If you’re a Twitter user, it won’t have escaped your attention that 8 May saw the fourth annual Net Prophet conference take place in Cape Town. REBECCA DAVIS went along to see what it takes to be an internet entrepreneur.
“Take the most innovative/successful/creative/ambitious thinkers and entrepreneurs in the internet space, and ask them to share their stories, ideas and predictions for the future in a format that is fresh, relevant and engaging.”
That’s the recipe for Net Prophet, the annual web entrepreneurship conference founded by the RAMP Foundation, a South African non-profit organisation. One of the conference’s unique features is that it is entirely free of charge to attend, with only a prior registration required. For those who can’t attend, the conference is also live-streamed over the internet – though anecdotal reports from Twitter suggested that the broadcast was frustratingly slow and jittery.
Net Prophet is now in its fourth year, and the attendance this year was the biggest yet, at about 1000 audience members. It certainly seemed like a substantial crowd, packed into a large auditorium in Pinelands’ Mutual Park. And boy, were they enthusiastic – the tweets emanating from the conference under the hashtag #NetProphet had the fervour of freshly minted fundamentalists. The shadow of the TED conferences, which Net Prophet was clearly inspired by, hung over events throughout.
The day was characterised by the same energy as Technology, Entertainment and Design proceedings, described by New Inquiry writer Nathan Jurgenson as “techno-spiritual sermons, pushing an evangelical, cultish attitude toward ‘the new ideas that will change the world’.
Everything becomes ‘magical’ and ‘inspirational’.” If the more cynical among us may have rolled our eyes at sound bites like “We would rather fail in pursuit of magnificence than succeed in pursuit of mediocrity”, we were certainly in the churlish minority. The audience ate it up.
It was a slickly run production, amiably emceed by Rob Gilmour, MD of RSAWeb. The organisers had brought together nine main speakers to address topics relating to entrepreneurship, digital start-ups, and the general pitfalls of running a business.
Some of these speakers needed no introduction: 22seven’s Christo Davel, formerly of 20twenty, was greeted like a rock star by the crowd. Another well-known and popular face was Rich Mulholland, motivational speaker and “communications specialist”, whatever that means these days. The other speakers were less well known, which either really worked (Yusuf Randera-Rees) or sort of didn’t, in the case of a few forgettable speeches.
In all cases, speakers mixed the personal with the professional, imparting lessons drawn from their own business histories. Christo Davel opened with the frank line: “Rob [Gilmour, MC] asked me to talk about the cockups from my life and only gave me 30 minutes!” There was surprisingly little overlap between the presentations, but this was probably a function of the different spheres from which the speakers were drawn: from an online monthly cosmetic subscription service (Sylvia Gruber of Ruby Box) to internet radio (Richard Hardiman from 2 Oceans Vibe Radio).
Photo: 22Seven’s Christo Davel (Jonathan Pienaar)
Arguably, the three-stand out addresses were given by keynote speaker Robyn Scott, online financial services maven Christo Davel, and social entrepreneur Yusuf Randera-Rees. Scott is the first female keynote speaker the conference has had, a fact which didn’t seem surprising in the context of a slightly schoolboy-ish atmosphere pervading throughout – no less than four ‘I banged your mother’ quips over the course of the day, together with some very tired sexist jokes from Rich Mulholland. Scott was an inspired choice to blaze the way for women.
She is the author of Twenty Chickens for a Saddle, the account of her unconventional childhood in Botswana, and the founder of an NGO called Mothers for All which supports mothers and children in Southern Africa. She was at Net Prophet to discuss another project, however – her social enterprise startup One Leap.
In a talk titled “The Power of Asymmetric Connections”, she addressed the fact that conventional online social networks encourage people to foster connections with other people who are just like them. But this isn’t helpful, Scott asserts: what most of us need is to connect with someone who is far more powerful and influential than ourselves. Someone who can give us our break, in other words.
How do you meet this person? Well, Scott says, sometimes it happens unexpectedly, out of a kind of serendipity. Say you’re sitting next to someone on a long-haul flight, and they just happen to be a leader in your industry. But this scenario makes most of us feel uncomfortable, because it involves leaving our comfort zones and possibly having a door humiliatingly slammed in our faces.
You might think the internet would open these doors for us, but actually it doesn’t substantially increase access to such people in meaningful ways. “Old boys’ networks become new boys’ networks,” Scott says. Her solution? Money.
What One Leap does is bring ordinary individuals into contact with industry leaders, but the ordinary Joes are paying for the privilege. You must put up money to send the important guys a message, 80% of which goes to their favourite charity. (The amount varies – a senior VP at MTV goes for $17, the head of Strategy and Operations for Google Africa will set you back $32). You are guaranteed a response to your message within 10 days or you get a full refund.
Scott says she was initially surprised at the willingness of senior people to participate, until she realised that it’s also in their favour to do so: they know that the “next big thing” will likely not come from their existing networks either. “Try to make connections with people not like you,” Scott summed up.
Davel kicked things off with a showman’s gimmick, asking the audience to bid on a R200 note he waved in the air. Rapidly, the bidding reached over R250. Davel’s point was that we often end up paying more for things than they are really worth. His particular bugbear in this regard, of course, is banks: he’s been taking them on throughout his professional life, first via the now-extinct 20twenty, and currently via the online money manager 22seven.
Tracing the history of 20twenty, he recalled that its intention was “to deliver a level of customer experience that is so extraordinary, so unexpected, so exemplary, that it enchants our customers for life”. Attempts to make customers feel special included the delivery of their 20twenty banking packages in black boxes that looked like a Tiffany’s jewellery box. Davel was adamant that he wanted their bank cards to be translucent, even though such a thing was unheard of in South Africa. Why was he so dead set on this? “Because it looked awesome!”
This dedication to a positive customer experience worked: 20twenty attracted an ardent fan base within its short lifetime of 6 months, and Davel is hoping for similar things from 22seven, which moves out of final testing on Thursday.
He’s not scared: “Embrace failure, have the courage to fail,” he told the audience. “The opposite of courage is compromise.” Perhaps the moment which best epitomises Davel’s pioneer spirit came when a woman in the audience asked him for tips on mitigating risk. He looked bemused. “I’m not the best person to ask about mitigating risk,” he responded. “I just think: go for it, girl, go for it!”
The day’s final speaker, Yusuf Randera-Rees, turned the programme’s focus towards social outreach. In “Entrepreneurship, South Africa Style!” he described the Awethu Project, his contribution towards addressing the problem of unemployment in South Africa. The fundamental premise is that South African townships have equal entrepreneurial potential to Silicon Valley, but that this potential is under-developed.
“Why do we not think of our own in South Africa as world class?” Randera-Rees asked. He pointed out that we develop South African talent efficiently in certain areas – in the middle classes, in politics, and within sports. But when it comes to the poor and vulnerable, they are seen almost exclusively as a problem, not as potential talent. But that’s a huge pool of people – almost 12 million, by some estimates.
“Are we really going to write off a quarter of our population?” asked Randera-Rees. “We’ve never even given them a chance to compete, and yet we’re writing them off?”
He doesn’t think investing in the poor should be an altruistic move, but a sound business decision: he believes the returns will be as profitable from a financial perspective as from a social one. The Awethu Project touts for applications in the townships from motivated wannabe entrepreneurs, and then equips them with the skills and resources needed for them to start up small businesses.
“In our first week we got a thousand applicants, including a taxi driver who scored within the top 1% of cognitive ability in the world.”
All three their initial entrepreneurs are about to start turning profits of over R25 000 per month, in the space of less than a year. And the good news is that the government has now agreed to contribute funding for Awethu to develop another 1,000 entrepreneurs in the same way.
To Randera-Rees, it is the logical next step. “The distinction between entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship is artificial,” he said. “South Africa has a unique ability to lead the world in showing people how to treat other people.” DM
Main photo: The keynote speaker Robyn Scott.
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