BusinessDay: Corporate SA needs to give tech start-ups a chance

New entrepreneurs must be better at explaining the value they provide.


By Johan Steyn, 9 August 2022

Published by BusinessDay: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-08-09-johan-steyn-corporate-sa-needs-to-give-tech-start-ups-a-chance/


At the start of a recent presentation, I displayed a picture of New York overlaid with the words “Artificial Intelligence (AI)”. Almost all of the websites, reports, articles, and presentations on AI will feature a picture from developed countries. “Why does AI apply only to the West?” was my opening question.


On the next slide, I showed a picture of rural Africa, overlaid with the same words. Why do we so naturally associate AI only with developed and advanced countries? I was speaking at an event of The Applied AI Community, hosted by Patrick Rotzetter, senior global engagement manager at Amazon’s web services.


The topic of my presentation was “An African lens: smart technology and the continent of promise.” Patrick told me afterwards that my talk was helpful for people from Western countries to remember that Africans, and others from the rest of the world, are also doing ground-breaking work in the technology space.


SA is home to many of the world’s most exciting AI start-up companies. Toby Shapshak reported in Business Day (Fintech leading SA tech start-ups, June 9 2022) there are “almost three times as many fintech start-ups in the country than in any other individual category”.


Referring to the “SA Start-up Ecosystem Report 2022”, he highlighted that 357 SA tech start-ups have raised a combined $993m (R16.5bn) since 2015. Employing an estimated 11,000 people these start-ups are a growing and important contributor to our economy. A recent report by PwC (“Global Artificial Intelligence Study: Exploiting the AI Revolution”), estimates that AI technology will grow Africa’s economy by $1.5-trillion by 2030.


It makes me extremely proud to know that SA’s technology space is growing rapidly and that many world-class technologists are from here. Over the past few weeks, I have been conducting mentoring programmes with a number of these firms. Their challenge is that, though they are exceptionally skilled software engineers, many of these business leaders have rarely been taught how to sell their services. They are great at “geeking out” at technology conferences among their peers, but presenting to corporate leaders is new territory for many.


As part of my programme, I conduct role-playing exercises with them, acting like a prospective corporate client. The rule is that they may not use any technical terms when they “sell” to me. I do not want to hear how great their platforms are. No words such as AI, machine learning, automation, robotics or cloud computing are allowed. I simply want them to explain to me the business benefits I will receive by using their technology.


Most by far of these highly intelligent entrepreneurs fail the test. And it is here where I think the majority of exciting start-ups struggle to scale. Andy Bounds, author of The Jelly Effect teaches us to focus on “the afters”. In our communications with clients, we must be able to clearly explain what they will be left with “after” engaging with us.


Start-up business leaders must be better at explaining the value they provide. Corporate SA should be more open to hearing their stories and giving them a foot in the door. They may just be able to revolutionise your business.


Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of AIforBusiness.net