Sunday, September 30, 2012

Torn between Cape Town and SF Bay Area

The only job I have ever worked in South Africa was as a packer for Woolworths for a few weeks in high school. I have taken all the opportunities I can to combine work with travel. In the past, that was for internships. A year ago I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area "permanently". Sometimes I'm asked "why?" but more frequently I am asked when I'm moving back and why would I move back.

I came here to work for Facebook, a position one simply cannot find in South Africa. I have since moved to mobile gaming startup Loki Studios. I am learning so much. Just yesterday I was at a growth hacks conference, where I learned a huge amount about customer acquisition, a topic I doubt I would have picked up had I stayed in Cape Town. I meet awesome people all the time. Just yesterday I met a couple guys, including the CTO, of Scalr and we had amazing exchanges of stories about how they founded the company by having the project outsourced to them in Ukraine and how they want to move everyone here. I love my job. I get to work on so many different projects, working very closely with everyone in the team, learning about things I would otherwise not have dug into, but which will probably be very useful down the line. I have some great friends here. The weather is great. The beer is fantastic. I get to travel to so many exciting places nearby, although I haven't done much there yet.

So then, would I move back to Cape Town? Absolutely! I feel I am in the interesting position, where the benefits of being here and in Cape Town are roughly equal. I have quite openly stated that I want to start a startup some time soon. The local startup atmosphere and move to Loki have accelerated that plan. So I've been talking to lots of people about where I would do it. My thinking right now is that when I feel it's time to start up, I'm going to head back to Cape Town.

The way I see it, Cape Town is a pretty great place to start a startup. At least, for me. That last part's crucial. Living expenses are in Rands, while revenue is still in USD. The startup community has reached the point where you're no longer lonely. My friends and family are there (nothing against my friends here, but I've known my SA friends way longer). I don't have to worry about US immigration. Possibly the biggest factor though: I have a large network of excellent software engineers there, I'm known and trusted far more there. I know far more people in Cape Town that both I would want to work with them and they would want to work with me. The friends / friends-of-friends hiring seems crucial to early success.

Those are the biggest factors. What about funding though? It's terrible in South Africa. Lately I've been discussing ways of dealing with the problem. Local seed funding would be great, but there's not much going around so one can't rely on it. I would far prefer to be in a position (idea dependent) where I can bootstrap, at least to begin with. I'm learning of various ways to keep the option open to get funded by US investors. It seems they really want the business operations to be run in their neighborhood. That doesn't include the engineering effort though. So it might make sense to move that back here. Problem is I've heard of a couple experiences where that has turned the company from tech-driven to business-driven, which I'm not happy about. So I'm still thinking there. I've also been hearing of ways to get an L1 visa after a year, and various other possible solutions around the immigration problem if you start outside the US.

So the way things are looking, that packing job might be the only ever job I take in South Africa.


  1. It sounds that you have the same problem as I do: strong positives on both sides make the decision whether to be here or overseas a very tough one.

    SA is very familiar, because you've grown up here, and there's a lot of opportunity (amongst other positives). But it also lacks many things, particularly for those of us who are really into tech culture, and (sadly) it doesn't look this this is going to change any time soon.

  2. You could also start in the US and then, after growing a bit, split engineering between Cape Town and the US. Of course, having things split between two offices (in different time zones) is also quite annoying.

  3. Marc, it does but that's where picking up the experience and network here is really helping to fill part of that gap.

    Timothy, I'd rather start in Cape Town and go then split up over here. Cost and network are huge advantages for me starting there. As for some splitting in general though, one can't really expect to grow big enough.