We interviewed Matthew Buckland, a man who has certainly made his mark on the media industry, from his current position as the founder of Creative Spark and Burn Media to his previous titles as the MD of Mail & Guardian and interactive editor for Carte Blanche. Talk Radio 702 referred to him as the ‘master of digital,’ the Annual named him one of South Africa’s top 100 most influential media and advertising people and his name has become synonymous with brands like Memeburn, Ventureburn.com and Gearburn.com.
Matthew also proudly shared the stage with Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales in a talk on future web trends in 2007 and Craigslist Creator Craig Newmark at the IIE Goldman Sachs Global Leaders in New York in 2008. In this interview, Buckland shares his insights on leadership.
What have your biggest challenges as a South African entrepreneur and businessman been?
I think it would have to be finding enough skilled Staff or people with strong, entrepreneurial work ethics. Those people are out there, but hard to find, and if you come across them — you hang on to them like crazy and they become the mainstay of your business.
What does it take to be an effective leader and innovator within South Africa’s current economic, political and social climate?
Ironically, innovation actually occurs best in times of challenge and economic scarcity as it creates focus and cuts out noise. We started our company six years ago during a recession. I think with the right drive, quality offering and focus you can beat most challenges that may occur on a macro-economic, social or political level. As an entrepreneur you also become intensely inward looking and focused on your business. You tend to switch off from the country and world macro-issues that are outside your control to focus on the immediate, all-consuming job at hand: building your business.
“It’s the 100 Successes out of the 1000 failures that move you forward.”
What characteristic do you believe is indispensable to aspiring South African leaders?
If there was one characteristic I would say is critical — it’s that tenacious never-give up attitude: it’s the 100 successes out of the 1000 failures that move you forward. Good entrepreneurs have an ability to bend reality to their will, to control reality and get what they want. This may sound like ‘magic’ but it’s not. It’s a distortion field in an otherwise mundane day-to-day existence that is created from a sheer relentless, persistence and that never give-up attitude. The entrepreneur keeps trying in the face of failures, mistakes and people saying ‘no’ – they keep bashing down doors and keep approaching a problem from new angles until they have reached their goal.
What are some of the pitfalls that young/emerging leaders commonly fall victim to?
They give up too quickly, or they believe the Silicon Valley hype. Or they over-analyse an opportunity instead of just rolling up their sleeves, starting the business and evolving or pivoting it in its day-to-day running.
What is the difference between a CEO / company founder and a leader?
They can be the same thing, although a company founder may not necessarily be a natural leader. The founder will initially perform the leadership role out of necessity (because there is no-one else to do it), but if self-aware they will know this may not be part of their skill set and willingly hand over to a CEO that Is a natural or a trained leader. The founder of bidorbuy.co.za, Andy Higgins, did just this: handed over to a salaried, corporate CEO even though he was the key shareholder and founder of the company. Must have been tough to do, and took self-awareness and courage to hand over his baby.
“I think you only really fail when you give up and turn your back on something.”
In achieving your numerous accolades, who have your mentors been and how have the experiences of others shaped your reality as a business person?
The accolades are fun. They give you a brief lift, but then you forget about them quickly, feel a bit undeserving – and then move on. I’ve been inspired by many, my previous corporate bosses Trevor Ncube, Hoosain Karjieker, Koos Bekker, Ferial Haffajee, JP Farinha and Russell Hanley. My peers in other digital agencies and businesses: Rob Stokes, Vinny Lingham, Fred Roed, Mark Tomlinson, Pete Case, Jarred Cinman, Ben Wagner, Larry Katz, Paul Cartmel - these are all people that have been part of my business universe, they’ve inspired and helped me in some way to develop into the entrepreneur I am today. And at the company, I have a great management team with some long serving staff who I learn from every day.
What are some of the most important decisions you’ve made as a leader?
Those key moments during a negotiation, when you instinctively judge and size-up a room or a situation to bring the parties together in order to form a successful deal.
Has failure played any significant role in the establishment of your career and in the ventures you’ve founded over the years?
I’ve had many, many letdowns, but i don’t dwell on them or really consider these “failures" because I keep finding other ways to crack these problems and never really give up. Creative Spark was my third agency attempt. I have never seen the previous two attempts as “failing,” but just evolving works-in-progress, i.e. all that happened was my approach changed and evolved. I think you only really fail when you give Up and turn your back on something.
How have you defined success in your career?
That’s a great question, because I genuinely don’t consider myself “successful.” I’ve reached some of the milestones and goals that I have set myself, but success is such a relative term and there are many levels to achieve and areas to conquer.
Which phrase best describes your journey as an entrepreneur in digital?
We are part of a digital ecosystem, not a digital egosystem.