How to get involved with serious innovators and entrepreneurs in Joburg

South Africa Summer 2014 Blog

Written by: Bryan Hernandez

July 3, 2014

It's hard to over-state the importance of talking to other people about what you're working on.  There are so many reasons we should expect this a priori, and I don't want to make that list because it's boring and will not feel particularly insightful.

Perhaps this is part of the problem.

"What problem?" you say?

Despite knowing they should, people generally do not tell people what they are working on.  And of course, there are lots of reasons for this, too.  I'll mention one important one.

Everything takes energy. 

People don't have infinite energy.  So things that require a lot of energy generally happen less.
Thermodynamics can speak on this further.  But as cool as partial differential equations are, I'll illustrate my point with a simple example.
Obsessive email (or Facebook) checking is as common problem in some circles in the States, and I'd imagine in most places where internet is widely accessible.  Some people stay on it all day, while others check it 10-20 times per day.  Part of this frequency is due to necessity: there is important information on these websites.  But most of the chceks are not driven by necessity.  Most of them are driven by people wondering if they got a new email, feeling bored, wanting entertainment, and tons of other procrastinating reasons.

OK, whatever.  I'm not here to lambast procrastination.

My point is that the frequency of this action is directly a function of how easy it is to execute.  A single click of the mouse is usually all the energy it takes.  And this is a pretty low energy barrier.

But imagine if instead of just clicking a bookmark, everytime you wanted to load your inbox you had to sign in with your username and password.  Your password was 24 random characters long, which you couldn't remember and had to consult a password manager for.  You have two-factor authentication, requiring you to wait for your second password to arrive on your cell phone.  Not only all this, but your laptop is turned off and put in its case.

What used to take about 50 miliseconds to accomplish now might take a full 10 minutes.  Like magic, what you used to do 20 times per day gets squeezed down to 2.  And all we did was change the activation energy.

So back to my first point about telling people about what you're working on. 
One of our goals at MIT GSL South Africa, is to build structures that make this casual and frequent social exhange as cheap and easy as possible.  One of the reasons MIT is MIT is because it's impossible to walk 10m without bumping into another person who is smarter than usual, more ambitious than usual, and who has a greater than average tendency to act on their ideas.  One of the reasons San Francisco is the tech capital of the world is because it's hard to go more than a day without hearing something about a new startup, even when you're trying to avoid it.  These people permeate the environment.

In these environments, it's sufficient advice for me to just say talk about your work all the time and great things will happen for you.  You'll get good feedback.  You'll meet people who want to help you—and you people whom you want to help. 

But I don't think this is enough in places without a high density of like minds.  We will need to concentrate these people first.  Without this, my advice of talking about what you're working on will—more often than not—fall on deaf ears because chances are the person you decide to tell about your project will not be initiated enough to give you any kind of feedback, or not be interested in the same things and the conversation won't go anywhere.  Having these conversations will be a grind, not enjoyable, and pretty soon you will not be able to keep up with the good practice of talking to a lot of people about your work.

Here is one way we hope to help this problem.

Every Wednesday we will be having "MIT GSL Family Dinners".  The goal is to get a small handful of people from the startup/entrepreneurship/innovation community together just to chat about what they're working on.  This event should run automatically, with as little logistical and financial expense as possible so that it will happen regularly and sustainably.  Without this property of being easy to organize, execute, and cheap to attend, I would worry about how sustainable the event would be.  Remember the discussion about how actions with large energy costs always happen less frequently?  I introduce that idea to support this claim. 

Yesterday was our inaugural dinner, and it was fantastic.  I was joined by one of the more active and ambitious tech entrepreneur mentors in the community (Professor Barry Dwolatzky), two current founders in our incubator (Mpho Stefalafala and Thabisile Malinga), a fellow mentor of our program (Kai Zau), and a recent startup founder who is gaining great traction for his online education platform, (Houston Muzamhindo). 

If you'd like to attend, reach out to us via facebook, and we'll get you on the list.