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The late Matthew Buckland was an icon and a digital pioneer in his field. The story of how he got there, detailed in the posthumously published So You Want to Build A Startup is testament to this.
Buckland, or Matt as he was affectionately known by many, was a man of principles who stubbornly struck out to create his own destiny — often defying authority and group think.
When at Naspers’s News24, he brazenly against the advice of his colleagues, emailed the company’s head Koos Bekker after finding his email address in a group email and asked for a meeting to discuss ideas he had to improve the company.
Bekker was known for getting personally involved in firing staff, so Buckland knew he was taking a chance. But Bekker immediately responded, inviting him up to his 14th-floor lair.
“I was struck by how casually he was dressed. He wore jeans and a slightly raggedy t-shirt visible under a pastel-blue collared shirt. Maybe it was a Friday thing, or maybe he was dressing like an internet person now,” writes Buckland.
Reading Matthew Buckland’s memoir is moving, given the frankness and humanness he uses to describe his journey into the world of tech, business
Later Bekker’s dress code would inform his own before he swapped his casual wear for his trademark white shirts and jeans (which some of his staff later remarked was modeled after one of his heroes Elon Musk — he later dropped the white shirts when he left Creative Spark and returned to converse shoes and jeans).
Not too long after arriving at Naspers he decided that the time had come to venture out on his own — to focus full time on his side-project, a blog called Memeburn.com and a digital agency doing development and design of websites and apps called Creative Spark for which he already had two people working for him.
Vinny and ‘the crack whore den’
In 2010, in his first months on his own he felt more like a hobo than a business owner, perhaps because he had chosen to work from a corner table at La Cuccina, a restaurant in Cape Town’s seafront suburb of Hout Bay.
Soon however he was in luck when he met SA entrepreneur and now Shark Tank presenter Vinny Lingham.
At the time Lingham was running Yola, a free website-building site, that he founded. Lingham offered him office space in a seedy building in what Buckland’s staff would later dub “the crack whore den”, with a boardroom that readily smelled of body odour.
Luckily the business grew and Creative Spark was able to expand, moving several times to new and increasingly slicker offices.
But at the time Lingham didn’t hold out hope for Buckland’s business, believing the digital agency space to be overtraded in South Africa. Buckland was taken by Lingham’s comment, but stubbornly held on.
So focused was Buckland that he made a point of removing everything from his life that didn’t have something to do with his business, even cutting out things like watching sport on TV. He worked many late nights.
Soon the inevitable burnout came. But he was quick to seek help, joining a group of fellow entrepreneurs where he was able to get support and understanding from others who were facing similar challenges. It opened his eyes. Staff soon commented on how better he looked.
“I began to realise that most businesses are mini-shit shows where things go wrong all the time. You can have as much structure, process and culture as you like, but companies are filled with people, not robots. People have issues and problems; people are unpredictable and can let you down — and all this has an effect on any business,” writes Buckland.
Buyout and exit
Within a few years things were going so well at Creative Spark that Buckland was able to entertain several offers to buyout or merge the company.
What felt like the right offer finally came along, from global advertising giant M&C Saatchi, and Buckland in 2015 was soon celebrating a multi-million rand acquisition.
But back to being effectively an employee in the company he’d founded, built and sold, things just didn’t feel right for Buckland.
He felt sidelined, especially after many of his staff left for M&C Saatchi. Those that remained were often made fun of by the new buyers as digital nerds. Creative Spark was hit with central costs from head office and his CFO was awarded a raise that put him on the same pay level as Buckland.
The very lifeblood of the company was being pumped out of it. Frequent clashes with M&C Saatchi’s owner of its SA entity, Mike Abel ensued. The original dealmaker who brought them together was called back in to help patch things up.
So focused was Buckland that he made a point of removing everything from his life that didn’t have something to do with his business
But while things did improve the underlining issues were never resolved. And so Buckland opted to trade in his remaining shares, which were about 10% at the time, for spinning out the websites he’d created under the Burn Media brand (which included Ventureburn and it’s sister publication Memeburn).
His biggest challenge yet
He’d hardly had time to get excited with his new venture — Burn Media Group — when he was diagnosed with fourth stage oesophageal cancer, ironically at a time in his life when he couldn’t have been fitter.
He’d just finished the grueling Transalp cycling race and found himself in the top five to 10% of riders on his local routes.
Two days into the diagnosis he slipped into a massive depression. “All you feel is loneliness and fear. Everything went dark, as if evil spirits had suddenly descended on the world to suck out the light and any bit of hope,” he writes.
But in true Matt style he wasn’t willing to lie back and wait to die. He fought the pain of chemo, he struggled with what he called the loss of power in the business world and how to deal with friends and relatives who felt sorry for him.
But in true Matt style he wasn’t willing to lie back and wait to die
All he wanted was to get back on top again and ride high in his saddle, on his bike and with his new promising media company Burn Media.
Reading the book is moving. If only because of the frankness and humanness that Buckland uses to describe his journey into the world of tech and business — his brutal focus and quest to be the best.
A true innovator and entrepreneur he was.
This article originally appeared on Ventureburn.
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‘So You Want to Build A Startup’ retails for R295 and is available in all major bookstore in South Africa (it can also be ordered on Amazon, Takealot and Loot), but Ventureburn is giving away three free copies.
To stand a chance to get a free copy email email@example.com and simply let us know whether you are an investor, entrepreneur or observer and tell us:
- What are the best things about startups in Africa.
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Feature image: Memeburn/Burn Media