How Google's Umbono got it completely wrong

Earlier this month Google announced a new Incubator in South Africa called Umbono. You come to them with your world altering idea and in turn they give you office space, money, bandwidth and servers. It literally is the ultimate opportunity for any South African with the technical skills and a cool idea, but unfortunately Google got it completely wrong.

One day two University students named Adam and Steve made their way to Y Combinator to pitch an idea that they thought had potential, but Paul Graham who heads up Y Combinator thought the idea sucked and turned them down. A little bit later they received a phone call from Paul saying: “…listen guys we didn’t like your idea but we liked you, come back and lets come up with a new idea you guys can work on”. Adam and Steve are the founders of Reddit.
Google aims to change the start up landscape in South Africa with Umbono, but as long as they have a “good idea” as an entrance requirement they never will.  First of all – who are the creators of Google Buzz and Google Wave to judge whether or not someone’s idea is good or bad? Picking people based on whether or not they have a good idea is a terrible way to filter people.
I know endless amounts of friends and family members that have awesome ideas everyday on how to make a better burger than McDonalds, or how to make a better car than Toyota, but none of them will ever create a McDonalds or Toyota. The reason they will never create it is because they don’t have the “right stuff”, and even with funding they will still lack the right stuff. This is why Paul Graham says they invest in people and not in ideas. So how should Google do it?
If Google wants to make an impact in the Silicon Cape, they should be hunting down talented people at Universities and Universities of Technology around South Africa. They should be inspiring and providing students  in these institutions with resources and advice for them to build their products.
It’s really simple, let students form teams – and give each team a problem to solve using technology in a 3 month period. Now imagine how cool it would be if there was a Google App day at the end of it where all where the teams of students could show off what they had been building to the public? It would then be much easier for Google to pick a few of these student projects to grow into start ups, because they know the students and they know the product.
There is a hell of a lot of talented kids at University today, but none of them are being challenged to build their own products – they are instead being taught how to be employees. It is within Google’s power to inspire these kids and provide them with a platform to build great products.
Google got it wrong with Umbono, but maybe after this post they’ll be inspired to innovate again.

  1. What about those people who are not in university? Or those that couldn’t afford to go there?

    1. I see no reason why Google wouldn’t be able to accommodate people outside of University in the very same way. I used Universities as an example because ti would be an obvious place to start.

  2. I disagree with this post.
    Umbono targets people with a vision, not people who are given a vision and can solve it.
    Y-Combinator, Techstars and the other Incubators still fund a vision and this model works well.

    1. How does buying a Vision and creating a Vision differ? They will be a lot more successful creating startups by inspiring kids and giving them the right tools, than sitting in a highrise waiting for Neo to save us from the Matrix.

      1. I agree that equipping the younger folk with the mental tools to solve the problem is a good thing, but it’s an entirely different concept to umbono, umbono is for people who have an idea and need help getting that idea to market.
        I think the article title should read, “umbono is a great start but we need a people incubator too”

        1. This is the problem, do not think Umbono is a great start, I think they’ve gotten ahead of themselves. They need to give kids the tools before they can expect an influx of people looking for Venture Capital.

  3. Jason – I think you have a really good point but it might not be entirely relevant for our country and our social structures in South Africa or Africa.
    There are things to consider here that differ from the States and the Y Combinator model. First of which is the history of tech-startups. It’s a long and winding road that exists in the US. There have been tons of startups, failures, success, losses and wins. There are a lot more people in the US as a second point and a lot more people who have done a lot more things over a period of time and therefore a lot more founders to invest in.
    Many of the people who are invested in by Y Combinator may not come with a good idea but it often isn’t there first idea or startup or try at building a company. They have probably failed many times over. I think that backing the jockey (founder) and not the horse (idea) is a key principal but not the only and main one. I think that there can be and should be a good idea behind a good founder. I don’t believe that you can invest in a good jockey if they’ve literally never had the ability to come up with and execute a good idea before (even if that idea failed).
    I know lots of great people, businessmen and businesswomen who would suck at being founders of a startup cause they lack the vision to come up with the ideas that change the world.
    So I think it’s a combination of 1. having a good idea and 2. being able to execute that idea the best way possible.

    1. Not to mention that the majority of South African’s cannot afford the ‘luxury’ of tertiary education. Plenty of good ideas have come from the wider community. What Google should do is look for ways to empower the masses through social media programs and crowd sourcing mobile apps.

      1. Initially we start with University students because it just makes sense, then obviously Google could start looking at talented kids at high schools. Start small and realisticly.

    2. Okay so a point I probably should have emphasized more strongly in my post was that Google would be posing problems to students and allow them to come up with creative solutions, or students can come up with their own problem to solve. Students love solving problems and no doubt will come up with creative solutions, but at the moment we need to create that type of environment.
      So basically simulate the entire startup experience for undergraduates from conceptualizing a creative solution to a problem of their choice, executing, working with a team and more. As you rightly pointed out, we do not have nearly as many people in SA working on problems as in the States, but that should be in our advantage as can concentrate more on a couple of talented kids.

  4. I think they did get it slightly wrong in their approach, but not on the scale that you guys are dealing with. The only place that I think that they got wrong, was that they limited the event tonight to dealing ONLY with people that have an idea or have a business already. There was no scope for young people like me who know they want to start their own company, but just don’t have the idea completely worked out. It is too soon for me to do anything about my company yet really, but I am sure it would have been highly beneficial for me to head down and listen to what went on during the evening.

    1. Now imagine Umbono was there to help you refine your ideas, set you up with a team of friends and allow you to build something cool in 3 months with their assistance… wouldn’t that be better?

  5. Hi, in order to clarify our objectives and decision-making processes: Teams accepted into the Umbono Program are vetted not solely on their idea but also the Team elements. The Angel investors will be discussing proposed ideas (and any variations on those) with the Teams invited to interview with the Angels. BOTH elements are important – the people AND the idea.
    This is why, for example, on the application form we ask the question(s):
    Why is this team the right one to execute your idea?
    How do your skills complement each other?
    thank you, the Umbono Team

    1. But don’t you agree that the model as described in my post would be much more interesting and suitable for a country like South Africa where there is no real pervasive startup culture?
      At UCT for example we have some of the most talented developers in Africa being trained but almost none of them will ever consider starting a start up or building a product of their own to take to market. I think you guys have a great opportunity to change this attitude and it would be less expensive and much more good for your company to come into contact with these kids while they’re young.

      1. well maybe the people over at uct should grow a back bone and learn to think for themselves. y should google spoon feed them? there must always be someone that looks a gift horse in the mouth? who do you think is gonna give those brilliant uct developer jobs? people who have the brains and balls to think for themselves and start something. its not easy to start something, even harder to get someone with money to listen to your idea and take it seriously. so lets not tell someone that gonna open a lotta doors to many people that they doing wrong?

        1. One of the criteria for entering Umbono is that you have to tell them your education level, it’s likely the University folk would thus inevitably be the only ones accepted into the Umbono program anyway.

          1. so the uneducated masses need not apply? take a long at the the history of the successful tech start-up and you notice enough of them are varsity drop outs. a good idea can come from anywhere, inspirational people from all walks of life and success goes to the one that works the hardest…

          2. every application u fill in asks for your education, so it is a standard question. but if you are implying that varsity educated individuals have a better chance, then u miss the point of this exercise. like u yourself stated varsity people are afraid to take chances and would much rather sit at a desk and get paid. people who take risk and are not afraid to question the text book create opportunity for innovation.

      2. Jason, can you tell me why you think developers are the best people to start businesses. Is your average developer a sales-driven marketing whizz with superlative people skills? I’m not saying there aren’t developers who are, but generally a team needs a mix of people with the various skills (The E Myth would talk about the Entrepreneur, Manager and Technician business personalities) to make an idea fly (or turn wicked skills into a flyable business idea). You can sometimes get that mix in just two people, but it’s rare in one, or even in a partnership of two people with the same backgrounds. Also, a little experience of the real-world (I think they call that The School of Life) can be advantageous – someone in the team should have it.

        1. I read an interesting post about this last night actually “Founders who can’t code” and I agree with you non-developers can also start tech startups, but I don’t see how this type of program would have to exclude them either. In fact it would be awesome to have commerce students getting involved.

          1. Yes, a cross-disciplinary programme would be great (while you’re at it, get some people from the Law, Engineering, Science and Arts departments in there too – THEN you’ll get some interesting applications of your developers’ skills). But I do think it’s a fundamentally different thing to what Google is trying to achieve here. I know that you’re working on your own start-up, but, let’s face it, not all university students have the grit and tenacity to do what’s necessary to make their own business work (and this project is essentially supporting potentially viable businesses, not creative PhD theses).
            Yes, we need to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs, but what’s the point of that if the enabling environment for them is not there? It’s like the situation where hundreds of thousands of kids (who want to be employees – and there’s nothing wrong with that) matriculate every year and enter an economy where there are no jobs. The entrepreneurial space needs funding, regulatory support, mentors, support networks, success stories (have you exhausted your own and your family’s lines of credit yet? Let me know how easy you’re finding it when you have…).
            I don’t see how Google has gone wrong by supporting entrepreneurs, who have proven some grit and chutzpah, to finally make their business ideas happen. The model – match-making them with other talented people and (cleverly) giving them just enough money to get a product to market – is good. And I think the fact that the idea needs to be good is important too – there’s a lot of US-copycatting and “digital products” that penetrate deeper into a narrow, saturated market (how many more freakin’ coupon sites can SA’s middle class absorb?); let’s see some developing country solutions that can really change people’s lives.

          2. I honestly don’t think you should be comparing getting a matric certificate and this, the scale is completely different and the problem requires a completely different approach.

          3. No, I do think it’s a good analogy. I’m talking about creating an enabling environment – that’s necessary and relevant on any scale. (Damn, you just LOVE arguing!)

          4. “Damn, you just LOVE arguing!”
            Yes he does.  Pointlessly, I might add.

  6. It’s clearly comedy hour on the internet again…
    OBVIOUSLY you need a good idea or, at the very least, the ability to come up with one. And you need to be able to execute it. This is not a charity or bursary scheme.
    Are you really saying that you think its inappropriate to ask tech innovators to have a good idea as part of a funding pitch? Instead you think spoon-feeding students tech problems is the right way to do this. I say the following in great earnest: WTF
    Here’s what really needs to happen: you need to grow a pair of balls, drop the sense of entitlement and stop whining.

    1. I never suggested this be a bursary/charity scheme. I am simply saying that there is a better way to approach this problem than this old first world model of sitting around and hoping that some golden team with phenomenal idea comes to your door for you to invest in.
      Go to where the talent is, cultivate them and push them into building startups you can fund. Samsung recently announced a R100 million investment into UCTs Computer Science department for student to play with mobile tech. Naspers has MIH media lab in Stellenbosh for Postgraduates to work on cutting edge ideas in new media, they give each student up to R200 000 per year. What are these companies getting out of it? Why can Google not do the same?
      The tech community has prided itself on its ability to solve problems in new creative ways… it’s called innovation. Why should the way in which we approach the problem of helping startups, be any different to the way in which those startups deal with the problems they are challenged to solve?

      1. We need both. Seed funds for businesses, incubators for innovation and places where students can experiment and prototype. A seed fund is not an incubator or innovation hub and while what MIH does is cool, we also need seed funds and finance structured to get start-ups off the ground.
        I think the problem here is a misunderstanding – a tech business is something different to a solving a tech problem. Not all people who can solve problems can run businesses and vice versa and seeding businesses is not just about solving the problem, its about getting it to market or at least getting something close enough to finished that it can be validated against market demand.
        My issue with your post, if I am honest, is that you’re criticizing Google for doing exactly what we need – creating more opportunities for business in the tech space. So when I read this and your argument that we need some different approach I feel frustrated. There are tons of people with good ideas and who can execute them in this country. Their problem is that they need mentorship on the business side and access to finance. To say we need a different approach is to say we’re incapable of competing by external standards and that’s simply not true.

        1. Agreed, we do need both. But having seen the atrocious things we call startups in SA and how few startups we have I honestly don’t think this is a problem of a lack of funding. Some startups require funding, but most can do just fine bootstrapping and being incubated.
          I think the problem here is a very serious bottleneck in the eduction system that renders countless bright kids to tech jobs in traditional tech companies around SA or running abroad. I believe at tertiary institutions is where change needs to happen. In every graduating year in SA there will be less than 1% of those kids that will even consider building a startup… compare that to the states where people panic if they have not started up at the age of 30.

    2. this is the not the first comment you’ve made recently where i’m left thinking: what an asshole.

  7. Jason, you obviously didn’t attend the launch or not even take the time to look at the Umbono application form before writing this. Unless I’m blind or stupid (or both), a major focus of the Umbono criteria revolves around the team.
    Also, is being able to think of (and articulate) an idea in a very short application not the first test for this team? One day they would have to stand in front of a VC with a 5-minute pitch.
    I promise you, its much harder than writing a 507 word blog post attacking them.

    1. I know, I was just offering a different way of doing things which might yield more results. The first thing Umbono asks on their application form is what the idea is then they ask about the team and their education level.

  8. My approach is to get something up and running before going to ask for help. But, I agree with your point that in South Africa we are taught to me employees, and not to venture out on our own. But, I think you overestimate the power of incubators and the like. The real problem as far as I can see is demand for products.

  9. As far as I can tell there is nothing stopping students or even high-school kids from applying for the Umbono program so this blog post just looks ridiculous to me.
    Google can do what they want & just because XYZ gave money to universities doesn’t mean Google has to. Universities are probably the least likely place to find real talent.

  10. I agree and disagree. I do think that Google should invest in both people and “good ideas” just for the fact that South Africans are such a diverse bunch and let’s be honest and say that a lot of people are still in a “disadvantaged” position yet still may the skill/idea needed for a startup.
    Google should really invest in both “markets”. The students who are really keen to become the great innovators of our time (in SA at least) and the people who just have great ideas and could use the help of an incubator.

    1. Totally agreed, it would be a step in the right direction. I think we should be shaking up the talent we have in this country and compel them to start something. Entrepreneurship is essential in a developing country like ours, we need more.

  11. For us innovators in the Garden Route any means of getting to funding is a good start.
    Too often the ability simply to get exposure to VC funding or incubators is overlooked.
    Needing to have a good idea and the ability to execute it is mandatory and blindingly obvious. Making innovators work hard for the opportunity is simply another step in the weeding process.

    1. Well I can’t expect this from VCs or even most companies in SA, but Google is the type of company with the resources to be able to pull it off.

  12. Ha, interessant, maar persoonlik dink ek Jason Adriaans is ‘n sensationalist om so ‘n statement te maak. Sy argument impliseer Google moet ‘n pop-idol approach neem om talent in SA op te spoor… en dit is eenvoudig nie moontlik sonder constraints soos ‘n spesifieke ouderdomsgroep/ agtergrond/ geografiese area/ ens nie, aangesien die hoeveelheid mense daarbuite wat dink dat hulle goed genoeg is om dit ‘n shot te gee (sonder dat hulle dink hulle ‘n goed genoeg idee het) is legio! Sensationalist post Jason… not inteligent.

    1. Jason, let me also just add this… I have nothing against a good old dose of sensationalism; and criticism is the cornerstone of a healthy society… keep up the posts!

      1. Hey Werner
        Pop-Idols? Not at all. I think it’s a perfectly realistic plan that I lined out above. It doesn’t fit with what people are used to, but so what? We always need new ideas. All I am trying to do is bring about a different perspective and stimulate some intelligible discussion, not sure accusations and pitchforks are the way we should deal with new ideas.

  13. I like what Google is doing so far… How many people out there have awesome ideas in technology but do not have a University Degree to back it up… We should not be limited to a certain stereo type. Google is trying to reach everyone from Universities to Townships. Now this is a great idea…

  14. I’ll tell you how Google got Umbono completely wrong.
    They just ignored our applications.
    Not even a courtesy email to say “thanks for applying, you didn’t make it but we wish you luck.”
    Nothing. Just cold, empty silence.
    Thanks Google. Nice to know you care.

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