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The following is a transcription of a keynote speech made by Memeburn publisher and Creative Spark founder Matthew Buckland at the Youth Entrepreneurs Connect Conference at the Cape Town ICC on 28 September. In the speech, Buckland explores how the internet has helped bring entrepreneurship to the fore, and the impact it has had on South Africa. Drawing on his own experiences, he also describes how vital it is that universities support entrepreneurship and allow students, who are so inclined, to follow their own destinies. Moreover he dissects the qualities that make up a successful entrepreneur. Few apply to everyone, except maybe for one: a sheer unwavering sense of persistence.
I’m an internet entrepreneur — and part of a new wave of business creators spurred on by the invention of the internet almost 20 years ago. The internet is a new way of life that has disrupted established industries and business models and therefore created new opportunities and gaps for entrepreneurs. The internet has caused the dramatic fall in barriers-to-entry to create businesses. Most internet businesses need little infrastructure and capital. Distribution and marketing has never been easier and cheaper (thank you, social media). Internet-based businesses are easier, faster to start and are very profitable. And on the back of this, entrepreneurialism has become sexy and a viable option for graduates.
After university, graduates have three major options when entering the business world: joining a corporate company, joining a startup or starting your own startup. When I was a student (I was a student at Rhodes University in the 90s) the “entrepreneurial way” wasn’t really a popular option. We were encouraged to join big companies, at worst being an entrepreneur was frowned upon.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with jumping into the corporate world. It’s a viable, sensible option, and in some industries the only option. It is an option that should be encouraged and I am not here to tell you not to join the corporate world. They are places where you can learn your skills, build networks and make lots of money.
The other path
But my point is that — back then — we were not exposed to, encouraged or equipped with the tools to follow The Other Path: the entrepreneurial way — starting your own company, raising capital for it and do what entrepreneurs do best — create something out of nothing and follow their own destinies. Startups weren’t popular or sexy, and universities weren’t geared towards exposing students and equipping them with entrepreneurial tools or ideas.
Today, it’s a very different scenario. The idea of doing your own startup is more popular, and in fact universities are where some of the world’s best startups have been founded: the ubiquitous Facebook, the behemoth that is Google — and closer to home, Mark Shuttleworth, who created something in a garage fresh out of university. And the very success of centres like Silicon Valley is ascribed to the proximity and its intertwined relationship with universities. In Silicon Valley’s case — Stanford. And it’s in these environments — an environment that encourages creativity, innovation and original thought with few Maslowian restrictions — that world’s highest profile technology multinationals were founded.
And never before has there been more support, resources, energy, literature, encouragement and community behind following the entrepreneurial dream (or should I say challenge). A vast ecosystem has developed to support entrepreneurs: endless articles, literature on the web; incubators to assist startups with office space, facilities, network; mentors; various entrepreneurs organisations that appeal to businesses of all sizes and act as support networks; various online accounting/billing services and online business/CRM/Project management services; networking events and networking bodies like the Silicon Cape to link entrepreneurs to other entrepreneurs to funders to the rest of the world; conferences, Dragon’s Den style pitches involving Angel funders and VCs — and its all right here on our doorstep in Cape Town… the Silicon Cape.
There are many that like to heap scorn on the term “Silicon Cape”… they see it as a meaningless buzzword, a marketing term… but to me it describes a movement and community of internet entrepreneurs in a geographical location that want to make the world a different place. Cape Town is home to a US$28-billion multinational internet company. A once newspaper-company (and we know what reputation newspapers have for innovation) that has transformed itself into an emerging markets tech giant with shares in companies like Tencent and at one stage Facebook. I’m talking about Naspers — a company that if you had invested R100 000 in 19 years ago, would now be worth R26-million.
Many new ecommerce, digital agencies and online publishing operations have started here: I’m talking about our largest ecommerce stores: Takealot, Kalahari, YuppieChef, Safari Now (based in Kommetjie — their board meetings are on surf boards), the social network Mxit; some large digital agencies with unusual names like “Quirk”, “Gloo”, “Clicks2Customers”, “Hello Computer”, “Native” — now enterprises that rank in the hundreds of millions — and many others.
And why Cape Town? Because the new internet geek is mobile, can work anywhere in the world — and chooses to work in cities that are beautiful. And this is why we find ourselves in beautiful, breath-taking Cape Town, with mountain and sea. I’m a recent immigrant, and have never looked back.
So when I left the corporate world, now three years ago, to start my own company I felt that support and I felt that sense of community in Cape Town. Cape Town helped me make the jump. I was a late bloomer. You see I joined the corporate world, worked there for 15 years and plucked up the courage “to jump”. What made me do it? It was about wanting to live a varied life, full of experiences. It was about fulfilling a destiny. It was about avoiding a mid-life crisis and getting rid of a chip on my shoulder that “I couldn’t do it”.
About three years later and we’re a company that’s created about 28 jobs, with accumulated revenues of more than R30-million and with a suite of online brands that together form one of the top sites in the country, Memeburn.com.
Entrepreneurs are the future of our country. They are the driving force of innovation, they are disruptors and the driving force of the economy — because within the entrepreneur’s DNA is this desire to create, to solve problems and change the world.
It’s a risky choice, a high-pressure world, but one full of meaning. It shouldn’t be romanticised. It’s a tough world that will test you and you will learn things about yourself you never knew were there. Anyone can be an entrepreneur. It’s not a lifestyle choice, or a calling — but it’s a relentless itch to make a difference and impose on the world. There are of course other benefits, like not having a boss (but this is illusory as there are always people to answer to).
There are no rules to being an entrepreneur. Each startup entrepreneur follows different paths, has different flavours. You can start your company at university, after university or the twilight of your corporate career. Some people are serial startup founders, some only have one in them. When you’re younger you take more risks and have more energy, and are not tainted by the nay-sayers, the cynics, the doubters and the general mediocrity you often find in the traditional business world. But you also may do your startup once you have made your millions in the corporate world and created a network. Both approaches will work and are legitimate routes — and you need to decide which is best for you. You may not even have a choice, you may be forced to become an entrepreneur: Richard Branson wanted to be an editor or a journalist, and wasn’t really interested in being an entrepreneur, but had to become an entrepreneur in order to keep his magazine going. All paths are different.
Entrepreneurs are often characterised as risk takers. Again, not true. Some may be risk takers, some be exceptionally cautious. Some may be extroverted or some may be introverted. There are no rules. I was a risk-averse entrepreneur, spent 15 years in corporate learning, watching and waiting — then did my own thing. Entrepreneurs take calculated risks, they hedge and they plan.
If I had to characterise the qualities of entrepreneurs, they would be: ambitious, hard-working, networkers, savvy, street-wise, talented, have tenacity, disrupters, creative, have intimate sector knowledge, multi-skilled with a strong desire to change the world and do something different.
But even that is not enough. So what is that one thing common to all entrepreneurs?
From the interactions I’ve had, from what I have read, and what I see in myself: there is one quality that cuts through them all: a sheer persistence to realise your idea, willpower to push through that idea, to execute that idea even in the face of naysayers, critics, challenges, obstacles and the impossible. The ability to pivot on that idea, adapt, change it — an unrelenting, uninterruptible laser-like focus. You don’t have to be top of your class, a straight A student… but you need a belief in your idea and the persistence to carry that idea through, to not give up if parts of that idea fail, to pivot and change that idea around if necessary. And I agree wholeheartedly with inventor and scientist Thomas Edison’s comment that “Genius is one percent inspiration, and 99% perspiration.” And it was the iconic Steve Jobs who said: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
Entrepreneurs seem lucky, and often play down the difficult, uncertain times when they look back and reflect on their success. But the secret context here, is that this luck is generated out of the hundreds of opportunities they create through hard work and persistence. There is this word “failure”. We are scared of it. I’ll admit that I am petrified of it — but failure is a creative process: idea, investigation, execution, discovery, luck, failure, rebooting, investigation, execution… and so the cycle repeats… It’s an imperfect backwards-forwards process that an entrepreneur drives through… or to turn to Edison again, when he spoke of failure — “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work”.
In the business world we say that “ideas are worth very little”. And — this may come across as a somewhat harsh statement, but it’s the sense that there are millions of ideas out there, but fractional executions of them.
The true entrepreneurs are doers, not dreamers.
Unless ideas are the product of deep, sustained university research, most are not original. It’s a truth we don’t like to face up to — but ideas are mostly imported, amalgamated, adapted or copied. Most ideas actually evolve a posteriori and become original as they are executed, and shaped by reality and the context in which they are applied. Don’t be paralysed by the “big idea”, put your first foot forward. That “idea” will be something very different when it becomes a business. It will evolve, change and become something else you never dreamed of. I guess the key here: is don’t ponder too long, but start. Pondering and starting are not mutually exclusive, they are the same thing, to be done at the same time.
It’s your persistence, drive and vision that will get you there. Talent, money, and a network makes it easier, but won’t get you there. People often blame these as an excuse for not starting or failing, but these aren’t the root cause.
I had the privilege to work for Naspers, on the executive of 24.com, for about two years before I went out on my own. I was lucky enough to do work for an inspirational, focused and extremely successful entrepreneur in Koos Bekker, the CEO of Naspers. About three years ago, some bright young Naspers execs were invited to attend a course organised by Harvard University for the company. There, with a group of Harvard lecturers in Cape Town, for an intense week, we studied some of the world’s most successful companies and business models, ranging from Google, Toyota to Wikipedia and more.
At one point Koos joined the group, and the employees in attendance had an opportunity to address questions to him. During the session Koos encouraged us to be innovative, entrepreneurial and creative. That’s how many of the big companies were created. But during the session many put their hands up in despair, saying “Koos, you are encouraging us to bring innovative ideas, but we can’t get access to you… or my manager doesn’t listen when we bring these ideas forward… or we can’t get funding… and we can’t, can’t, can’t… problem, problem, problem…”
It was at that point that Koos lowered his head and paused in thought. He then replied that the misnomer here is that real entrepreneurs do not wait for “power to be bestowed upon them”, but they “take power”, they “make their own power” by finding a way to make things happen. The true entrepreneurs end up speaking to him, end up accessing him, end up creating funding opportunities… end up successful. This is because of the dogged belief they have in their idea and their relentless efforts to see it executed.
It’s that persistence theme again.
So believe in your idea, but most importantly believe in yourself. No matter how incomplete or boring your initial idea, how flawed your business model, no matter how difficult the obstacles appear to be — persistence, passion, hard work and drive will create luck, new opportunities, insight and then wealth.
This article has been amended at the author’s request for better readability.