How an ex-Googler is guiding African startups

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My alarm rings signalling it’s 5AM and that I had better pull myself out of bed if I have any hope of making it to Rosebank from Muldersdrift by 8AM.

Armed with water (because coffee would have taken too long to make), a list of talking points and my notepad I head to Rosebank. The reason for my early morning commute is that I have a meeting with Brett StClair.

In preparation for my interview I took a look at StClair’s CV and it reads like a list of greatest hits.

He has been the Head of Mobile in Africa for Google, Country Manager for AdMob, a director at Barclays Africa Group and most recently he’s joined Siatik Google Cloud as the CEO.

It’s an impressive list of achievements but what really stands out about StClair is how in love he is with Africa.

We meet in Rosebank and StClair is wearing a jacket and a shirt emblazoned with the silhouette of the greatest continent in the world – Africa.

We get to talking and I mention the topic of Africans solving Africa’s problems.

“I love that idea,” he tells me over a morning cuppa, “Africans solving African problems but I think we need to change how we work.”

Having spent so much time at Google StClair learned how the company works and it’s not a Google specific thing, it’s how all of Silicon Valley works and it explains why the area is the hub of the world’s innovation.

Attracting investment

The size of the continent and the challenges we face daily means that there are ideas everywhere but sadly those ideas need funding to succeed. Funding often comes from venture capitalists (VCs) who hope to see a return on their investment.

“In Silicon Valley a VC might have $50 million they want to invest while here in Africa a VC may only have $50 000 to invest. So when an investor wants to back an African startup they want to insure their investment will earn them money,” StClair explains

This is par for the course but Africans, particular South Africans need to change their thinking when it comes to offering investors an attractive purchase.

So how do we make African startups tempting for investors? We work smart, not hard.

60 hours or bust

To explain how this is done StClair recounts the creation of his newest startup WTF – What’s The Future.

“We had this idea to teach people how to innovate so we set aside 60 hours to determine whether this idea had legs,” StClair tells me.

In those 60 hours StClair and his partner Michael Cowen identified the problem they wanted to solve, developed an idea around the solution to said problem and gauged the interest in the solution they created. Once 60 hours had elapsed WTF was born and now eight months later StClair is talking about growing the firm.

Those 60 hours are not just about planning. This time must be used to plan and execute the idea so that you can put forward a minimal viable product (MVP). How else are you going to attract investors? An idea is great but showing people that you have a product that can be shipped today (with a bit of fine tuning of course) is more reason for them to part ways with their money.

Ask yourself, would you give the grocer R1 000 for the promise of vegetables sometime in the future? Of course not. You’d give the grocer R1 000 and except fresh veg now or at least a definite time line on delivery of said veg.

This is where African startups often stumble – the evolution of turning an idea into a product. The key is to be agile, lean and have the strength of will to recognise that your precious idea might fail. And if you discover your idea is dead in the water, pivot to something that might not be. Trial and error can be hugely beneficial.

Why innovation fails

More often than not innovation is stymied by a need to follow processes or attempting to do everything in house. To get WTF off the ground StClair tells us he used existing technologies such as WordPress, APIs from LinkedIn and Facebook. This saved time as he didn’t have to build a solution from the ground up.

It also means that time waste is kept to a minimum.

“Working this way means that if you see the idea doesn’t have legs you know within 60 hours rather than having wasted 6 months of your life just to fail,” explains StClair

The same methodology can be used by established firms to create new products quickly. The reason Silicon Valley can seemingly launch new products overnight is because firms can determine whether there is an MVP, develop it, tweak it and then release it quickly.

Of course this doesn’t mean that work stops after 60 hours but these insights should help startups get off the ground.

How can he help you

Throughout our conversation StClair used one particular word a lot – exponential.

It’s not all that surprising when you consider that StClair doesn’t want to just inspire Africans but equip them with tools to help them succeed and carve out their legacy in the land we call home.

“I want to give away all this information that’s in my head,” StClair says laughingly but he couldn’t be more serious.

Sure WTF attracts customers by way of conferences and its #ThinkDigital courses which folks pay to attend but StClair does more than that.

Through podcasts and other mediums StClair teaches people the key lessons that he learned in his time at the aforementioned companies.

His thinking is that if you teach many people the best way to do something those people will teach others who will then teach more people and before you know it – the lessons have spread exponentially.

My hour with StClair is up and as I walk to my car I open up the WTF website and start playing the first podcast.

I might not have an idea for a company right now but when I do, I’m sure as hell going to listen to what an ex-Googler, a current CEO and a lover of Africa told me.

[Image – CC Pixabay]

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.