I was fortunate to be invited to a business breakfast hosted by AREI (Association of Representatives for the Electronics Industry) at which the guest speaker was renowned businessman and entrepreneur, Pavlo Phitidis. Many readers will be familiar with Pavlo’s name through Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, for which he is the resident entrepreneurial and business development content contributor. He is also the presenter and host of The Growth Engines for Business Day TV, newspaper and digital, the growth content contributor for Entrepreneur Magazine, and a keynote speaker at both local and international business conferences.
Pavlo certainly lived up to his reputation, by giving a lively, insightful and at times inspirational talk that covered his views on entrepreneurship in general, the role of innovation in the technology sector, and the economic realities facing South African businesses. During his more than 20 years’ experience, he has conceptualised and developed a multitude of businesses, and has enjoyed a great deal of success. However, as he freely admits, some of those businesses failed, and Pavlo echoed a sentiment often expressed by leaders of his ilk: that you have to be prepared to fail, and that the most important lessons in business, as in life, are to be learned from those failures. I admire people who have the courage to try and fail, particularly those who go ‘all in’ when they have a vision for their future, but I personally tend to fear the cost of failure might be too high.
As Pavlo’s speech went on, I did begin to feel more positive about the local tech sector and about the fact that maybe one just has to be more willing to expand one’s mind to find the opportunities that are out there. But then a comment from the audience made me realise there was something of a disconnect between the tech entrepreneurship Pavlo was expounding, and electronic engineering as a profession.
As an analogy, imagine a movie star wearing a striking dress by a world renowned designer, walking up the red carpet at the Academy Awards – the word that springs to mind is ‘sexy’. Now imagine the garment factories where 99% of the clothes people actually wear are made – not so sexy. Tech entrepreneurship is sexy; electronic engineering is not. Nifty smartphones and their apps get rave reviews, while the accelerometers, positioning and wireless chips that enable them go uncelebrated.
During his talk Pavlo used an analogy of his own, a nautical one that played on the fact that a ship’s engine room, while necessary, is impossible to navigate from, whereas the captain’s deck has a 270 degree view and all the amenities for a comfortable voyage. His point was that business owners should concentrate on working on their business, rather than in it, but I would like to borrow that analogy to make the point that electronic engineering is the engine room. By the very nature of what electronic engineers do, they are somewhat isolated from the bigger picture, and although I have no doubt that they are typically intelligent and versatile enough to have what it takes to be entrepreneurs, there are only so many hats one person can wear, and only so many hours in a day.
Doing what I do for a living, I read a lot about technology, with particularly keen interest on the South African market. There is a remarkable new wave of innovation being led by mostly young, open-minded developers taking advantage of tools and opportunities that would never have been available to small startups in the past. Meanwhile, the electronic engineering sector is languishing, seemingly unable to find a sustainable place in this exciting and ever-changing value chain, and certainly hampered by governmental and macroeconomic factors beyond its control.
I hope Pavlo’s broader message of approaching challenges and opportunities with a more open mindset resonated with those in the audience, and hopefully many of them have absorbed his lessons and thought about ways to change their own approach.
A change would do the South African electronics sector good.
Brett van den Bosch
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