South Africa by Dirk Tolken
The changes in South Africa over the last few years have been possibly greater as those in any other country on the planet. We asked Cape Town-based Web Entrepreneur Dirk Tolken for his take on the Tech Scene in South Africa:
Who are you? What do you do? How big is your operation? What’s your role?
My name is Dirk Tolken and I am the managing director of PERONii Solutions (www.peronii.co.za), a new media marketing solutions provider based in Cape Town, South Africa. We are a small, sub 10 staff agency that enables us to keep up to date with current online trends and change direction quickly (especially with the volatile nature of SEO / SEM). This allows us to deliver the latest innovative web development and marketing technologies to our clients. Our services include web development, internet marketing (search engine optimisation, search marketing like PPC, email marketing and more) and graphic design.
PERONii is part of a group of companies that specialise in various fields, including inbound tourism, mobile software technology and online gaming, all of which we provide various inhouse Internet related services to.
My role in the company is that of chief strategist, new business, online marketing and project manager. As small business owner one tends to wear different hats at all times.
What percentage of your business is local, national, continental, or global? Do you find that the demands of your customers dictate what software you use? How aware are your clients of developments in the web space? Do you find yourself explaining new technologies to explain their benefit?
Most of our business is South Africa based (with probably a 70/30 split of local and national), but we’re busy breaking into the global market with strategic partnerships and our optimisation skills gaining us ground on the internationally competitive search terms. We’re actively looking for agencies in Europe and the US to promote our skills as we’re able to provide service at almost two thirds of the pricing in the UK and US which is of course an attractive selling point. As far as continental goes, we find that tourism & communication plays a major part in how technology enters Africa (when taking a perspective from the Internet industry). There is an ever growing sub-Saharan tourism industry and with South Africa being the most developed country we often have tourism start-ups that direct tours to these countries. In essence we find it to be more South African initiatives than clients that approach us from other African countries (other than the odd 419 scam now and then).
We usually dictate the technology to be used, but in certain cases clients come to us with existing solutions and we then build on that or suggest better solutions.
In South Africa, people are starting to wake up to the power of online marketing and we’re working hard on educating existing and prospective clients. I tend to keep a library of FAQ’s that I use to educate prospects. I have been published in a local magazine, writing about the ‘Power of Internet Marketing’ and have had positive response on that so I’ll be looking at doing more of that.
Technology developments like for instance Web 2.0 and other lesser known developments tend to go under the radar to most of the buying market here, except in some cases where mainstream advertising picks up on certain trends. There was an ad on TV recently about margarine of all things that mentioned blogging and the online community here were quick to criticise the advertising company for not using it to their advantage and actually extending the campaign to the web. It could have been great education opportunity for the mainstream.
Our larger portals and service providers also do well in education, but there’s always something new and more education to be done.
How did you get into technology? Was that typical of South Africa at the time? What equipment/software do you work with? How does Open Source help you in your work?
I have always been interested in science and technology. I guess I grew out of science and adopted technology as my main interest. In my early years we were playing with Atari’s, Commodore 64’s and later PC’s, mostly through gaming. In the mid to late 90’s networking and getting Microsoft Certification was all the craze, with many networking engineers leaving for London. I still have friends who have stayed on there.
We’re PC based, using all the major software (Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash and a string of others). Open source helps a lot. Our space venturing pioneer Mark Shuttleworth, who started Thawte Consulting (online security technology acquired by Verisign) is now doing great work through his Shuttleworth Foundation to promote math, science and open source to young learners here. We use open source daily, but only that which has good support systems behind it.
Can you explain about the computing scene in South Africa? Is there much User Group activity? How about Events? How conducive is the South African scene to Start-ups? What particular challenges do new tech businesses face in your country? What African/South African developments should the rest of the world be aware of?
The computing scene in South Africa is alive and well and growing very fast. As mentioned before, gaming is a good entry point for young people to get introduced and the Internet is accessible throughout most of South Africa. We are pretty much on par with the rest of the world technology wise, but infrastructure tends to be a problem with the monopoly of Telkom, our main telephonics and Internet infrastructure provider. Things are however slowly changing with increased wireless mobile technology and a second telephone operator entering the arena soon.
The larger user groups here are mainly from large portals, but there are many smaller niche groups just as anywhere else in the world. Computing events are still limited to gaming mostly, but there are some conferences on Internet Marketing starting to show around the major cities. These are of course good points of access for the industry trying to do some education.
South Africa is a land of opportunity at the moment and entrepreneurial spirit is rife. Our economy is growing well and technology is playing a big part. There are various start-ups here that are leaders in their field globally. Paypal for instance was started by a South African, but unfortunately due to certain financial laws (mainly from SARS, our revenue service) we’re not able to use it here. The greatest challenge for new tech business is the education aspect. I was part of a company in 2000 that developed dynamic pricing technology that was way ahead of what anyone has seen before (in fact I have yet to see something like it again), but we had a rather reluctant market at the time so it went down as a dot bomb. I think with that being history now, the second wave of Internet technology that is available now is much better received due to the local market having been exposed to it for longer. It is like any new technology that arrives on the market anywhere around the world I guess.
Developments here that the world can be aware of? That’s a big question, but I can say that the South African tech / IT community consists of hard workers and we’re technologically well advanced. We’re not an India or China as far as outsourcing is concerned (as in pure bulk), but I believe we have a place in the world as the gateway to Africa, and Africa will be (in my opinion) the next big thing the world industries will look at over the next 20 years as there is much development (economically and technologically) still to be done.
Mobile technology is big in South Africa and there are some great social networking services on the up, which I am sure will spill over to the business world (as with web 2 technologies) as it grows mature. Tourism is also a huge industry here, and there are still many opportunities surfacing around the 2010 World Cup Soccer. We’re looking forward to have everyone visit Cape Town!