The Hub of the Universe


Behind in my blog again, it seems. Happens when I’m busy. Rather, when my priorities are on other things. Every activity is, in fact, a choice, after all.

The back half of April the news was full of “xenophobic” attacks in South Africa. This, as many have pointed out, is a misnomer. It was just plain old economic attacks on foreigners.

This, plus having had now some professional exposure to “Africa” as it’s called here, got me thinking a bit. It’s not entirely accurate of course, no metaphor is, but South Africa is, in many ways, the America of Africa.

Cape Town is its San Francisco, easy. Durban is harder to place; some of the heat of Miami with the beach of San Diego and the textile grit of a generic Midwestern factory town.

And Joburg? A cross between the showy glitz of Los Angeles and the commercial capital that is New York. But also, that old Boston nickname applies all too well – The Hub of the Universe. You come to Joburg and it’s impossible not to feel the energy; to feel the heartbeat of the city, and in a way which is similar (I guess!) to the frontier Boston of old, before it was surpassed by New York, a slight from which it never entirely recovered.

City of trees

City of trees

Joburg is the commercial heart of South Africa, and outside of Parliament which is in Cape Town, of government too. It’s where many of the economic migrants come searching for a better life. It’s where the foreign companies come, sniffing for opportunities for FDI or just local distributors. It’s a stepping stone to “Africa.” It is not the case that everything happens in Joburg, but in certain industries it sure as hell feels that way.

It’s ground zero for finance, broadcasting, media, telecommunications, and probably a lot of other industries as well. It feels, most days, like the only place a bright, ambitious person would want to live.

Others, it feels like that stereotype Capetonians have of a place where everyone hates their job and is more focused on buying the latest fancy car or designer clothing (yes the ladies at Tasha’s are fantastic to look at … but I am so glad that’s not me!).

One of my favourite flowers ... heavenly smell

One of my favourite flowers … heavenly smell

The same way that South Africa “feels” like a teenager growing up in comparison to, say, many European countries, it also feels kind of like a teenager in comparison to Cape Town with its stunning Victorian architecture. I’m not saying Cape Town isn’t innovative. It is. It tries. But it’s constrained by things like geography and Joburg is turning into a gigantic sprawl even faster than the Cape.

The light is different in Joburg; the energy is different; the people are different. The sometime joke is that Cape Town is like a foreign country; and in some ways it is. The Land of the Lotus Eaters, perhaps.

Autumn :)

Autumn 🙂

But Cape Town is South Africa for beginners, the same way that South Africa is Africa for beginners. It doesn’t reflect Bryanston during load shedding any more than Bryanston resembles Harare or Nairobi or Lagos in peak traffic. Joburg, and not even the CBD which is a well-known example of urban decay and a new resurgence of renewal, is a bit more hectic. From the window washers to the smash-and-grabs to the traffic lights that are sometimes out more often than not, this is ground zero.

For building new things, hope, and possibility, yes. But also for crime, corruption, resentment, and fear.

South Africa’s impression of itself in relation to the rest of Africa (or at least sub-Saharan Africa) is that we’re superior. More civilised (…). Our lights stay on (but they don’t, any more). Our economy is stronger (but not necessarily going the right direction).

At the gym, just after finishing a workout. You try over the bar burpees when you can't see the bar!

At the gym, just after finishing a workout. You try over the bar burpees when you can’t see the bar!

Nonetheless I love it here, it’s my adopted home, and I love it with the vigour of someone who chose it, not someone who happened to be born here.

But it wasn’t even the attacks on foreigners (which reminded me so much of the debates in the USA over illegal immigrants) that got me going, it was realising how for the last 2+ years, from Skyrove and now Nomosphere, I’ve been solely focused on the South African market. Almost everyone else I encounter has been as well. I used to comment about how horrible it was doing business in the U.S. where the market is so big that companies just focus on the domestic market and ignore the rest of the world.

And there you have it. Without even realising it, I’d walked into an environment where the same behaviour pattern was repeated. The feeling of superiority, the inward-looking media, the inward-looking economy.

Ever since my early days at Ask Jeeves International I loved the multicultural, multi-country aspect of the job. Now I live in a country not of my birth, sure, but even here I am working internationally – both with companies from overseas doing business here, and working more directly in Africa. How confusing for me to have to switch between Rands and U.S. dollars again all the time! Ahh the humanity ….

If I wanted weather like this I'd have moved to London!

If I wanted weather like this I’d have moved to London!

But here I find myself, in the African Hub of the Universe. Meeting with the CEO of the telecommunications Regulator. Making friends with companies I never would have thought; reappearing in a much different context to some old vendors and contacts. Sitting in closed-door roundtables with government and other industry bodies learning about spectrum pricing policy. Drinking whisky on a hotel rooftop deck across from the Union Buildings in Pretoria with a Christian Egyptian and his Muslim friend, talking about the differences between the regulations in South Africa and Egypt. Pointing fingers at agendas coming out from the dark closets where they should stay.

Oh and this whole Wi-Fi thing I’ve been working at for ages? Suddenly it’s all the rage. I knew enough to know that eventually my time would come, even if I couldn’t predict when, or where, or how, or, apparently, with whom.

But poker player that I may be at times, I understand a thing or three about leverage. With leverage comes confidence, and I am almost infinitely better off now than I was in January. What a difference a few months makes.

As often happens to me, I have strange flashes of insight when I am speaking extemporaneously. Sometimes it happens when I am one-on-one, sometimes when I speak to a group. This time, I was sitting at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria speaking to the guy who runs the mentorship programme for entrepreneurs there, about the challenges I see with the ecosystem. There are many. I could write a book. If I had the time. Still beats Silicon Valley where no one builds companies any more but that’s a rant for another time.

The Innovation Hub

The Innovation Hub

Aside from ecosystem problems, which are many, and entrepreneurs long on enthusiasm and short on knowing what a go to market approach actually is, the traditional approach to innovation in a company sense is wrong. It’s waterfall rather than agile, to steal a metaphor from software development.

People come up with an idea, build a product, and try to sell it. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, yes and no. This approach puts all your eggs in one basket. As a matter of fact, I’ve been guilty of this before – several times, and in several ways. 2014 mistakes. 2015 is better. I’ve learned.

Lean Startup gets at this. But it’s even broader of an approach than just product development, especially in a world where there are far too many copycat, “me too” crap products out there. We need innovation yes, but we don’t need that. We need innovation of business models, of packaging, of combining new things to drive real value propositions, and of go to market approaches. And in all these things, as much as in the software that fuels a lot of it, we need an approach to rapid testing, rapid failure, and rapid adaptation.

Like the adaptation of my body to and from altitude ... whatever this workout was, it was a killer!

Like the adaptation of my body to and from altitude … whatever this workout was, it was a killer!

It’s a strange time in this country. I think people are not sure if they should panic, despair, or be hopeful. As for me, oddly enough, I’m looking into Africa for stability.

Oh, life. You are indeed continuously surprising, and constantly varied, are you not?

Speaking of, I had one of the hardest workouts I have ever endured. It was 150 wall balls (where you take a 14 pound ball, squat all the way down, and throw it up to a target 10 feet up), and every minute you had to do three snatches @35kg. This was somewhere between conditioning death and shoulder death. I seriously wanted to quit at 100 wall balls but of course I didn’t. By the time I was done I kind of wanted to throw up, which doesn’t happen to me frequently.

That’s all well and good but that evening I went home and my brain was broken! I couldn’t work; I couldn’t even be bothered to eat my food off my plate. So I put it away, had a protein shake, and went to bed early.

Water lilies of Pretoria

Water lilies of Pretoria

Sometimes life throws at you more than you think you can take and you manage. Some other times, it throws at you something that you think you should be able to handle just fine, and it completely wrecks you.

As my landlady says we have only one life. Best to make it work for us. Everyone is different. For me, an ideal life is one that is interesting and where I get to build new things. Constant change but familiarity of health, chalk and heavy weights, loving pets, and a small number of people that I keep close to me.

Speaking of, the week ended with my friend Sam’s birthday party. Aside from seeing a lot of her friends (who are all very cool) together in one place, and learning that good old Matt had survived all of three months in Cape Town (!), the best part was when the humans abandoned one plate of nachos and one of the dogs decided to help himself. Love that. But just generally … nice people, a good time, and a reason to celebrate and be happy.

What else goes into a good life? Being happy I suppose. Easy to say be happy with what you have, but never that simple.

Another love ... I could have a garden with walls and walls of these!

Another love … I could have a garden with walls and walls of these!

I honestly can’t remember a time that I’ve been happier. Life is pretty good right now.

  • “He has a way of saying you failed but making it sound politically nice.” “I don’t think he succeeded in the slightest.” – Jens & Ellie
  • “I don’t think it exists.” – Claus
  • “You’re the one who wanted to ask so many questions!” – David
  • “Realpolitik. Business version.” – Ellie (I was explaining international and local macro-forces at play conspiring to squash disruption, and how to fight it)
  • “That’s the icing on top but you’re missing the cake.” – Maged
  • “I’m terribly sorry, I have to drop off this call for about five minutes to catch a cobra.” – Ant
  • “My driver in Kenya sent me an SMS to see if everything was ok.” – Byron
  • “And taking a photograph of the parking bay doesn’t really help.” – Jim
  • “You can’t really bootstrap your way to innovation.” “No. No.” – Ellie & Jim
  • “He’s not very smart.” “No, but he thinks he is.” – two people who do indeed think they are smart … true statement however
  • “I’m going to hit you on the head though: =((2620*0.06)/70)*3” – David (what happens when you make a spreadsheet quickly and try to avoid a circular reference ….)
  • “He wasn’t entirely wrong. He just wasn’t entirely right.” – Ellie
  • “That’s not cheating. That’s just scaling.” – Diana
  • “Tell them to come for a six-month visit.” – Frits
  • “And we have only one life.” – Lynne

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