During the year 2012, I was an intern at one of the nation’s leading electronics and defense companies in Stellenbosch, Western Cape. One morning I had missed my usual train from Salt River in Cape Town to Stellenbosch by a few seconds and that resulted in my being almost three hours late to work. Anyone who has boarded a train before will tell you that that experience makes you appreciate the preciousness of time. It is for this reason that to this day I become upset with myself whenever I arrive five minutes before the meeting commences. You can imagine what being late does to my soul. The great American philosopher and comedian, Christopher Julius Rock III says his father used to say there is no such thing as being early. ‘You are either on time or late’, he said. And that is the beauty of trains – they instill within you the importance of time.
Anyway, after waiting over an hour for a second train to Stellenbosch and having to take a walk from the train station in Stellenbosch into the central business district to catch a taxi that will drop me off at Technopark, a considerable walking distance south of the town, the driver dropped me off on the side of the main road that proceeds all the way to Somerset West to join the N2 highway. A walk from the main road to the company that I worked for is about 15-20 minutes due to a slight steep that I can recommend to anyone suffering from a hangover.
It was on that day, under the beautiful cloudless African sky, that I realised and immediately appreciated the genius of Technopark – a cluster of technology companies that are situated in the heart of a vineyard. ‘This is brilliant’, I thought to myself. The idea is of course not original. Technopark is credited to a trip made by a Dean of the School of Engineering from University of Stellenbosch to Taiwan in 1985. One Professor H. Christo Viljoen had travelled east and was impressed by the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park. The science and technology park witnessed by Prof. Viljoen owed its origins to none other than the famous Silicon Valley – home to innovation and technology behemoths such as Facebook, HP, Sun Microsystems, Google and Twitter to name a few.
Upon being struck by this epiphany, excited and inspired, I yanked a cellphone out of my pocket and placed a call to one of my friends who was working in the city. ‘Chief, we need to start a company’, I shouted. He hailed this as a bright idea. In fact, two years earlier while we were still students he had mentioned something like this but ‘I was young and unwise.’ When I arrived at work, still beaming with excitement, I shared this idea with another friend of mine who happened to be a colleague. He was chuffed, and after some research the two of us established a web development company and began looking for clients. Convinced that we were onto something, believing that the road to Morula Avenue was open, with a promise from a few potential clients, I would later quit my job. Unfortunately, that was a mistake – a costly rookie mistake but an important lesson in hindsight. The clients never came forth and we ran out of money. My friend and business partner returned to university to complete his studies and I packed my bags, hopped onto a bus with a tail between my legs, and went back home. I can hear hardcore entrepreneurs shout, ‘No man! You guys should have stuck it out.’ That is true, but we had no experience in entrepreneurship and most importantly, we had no support but that is a story for another day.
Recently I had a conversation with my friend and former business partner – albeit briefly – about how we squandered opportunities in university for the sake of pleasing our families – that is completing your studies and hopefully landing a good paying job. Prior to starting a technology company, we were amateur Deep House DJs back when that sort of subgenre was still frowned upon in the Mother City. Today Deep House is as popular in Cape Town as Zodwa wa Bantu at Eyadini Lounge in Durban.
Our conversation delved deeper and we ended up discussing how black people in South Africa are not investing in startup companies, particularly those in their communities. The startup culture in black communities is almost non-existent. Starting companies – never mind investing in startups – is a foreign concept. All we want to do is study and find a comfortable job. ‘Surely that was the case back in the day’, one would say. No. That culture still exists to this day.
Our discussion with my friend led to the points I raise above, and I mentioned that I would like to write an article to urge my people – especially my peers – to consider investing in startups but then demurred, saying to him, ‘What is the point?’ In his response, he made it clear that it is important that I write such an article as it would enlighten our people on such options: That you don’t need to quit your job to become part of a company. You can support the founders financially as well as an adviser or a springboard for ideas while you continue to work, and they continue building the business. ‘Chief, my people don’t even read’, I protested. He responded sharply: ‘Chap, just write the article.’ And here we are.
About three or four years ago I came across an article about a company started sometime in the early 90s in Stellenbosch. (Folks, there is something in the Stellenbosch water) While I don’t remember the name of the company or the name of the gentleman, but I remember what he said. He mentioned that anyone who bought shares worth R1000 in that company back in 1994, those shares were worth R3 million in 2012. I almost fell off my chair reading that nugget. What this meant is that 18 years later after investing R1000, the investor could sell their shares and retire.
Now, my people, please understand me. I am not saying just because you heard Tebatso ko next-door say something along the lines of starting a company you should suddenly spend your hard-earned money on her fantasies. I am saying do due diligence. Take time and find out if Tebatso is serious about this company, and if she is, what is it that she is trying to achieve. Listen to her, and if you like what you are hearing then you can take that R50 of your sweat and hand it to her in exchange for a slice in her cake to not only help her realise her dreams, but your dreams too.
The prolific writer and author of the biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson wrote thus in his book The Innovators: ‘Inventions sometimes occur when people are confronted with a problem and scramble to solve it. At other times, they happen when people embrace a visionary goal.’ This passage was referring to how Intel came to develop and build the microprocessor and forever imprinted the names of its founders in the books of history. South Africa is at a point where jobs are scarce, and the economy is depressed. To borrow from Isaacson, we are confronted with a problem as a nation. Entrepreneurs need come in and find solutions to the problems we are faced with, but they need your support.
Entrepreneurs are human beings. They need to eat, drink, clothe and have shelter before they can innovate. They need your backing. They need your advice. I am pleading with you to make it a personal habit to invest in startups with potential and stop seeing yourselves only as employees. Imagine yourself beyond that. See yourself as a shareholder, an active member of the board of a prosperous company, an owner of an empire. Entrepreneurship, like a romantic relationship, is a province of two people – the founder and the investor. Assume the role of the latter and widen your horizons. Finish and klaar! Pula!