Teresa H. Clarke is the chairperson and CEO of Africa.com LLC. In February 2010, she re-launched the high-tech company after resigning from her position as a managing director in investment banking at Goldman Sachs & Co. Memeburn asked Teresa about the process and experience of leaving a senior level position at a corporate giant to pursue a startup based on a single domain name, Africa.com.
Memeburn: When did you the get idea for Africa.com?
Teresa Clarke: I lived in South Africa from 1995 to 2000 and acquired the domain name around 2001. Over most of the last decade, I worked at Goldman Sachs. During my free time, I imagined what I would do with the domain name and I looked at other African websites.
In 2009, Google approached me about acquiring the domain name. At that time, Google was early in its efforts to acquire African users, and in particular, the company wanted to beat Facebook in entering the African social networking market…They thought that Africa.com would be a good name for their product in the African market. Their approach forced me to think long and hard – so I put up a site on my own to see what would happen. Quickly traffic started doubling and I found myself drawn in. I was having so much fun.
M.B: What has been biggest challenge in setting up?
TC: With 53 African countries there are many potential strategic directions and so many different business opportunities. So staying focused and disciplined and sticking to a particular path has been the hardest challenge.
MB:What is the most remarkable or memorable moment so far?
TCThere have been so many. We are a startup company. But the power of our name has been big. We have a number of impressive potential partners who want to work with us. That has been the most surprising. Just 12 days after we launched, we were approached by a major South African television broadcaster who expressed an interest in buying into our company. We were very flattered given how young we were. It was too soon for us to entertain the offer, but we do hope to pick up discussions with this company again now that we have matured a bit.
MB: What has the response been from other news sites?
TC: I think because we operate in so many different spheres we don’t really compete with any one site. We partner with several other sites, aggregate some content, and create some of our own original content. I know the founders of AllAfrica.com and called to tell them I would be launching Africa.com and hoped to use their newsfeed. I think we have a good relationship with them. We send a fair amount of traffic to their site from our news page which links back to them.
MB: What do you plan to do?
TC: There is no question that we will increase mobile accessibility and develop a mobi site for Africa.com. In the first year, the organic traffic that Africa.com generated was primarily external to the continent because we rank so high in Google, second only to Wikipedia for the search term “Africa”. So the sort of person who does a search for the term “Africa” is not likely to be African. They are likely to be American, European or Asian. We are currently exploring the gaps that exist in the online space for the African internet user so that we can contribute in a meaningful way.
MB: What are the lessons you learned at Goldman Sachs that you are bringing to this new role?
TC:Goldman Sachs is a very well managed company, and I learned many very valuable lessons there that I apply to my leadership of Africa.com. Among the lessons I learned are the following: a) before taking a decision, consult very widely with experts in the matter at hand; b) constantly assess risk, and make changes to the plan as often as needed based on constantly evolving information; c) people are the most important asset of any company, so make hiring decisions very carefully, and reward good performance to retain high performers; d) ensure that everyone on the team is fully informed of everything, even at the risk of what may be perceived as over-communicating.
MB: Is there anything you find unique in African internet users that is good for business?
TC:Because communication infrastructure has been so under-invested in Africa over the last fifty years, Africa is well poised to leapfrog more developed regions, and to learn from the mistakes of others, and jump straight to the best in class technology. A prime example is Africa’s adoption of digital cellular networks. Africa was able to skip the analog technology, and investors in African cellular phone systems reaped rich rewards from their investment in the digital networks.
It is too soon to see how Africa may leapfrog developed nations with respect to internet connectivity, but I suspect that there will be parallel patterns in how Africa catches up with the more developed regions; it is likely that Africa will skip the trial and error phase of new technology adoption, and jump straight to best in class technologies.
MB: What stopped you from accepting a large sum of money for your domain name? What factors encouraged you to leave a giant company and venture into tech in Africa?
TC: For me, ownership of the Africa.com domain name is about more than a business opportunity. I see this as a tremendous privilege and a great responsibility. Whoever owns this domain name has a monumental opportunity to shape how the internet world views Africa. Africa has been very good to me throughout my life and my career, and I wanted to step up to the challenge of ensuring that this great vehicle for change is used responsibly and effectively.