Matthew Buckland commands envy and respect. Envy because he's created a remarkable career for himself, captured the limelight, and been a driving force behind some of South Africa's more spectacular Web stories. More often he's respected because of a steady stream of successes, and the contribution he's made to the local industry during the past 15 years.
And the hard work is paying off. The former Mail & Guardian poster boy has stepped onto a global platform at Naspers, with the kind of mandate any member of the local digerati would have given their right arm for.
As the head of 20FourLabs, a division he founded, Buckland has his greatest opportunity in what will also be his biggest challenge to date. Buckland will be pressed to deliver if his career at Naspers will flourish. Not shy about bringing down the axe on non-performing human resource, Naspers has a ruthless reputation for culling staff when they get in the way of profitability and shareholder returns.
I caught up with Buckland as he edged towards his 200th day in his 'new' job. The first thing we chatted about was 20FourLabs, which has amalgamated of some of 24.com's top talent into an inventive, entrepreneurial hub, as well as bringing in fresh new talent.
“We recognised that as a major player in the Web industry, we needed to be more agile and nimbler when it came to developing Web applications and Web sites. Big organisations tend to generate quite a bit of bureaucracy that is often a necessary evil, but limits a business' ability to innovate and be experimental. However, in this market, you see a lot of innovation coming from start-ups. At 20FourLabs, we want to capture some of that mindset and culture.”
Not adverse to risk, Naspers' investment strategy in emerging markets like China is yielding strong results, with the likes of Tencent contributing R1.2 billion to the group's earnings for 2009. However, recent discussions with Internet division head Antonie Roux shows that the pipeline for growth by acquisition or investment has been badly affected by the recession. Although share prices have dropped, good companies are sweating out the storm. In view of this, an internal hub that can spark start-ups, seed inventions and inject innovation into the wider group makes great sense if it delivers to mandate.
“Innovation is all about not having a fear to experiment and not having a fear to fail,” says Buckland. “From a business perspective, you need an environment where the cost of failure is low. If the cost of failure is high, this stifles innovation. If the cost of failure is low, then you have much more experimental activity. The focus we use is to create Web applications where the process is not over-complicated. We're using open source resources; we don't over plan, and build iteratively. We're not afraid of plugging into another Web site's API, and don't shy away from aggregating content from other sites,” says Buckland.
Since creating 20FourLabs, Buckland's biggest lesson has been the benefit of simplicity, and understanding the different phases that products go through. “Fewer people are more effective in the emergent phases of products, so we start off with a small team to incubate. Only when we see traction do we take the decision to build the start-up into a much bigger business. The philosophy here is less is more.”
The team of 30 people, which includes the 'wunderkids' from Naspers' Blueworld Communities acquisition, has been mandated to ignite the start-up flair and entrepreneurial culture within the bigger media group. The lab is also busy building apps and extensions for existing Naspers offerings.
“The Web is levelling the playing field, and it's cheaper and easier than ever to create your own business and to create your own media online,” says Buckland. “What this means is that the Web – more than any other industry – is an entrepreneurial medium. Here you often find smaller and nimbler start-ups beating slower corporations because they lack agility.”
A key focus for the lab will be mobile, given the reach of this medium. “We're looking at local and international products and start-ups, and our focus is on social projects, because these enable us to build audience in a viral manner. We're working on aggregation and user generation content projects, as well as multi-media projects, because this is the next phase of the local Web, which has, up until now, been an under-performing area,” adds Buckland.
Flirting for fun
What has Buckland delivered in the past four months?
One of the lab's first start-ups is a mobile flirting and dating site called Flirtaroo.mobi. “Flirting and dating sites are social networks where there is a settled business model, and users actually want payment mechanisms to keep the quality of the social network up. The business model is a 'freemium' model, with micro payments that are SMS-based. What's interesting about the offering is that it is locative.” Buckland says on Flirtaroo.mobi, people can find friends within a certain location. “The offering includes messaging, profiling and will be cross-platform. It was launched for mobile but a Web version is imminent.”
iPhone apps and a Nokia widget has been built for News24, while an Android App was launched for News24, Sport24 and other related content sites. Then 24.com blogs were relaunched, getting a much-needed upgrade. “24.com's blogs had become dated and were very basic. They needed a complete overhaul. We introduced LetterDash.com with templating for users, more intuitive navigation, and features where users can promote their blog. In the pipeline, a more sophisticated dashboard and the ability to combine social networking with blogging. The aim here is to add a social networking layer onto LetterDash, and develop relationships between bloggers and their readers. We have made some revenue off the platform, but it hasn't been significant. We'll only aggressively pursue a business model once we're happy with usability and audience numbers. When we do look at monetising blogs, this will include giving users a cut.”
“This is essentially a social network wrapped around a content site, which is currently in development. Content publications have natural networks around them, but traditionally do a bad job of formalising those networks. For example, Facebook and I have a sophisticated relationship because it knows all about me, but if I go to CNN.com they don't know who I am, and when or why I was there. The idea is to build a social network around content sites that capture and formalise that network, allowing us to provide a richer experience with targeted content and services, but also to allow users to connect with each other. Our initial focus will be to create a better experience for the user who will be able to broadcast and interact with other users more meaningfully. The second will be to monetise the relationship with these communities.”
Other projects include j2me apps, a new mobile portal, revamping 24.com's mobile offerings, a local Twitter aggregator, a niche social network maker, and a personalised homepage offering.
Given Naspers' online and mobile focus in key emerging markets, this creates a much bigger platform for Buckland to step up to the plate. Creating an innovation hub at Naspers was his first clever move. Delivering quickly and smartly, his second.
Originally commissioned by ITWeb.