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South African entrepreneurs are punk rock

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.

Author Bio

Tac Anderson
From 2001 - 2004 Tac owned a skateboard shop in Las Vegas. From 2005 - 12 Tac has been a partner at a digital marketing agency, a Social Media Strategic lead at HP, the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at an early stage VC company, and a VP of Digital Strategies for Waggener... More
  • Jay

    Tac, couldn’t agree more. Now we all need to get on stage! Jay, http://www.CrowdInvest.co.za 

  • nechama2

    South Africa ‘pure stripped down no bullshit rock n roll’

  • Devon

    Great article. I think South Africa can thrive as a source of entrepreneurial tech innovation if we stop trying to pretend that we are a developed market and embrace this sort of thinking.

    Really, nice one memeburn. Very much enjoyed reading this.  

    • I think all markets would do far better for themselves if they stopped trying to be something they aren’t. Embrace your local differences and turn those into advantages. Thanks for the comment Devon.

  • Greg

    “There is something very American about this attitude”

    Is pretty conceited, perhaps you could say, “something they share with the american attitude”.

    I for one, don’t like hearing South Africans have an american attitude.

    • Agreed Greg – I call it a South African attitude!

    • It’s not meant to be conceited but I’ll be the first to admit that I see things through the only lens I can and that’s as someone who grew up American. No offense intended.

  • jezebel

    African Dope doesn’t write music. It’s a label. 

    • That should read “for providing the writing soundtrack.”

  • Richard

    I find “There isn’t the “fear of failure” you see in most European and Asian countries.” amusing because many smart young local people complain that unlike the US we have fear of failing or perhaps rather the fear as being seen as failing. I’ve seen first had the stigma of being seen as being one who failed.

    • In most of the World, failure is seen as a personality fault not a learning opportunity. Failure is often outside of an entrepreneurs control. They shouldn’t be faulted for trying.

    • Andries3141

      We should realise that someone who has failed has learnt more than the guy with a fresh MBA. Failure is the MBA of the real world.

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  • CB

    Great article. As a South African entrepreneur (small furniture business), I think you nailed it. I do think that the lack of ‘fear of failure’ is born out of necessity, when going on your own appears to be the only option then why worry. Thanks for raising awareness though, we’re all here working our tails off and would love the market for our goods to extend overseas.

  • Brendan

    Tac, thanks for the optimistic, pro South African piece.
    Ignore the nitpicking and moaning – a less appealing South African trait.

  • ab

    Nice read, thank you! Actually South Africa is a jungle, when all the forests are cleared out we’ll see what we’ve building underneath it, we’ll be really suprised. Thanks for bring up the internet pricing, it definitely is a problem but as South Africans we don’t see a problem but an opportunity, is there a way to bring internet to business people cheaper and reliable?? that’s punk rock style lol.

  • Pingback: South African entrepreneurs are “the punk” « tamsin jones()

  • Very true, thanks for the article. Proudly South African take on it. Are you sure you’re American..?

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