I had the privilege of speaking at Speech Night at Rondebosch Boys' High School, my alma mater, on the 9th of October.
This is the 2nd last day of school for the Matrics (Grade 12s) and Speech Night exists to honour the Matrics who have achieved academically, culturally and in sports, as well as host a guest speaker, whom the school hopes will give the boys an inspiring message - some guidance for their future.
It was an honour to be asked to speak, so I put a decent amount of effort into prepping for the talk. As most of the guys will have their drivers license by the end of their Matric year, I decided to use the analogy of driving a car to relate some of the messages I wanted to deliver. It was fun to work through the last 14 years of my life and tease out themes I felt I could talk on with authority.
I ended up talking about two aspects of their future:
- The decisions they make; and
- their hunger to learn.
I had fun.
Here's the base of my speech. It turned out slightly differently as I included some portions ad lib from the night's events.
RBHS Speech Night
Good evening everyone.
Mr Chairman, Principal Simpson, Teachers, Parents, and Rondebosch Gentlemen.
To the Matrics:
14 years ago I sat in your position. I was 18, and today I’m 32. And when I say today, I really mean today because it’s my birthday. It’s a privilege for me to be talking to you on my birthday.
So, 14 years ago. My matric dance was behind me; final exams around the corner; and the excitement of my future ahead of me.
For your final exams, I wish you strength and focus. Your future is the topic of my talk this evening. And, for the day after your matric dance… I hope you had a healthy supply of Essential and Myprodol.
Tonight is one of several events that mark the end of your time at Rondebosch Boys’ High School. And while you’ll cease to be a student in a few weeks time, you’ll always be a Rondebosch Boy.
So, who helped you earn this title of being a Rondebosch Boy? And what does it mean to be one?
Exceptional teachers are the key driver of performance at schools: academically, culturally and in sports. Their influence on you is now in you.
Your peers - your friends - have impacted you, as you have impacted them. How much you wish to be influenced by them in the future will be determined by a decision you make: how much of whom do you see next year? And in the years after that.
Your parents, who made it possible for you to be here. You need only travel 10km away from Table Mountain for a sober reminder of what schooling you might have had if you were less privileged. Your parents, most importantly, have helped shape you into who you are.
Your teachers, your peers, and your parents have all played crucial roles in your development to date.
But what about you?
Samuel Carstens, Jonathan Prest, Michael Klopper, Robbie Blake, Graham Geldenhuys, Umar Kagee, Riaz Sader, Shakeel Arieff, Khanyo Ngcukana. That’s a list of just 9 of 158 Rondebosch Matrics sitting here tonight.
You have obviously played the central role in who you have become.
And yet today signals a shift in the responsibility of who has influence over your life. In the next few weeks you’ll bid farewell to your teachers; you’ll say cheers to many of your mates; and some of you, if you’re studying away from home or have travel plans, will say goodbye to your parents. For a time at least.
You’ll be more in control of your life than you have ever been before. For those of you going to University, you’ll decide whether to attend lectures or not. I recommend it, by the way. For those of you going straight into the working world, you’ll decide whether or not to give it your best, and if you show up at all. If you go travelling, you’ll decide where to go, and what to see.
The sum total of each and every decision you make will be the single greatest determinant of your future. Will you make mistakes? Definitely. Will you get lucky? For sure. Will you learn many lessons the hard way? Without a doubt. But I’d like to suggest that if you take your decisions seriously – if you know that your decisions matter - you’ll give yourself the best opportunity of thriving in this world.
Like the driver of a car, who makes regular, incremental corrections to their steering as they drive to stay on the right side of the road, so too will each decision you make build on your previous decisions to catapult you to your future self. To your future destination.
Too many poor decisions, and you’ll run the risk of veering off the road. If you make thoughtful decisions, you’ll find yourself enjoying the ride and the views along the way.
But I don’t wish to be alarmist. You needn’t agonize over each and every decision you make. In the same way that you automatically correct your driving after going over a small stone in the road, you’ll make decisions on “auto pilot” for many aspects of your life. But when you come to a T-junction, or a fork in the road; this is the time when your decisions matter most. There are undoubtedly some decisions you’ll need to make which are more important than others. Only you will know what those decisions are.
Here’s the good news. You’ve had the best preparation available today. That’s what it means to be a Rondebosch Boy. I repeat, and this obviously also applies to the Grade 11s and 10s here tonight: you’ve had the best preparation available today. And that’s what it means to be a Rondebosch Boy.
What you do with this platform - what you do once you have matriculated - is what I’d like to talk about tonight. And i’d like to focus on two aspects of your future:
- The decisions you make; and
- Your hunger to learn.
I matriculated in 1999. I guess that kinda makes me an old ballie now. I was 18 and although I was hugely excited about the next year, I also remember being quite anxious. I came back from Plett Rage, tired, and ready for the next phase of my life.
My mock exam marks were good enough to be accepted to UCT’s Business Science programme. I was set… I would attend 4 years of University and then get a job in software development at a computer company. You see, the internet had only been around for a few years and there was a lot of hype around the computer industry. I thought it was a safe bet and was ready to begin the next phase of my life.
But in a last-minute decision, I decided to join 3 of my mates who were going to London for a Gap year instead of going straight to University. The idea was simple: we’d work for 6 months and save enough money to go travelling around Europe for 3 months.
It took me 3 weeks to make up my mind. And although it meant leaving a girlfriend behind in Cape Town, I knew it was the right decision - for me. I had heard from older friends who had returned from a Gap year that they had built confidence; had awesome experiences; and learnt a lot about themselves. This really resonated with me at that point in my life.
It was a 1-way highway, and there were no u-turns for kilometers ahead! And so… I was off.
My time in London took me way out of my comfort zone. I had to get a job to earn money for rent, food and nights out. And, of course, to save for our trip around Europe. For the first time, I didn’t come home to my parents each night.
The breakup with my girlfriend didn’t last long. Everyone had just started to buy cellphones, and I was no exception. As I worked and saved money for our trip around Europe, I spent a lot of my savings calling home. This meant that by June I didn’t have enough money to go travelling. In a desperate attempt to earn money, I ended up starting my first business building websites.
I remember that time like it was yesterday. I had 450 GBP to my name and I thought to myself “What can I do to earn a large amount of money very quickly?” I could play guitar, but busking in Covent Garden wasn’t going to cut it. And amputating my small left toe for medical trials seemed like a pretty poor decision considering how much I enjoyed playing sports.
No, building websites was the most sensible choice. I had heard that other people were earning upwards of GBP 500 per website, and so this was my decision.
I spent 180 GPB on a colour printer, and 100 GBP on envelopes and stamps. The rest of my money would get me by for another 6 weeks.
So where did I start? Well, I needed to sell myself as a website designer, and as my father was a Lawyer, I thought I would sell to Lawyers. I printed and mailed letters to every Lawyer in the London phone book. I still remember sitting outside the local post office licking and sticking stamps on 900 personalized envelopes. As the locals walked past this 18-year-old with a laptop on the pavement licking stamps, I wasn’t sure if they wanted to give me a Pound for begging, or buy me a Coke to replenish the saliva in my mouth.
I proudly called the web design business Sam Paddock & Associates. But, of course, I had no official associates. I justified this to myself as the truth because I would count all the people who were helping me learn how to design websites as my Associates. It was a push.
I hadn’t studied web design or business. I had just a basic understanding of how to build websites, but this would be the first time I had built a website for a client and received money in exchange. I had to learn very quickly how to give them what they wanted, and fortunately I had Google to help me learn. I must have used Google 2,000 times that year to help me find articles and connect with people who could help me learn how to do what I needed to do to build websites. I also used the internet to learn how to write up invoices, submit tax returns and a host of other functions. That was back in the year 2000. It’s truly incredible what learning resources the internet now makes available to anyone with an internet connection.
In fact, i’ve built a business that offers online courses, and this is just a small drop in the ocean of what’s available online.
Selling websites and then learning how to build them was both exhilarating and hugely stressful at the same time. I eventually managed to sell and build 3 websites for GBP 500 each, and I finally had enough money to go travelling with my friends. It felt like Christmas in August!
I packed my bags and joined 3 of my friends on a 3-month trip around Europe.
It’s amazing where your decisions lead you. If I hadn’t had a girlfriend in Cape Town, and spent all my money calling home, I would never have considered starting a business so that I could go travelling. This first taste of my own business, combined with several other decisions I made over the next few years, undoubtedly led to my role as a businessman today.
Am I saying that you should take a Gap year? No, not at all. My decision to take one was very personal to me. I was a bit of a mommy’s boy, and going overseas helped me experience real independence for the first time. This is not the case for everyone. I knew it was important for me to do, and so I changed my plans.
What I am saying is that your decisions matter. They count. Each and every one of them influence who you will become. Know this, and take decisions in your life seriously. When you come to a fork in the road, can you see what happened when other people went down the left road? And the right road? Knowing this will give you a pretty good indicator of what that path holds for you. What do you want for your life? Choose that path.
And if your small decisions are like the minor adjustments you make to your steering wheel, and the bigger decisions you make are like your choice of roads, highways and u-turns; then your hunger for learning is your tool for collecting passports along the way.
The more you learn, the more roads open up to you. That’s the power of passports - they give you options, opportunities to go further. Your hunger for learning is your tool for collecting passports along your journey.
It was one thing to decide to start a business on my Gap year, it was another thing entirely to have to learn how to put a website together. But fortunately I had helped my father put his first website together while at school. I used Google to search for anything I didn’t understand - and I spent hours and hours reading articles on the internet because, frankly, I didn’t understand much.
My hunger to learn how to build websites in high school meant that when it came to considering how to earn enough money to go travelling with my friends, I had options. That’s the power of learning. I had more than 1 passport.
Never before has it been as easy to learn as it is today. Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” I’d like to borrow his quote and make it more personal by suggesting that your hunger to learn is the most powerful tool that you can use to change your world.
The internet is the single greatest invention to impact our ability to learn. The only thing standing in your way is you and your motivation. Your hunger.
I’m thrilled to see the building of a dedicated computer lab nearing completion here at Rondebosch.
But the internet is just one of many tools available to you to learn. Your parents, your family, your peers, people you will work with, lecturers at University or Technikon. You have so many resources available to you to learn.
And I have a strong message. Your learning is not a University or someone else’s responsibility. You can make it someone else’s responsibility, but then you’ll get what they want for you.
And sometimes, what other people want for you – what an excellent University, Technikon, School or Mentor wants for you - is a good thing.
After my Gap year, I returned home to study at UCT. I took up my offer of study on the Business Science Programme and majored in Information Systems.
It was an excellent 4 years. But it wasn’t enough. I’m not saying it wasn’t good enough. To the contrary, my course was excellent. But what other people wanted for me wasn’t enough. As soon as I realized that my learning was my responsibility, and therefore was entirely in my own hands, I began to thrive. I used my University experience as a platform, and then took the rest of my learning into my own hands.
After I completed my 1st year, we had 2 months of holiday. I had an idea to put together a website that let people advertise their homes online instead of paying money to an estate agent. But this website required complicated programming, and I wasn’t sure where to start. I knew we had a programming course coming up in 2nd year, but I couldn’t wait that long.
My wife will tell you that I’m not the most patient person in the world.
It took me the full 2 months to build this website, full of complex programming. When I came up against problems I couldn’t solve on my own, I used search engines. I found people around the world who would answer my emails and help me solve the problems I encountered - for free. It took a huge amount of effort, and eventually I had a website that let other people upload pictures and details of their houses instead of using an estate agent. I defiantly called it NoAgents.co.za.
And I’m no boffin, by the way. I got a B in matric and I worked hard to get it. But I quickly developed a hunger for learning in the field of computers and this hunger allowed me to excel.
NoAgents.co.za didn’t work. I tried hard to make it work for 6 months, and then I shut it down. I guess Estate Agents are really good at what they do. But it wasn’t a failure – not at all. I had learnt a great deal about complex programming. I had more options; more passports now.
2 years later, my University course required us to form teams of 6 people and develop a full computer system over a 9-month period. Because of my experience with programming, I was selected as leader of the group and, as a result, learnt a great deal about how to lead a team of programmers. Once again, taking my learning into my own hands had given me more options. One passport had given me access to a new highway, which in turn had given me access to several more.
I graduated from University at the end of 2004. A few months later, a friend who knew I could put together websites approached me with an idea to sell wine online. But this required the complicated addition of a shopping cart that could process credit card payments online. Holy smokes, I didn’t know where to start. But I assured him I could do it. Back to the internet I went – trolling through articles and requesting assistance from other people on how to put together an online shopping cart.
And so, Getwine.co.za was born. Some of you – and I’m looking at the parents only now – may have bought from us before.
A year later my father asked me to help him put a course online. I was happy to help, and it was so successful that we started working together. Except now I was tasked with managing a business, marketing and advertising the courses, hiring, firing, and looking after the finances, and more.
I was woefully underprepared. But I was hungry to learn. Back to the internet I went, reading up for hours on how to do what I needed to do. This time, the internet wasn’t enough. I found people who were experienced in business and would give me their time to share lessons and guide me when I didn’t know what to do. Mentors have been key to my learning over the past 5 years.
My learning continued for several years and the business started to grow. My brother Rob, also a Rondebosch Boy, joined early on and we started managing the business together. As the business changed, so did it’s requirements for what it needed from us. And as we learned, so too did we empower the business to grow.
We launched GetSmarter, a specialist online education company in 2008. Today we are a thriving business of 110 full-time staff members, 100 part-time staff and we’re growing quickly. We educated 5,000 students last year and we’re doubling year on year. I’m hugely proud.
My learning is my responsibility. And going to University was good for me, but it wasn’t enough. It gave me 2 passports, and I wanted 4. So I went out and got them.
Anyone of you can earn extra passports.
Your learning is your responsibility. You get to decide how many passports you want for your life. What passports do you want? And how hungry are you to get them?
I’m hungry to learn. And it’s through this hunger that I’ve opened up opportunities in my own life. Learning isn’t always easy – it requires hard work, regular failure and dedication to succeed. But I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that this hunger has given me options beyond my wildest dreams. Passports to foreign lands I never knew existed.
I wish the same for you.
Learning from failure. Wow, i’ve failed many, many times along the road I’ve travelled. As just one example, you may recall the power outages back in 2008 when everyone was worried about Eskom’s ability to provide electricity – a basic service we all need. As a newly minted “entrepreneur” who had had moderate success with new businesses, I thought I was invincible. Ha, well, I’ll provide people with a basic battery box that will power their lights, microwaves and TVs when Eskom goes down. And it’ll sell like hotcakes! And hence, a new business was born: The Backup Box.
I diverted my focus from the business I was building with my brother and my father, and spent 4 months building and selling the Backup Box. I had an industrial engineer, a fellow Rondebosch Boy, build a special designer box and I went mad on marketing. This was it, I thought, an enormous opportunity. I rushed head strong into the business without thinking about it much.
Hundreds of thousands of Rands later, we shut down the business. Fortunately for me it also shut down my arrogance. I thought I was invincible. I’m not. I’m going to make mistakes, so I better think carefully about my decisions.
I took many key lessons away from that experience. You see, we don’t just learn from our parents, the internet, University professors and our peers. We also learn from our own experiences. And most acutely, from our failures.
The lessons I take away from that failed business venture have helped me make better decisions. I veered far off the road, and after managing to successfully swerve back onto the road, I learnt a lot about how to drive.
I think it’s fitting that still to this day we make use of the empty Backup Box cases as rubbish bins in our office. It’s a great reminder of the lessons I learned from that failure.
I’d like to end by taking us back to today.
You’re a Rondebosch Boy. That means you’re on the road and your car is in good shape. And as you continue on your drive, you’ll come across small bumps. You’ll need to make small corrections to stay on track. And in the future you’ll come across 4-way stops, roundabouts and highway offramps. What routes will you choose and why?
Your decisions matter.
And as you continue your drive, what will you do to cram your pockets full of passports? To open up little side roads, hidden lanes and enormous highways that you never knew existed. How hungry are you to learn?
Your hunger to learn is your tool to unlock opportunities.
May you use your platform as a Rondebosch Boy wisely. May you make thoughtful decisions, and may you cram your pockets full of passports through a deep hunger to learn.
May you also, grow higher and wider.
Altius et Latius.