Web Summit 2014: The Caribbean's path to tech success
Kirk-Anthony Hamilton, Contributor
FROM NOVEMBER 4-6, about 20,000 entrepreneurs, investors and media practitioners from around the world descended on Dublin, Ireland, for three days of talks, demos and networking at Web Summit 2014.
Guest speakers included Peter Thiel, CEO of the Founders Fund, a member of the famed Paypal mafia and one of Facebook's first investors; Tony Fadell, founder and CEO of Nest; Drew Houston, founder and CEO of Drop Box; Mark Pincus, co-founder of Zynga; sports star Tony Hawk; actress Eva Longoria; Adrien Grenier of Entourage fame; Bono; and a host of others.
It's always exciting to be in the company of massively successful entrepreneurs delivering insight on their journey and their thoughts on the next big thing. Major brands including Amazon, Google and Box were also well represented.
I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the investor summit reserved for a small group of investors from all corners of the Earth who were granted special access to various events and content from the summit.
Having had an inside look at what is happening in the world of tech, I am positive exciting things are on the horizon. Technology entrepreneurs are increasingly able to rise above circumstance, financial, political and geographical barriers to create global entities, which often mark their success with a seeming irreverence to established social standards. I continue to be of the mindset that the next big thing can be birthed in the Caribbean, hopefully Jamaica, but Jamaican tech entrepreneurs need to focus their energy on creating universal solutions and building universal brands, irrespective of their location. In the tech space, 'thinking big' means thinking global, and global solutions will attract investment. There is nothing uniquely American about Facebook, Google, or Dropbox. These brands are location agnostic, independent of someone's love for brand USA or China (in the case of Alibaba) or any other country for that matter. Entrepreneurs must think beyond 'Brand Jamaica', which holds minimal equity in this space.
While attending a private party hosted by Irish start-up logograb.com, I met some representatives from a company called AirTame based in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is essentially a wireless HDMI cable in the form of a USB-like device, which connects to televisions. A Wi-Fi connection allows content to be displayed on the television from any computer platform. This solution is extremely simple, useful, global, disruptive, and highly bankable. Airtame raised US$1.3 million on crowdfunding websites earlier this year. It's a fantastic device and there is absolutely nothing about this concept that could not have been conceived and developed in Jamaica.
Here are some observations which I think are totally relevant to Jamaica and the Caribbean:
Interest in tech entre-preneurship is growing at an alarming rate. The Web Summit began as a 400-person event four years ago and has quickly grown to 20,000 people. The event size doubled between 2013 and 2014. The barriers to entry in the space are very limited and continue to decrease. I met numerous people who have given up promising careers in other fields to pursue paths in the world of tech entrepreneurship.
Raising capital is difficult the world over. I met people from the US, Europe, Asia and Australia - all involved in fledging start-ups seeking to make it big and all were participating in Web Summit with one major goal in mind - raising capital. My discussions with entrepreneurs often led to an understanding that fund-raising in their homeland is not easy. This challenges the myth that developed markets are much easier to operate in and ideas are guaranteed funding. I encourage local entrepreneurs to press on and push the envelope while searching for funding, a great idea once executed will be attractive to investors the world over.
Governments are investing heavily into building tech ecosystems, everyone wants to be the next Silicon Valley. This means there is a lot of competition for our entrepreneurs and even more competition for capital. Countries are altering their entire tax system to attract start-up entrepreneurs. If we don't act appropriately, we will miss a grand opportunity.
Developing an ecosystem of venture capital investors requires an international approach. The Caribbean has been home to more conservative forms of investment; in order to change the mindset of the investor class, we need to curate opportunities for them to meet with global venture capitalists with solid track records. This will help to whet their appetite by giving greater validation to the venture capital model and how it works and it's potential for serious gains. Our focus needs to be on positive wealth creation for the island. Entrepreneurs need to be pushed to develop big-world solutions that are attractive to investors. This approach is already working in Latin America, Europe and Asia - in my discussions, it was clear that all started with the same conservative mindset as the Caribbean, so anything is possible.
We need to understand tech entrepreneurs and give room to their way of thinking. The typical frameworks that govern more traditional business sectors do not apply to the technology sector. Tech solutions are usually designed to bypass some kind of barrier to efficiency, capital or people. If entrepreneurship is about breaking the rules, the field of technology is about demolishing them. We have seen this with the stories behind companies like Uber, Air BnB and Tesla - these are 'bad boy' entrepreneurs focused on changing the world and they are not held by convention. We will need to give our tech entrepreneurs the space to think outside the box and be truly disruptive. Some reasonable level of tolerance must be given to failure, not as a goal but as a precursor to success.
IMPRESSED WITH TALK
I was especially impressed with the talk delivered by Nest founder Tony Fadell. He struck me as very down to earth and in tune with the human side of the entrepreneurial journey.
Fadell reasoned with the audience, made up primarily of Under-30 individuals, that entrepreneurship is tough and failure is a natural path to success. He emphasised his many defeats in his rise to glory and the importance of learning from these experiences and persevering. He highlighted the success of 23-year-old Evan Spiegel's Snapchat as somewhat of an anomaly, stating that most entrepreneurs find their success in their 30s or 40s, having spent their 20s daring to explore and be messy, giving comfort to many that it is OK if you are not a billionaire just yet. Fadell is one of the fathers behind the popular iPod which he worked on in close collaboration with Steve Jobs. He emphasised that he is now 45 and is finally experiencing phenomenal independent success with Nest, which was acquired by Google for US$3.2 billion earlier this year.
Fadell used the Web Summit stage to reveal Nest's new partnership with Electric Ireland, which will see Nest devices distributed to new customers for free and at reduced rates for existing customers, similar to how we see US cell phone companies distributing handsets. This is a major step towards Nest's goal of making the thermostat as important as our cellular phones and having them fully integrated in our daily lives.
The Web Summit reinforced my conviction that tech entrepreneurs in Jamaica are just as poised as anyone to create great businesses. However, we need to build an infrastructure for success. I applaud the efforts of the Technology Innovation Centre, Start Up Jamaica, the Development Bank of Jamaica's Venture Capital Programme and our current network of tech start-ups - we are without a doubt heading in the right direction.
Stakeholders must focus on fostering big disruptive ideas with global potential and serious bankability, using Jamaica as a proving ground. This should not just be about giving people something to do during the week, but instead it is about building real success stories. Start Up Jamaica's engagement of Middle East-based tech accelerator Oasis 500 is a great move and should be supported. I expect Oasis 500 will bring great international mentors and superior bench-marking standards to Jamaica. I am looking forward to the positive outcomes which are ahead for Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Kirk-Anthony Hamilton is a global entrepreneur, investor and vice-curator at the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Kingston Hub. He is the founder and CEO of the Infiniti Partnership.