Startup tips from Mark Shuttleworth

South Africa is the best place to become successful says Mark Shuttleworth, who made it big when he skidded over twenty and then promptly became a billionaire by selling Thawte to Verisign for some R3.5-billion.

“The fact that South Africa doesn’t have a Silicon Valley shouldn’t deter anyone from being an entrepreneur in South Africa,” he says.

“The existence of Silicon Valley is held up as a reason for California’s success with technology. The simple fact is that there were a bunch of people there who had the confidence and the audaciousness to start stuff, so it has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that market. But there is no earthly reason why SA can’t be a very fertile ground for entrepreneurs.”

An entrepreneur who’s packed more into thirty-six years than most can manage in a lifetime, Shuttleworth was the first African in space, founded privately-owned investment group Here Be Dragons (HBD), and started the Shuttleworth Foundation to drive change in the fields of education and technology.

His day job is with Cannonical, where he’s just stepped down as CEO to focus on what he loves best — making Ubuntu an accessible operating system for enterprise and the everyman.

“My focus is very much more on the products that we develop, which is what I enjoy. I work each week with a different team on some aspect of the product range either on stuff that we are doing for handheld computing, or stuff that we are doing for desktops, or the stuff we are doing for the cloud. This gives me a challenging and varied set of problems to tackle which I enjoy, so I keep a very tight view on that.”

Keeping a tight focus is just one lesson Shuttleworth could teach entrepreneurs, while looking for opportunity locally is another.

“South Africa famously has Thabo Mbeki’s [Former South African president] two economies, and it is in the intersection of these two economies that very interesting things can happen. Any environment where things aren’t perfect offers huge opportunity because you can make things better,” says Shuttleworth, who believes that in near-perfect or well-developed economies, the chances for startups are reduced.

“In many senses, South Africa is a great place to start a business and it is a hell-of-a-lot easier to make a million dollars in South Africa than it is to make a million dollars in New York. There is just much more room to move, and to move a lot more quickly.”

“You really need to have the guts to start. You will never find out if you could have made it work if you didn’t have the guts to start. And find the cheapest, easiest, simplest way to do so. Don’t let go of one’s secure environment until you have proven that there is a market or that you have the ability to serve that market.

It is truly important to put a stake in the ground and to say: “I am going to do this. And then just use the opportunities that are coming your way.”

Shuttleworth says the biggest obstacles to entrepreneurship are usually self-imposed, rather than being externally-imposed. “Environmental constraint or national constraint can be overcome, you just need to be savvy enough to get going,” he says.

  • Coming soon on A more personal interview where Mark Shuttleworth talks about what he values most in life and why he doesn’t want to be a role model for success.

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