African IT entrepreneurs should think globally, advises a Google Africa head

African IT entrepreneurs should look at targeting the global market, advises Google’s head of new products for sub-Saharan Africa, Brett St Clair.

Brett St Clair, Google's head of new products for sub-Saharan Africa

Brett St Clair, Google’s head of new products for sub-Saharan Africa

St Clair has a history of tech entrepreneurship with a focus on mobile. Before joining Google, he headed up AdMob’s operations in South Africa – a Silicon Valley-based mobile advertising platform – before the company was sold to Google for US$750m in 2009. Today he is responsible for looking after Google’s commercial businesses in mobile, YouTube, social and display media across sub-Saharan Africa (and Greece and Israel too).

In an interview with How we made it in Africa, St Clair pointed out that the local African online community is still small and in order for entrepreneurs to create a tech company of scale, they should think about targeting the global audience. “There is no reason why the next Bill Gates shouldn’t come from Africa.”

He said that while the African online community is seeing growth through mobile technology and improving data access, local entrepreneurs do not have to limit themselves to the African market for opportunities. Furthermore, nothing grabs an investor’s attention quite like targeting a global, scalable market.

“For the guys that are starting out, it’s very important to focus on global markets,” continued St Clair. “Solve African problems if you can solve African problems and make a lot of money out of it, but if you want to do the big, scalable thing – [think] global markets.”

He added that African tech entrepreneurs generally do not have the same access to a supportive ecosystem of investors, like in Silicon Valley. For this reason he also advises local entrepreneurs to look at building solutions and companies that can produce money from the start.

“Don’t try and get into an ad-funded or a free model or a freemium model – it’s not viable, you are not going to make enough cash,” St Clair said, explaining that this something he wished he realised when he was an entrepreneur. “I look at it as if I was going in… If you look at very successful businessmen, what they do is they go after where they make the most money. There are so many opportunities in Africa to go after those areas and industries where you make the most money. But we are not going after it as tech guys.”

He added that the continent’s tech entrepreneurs and companies should be collaborating to come up with innovative ideas on how to get more Africans online and grow the local market.

“We are not taking technology and making it more efficient, making it simpler and reducing the costs. We have got the ability to build this technology and develop solutions or services to be able to enable that, but we are not grasping it. We kind of want to be the next Silicon Valley – to do all these crazy and amazing things – but we are not in Silicon Valley. The reality is that we need to take tech and apply normal business practices and standards.”