Posted by: Martin | November 6, 2011

A Window to Another World

Skype hitting critical mass in Abidjan?

I use skype a lot for communicating with the Ivory Coast.

Usually I have been talking to people I know very well, where I was the one introducing them skype and helping out downloading and installing it.

However, in the last months it seems something has happened, I see more and more people start using it independently, beyond the young well-off connected people that have been using it for many years.

The other day I had my first skype conversation with a junior guy at the law firm I’m working with. It’s a great guy, and he has been very helpful in a lot of situations. If he starts his own firm I’ll be his first client, but unlike most other people in the Ivory Coast I talk to over skype, I’ve never been in his home and I don’t know his family.

So I’m sitting in my living room at home in Europe. He turns up on the skype video chat, and in the background you have his relatively barren home – I think it’s in Abobo – with noises of cooking, children playing and people talking and occasionally showing up on the screen.     It’s a weird kind of feeling, like having a window to another world, a direct channel between the developed and developing world, right in your living room.

More wise words from Niklas Zennström

Today I watched an interview with Skype founder Niklas Zennström at Techcrunch Disrupt Beijing. Interviewer Sarah Lacy seems to get the importance of skype in the developing world as she opened up with:

I’ve just become a huge huge fangirl for skype, because I’ve spent 40 weeks travelling in the emerging world and it was the only way I could stay in touch with home, stay in touch with work and anyone in the US. I don’t think many americans realise how transformative this product is until they use it, and it’s become one of the few companies I really can’t live without.

Yup, amen to that.

Techcrunch Disrupt Beijing (click to get to the video)

Zennström usually has something interesting to say, and this interview was not an exception. Here are two questions that caught my attention:

Interviewer:
You know, it was not a lay-up. you got turned down by 25 VCs,  it was a very hard time in the market   I mean it was not  an obvious idea  you guys were not becessarily an obvious team, you had this distributed strategy. Why did none of these things hold you back, was it the power of the product,  was it luck, what was it?

Zennström:
I think a bit of everything, one thing is  determination, because there were a lot of times in the early days, the first year  leading up to the launch of skype  it was very very hard we couldnt raise money.   You know, it was just difficult times, so I think one thing was determination; never give up, and we  just kind of kept building and kept doing it, and then also we were lucky in terms of timing.  We just happened to do what we did at the right time. And then the product just took off and became viral – but we didnt know if it would. It was the time broadband starting becoming commonplace and for some reason no one had addressed what we were doing.

Interviewer:
What have you learned from your failures?

Zennström:
One of the big problems is that people are afraid of failure. Because when you start your  company you are so exposed. If it doesn’t work and it’s obvious that it doesnt work,  and then there you go: You wasted time. You lost money, you lost investors money, your money, and you lost your job.

I think what Silicon Valley is great at is the culture that when  someone says my company failed people  say: “Ok good, what did you learn from it?”  And thats the right approach  if you look at a failure as an experience that  you can learn from it’s pretty good and then don’t be afraid of it.

The worst thing that can happen… sure investors lose the money but hopefully a part of their business model is that you have some good investments and some bad investments, so that’s not the end of the world

If you then as an entrepreneur, if you start a company, it doesn’t work out, then you probably learnt a LOT from the experience. You probably learnt much much more than you would  from going to a business school or having your job at this  big company.

And the other thing also is it has been that people are afraid of… maybe you  have a job somewhere at a good company and you have a good career so you are leaving that, you are leaving your job security.  But you know, with the economy in this shape   job security in big companies doesn’t exist any more, so that’s another thing you know the risk is not so … the alternative is also risky.

The crisis of 2008 made this point hit home in my case.  The big company I worked for had three rounds of lay-offs – I kept my job but it became pretty clear that job security in big companies is not what it was. As mentioned in the Fragility and Robustness post, I’m thinking that the returns from my investments/businesses in the Ivory Coast could be safer than my day job salary.   And well, the whole safety thing is usually the main impediment to become an entrepreneur, and now it seems to be gone.

As for learning, business schools and formal education, I mean I spent five years getting a Master’s degree in engineering. I don’t regret it, but I’ve been starting to think that formal education could be a bit overestimated and entrepreneurial experience underestimated. I recall when my younger sister who is studying engineering said that she that MIT lectures available freely online were better than the actual lectures given at her university. I would hire someone (from the Ivory Coast or elsewhere)  with no formal degree, but who has gotten relevant experience by setting up a business and/or had the passion, determination and motivation to delve deeply into a subject through online resources like the Khan Academy and others.

I guess one still need universities or something like it for the human interaction important in learning, getting a network, and (unfortunately) as a gatekeeping function, but it’s got to be possible to organise the whole thing differently and better, and still get the same benefits.


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