Monday evening this week saw a “Great Debate” hosted by Neal Gandhi at the iPlex co-working space in Cape Town. I attended out of personal interest because since I’ve been based here for 11 months now but still trying to work out what’s going on with the tech “scene” here.
It was meant to be a formal debate with a few people in favour and a few against the motion that “The tech entrepreneurial community in Cape Town is alive and kicking”. However, it started a little oddly as those against the motion proceeded to announce the were asked to be against rather than it being of their own choosing! It sounded like they were a little cautious or burnt be recent flames aimed at them from non-attendees who had seen the announcement prior.
The “for” motion was put forward by Daniel Guasco, one of the joint-CEO’s of Groupon in SA who put forward a number of success stories both of buyouts and inflowing development through things like Google Umbono as proof that it was. Unfortunately as he closed there was a heckle rough speaking that “you’ve named them all”!
This led nicely into the “against” position delivered by the supposedly “pressured into it” but surprising-lucid-and-passionate Eric Edelstein from Evly. His argument was nicely built upon the foundational statement that the community was alive but by no means kicking. He raised a number of excellent points that showed how you differentiate between the two states using Silicon Valley as a benchmark. A number of the audience challenged this as unfair afterwards in the open questions session but I personally think that firstly if you aim low, you deliver low. Secondly, calling the initiative to ignite the region “Silicon Cape” says that most people identify with that focus as being critical. I think his best point was that the ecosystem of related businesses and systems are just not here at the moment in Cape Town. Its not just the finance eco-system (though that could do with an injection of life) but the lawyers, accountants, education, etc. that need to be there to support the entrepreneur in their endeavors.
Eric was so brutal in his delivery and the follow-up debate ended up dragging in a few of the “for” panellists into making “against” statements!
However, there were a few things unsaid that stick out for me as the deciding factors in this debate right now. The first was that though this event took place at 4.30 in the afternoon, as I drove there I did so against the massive rush hour traffic out of the CBD! At 4 in the afternoon. Those people are generally not going home to carry on there like the crazy Americans. They’re going home to watch bad TV. I think the overriding culture amongst the educated middle-classes of Cape Town is one of quiet contentment, which is fine and nice, but not conducive to a hunger to leave comfortable corporate land and risk all on a start-up. The majority of those with a fire in their belly to create the companies of the future are not sitting on a body of knowledge and experience that will set them up for success.
The second thing that stuck out for me as unspoken is the requirement for South African businesses to wake up and adopt 10 to 15 year old technologies (such as a basic catalogue style website) to allow the next generation of South African based companies to build upon it and get quick, local, visual feedback on how their technologies are being used. Yes, the digital world allows us to throw something on a server and have people in China, India and Iceland try it out but in the world of user experience there’s somethings best done in-person.
The debate ended with a question time which was wasted mostly with people making statements (fine if that’s the deal, but that’s not a question time) but I got to ask one on the feeling of the experts around the concept of the “pivot” being acceptable here. Blank stares from around the room led me to think the concept is not even truly understood here but another one of the Evly guys, the verbose Eran, did and told a funny story about a South African investor who was outraged that a (successful) pivot had seemed to strongly indicate in favour of returning to the unsuccessful model!
The vote was overwhelmingly “against” the motion at the end, I think mainly to do with the excellent “alive but not kicking” point. I hope when the time comes for me to complete my “start-up sabbatical” in corporate land and reenter start-up land that its alive enough still and I can help make it a little more kicking.
Thanks to the iPlex for hosting, looking forward to returning and sorry for not eating the food but I was going out for dinner and it would have been rude to show up full!