person that I would ideally like to be.

Back to my list of learnings in the year so far. This is an ongoing list, but I have learned how you have to think to be able to think and speak on behalf of an entire industry (and that when you run a trade association you no longer have a “private capacity”), how a small company must work with a big company if it wants to be a long term partner not just a flash in the pan that the big company immediately tries to disintermediate, how even a startup can think of loss leaders to acquire customers (I think of this as ‘less margin now, more margin later’), how to sell data science, and how to have a transparent and trusting partnership with one big company while still being free to do business with its competitors.

Oh, and a little bit of French…. but not too much. I really should practice that more. There’s a lot of things I should practice more.

Following the Africacom come-down which was hectic, the Sunday after I said goodbye to Sébastien at the airport I moped around the house all day, I prepped for another speaking engagement which went quite well. Especially the part at lunch where one of the other delegates and I were blowing the mind of a third one who had very little idea about Julian Assange and the dystopian future we’re all busy walking into unless someone starts to fight back.

I also spent quite a few hours negotiating the detailed terms of what felt like my dream job. Life is funny sometimes.

Perhaps the funniest of all was the press conference with the City of Cape Town for one of the projects we’ve been working on. I’m not sure what was the funniest; that there were people protesting outside and so the building was on lock-down and I had to come in through the basement escorted by someone from the inside, or the things I really wanted to say to the other guys in the room but held my tongue because … well, everyone at band camp knows what goes on at band camp I guess. You don’t need to call a spade a spade when it’s right in front of your nose now do you?

Obligatory photo with the Mayor

Obligatory photo with the Mayor

I’ve got a new conspiracy theory now that one of our esteemed industry players may just be setting itself up to fail spectacularly on purpose. I am not sure I believe my own theory, but it’s plausible. And where there’s smoke there’s usually fire. Either that or Niel was more correct than I realised when he said that common sense is not too prevalent in our industry at this time.

Enough about my commercial life as I call it: we also had the WAPA kickoff meeting for the year which was very exciting because we have a strong team and such a degree of alignment around our objectives it’s amazing. I consider myself tremendously lucky to be able to work with some of the people that I am now in my second year of working with: Dom and Sam on the regulatory side, Kerry (the voice of reason), Ian (who knows his stuff and has instincts to match his knowledge), and then there is Jens.

Like this. My Tweet? "WTF Cape Town, who installs your LANs?"

Like this. My Tweet? “WTF Cape Town, who installs your LANs?”

Jens is one of the very few people about whom I can say without any hesitation or reservation, that I trust him implicitly. He’s smart, hard-working, rational, team-oriented, insightful, thoughtful, and politically astute. What I often say to drive the point home is that I trusted him implicitly even when he worked for Internet Solutions (apologies to the good people who work at IS, we kid, of course).

I am loving watching Jens get more and more vocal with his excellent insights and we complement each other well. I’m the one who ‘gets’ PR, he’s forgotten more about spectrum than I have learned. He sees things I miss and vice versa. What a fantastic person to have working alongside you.

Our fantastic WAPA Exco :)

Our fantastic WAPA Exco 🙂

I remember back to my days at Ask Jeeves International, when I learned just what it means to be part of a small, kick-ass team that complemented each other well. That didn’t last too long, unfortunately, but some of the guys there I still hold in very high regard.

In my earlier days at Ask Jeeves I liked being a big fish in a small pond and being the only one who could do lots of things. As I’ve gotten more experienced I understand that you have several times the power if you can lead, empower, and teach rather than do. It’s a continuous struggle especially for me right now when quite a few of the things that we need to have done I am the only one capable of doing them, because I’m the only one with the right background. There are not enough hours in the day, and no way to spread the workload effectively.

One thing I will say about Neelay which I really appreciate is that he does not hesitate to say what he thinks, especially when he thinks other people are being idiots, or are not trustworthy.

I mean, he once sent me an email with nothing else in it. #love

I mean, he once sent me an email with nothing else in it but this.

Heading out of Africacom into the dead zone that is the pre-holidays left me wondering: where will I find myself next year?

I recently stumbled upon some notes from a few years back and one of the things that really struck a chord was this: “In this life, it doesn’t matter what you know. It matters what you do.”

To being a bit more considerate, doing more, and talking less.

  • “No biscuits for MWEB.” – Robbie
  • “But where do you live?” “I don’t know!” “I’m confused.” “I’m confused too.” – Sébastien & Ellie
  • “I’m not drunk. I’m just excited.” – Ellie
  • “The media doesn’t care what happens in 60GHz.” – Ellie
  • “You want exclusivity? Good luck.” “No, THEY want exclusivity.” “Take it and run.” – Lance & Ellie (not a chance)
  • “Well there’s a curveball!” – Ellie
  • “Never follow two British guys into a bar.” “… so where did you meet Cedric?” “In a bar.” – Marc & Ellie
  • “It’s not our fault if they don’t have an SSID.” – Sébastien
  • “I have a major disability.” “You’re American? [*wink*] Nobody’s perfect.” – Ellie & Sébastien
  • “But he has some other, positive characteristics.” – Wilfried
  • “I didn’t say Johannesburg was safe. I said near to Sandton City it was kind of safe.” – Sébastien
  •  “If an amateur comes in here we must assist him to become a professional.” – Gert
  • “There’s the industry. And there’s the industry minus Ellie.” – Dominic (apparently I’m the only policy wonk outside the big telcos)
  • “You try and put me over a barrel I’ll flip it and knock you out!” – Ellie
  • “’Well done, Ellie.’ You sent me an email saying ‘Well done, Ellie.’” – Sébastien
  • “I was wrong about everything.” – Sébastien
  • “What I am about to tell you – you will not believe it.” – Sébastien (sadly, I did believe it ..)
  • “Brackenfell is not the end of the world!” – Ellie
  • “Where is your trade union?” – Sébastien
  • “Not unless you’re —.” “Not unless you’re incompetent.” “You said it, I didn’t!” – Ellie & Sébastien

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