African Innovation


There are two types of innovation – evolutionary and revolutionary. Evolutionary takes something existing and enhances, tweaks, or re-thinks it to make it better. Revolutionary disassembles and then reassembles in a new, and better way.

Taking a concept and re-thinking how it is done and doing it better is somewhere between the two. I am not sure there’s a word for that – like making servers virtual, or shifting of software from hosting in the enterprise to hosting in the cloud. Maybe the original idea was revolutionary, but to apply the thinking to yet another industry? Not so original.

Original does not, of course, imply useful! And there is my favourite lovely thing known as copying what is already out there.

Replication with a local twist. Sometimes this can actually add value; if in the pricing, or the go-to-market approach, or the user interface. Usually it’s just garbage which causes confusion in the market.

What I love about South Africa is that you have to get the model right. Get the model right and create value. It’s quite hard to pussyfoot around selling crap software that doesn’t really add value. Selling features and functions that have wishy washy benefits is the product equivalent of confusing activity with progress.

The boys at Liquid assisting me by breaking the door.

The boys at Liquid assisting me by breaking the door.

Similar minds think similarly, and it was quite a pleasure for me to hear a man whose intelligence I much respect say essentially the same thing to the sw7 crowd at one of the periodic mentoring sessions. I had just talked about how to make yourself relevant to partners on a long-term basis, and how to make sure you pick shareholders that will be supportive and aligned to your interests and those of the company.

Both are like any relationship I suppose – know who you are, know who they are, and make sure you’re not blinded by emotion. Or lust. I guess greed is the business equivalent of lust.

The latter in particular is so critical, and so easy to mess up especially if you are in a position of weakness or desperation. Such a different world we find ourselves in, myself and Hayden, yet reaching similar conclusions from our different perspectives.

Autumn in Morningside

Autumn in Morningside

Africa is a tough market. [Almost] no one has a lot of money to spend, no one wants to be the first to try something new, and everyone wants solutions that make their business more money.

I remember myself at Skyrove making the same criticism of PR firms trying to put a valuation on PR by using ad placement in magazines as a reference: We will charge you X per month, and will guarantee you Y value of ad space equivalents in magazines.

OK great … but are the readers of those magazines our target market? Will that visibility result in leads? Will the leads convert? If not, this is a negative ROI. Valuable, maybe, but visibility is not converted sales and is therefore not ROI. Not unlike ‘market failure,’ ROI is a term to be used quite carefully.

Anyway, returning to work the week after being mostly on leave in Somerset West was a bit rough. I was having a few sense of humour failures at saying the same thing over and over again and yet not getting the proper result. This, of course, foreshadowed some events to follow later in the month, but I’ll get there when I get there.

Seems a perennial problem – people seem to have a hard time thinking for themselves. I have this problem myself and I fancy myself a pretty hard working creative thinker. But when addressing something I’ve not done before, it’s daunting!

Autumn in Morningside II

Autumn in Morningside II

If the task is not a huge mental jump, you can tell someone to do it and they should be able to do it.

Slightly bigger jump and you must explain how to do it. But sometimes explaining isn’t enough and you actually need to show someone what you mean. A recent discovery I have had is that even if something might seem to me not to be a big mental jump, perhaps it is to my audience. Only so many times can I request the same thing before I will finally get annoyed and do it myself.

When I was younger I was a great individual contributor but a poor team player – I just wanted to do everything myself. Now I’m a bit of the reverse; I would much rather be the one to sit around with ideas and poke holes in concepts and figure out a way forward. But actually to read 120+ pages of vendor responses and create a spreadsheet to model different things? To be honest I enjoy that a lot too, but is work and not fun conceptualising.

Of course the theory on learning we all know – we learn more by doing than by being shown, and by being shown than by being told. But good heavens at least we have brains! It can be immensely frustrating to deal with people who may as well be a computer. Or a child.

Maybe they’ve learned over the years that if they make movements like they are trying but don’t execute especially well, someone else will just take the load off their shoulders. Kind of like the stories you hear of people (stereotype says men, but that’s sexist) who do a poor job washing dishes so their partner will stop asking them to do dishes.

Sometimes, I suppose, one must accept that no matter how much you may try to make something work, if you are met with frustration and resistance at every turn, it may be time to stop trying. Or at the very least, change your approach.

Hayden was right about that one, too. Don’t be too attached to your original idea, or original approach. Don’t be afraid to admit when you were wrong.

And if there is one single thing that I can’t stand it’s being defensive. Well, or lazy. Or lazy and defensive.

Heaven for a moment

Heaven for a moment

Doing it yourself doesn’t scale of course. Teaching takes time and you also cannot assume that the person you are teaching will have the intrinsic motivation to be as diligent or as quick as you would. Or that they are going to stay around forever.

The definition of insanity being to repeat the same thing over and over again and expect a different result? When you identify the barrier that is causing you not to get past a certain point, that is the first step. Addressing it, of course, is easier said than done. Sometimes it turns out that there were shackles (of capital, connections, capability) that are the most obvious when they are removed.

Kind of like the shackles of an injury (physical or emotional) are more apparent when you heal, but the fear remains. Am I really healed?

A few weeks later I was back at sw7 listening to some locals who had gone overseas to fundraise. Overseas, of course, means to the U.S. It was quite interesting to hear the views of some of these folks and I think I can really boil a lot of it down to what I have also noted: A lot of the tech that I see out of certain parts of the world is very expensive and not very good. Why? Because it doesn’t have to be; people can make money selling very little value and to us, in Africa, the costs are crazy because our currencies are generally weaker and the wages of a development team in London or San Francisco are probably 6-8 times the cost of a local team.

It’s not quite that simple of course. I have seen amazing tech out of Silicon Valley and Ireland. But also Israel. South Africa. Croatia. What the latter has that the former doesn’t is a bit more respect for the ecosystem, and an understanding that it’s not just product that matters, but integration and routes to market.

Rather like a cactus, come to think of it. Cacti manage to live in very harsh environments and sometimes have absolutely stunning blooms.

The corollary is also true – put a cactus into a Florida garden and it’s going to die.

Bougainvillea - one of my favourites. To have a garden with walls of these & the smell of jasmine at night ... heaven

Bougainvillea – one of my favourites. To have a garden with walls of these & the smell of jasmine at night … heaven

I suppose that’s just another part of the information asymmetry that makes life and business so fascinating. To have a good idea and to get it adopted are two different things. To succeed out of your home market is not straightforward … for me personally I am not sure how well I would survive flush with cash in Silicon Valley. I think I would hate it; spend all my time trying to keep staff from jumping ship to the next hot thing or trying to placate investors.

Money can buy a lot of things. But it can’t buy success or real innovation any more than it can buy happiness.

At some point I’ll write another blog post on product vs platform and fitting square pegs into round holes.

I should write another one as well on what is needed for a proper entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In any event, I am where I am. Maybe life would be slightly easier in some ways if I didn’t live in South Africa. But I do, and I’m not going anywhere.

Bryanston in loadshedding ... not one of the better advertisements

Bryanston in loadshedding … not one of the better advertisements

I do sometimes wonder how my life would be different if I hadn’t made certain key choices along the way. Moving here was one but it certainly wasn’t the only one. I recently had a Skype catch up with my dear friend J, who just married a lovely woman who I met only once. So it goes when you live far from home. As we were discussing the various things we were doing something struck me quite hard – as frustrated as I can be at times, if I explain to someone not in my world or my context, what I’ve managed to achieve in terms of at least being in the room and a respected part of the discussion is nothing to turn your nose up at. I mean to go from nothing in an industry to speaking at the strategic session of the telecommunications regulator and knowing most of the important Wi-Fi people in this entire country, and many worldwide. I would have struggled to do that in Boston.

And now that I’ve learned a lot about how the rules of the game are played, it’s time to start playing the game rather than pontificating from the sidelines. All I need is a few good people. And a few risk takers.

Strange how in a long game you can feel that time is not on your side.

Coffee with a view

Coffee with a view

To see things not just as they are but as they can be is one skill. To make things happen the way they should is another.

I was recently told that people seem to be drawn to me. I wonder why this is, if it is in fact true. Probably a combination of my natural sense of enthusiasm for whatever I’m doing (I honestly can’t control this, it just comes out!) and maybe my insistence on doing things the right way as I see them. I don’t always get my way of course, far from it.

The thing I most regret in my career is not resigning in principle when crap started to go down at Jeeves that I disagreed with. There was a straw that broke the camel’s back … and I bitched and moaned but didn’t really put my money where my mouth was. I know it’s a luxury to be able to contemplate quitting on principle but in fact I had the money and I quit a few months later anyway.

Sometimes you must

Sometimes you must

Lesson learned. It sucks when you can’t protect your people (or even yourself!) all the time but bottom line, I’m happier not only to have a job I love in an industry I love but to understand my own line well enough to know when something is not right, even if that something is within myself.

So I’m happy for J. There’s something undeniably wonderful about being happy in love.

  • “When you know you know.” – Juanita
  • “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” – Tony
  • “Don’t be married to your original idea.” – Hayden
  • “You might fail, because this market is peculiar. But guaranteed if you succeed here you’ll succeed anywhere you scale the business to.” – Craig
  • “And that’s not a conflict at all. Except that it totally is.” – Jim
  • “Ah, this internet’s pretty good. 85Mbps. Not as good as at home. I have 100Mbps internet at home.” “And you live in Harare.” “Exactly.” – Anthony & Ellie
  • “How’s South Africa? Better than Zimbabwe? …. Oh, you’re afraid? Yeah there’s mad South Africans.” – Ryan
  • “Oh, the Brumbies?” “No, you were talking about the American Groundhogs.” – Anthony & Ellie (it’s the Eagles)
  • “Seriously, there’s a place called Merica?’” “Where is it?” “Kenya.” – Ellie & Anthony
  • “It seems more likely than not. … In a phrase I’ve heard far too often this week!” – Ellie (this NFL reference was completely missed by my WAPA compatriots)
  • “You want to make a difference. You want to have an impact.” – J

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