“If I tell you I’m good, probably you will say I’m boasting. But if I tell you I’m not good, you’ll know I’m lying.” ― Bruce Lee
Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. The heat of summer, which can be so freeing, can also be quite oppressive at times. Perhaps it’s that I always associate it with that ‘back to school’ time of year from my childhood but somehow autumn has always seemed more a time for new beginnings for me than the spring.
I also find myself getting confused at times; as the weather changes here and the leaves begin to turn I expect that it’s time for Indian corn, autumn leaves, pumpkin beer and, well, pumpkins in New England. But of course, it is not.
I was looking at photos of the [Northern Hemisphere] autumn of 2012 the other day. How was that two and a half years ago?!? The last time I saw Massachusetts, and before that 10 days of crazy with Mike, John, Matt, Dustin, and Aidan? I still think back on that time and I don’t remember laughing so much in my life, ever, as I did on the road with those crazy boys. Part of it is that they were crazy, part of it is that we were doing something really fun, roadtripping between NFL games and hanging with their most devoted fans, and part of it was that I didn’t have the level of responsibility I’ve had ever since.
While my body refused to get completely well, the storm that began in Johannesburg continued into Harare. Making value from the soup of what we call in the industry “Wi-Fi VAS” in South Africa is one thing. Doing Wi-Fi in Africa is another.
It didn’t really hit me fully until some downtime after I returned to Johannesburg. That return, by the way, was quite hectic. You don’t quite realise how much more developed South Africa is than other parts of Africa unless you travel. Harare is smaller than Cape Town, and much more run down, sadly. Then Joburg has multi-lane highways, bright lights, and everything is clean and bright. Well, by African standards at least. Compared to an American city Joburg, Cape Town, and the like are dark. Compared to Harare, at least, they are lit up like Christmas trees.
Anyway one of my colleagues had an offhand comment in the last week and a half – that unless you own the backhaul it would be crazy to be in the Wi-Fi business. Having spent some time understanding the economics of local transit, laying fibre, and fibre to the home (FTTH), and in particular the economics of Africa vs Europe, I now have a whole lot better appreciation of this. It’s true. It’s context that I did not fully appreciate when leaving Skyrove into Nomosphere but since I finally figured it out and accepted the many implications that went with it, business has been going a lot better.
Funny though how when someone makes a comment you realise the explicit implications of the implicit knowledge you have gained. Things like when a guy you wish you’d gotten to know earlier is talking about how certain types of venues are trying to think they can do telecoms & Wi-Fi VAS better than the telcos and I can immediately list the two major flaws in their thinking, and at the exact same moment realise that in October of 2012 I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
Not unlike how sitting in Johannesburg or, worse, Cape Town, we think we know Africa. Not a chance. Although it’s what you expect. There are still the taxi ranks, the airtime purchased in small increments, the street vendors, the dirty and intermittent power, the Chinese money, and the worlds that divide white and black.
When sitting in an office on a conference call, staring out the window at Harare afternoon traffic, I had a very explicit flashback to the end of my time at Babson. Someone was talking about how we would now take our degrees and go out into whatever worlds of finance, or corporate, or whatnot. And in my head I was already thinking: ‘This is not for me, I want to go to Africa and the real world.’ One hell of a controversial thing to be thinking, but when you know something in your heart, and I mean really know something, then no one with their idea of how you should be living your life can or should really get in your way. It’s what carried me through the next year and a half or so, which was one of the toughest periods of my life.
Back to the black and white topic; so due to the troubles in Zim a lot of the people with money and education left the country if they could. A lot who left were white, and, kind of like Joburg, there are now office parks being built in the east of the city and there are shopping centres that could easily be in Sandton, where the whites outnumber the blacks. But then, everywhere else, there is not a white face to be seen.
On Thursday, I actually didn’t see another white person from the time I left the hotel in the morning until the time I got to the airport in the evening. I wouldn’t actually have noticed except that my colleague pointed it out, saying that some of the areas we were going people would probably stare at me so I should be prepared. And also expressing some concern that I had walked one block back to the hotel in twilight the night before. Just being white isn’t the problem, it’s being an outsider that makes you look like a target. Apparently. Who knows. Honestly though I felt safer in Harare than in some parts of Joburg – there is an undercurrent of feeling you can pick up on, and the Zimbabweans are a kind and lovely people.
I learned a lot in just three days about the differences between doing business in South Africa and in Africa. Like a child, I realise how much I do not know. Conscious incompetence. Beats the hell out of unconscious incompetence at least.
I was in Harare because I’m working with one of the African fixed-line companies to develop and implement a multinational Wi-Fi strategy and product offering. It’s a great thing for both of us as I have context on the wholesale and consumer side although it’s not my core business so I get to learn more (and in the meantime reconnect with many of my European friends and acquaintances), as well as learn African market context. The end result should accelerate my partner and also leave us at Nomosphere with a strategic partner with a network in areas that will be attractive for our core business of B2B Wi-Fi VAS. Trying to explain what you do as a middleware systems integrator is not an easy task at times, but how do you eat an elephant? Slowly, right?
Loved that Bruce Lee quote because that’s how I feel about Wi-Fi. I have bashed my head against the wall in a market where it is nearly impossible to sell anything. Wi-Fi can be a loss leader, but I’ve never had the backing of a big telco. There are market distortions left and right, and no one wants to be the first to try something. All the good ideas in the world are just that until they get implemented, and to do that you need money – either your own or someone else’s.
With things coming together in both South Africa and Africa at the same time, and suddenly, I find myself wondering where I will go from here? That thought is overwhelming and impossible to answer.
In the meantime there are dozens of battles to be fought on the WAPA front – for open access, for net neutrality, for best practices, and for efficient use of taxpayer funds.
I have pretty strong intrinsic motivation, but sometimes the extrinsic push (or pull) is what you really need to get you to do what you’re capable of. This is why athletes need coaches. I guess the best I can hope for is really good partners.
Another thought for the day – how taking the time to make even a small gesture or compliment can make someone’s day. I wrote a mail to a guy I hadn’t spoken to in a while, on anniversary of a tough day for him a few years back that he’s managed to turn about the other direction and now he’s much better off. I said a couple of things, but one of them was how happy I was that he looks really happy with his wife, dog, etc. He wrote back and said my little mail had made his day. And in so doing, he made mine.
Just be a nice person, I guess. Life is not fair. Far from it. Really horrible things happen to really nice people. Crazies terrorise and murder people at schools. Wars are fought over religion, or money. People lie to further corporate interests.
I was also talking to a friend in the week about how I categorically refuse to compromise my own ethics in business. Yeah you do wind up in some situations where there are no good outcomes or where you really have to be tough because there is no alternative. Or where you just get bullied or screwed over. But get back up. What goes around comes around.
I also refuse to accept that the only way to succeed is to compromise your morals. It may take longer, but anything good is worth waiting for. And the more people I’ve met in the business world, the more I have found incredibly smart, hard-working, people with good will and stronger morals, who also want to do business the same way. More than that, who want to leave the world better than they found it.
Now given all the others who want to lie, steal, misrepresent, etc. – isn’t that enough reason to get up every day and fight? I always said to myself at St Paul’s when I was running track (aka athletics) that I may not be the most talented but I will work harder than anyone else and if it’s a fight of grit and will, I won’t lose. Not if I’m in the game and I care enough to win. That I do believe.
Quite a few new beginnings for me this autumn and so far, not so good. Better than good. And more to come, I can feel it.
- “What part of that did you find to be urgent? ‘The part where you said please.’” – on cultural differences in Africa
- “Banking in Zim is – “ “Archaic.” “A bit of a challenge.” – Pardon & Anthony
- “You need to think more like a drug dealer.” – operator to vendor
- “It’s not in Egypt any more. It’s gone into the Gulf of Guinea.” – David