What does Linovator do?
We help people transform really good ideas into great companies. You can think of us as a type of startup incubator or small business accelerator; we work very closely with our founders—that’s what we call the entrepreneurs and creators we work with—to develop, build, and market products and services, and become profitable.
It could be someone with a micro-enterprise, like making jam or running a small hair salon, all the way to high-tech engineers building innovative software or robotics. The founders are so diverse because of the contrasts we have here in South Africa in terms of income and education levels.
That diversity ends up being a benefit for us because it allows us to build microsystems, rich tapestries of ideas and innovations that cut straight to human need. We can ask: what problems do people experience? What needs do they have? What opportunities exist? And how do we use technology, such as artificial intelligence, in very human applications to create new products and services that solve real-world issues?
How does it compare to incubators you’d find in Silicon Valley and other parts of the Western World?
Silicon Valley has a way more advanced ecosystem than we do. Investors are more widely available, and the size of the market is such that it can handle failure. For every 10 ideas that fail, there will be one that’s wildly successful, so people are willing to take a chance on someone with an idea.
We don’t have that here.
Creators need to thoroughly explain an idea, have it designed, prototyped, and practically functional before they merely get startup capital. We have venture capitalists, but they tend to look for someone who’s already turning a profit, or has a contract in hand, or someone who has created a world class innovation that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
So that’s a big disadvantage, but we also have a lot going for us.
Our innovations are more human-centric, powered by grassroots problems. We always start with the greater purpose behind the creation—to create income for a startup, save lives, promote democracy, and more.
Also, because the system here is so underdeveloped, it’s more agile in a way and allows us to move quicker in many ways.
Beyond that, we have a survivalist mentality in South Africa. There’s a raw, relentless will to succeed that even amidst a constant stream of chaos—global political drama, terrorist attacks, economic instability, unending volatility and uncertainty—we push on, and focus on that greater purpose.
Share an example of one of the businesses you work with.
We have several incredible founders, but one who truly stands out is Michael Griffin, creator and CEO of Addabit.
Addabit is an online social savings platform. Users create a fund for short-term purchases or long-term goals; for example, a child’s birthday, buying a car, or a college fund. Friends and family can help you put money together for any purchase, aspiration, or crisis that may come up.
He came up with the idea after a party for his 3-year-old son. The child wanted one specific toy, but they ended up a room full of toys, some of which he would never play with. Michael saw this as a waste, and thought of a way to channel the desire friends and family have to show they care into something more purposeful.
The solution he came up with is easy to use. You can transact with various currencies, and it’s completely free. This is a game changer compared to the banking system here, which can charge as much as $150 in fees—a month!
He’s in the process of adding a gamification component to the platform so that saving can actually be fun.
How does each part of the VUCA acronym manifest in what you do?
There’s no better example of today’s volatility than the pace at which technology startups are popping up.
For instance, we have a company that developed a tool to improve communication in school sports between parents, teachers, the teams, and so on. They joined one of our free accelerator programs in December to develop their first ideas. Around April, there were no competitors and no change in the marketplace.
Today, there are 10 competitors! They may not be direct competitors, but they are in the same space. My co-founder is now intensely working with them to develop a go-to-market strategy, to get a partner in, and to make sure the product is unique. That changed within about 6 months—that fast! And it’s not even a developed country.
In all this, you just have to keep calm and stay focused, not on the competitors, but on the magic you’re producing.
We’ve got a company that creates financing structures for renewable energy projects. They find a client, then build the biogas, waste-to-energy, or solar plant for that client, and the client pays for the electricity each month.
Much of this is in the agricultural sector, and there’s a lot of uncertainty there at this moment. There’s political and social turmoil with one side arguing farmland must be seized from their current owners and returned to the tribes or groups that inhabited the land centuries ago. The other side is saying that would cause a lot of instability, and they’re leaning on the constitution to mitigate any risk.
That creates a lot of uncertainty and it leaves the clients thinking, “should I sign a 20-year contract if I’m not even sure I’ll own the land upon which the biogas plant is being built?”
That’s one pending example I can think of.
Africa as a market is worth billions. In 2030 onwards, it’s going to be one of the biggest consumer markets: a hotbed for starting up businesses, developing innovations, and buying products.
However, the road to get there is a tricky one. The rest of the world is still very heavily centered on western nations—that long-term view isn’t widespread. There’s also the view that Africa has gaps in intellectual property laws, and that there’s too much political uncertainty. There’s the perception that social cohesion isn’t strong, but it’s definitely better than the U.S. at any point in the last couple of years.
All of those social, political, and economic factors and perceptions complicate the flow of money into the continent. But again, we rely on our survivalist mindset to work with what we have here and succeed.
In this startup environment, teams have to be able to work with paradox and ambiguity a lot. There are extremes at work constantly: good innovation but limited budgets to roll out; good market opportunities but limited resources and people to realize the potential; and more.
To combat this, we teach our founders to constantly rethink certainties. We encourage ongoing discussions, constructing different ideas and using partners as soundboards. We use our collective brain power and connections to improve our agility and resilience.
This is where Ubuntu comes in. It’s a word from the Zulu language, but an idea that’s ingrained into the psyche of all Africans. It translates roughly to “I exist because you exist,” and conveys the notion that there’s strength in our collective humanity.
It’s a support system that has provided a good buffer from ambiguity and the other aspects of VUCA.
When you think of all these VUCA elements together, how do you process it? How do you react?
As a human, you almost can’t help but be discouraged, fearful, overwhelmed, and stunned when faced with the effects of VUCA.
To cope in the moment, we pray, we meditate, or we just react in a way that lets the emotions out. But then you have to stand back and look at the situation as if you’re having an out-of-body experience. Think of different scenarios, possible plans, and solutions—there is always a solution. It may not be ideal, but there’s always a solution.
It takes practice and discipline to get this distance each time.
Another point to remember is to focus on the big-picture purpose, then go step by step to figure out the best path, even if it means changing your original course of action.
How do you react to VUCA?
Wilhelmina’s ability to navigate the effects of VUCA by thinking in multiplicity and analyzing different scenarios is commendable.
She is a shining example of a leader who is able to adapt to an ever-changing environment, resilient enough to not only bounce back from setbacks, but come out transformed.
Adaptive, resilient, and transformative. Do you have these attributes? Take our quiz to find out.