Why Alan Knott Craig left iBurst. The untold story

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In an exclusive guest post for Disrupt Africa, Alan Knott Craig tells the real story of why he left iBurst in 2009, and the retrospective lessons he learnt about what job dissatisfaction really means.

I joined iBurst in January 2006.

I left in August 2009.

The official reason for leaving was so that I could move to Stellenbosch and spend more time with my family.

Unusually for press releases, it was mostly true.

I decided to leave iBurst because my work/life balance was out of kilter. It had reached a point where I had to make a choice. Family or work. I chose family.

There was no way I could stick to my choice as long as we lived in Jhb, so we moved to the quiet dorpie of Stellenbosch.

But there was another reason for me leaving iBurst.

For my last year at iBurst I struggled to get out of bed of the morning. I wasn’t feeling passionate, I had no hunger.

Why?

In retrospect I realize its because we were fighting a losing battle.

We were in an unending price war. Just as you get your head above water, a competitor drops prices and you’re forced to follow. You’re trying to squeeze revenue out of your business whilst ceaselessly cutting prices.

It was like having laxative and Imodium simultaneously.

At a shareholder level things were just as uncomfortable. Every board meeting we would have the same song & dance. “Assuming data prices do not fall we’ll be doing great by this time next year.”

After three years that tune started wearing thin.

In spite of the challenges we faced, we still built an amazing company culture, winning the 2008 Deloitte Best Company to Work For in the telecoms sector. But company culture wasn’t enough.

It’s no fun running a business that doesn’t make a profit.

The truth is that I simply didn’t know how to turn iBurst into a profit-making machine. I’d applied all the tricks and theory I knew from the mobile industry with no success.

I finally realized that data networks are fundamentally different to voice networks and that I had no idea how to monetize a data network. My shareholders had put their faith in me and I’d let them down, and I couldn’t see a way out.

So I did what I considered to be the honorable thing and left.

Since then I’ve had some twists and turns, and now I find myself back in the world of broadband networks.

Project Isizwe deploys government subsidised Free WiFi networks in townships and rural areas, applying the lessons learnt at iBurst, namely:

  1. Keep your capex down (no expensive base stations).
  2. Keep your overheads down (no head office and massive payroll).
  3. Always do the right thing for the user (product comes before profit).

We’re not-for-profit, but we’re also not-for-loss. That’s the secret to the awesomeness of Tshwane Free WiFi. We’re not trying to squeeze out profits so we’re able to give 100% attention to the user experience.

The result is average speeds of 7MB/sec in public spaces in Soshanguve, Atteridgeville and Mamelodi, with over two million unique users to date.

For what it’s worth, based on my experiences thus far, my advice to youngsters and aspiring entrepreneurs would be as follows:

  1. If you want to change your life, change your environment. Willpower is useless. Environment is place and people. People are most important. You are who you hang out with.
  2. If you find yourself struggling to get out of bed in the morning, look no further than your job. Being a banker might come with a big pay-cheque and bragging rights, but you only have one life. If you’re not psyched to get up in the morning, you’re wasting your life.
  3. Making profits is underrated. Unending financial losses are a signal from the heavens that you’re on the wrong path. Get off that path and find a path that makes you independent. Once you can help yourself you can help other people.
  4. Put your family first and everything else will fall into place. First in your family is your spouse. The most important decision you’ll ever make is your life partner. Its risky, but you must get married, and the sooner the better. If you’ve made a mistake, both of your lives will be ruined. Get out of the marriage and try again.

As John Maynard Keynes said, “If the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

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Key players from Africa's startup and investment ecosystem post on issues close to their heart for Disrupt Africa.

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