Like most people who grew up in America, I really had no idea what to expect when I first travelled to South Africa (besides gazelles and lions).
My first trip was to Johannesburg two years ago to open a new office, and I have been back several times since, most recently Cape Town. Of all the places I travel for our company, South Africa is one of my favorites.
After I overcame the shock of there not being any gazelles or lions, but instead razor wire and “taxis” crammed with people, the first thing that struck me was how pervasive American culture is. But it’s this weird kind of American culture that’s filtered through European distribution centers.
The second, and most surprising, thing I noticed was how optimistic everyone is. Sure there’s crime and poverty and the country is still in the early stages of a long post-apartheid recovery, but people are surprisingly upbeat. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices when they talk about the future. No one doubts that South Africa will be great; and, more importantly, it will do it on its own terms.
There is something very American about this attitude – entrepreneurial exuberance and optimism are often associated with the States — but there was an aspect of it which I couldn’t put my finger on. Then, during this last trip, it struck me: South Africa is punk rock. It’s not the music itself (although SA has some great music) — it’s the punk rock spirit.
If you look up punk rock on Wikipedia, you’ll find the following quote:
“Throughout punk rock history, technical accessibility and a DIY spirit have been prized. Musical virtuosity was often looked on with suspicion. Punk rock was ‘rock and roll by people who didn’t have very much skill as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music’.”
Don’t get me wrong, South Africa has loads of talented people, it just doesn’t have the armies of university educated engineers with access to shed loads of money. Hell, it doesn’t even have affordable, consistent internet access; but that doesn’t stop South African entrepreneurs.
South Africa is probably the single most entrepreneurial country I’ve visited outside of the US. There isn’t the “fear of failure” you see in most European and Asian countries. There is an attitude that says “there’s nowhere to go but up and there’s no reason we can’t make it to the top”.
Couple this entrepreneurial optimism with a world of opportunity and it’s easy to see the potential the country has. I haven’t met a single entrepreneur who was only working on one project. Every entrepreneur is working on two or three (or four or five) things.
South Africa has a lot of obstacles ahead of it, but these are temporary and in some ways work to your favour. It doesn’t have much infrastructure (hence the term emerging market), but how much do you really need? Most entrepreneurs in more developed countries are weighed down with extra baggage. They feel like they need nice offices in big cities. More developed countries mean more developed local competition. Employees cost two to three times what they cost in South Africa. They may have more access to VC capital but that money doesn’t go as far as it does in South Africa.
Honestly the biggest hurdle I see for South African entrepreneurs is affordable internet access for the whole country. Once this country is really connected, the customers will be there. And when the customers are there, the investors will start to show more interest. I believe the punk rock, bare bones, approach to startups is going to work in its favor. If I were an early stage VC looking at emerging markets I’d be looking really hard at South Africa. A little money will go a long way and the entrepreneurs in the country have the right attitude.
To quote Tommy Ramone (for you kids, he was the drummer in the Ramones. If you don’t know who the Ramones were, I can’t help you): “I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.”
I’d like to thank African Dope for providing the writing soundtrack to this post.