Monday, 16 June 2014

by Silumesii Maboshe

Startupland is a 6-episode documentary series by Justin Gutwein, Jonathon Perrelli and Maxim Wheatley that follows the journeys of five North American technology startups during their time in an accelerator. Sound-bites of recognisable entrepreneurs in the technology and venture space are used to underscore key ideas within the series. While the production is exclusively American, there is a lot that Zambia can learn from it.

On Tuesday the 10th of June, 2014, the first episode of Startupland was made available for free for a global premier. I got to watch it and participate in the launch with an enthusiastic crowd of entrepreneurs at BongoHive in Lusaka. We followed the on-line chatter from India, Rwanda to Nigeria and all across the globe as people shared their thoughts on the episode. It felt incredible to be a part of something that was happening the world over!

I left the screening feeling inspired. This year has been tough running Pencil Case Studios. The ideas in the Startupland premier were just what I needed as a reminder that all the hard work would be worth it (one day).

Over the next few days, I’d like to share some of the big ideas that jumped out at me after watching episode one. Here’s our road-map:

  1. Startupland—The Rise of The Rest
  2. Making Startupland—The Story behind The Story
  3. Talent, Infrastructure and Capital in Startupland
  4. The Startupland Accelerator
  5. Ownership in Startupland

Hope you’ll stay along for the ride.

The Rise of The Rest

Is the success of a business affected by its geographical location? Do you have to physically be in Silicon Valley to have a successful tech startup?

From a story-telling point of view, I find the Startupland pilot to be grounded in origins and aspirations. It’s about people that took an honest look at their circumstances, imagined how things could be better and then did something drastic to make that happen. I think this is the heart of entrepreneurship. This is what makes the “Rise of The Rest” concept so powerful for me. While geography does not have to affect your circumstances, you definitely do.

Silicon Valley. Image © 2014 Startupland.

Zambia will never be Silicon Valley. If you are Zambian and just read that sentence, I want you to stand up and say it out loud, “Zambia will never be Silicon Valley”. We don’t have an ocean front and we don’t have generations of technology businesses to gain insight from.

What we do have is so much more valuable if we invest in it wisely. People.

Startupland is Where You Start

Watching the inaugural episode of Startupland, you’ll learn about how in 2005, Y-Combinator started the first accelerator on the West Coast of the USA. It was taken for granted that Silicon Valley was the birthplace of technology startups. In the ensuing years that trend was challenged with accelerators and technology businesses springing up all across the United States.

Startupland is the story of five startups working on their business ideas at The Fort, an accelerator in Washington DC, America’s East Coast, circa 2013.

We are introduced to Aneet and Guy of (Leg)Cyte, Dave of The Trip Tribe, Elise of SNOBSWAP, JD of TrendPo and Marty of RidePost.

The first episode set a positive tone for me. I felt it ended too quickly and I really wanted to know what happened to the five startups. Immediately after the BongoHive screening, we had the unique treat of having the Associate Producer of the series, Maxim Wheatley, Skype in and answer our questions. The crew are already thinking of broadening the scope of the documentary to include a more global perspective and including African technology startups.

The entire series is available for purchase and download. Make sure you have enough data in your dongle (the first episode is about 1.5GB)!

We are Zambia and we are Startupland

The concept of the Rise of the Rest could be extended to include underrepresented groups in the tech space. The responsibility, however, is on those groups to step up and be counted. I remember being the only black person in my Computing Science classes at University. I didn’t bother me at the time but looking back, perhaps it should have. It takes courage to make a stand and rally the troops. Thankfully, we have the example of groups like the Asikana Network who are standing up for women in technology in Zambia.

As we celebrate 50 years of independence, this year, it is a good time to reflect and see that our Founding Fathers were wildly entrepreneurial. Laughing at the circumstances they found themselves in, they dreamed of and started to build the Zambia they could only see in their imagination. With over 70 “immigrant” tribes to galvanize, they convinced these people groups to see themselves as part of one Zambia, to sharpen their tools and build one nation.

You’ve got to have a big vision. You’re getting up everyday and rallying people around an idea.

Steve Case, Revolution / AOL

I believe we can become a technology hub for Southern Africa by applying the same determination in our DNA that caused us to peacefully fight for and win our independence. It won’t be Silicon Valley, nor should it be. Our challenges are different and so are our circumstances. What we build, though, could be even more spectacular.