Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The importance of Unity

One of my main goals is to unite the technical community in South Africa. I want to do this because I believe it allows the community to grow and develop. Through all my travels around the world over the past years, visiting many different technical communities, I’ve seen the impact that this can have. It’s in stark contrast to South Africa. It seems that South Africa engineers are overprotective of their perceived intellectual property and a more open approach to sharing and collaborating on industry challenges would, in my opinion, accelerate our development and bring us to the forefront of the industry. It is definitely a current shortcoming of the local community that I’d like to address.

It was these thoughts that I shared with the judging panel that recently chose me as a finalist in the IITSPA’s 2016 IT Personality of the Year Award. I was truly humbled by the nomination, and would like to send my sincere congratulations to the winner - Sbu Shabalala of Adapt IT. It was inspirational to be recognized with local leaders who are making an enormous difference to the local technical community. The leaders and captains of industry recognized by the IITSPA are a group of incredibly inspiring leaders who will make inroads (and headlines) in the years to come.

One thing I love about South Africa is that companies are open to learning and tackling issues in innovative ways.. This is one of my favourite aspects of the local network engineering community, as well as it being a very entrepreneurial environment. I think that openness needs to be extended and exploited to let us grow faster, take the lead, and put the SA technical community on the map on a global scale.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Internet as a human right

 I have, for some time, touted the Internet as a basic human right. There are still many who view it as a luxury for those who can afford it, but it is my opinion that in the modern era, humans who live without access are prejudiced to the point where their rights are compromised. It should therefore be one of the top priorities of governments everywhere to ensure that all citizens have the means to access the Internet at a realistic price.

The Internet should also be seen as a human right because it supports other inalienable rights, such as freedom of expression, where those without access are at a serious disadvantage to those who have.

Increasingly, the communities in which we interact are moving online. Those who cannot interact in online communities or on online platforms are negatively impacted by their lack of access. In addition to freedom of speech, other UN-recognised human rights that are impacted by lack of access are the right to development and the right to freedom of assembly. While these rights were initially recognised in the physical space, the online space is becoming increasingly important in this regard as more people gain access to the online space and the possibilities of this space continue to grow.

The right to development encompasses several aspects. There are so many examples of businesses that have been started with nothing more than a smartphone. Having access to the internet as a whole on a reasonably affordable device is one of the cheapest ways of unlocking economic potential.

However, probably the most important aspect of Internet access in terms of human rights is the access to education. Although there are many factors that play a role in human inequality, the lack of education has to be one of the biggest contributors to the inability of people to lift themselves out of poverty.

In South Africa and many other parts of the world, one of the biggest contributors to the disparate education levels that persist is the difference in the quality of education, particularly when urban and rural areas are compared. If you have the Internet at your disposal, suddenly everyone has access to the great interactive library, giving those who are determined to achieve a far great chance of succeeding.

This access not only opens up educational opportunities for children of school-going age, it also provides an opportunity for those who had to drop out of school due to social or economic circumstances to complete their schooling. With internet access, no one is too old to address shortfalls in their qualifications or knowledge and change their destiny.

From there, the sky is the limit. Once schooling is complete, the wealth of online courses one can complete is vast. Even learners who may not have the resources to complete a formal course, could access the information online to potentially pursue the career of their choosing.

The Internet also provides an informal route to improve one’s livelihood. The Internet provides a wealth of information that users can combine to constitute their own education, particular to their needs. Through formal education, I feel that creativity is often stifled, however educating yourself according to your own personality, you might well be able to be successful in, and make a unique contribution to, business.

The value of access to the Internet to change people’s lives should therefore not be underestimated. Now, more than ever, governments and businesses need to focus their energies on ensuring that connectivity is not merely reserved for those who can afford it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The 8 steps to opening your own ISP

A very exciting space in which to create a new business is in the field of providing internet services. In terms of scope for development, the (Internet Service Provider) ISP environment in South Africa, and the rest of the African continent, is practically still in its infancy and there are numerous opportunities for new entrants to carve a niche and be competitive.

Especially in the more established ISP markets across Africa, new entrants are mushrooming. This has created a market that is hungry for alternatives and competition, opening the door for new players.

There are so many different aspects to Internet service provision, that one can create an ISP focused on a specific segment of the market to discern oneself from the competition. While there is scope for the entry of more big players in the market, there are also opportunities for smaller service providers to enter the fray. These operations require neither a large company infrastructure nor millions of USD in finance to get off the ground. For example, in the US two brothers started their own ISP, Brooklyn Fiber, on the roof of their grocery store to bring faster and more reliable Internet to their neighbourhood.

These are the steps that prospective entrepreneurs can follow to set up their own ISP:

1. Market research

Once you believe that you have identified a need in the market, it is time to carry out comprehensive market research and ensure that there is sufficient interest in your service, and that you will be able to provide it profitably. Predominantly, regulatory restrictions and getting access to the larger global networks will determine whether you are able to set up the ISP in the first place. Should this be the case, then it is necessary to create a long-term business plan that sets out the plan for the business. This should focus specifically on how the business will expand its reach, and how it will differentiate itself against current players, but also new entrants into the market.

2. Legal considerations

Before getting started, you have to ensure that all the legal boxes have been ticked. First and foremost, you need to ensure that you have a license to operate in your chosen country. Getting these licenses in place may take some time, or not be possible at all. I would always suggest consulting regulatory specialists aware of the nuances in the market you are planning to build in.

3. Get your IP addresses and ASN

The next step is to get resources, such as Internet protocol (IP) addresses and an Autonomous System Number (ASN) from the local regional Internet registry (RIR). An RIR manages the distribution of IP addresses and ASN resources in a specific region on behalf of IANA. There are five RIRs, each covering a continent; AfriNIC in the case of Africa.

4. Decide on your transits and peering

Transits connect the ISP to the larger Internet. Because there is no single provider that connects directly to all other networks on the Internet, transits deliver traffic through multiple other transit networks. IP transit is purchased through transit providers, such as Workonline Communications. Transit providers have geographically different areas of strength depending on how their network is built. Deciding on the topology of your network is vital to its success, and usually requires expert advice. Most ISPs purchase transit from multiple providers, with different prices and service level agreements in place. Peering at Internet Exchanges (IXs) to reduce costs or improve performance is also an important consideration.

5. Find a carrier neutral facility

Carrier neutral data centres allow interconnection between the parties collocated within the facility. By using a carrier neutral data centre, you are able to switch providers, or connect to multiple providers, without having to physically move or deploy more infrastructure in another location. This is important in South Africa, because since Telkom’s monopoly ended in 2007, over 300 companies have been licensed to build networks. This creates increasing competition and opens the market for new entrants. A truly carrier neutral data centre allows an ISP to react to a developing market, keeping options open in terms of carriers and service providers.

6. Engineering skills

Many smaller ISPs opt to employ outsourced network management services, which assist in reducing risks and lowering costs from the start, as opposed to employing high-end skills on a day-to-day basis.

7. Acquire infrastructure

The next step, is to then invest in your own physical infrastructure, such as routers and switches. The choice of equipment will be decided by the design and topology of your network. It is always a good idea to thoroughly research what routing and switching infrastructure will grow with you, and meet your specific needs depending on what services you intend to offer.

8. Final setup

Now that everything is in place, only the final setup remains. This means running your interconnects to your transits and peers and configuring the routers and switches.. After months of planning, you are now ready to open your doors as a fully-fledged ISP.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Advice for budding Techtrepreneurs; some of the critical lessons I’ve learnt in starting my IT business

Starting a new business is daunting. But when starting a new business in the IT and Telecommunications field, things can get exponentially hairier, but done correctly, having a business in this industry can be extremely rewarding, both personally and financially. 

One of the most exciting aspects of the technology industry is the rate of change we see. This allows for the creation of brand new, successful businesses on a daily basis. Although starting any new business is always a challenging undertaking, it also has the potential of being one of the most fulfilling experiences. If you see the potential to create a business, and you can make a compelling argument that the business model has longevity, I would encourage you to go for it.

I would like to share some of the important lessons I learned first-hand with those who are just starting out or thinking about creating their own business. These are by no means the only things you should consider, as there is by far a long list of things an entrepreneur should know before starting a business, and thankfully we have Entrepreneur Magazine for that, but these are some of the things I have learned that you should definitely consider and contemplate more than once.

1. Formalise your business agreement

One of the most important consideration for a new business is to ensure that there is a strict, formal, well-written agreement between you and your business partners. Do not only plan the way the business is going to work, but also how it will fail, and what each party is liable for if it does. I have always insisted on putting such agreements in place and it has saved my relationships with friends in the past.

2. Cash flow is king

In addition, cash flow management remains a critical task for any business at any stage. Any business, particularly one that has just opened, is at serious risk of failure if cash flow becomes compromised. Watch your cash flow like a hawk, which means planning and accounting for every little cent you’re going to spend. The margin between making it and failing can sometimes be as small as purchasing something for the business this month, when it could have waited another month.

3. Work towards the best, but plan for the worst

What happens when the business goes bust is a difficult thing to talk about, because when you are starting out, you are hopeful and idealistic, and you do not really want to talk about the downside. But you have to talk about it, and plan for a situation where the business goes under.

4. Beware the financing trap 

To return to financial management, I would discourage new business owners from acquiring too much finance and being over-indebted from the first day, unless it is absolutely necessary. Finance needs to be repaid, placing strain on that all-important cash flow, when often an innovative solution will reduced the reliance or even the necessity of finance.

5. Learn to walk before you try the 100m Olympic spirit 

Nine out of ten times, I find that budding entrepreneurs have completely overestimated what they are going to need to spend to get started. New businesses often want to splash out on marketing, without asking whether they have a product to sell and whether people would want to buy it. If you know that people will buy your product, go out and sell it first. Just get your first order. If someone is willing to pay you for something if you deliver it to them, you have your first order, and all you need is the cash to produce the product or service. This may mean starting smaller than planned, or maybe lower margins from the start, but it reduces the risk profile of the venture drastically.

What I have seen a few times before is someone leaving their job with enough money to pay themselves a salary for a few months, and then spending all that money on setting up a marketing plan, doing a little advertising, and on other operational expenses, without having sold anything yet, and then go bust due to a lack of revenue.

6. You are either all in, or all out 

Something that always amazes me is people saying that they would like to get involved in a part-time business. I always draw parallels between having a business and having a baby. It is going to be kicking and screaming and be very fragile in the first few years. If it is not, you are doing it wrong. If the business makes it past the first few years, it has a better chance of surviving. Like a baby, the older it gets, the more it is able to look after itself. However, it needs your involvement at the outset. If you can only devote some of your time to the business, you might be absent during a crisis, and that could prove disastrous.

7. Be future first 

Finally, it is important to plan well into the future. Basic business plans with a long-term outlook are one of the cornerstones of a successful operation. You should have a vision of where you want the business to be in 50 years, and how you want it to get there. Chances are that the business will almost definitely not end up where you thought it would as it will evolve over time, but thinking into the future helps you to anticipate eventualities, and plan for how to deal with them.

With the best intention, a business may go bust due to market conditions that are completely out of your control. A fluctuating exchange rate may cripple you slowly, or a revolutionary development within your industry may render your product or service obsolete overnight. These can impact everyone, so rather focus on what you can control; focus on the things that you can have a direct and tangible impact on the outcome. The 7 point I have listed are those that I found to be the most important in my journey, however your journey may present others that impact on you even more. Keep a list of the challenges you face and the lessons you learn, and always refer back to them to help you to keep developing.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Six of the most important things African tech start-ups need to know

The number of tech start-ups in Africa is rising rapidly. While the perception of the viability of tech start-ups in the majority of African countries has not been entirely positive, in reality, the conditions for creating a successful tech business have hardly ever been more favorable for those with innovative ideas.

1. Although the subdued growth rate has been frustrating for many, living standards on the continent are rising steadily, and with this, the demand for more technology. As a tech start-up in this environment, the first thing you need to know is that bandwidth can and will be a commodity across Africa, even in remote areas, at some point in the future. Until then, make sure your idea is mobile friendly and is community driven. Find a specific niche in the market and keep your start-up laser focused on what that community needs, how they would put your idea to use, and what your goals are.

2. Know that once you have something that is of value for that community, there will be other communities that will find value from it. Think for example, how Uber has grown to be the largest taxi company in the world. Other tech start-ups, such as AirBnB, have also become leading players in their fields. Whenever they become this successful, they open the doors of opportunities. With Uber, there are so many opportunities to become a supplier. Likewise, there are so many ways of doing something similar and riding on the coattails of their idea. Look at how AirBnB has opened a market for anyone with a spare square and to earn whilst doing so. Make sure your idea is expansive, that it can positively impact communities and grow employability and entrepreneurial spirit.

3. Never forget that despite the fact that the rulebook is often rewritten by new and innovative tech start-ups, basic business principles still apply. Of these, nothing is more important than cash flow. A downfall of many new start-ups is shortsightedness, and not paying enough attention to traditional business processes. Cash is king, if you can’t pay your bills, or don’t have a clear financial strategy, the venture is likely to be short lived.

4. Importantly, entrepreneurs must resist the temptation to bend the rules to get the business going. Getting the right legal framework in place can sometimes be a slow and painful process, but I would urge start-ups not to pay any facilitation fees of any shape, form, or kind. This might be trickier to avoid in some markets, but avoiding this will pay off in the long run.

5. Funding schemes abound: from hungry investors seeking out the next best app to farsighted business angels waiting to befriend the continent’s billion-plus buying power. A possible pitfall for tech start-ups is that of venture capital. This has two sides. Business owners often overvalue their operation, which is human. On the other hand, because equity is hard to come by, business owners often end up selling their souls, per se, to funders who may not have the business’s best interests at heart. There are many funds that are set up by governments to support budding entrepreneurs, which also come with the assistance of an advisor. It may be worthwhile to look at these opportunities before jumping into the arms of a venture capitalist. Many business incubators can also offer good advice.

6. I subscribe to the conviction of endurance. Often startups are seen as flash-in-the-pan disruptive fads. There is an interesting practice that I have only encountered in Japan, where people write a business plan for the next 100 years of their operation. Of course, the plan will not look anything like it does now 100 years down the line, but it forces one to think past oneself and into the future. It forces you to look at the business in such a way that it is not linked to your persona. When business owners sit down and do this, they lay the groundwork for a company that has the potential to be profitable well into the future.