Geek Retreat 2009, 4 ideas to make a difference

2009 June 3

The 2009 Geek retreat

A while back, Heather Ford and Justin Spratt were having a chat about IS Labs — an initiative by Internet Solutions that challenges people to submit ideas to make the internet better in South Africa. We started talking about different ways to support innovation in the space, and thought that it might be interesting to replicate the IS Labs platform in a face-to-face event where we got together some of the most creative Internet minds together to talk about just that. And so the ‘Geek Retreat’ was born.

We’re hoping that this will become an annual event and that we invite new people every year who will inject the South African internet space with new ideas about how we can make the community more diverse, more innovative and globally competitive.

Because space is limited, we’ve used a combination of nominations from a wonderful steering committee and an open call for participation. We know that this isn’t the perfect solution and that there will be valuable people who will be left out. But we’re hoping that, through your suggestions, and because of the fact that we’ll be inviting new people every year, that we can improve on the process in the future.

I believe this is a great initiative, Often some really cool things come out of events like this (i.e GlobalVoices), I do think however the event should be focused on actual action plans and doing, rather then talking about doing. I will be leading a discussion on some of the stuff that i have been considering recently.

Offshore Incubators for African companies

Most incubators attempt to encourage innovation in the Country, however the majority of African countries have small populations which lead small economies, it also means not as much can be invested in these companies if they are only based locally since the markets are so small. This also leads to much lower investment in R&D, and leads to companies from Africa being outstripped by their international counterparts.

To fix this problem of small economies of scale companies can aim to expand overseas. Erik likes to say “If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere in the world” and i believe that is true as well. However i have chatted to a few entrepreneurs here in South Africa (Mostly enterprise software) and they have found it incredibly difficult expanding into markets in Europe. There are also the significant costs involved with registration of companies, staffing costs and rental costs (Especially when you consider exchange rates to currencies in Africa).

The solution could be to set up shared office space very similar to an incubator. Companies will benefit with lower costs in initially entering other markets by splitting the costs between members of the Incubator. Obviously companies that are in the very early stages will be excluded and companies that have existed for a while and are looking to expand included. The criteria however can be discussed, later the point of this is just to open discussions on the subject.

Startup Bootcamp

bootcampI have recently been through the business beat offer at the innovation hub and will be based there in the Pre-Incubation programme. I do think the programme is of use. However i believe the process took too long. I also find that in South Africa, entrepreneurship is not the 1st option for many university students and many never even consider this. Startup Bootcamp aims to promote entrepreneurship during global entrepreneurship week 2009. The idea is run it like a typical bootcamp, with a ton of information and taking students through the paces of setting up a business to give them a taste of it. The bootcamp will include a mix of students from different fields such as finance, marketing, engineering, mathematics and computer science. I have already contacted people at make your mark who have offered their support.

The format of the event and schedule will be as follows:

On the first day Students, Interested Parties or Companies conduct a pitch. Pitches can either be a business idea from a student or it can be a problem/challenge that a company is facing where a solution is needed. After the pitches, the best ideas or most interesting problems will be selected by vote. The students can self organise and choose the ones they would like to work on. A facilitator will ensure that each team is balanced and has the required skills for the project. In addition, each team will be assigned a dedicated mentor who will guide and assist them throughout the week.

The programme will be run over 10 days, each morning will start with a 1-2 hour talk with useful information. After that will be a feedback session in which each team reports progress and challenges. This will be an open discussion where students will be encouraged to assist each other. In addition the mentors and experts in the relevant areas (Engineering, Business, Computer science etc.) will be available to assist with the challenges.

At the end of the week teams must submit:

– A proof of concept of the product with basic functionality

– For manufactured products: design and detailed specifics of the product

– For software/web solutions: a demo with basic functionality

– For mathematical problems that are being solved: The algorithm should be included in an application, and can be applied to test datasets

– An Elevator pitch

– A short 5 minute presentation

– A mini business plan (max 5 pages)

– A mini marketing plan / with some form of branding and message (max 3 pages)

A seedfunding + Incubator model

seed-fundingWe have discussed this many times, something that was discussed to great lengths at Barcamp Jozi as well. The gap in the market for seed funding. My view has always been that in South Africa, and most parts of Africa most students cannot even think about entrepreneurship when they complete university. Why? Due to their financial situations. They may have student loans to pay off, their parents may be earning very little and now that they have been to college they are expected to go into the corporate environment and start supporting the family. So this would be similar to the Ycombinator model, in that you pay them just enough for them to get by for 1-3 months while they develop a working prototype. However often people who may need a laptop cannot afford it, the difference between the Ycombinator model would be to supply a central place to work from and desktop computers and servers.

Empowering communities by enabling markets using the internet&mobile

marketsSomething that i am quite interested in, is the creation an enabling of markets. At the MobileActive i lead a discussion on using mobile technology to assist the informal sector. And i truly believe the internet has huge potential that allows small business to compete head on with larger businesses. The key to it however, is that small businesses need market places. Why? They could just easily create a simple 1/2 page website using any of the freely available tools out there cant they?

Yes they could. However as more and more content gets added to the net, its going to become increasingly difficult to drive traffic to their website. So you end up having to do things like SEO, Social Media marketing etc. Yes you could argue that social media ‘levels’ the playing field. Though eventually once big business gets on there its going to get increasingly difficult to ‘stand out’. Basically you end up with a Red Queens Race. It will become a costly exercise for small businesses to do all of these things. That’s why markets that put sellers and buyers together are the key in the future.

For example, I have been to a few entrepreneurial networking events organised by the youth fund and what struck me, at every event i often meet 3-4 people who are running small businesses in Transport. I wouldn’t even classify them as small, more Micro. The owner is the only employee with a Van/Truck. These businesses could never dream of competing with large transport companies could they?

What if you enabled a market in which companies that need transportation post their requirements, the transport companies could then bid on each one? Rating systems and feedback mechanisms could all be put in place. What if this market was available via a Mobile phone? With SMS alerts? Huge potential i believe. There are tons of other opportunities where markets are desperately needed.

I would appreciate some constructive feedback on the topics above, Any other suggestions for further discussions, Additional topics that you would like to see discussed at the Geek Retreat, any comments you have on these topics that i should bring up during the discussions?

If you would like to get involved in the discussions at geek retreat you need to be at the geek retreat (Unless you can find out a way to be there without being there? Hmmm let me know if you do ;). Though please note that spaces are limited however you can send heather an email with your motivation for attending.

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