Meet the Boss: Mark Summer, CEO, Surf

Mark Summer

1. What was your first job?

I stocked shelves at a supermarket as my first job when I was in school.

2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?

It is a different thing every day – I think that is the problem. In the service provider business, like we are, and doing it in markets where we operate, not everything is 100% stable all the time. So there might be network outages or fibre cuts to worry about one night, and then the other night it might be that you’re worried about more financial matters – where is the revenue, where is the investment? Those kind of things. So there is always something to keep you awake in this phase of a business where we are right now. But it is different things for me throughout the week.

3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career?

I have never actually thought about it for a very long time. It is definitely some people very early on in my career, not necessarily famous people, just people that I worked with. My background is in technology – system administration, network design and network building – and some engineers I worked with very early on who taught me how to be self-sufficient, who steered me towards learning a lot of things and pointed me to resources.

I think that influenced my career a lot, because ultimately that is what makes an entrepreneur – talking to other people, but also doing a lot of other research and learning about the different aspects of business. You are constantly learning as an entrepreneur. So I think that way of working influenced my career a lot and where I am today.

4. The best professional advice you’ve ever received?

I think it is really about hiring the right people. Hiring smart people, hiring the right people for the right job because that makes a huge difference. You can’t do it by yourself, it is always a team of people which gets things accomplished. And if it is the wrong team you will get nothing accomplished, even if you have the greatest idea.

5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I think one is that I have personally focused on understanding who we are doing this for, who is the customer and what are their goals. It is about really being in touch with our users and being on the ground and listening to them. And I think you need to do that regardless of how far away you might be from the users, you need to be really trying to be closer at the same time. Because otherwise you have the wrong ideas of what they might be expecting of your service or of your product.

6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?

I honestly think that is very different for different people. I think some people really take a lot of things out of a business school environment. I haven’t been to business school, so I might be the wrong person to ask. I learned on the job… I think it depends on what works better for different people.

7. How do you relax?

I like to get away sometimes just from the work and the connectivity. Like here in Kenya it is amazing, you can just go on a safari and see very amazing places that is close to nature with a lot of animals. Or you can go to the coast and hang out at the beach. So those kind of things, which just get you out of your routine, is the best way for me to relax. So, just by being – even if it is just for a weekend – mentally far away from day-to-day business.

8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?

I would say I start working usually pretty early – before 6am, 7am or so. But usually that happens at home and I get to my office desk maybe around 9am. And usually at home, work doesn’t happen at the desk, it happens around the coffee table in the morning or somewhere else – typically very close to an espresso machine.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

I really ask them just about why they want to work for us – what excites them about what we do. And why that interests me is because you can see how excited they are about the business we are doing. Because if they are excited I think that is a very important starting point, especially with a start-up because things change all the time and it is a very dynamic environment. And if I feel that people are not that excited, I think it will be tough for them to fit in a very dynamic start-up environment. There needs to be a personal drive and desire to be here.

10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?

Honestly, I don’t think it should be any different in Africa than in any other places around the world. It is really about following your passion and your dreams you have, and executing on them regardless of what people tell you. If you believe in them and you think you are doing something which makes sense, go and do it and don’t let other people stop you. And try to do as much of that by yourself without having to rely on other people, like funders and so forth.

And I think that is the most important message, not just in general, but I think it applies specifically to Africa as well – where sometimes it is much harder for entrepreneurs early on to pursue their dreams because there are a lot of hurdles in their way. And people who go to Stanford or Harvard or other universities usually have a lot of freedom to do a lot of things. But if you are coming from an environment where money is a lot tighter, you don’t have that freedom that easily, and that makes it much harder. So that makes it even more important in the African context for entrepreneurs to think about that, and try whatever they can to pursue their dreams and execute on them.

Surf, a Kenyan internet provider, in partnership with Facebook and Internet Solutions has recently launched Express Wi-Fi in Kenya. More than 100 Express Wi-Fi hotspots have already been rolled out.