The flame behind SA’s internet bright spark

Imagining a world without the internet is hard. We have become so accustomed to its role in our daily lives that we tend to assume it’s just always been there. Matthew Buckland, one of South Africa’s most prominent internet entrepreneurs, was among the lucky few to encounter the Web before it was as widely available as it is today.

To give you a clue as to how close to the ‘beginning’ he was, at one point all of South Africa’s international internet traffic was directed through Matthew’s university town, Grahamstown. ‘I was exposed to the early Web, using some of the very first browsers. Back in those days, browsers could only display text and the Web was rudimentary,’ he explains. ‘My parents bought me a computer –
a ZX Spectrum 48K – that you plugged into your TV and loaded programs on to via a cassette tape. I started to teach myself to program(in BASIC) from age seven.’

Matthew’s parents, Janet and Andrew Buckland, are both actors. His brother Luke has a doctorate in philosophy and his other brother Daniel travelled the globe with the contemporary circus Cirque du Soleil. The creative element in Matthew was always given room to thrive because of his family’s achievements: ‘I think seeing their talents first-hand may have created that drive within me to push myself, be brave and follow my desires, no matter how uncertain I felt about the future.’

Graduating from Rhodes University with a degree in journalism, Matthew considered himself to be a ‘real journalist’ for the three months he was interning at The Star. ‘My mother is my greatest fan and critic,’ he says. ‘She didn’t want me to do journalism because she was worried it would be quite financially challenging. So I rebelled against her and did it anyway.’ It was then that he discovered a side to media that fuelled his passion much more than writing did. ‘I found my true niche working in media management, the business side of media.’

He proceeded to rise through the ranks, occupying producer and editor positions, at a number of different media houses, including Mail & Guardian, iafrica.com, BBC’s beeb.com and even Carte Blanche, picking up important skills along the way. ‘I learnt that it’s all about sheer willpower and persistence,’ Matthew says. ‘You make more mistakes than you have successes, but you learn quickly, keep trying and move on.’

Right from the start, he recognised the pivotal role the internet and the digital space would play in every society, industry and institution in the future. ‘The internet is transforming the very fabric of society in both good and some bad ways,’ he says. ‘This is literally a revolution in our time, and it’s been a privilege to be part of this revolution from the beginning.’

Under former Naspers CEO Koos Bekker, Matthew was the main man of a creative Kickstarter-type initiative called 20fourlabs. ‘The idea was to generate a start-up culture within the corporate environment to create new digital products without the corporate red tape that often hinders innovation,’ he says. However, the initiative dissolved after Matthew left Naspers to pursue a new venture online.

‘I’ve always wanted to create a company. It’s the ultimate creative pursuit in business,’ he says. ‘It took me a long time to get there because I am cautious – I spent at least 15 years in corporate to network and build up the experience, confidence and courage to make the leap. It has been both tough and rewarding, but I’ve never looked back. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

Then, in 2010, Matthew founded digital marketing agency Creative Spark. Its alternative take on strategic thinking and innovation caught the attention of the UK advertising powerhouse M&C Saatchi, which is now the majority shareholder in the company. ‘We’ve become part of their global network as the largest independent agency network in the world,’ he says. ‘We are strong on strategy, big on innovation, and really demystify the complex digital landscape for companies to enhance both their business and customer experiences.’

In the same year, Matthew launched Memeburn.com, which subsequently joined his online publishing site, Burn Media. All five of his websites – Gearburn, Jobsburn, Ventureburn, Motorburn and Memeburn – focus on key trends in industry and they influence other potential entrepreneurs who wish to showcase their own new business ventures. ‘We help to recognise and build profiles of “the doers” in the digital and start-up industry, and make them and their work famous, which we hope motivates them to keep going and do better,’ he says.

One of Matthew’s most recent interests is augmented reality (AR) and how it can be used in daily interactions besides laptops and cellphones. ‘AR will be a heads-up display, an augmented digital layer accessed via digital glasses, contact lenses or digital implants directly in our brains,’ he explains. ‘This is not science fiction. This is here already in various experiments and semi-commercial ventures. It is in its early days though, and it will take some time for AR to become ubiquitously mainstream and affordable.’

Processing personal data in this way will be more efficient and intrusive than having to physically google someone using your device. ‘I’ll be able to just look at anyone and instantly, via facial recognition, call up information about them from the internet and their social media profiles. While chatting to them, my augmented display will overlay info about their interests, who we have in common, and any other salient facts. Right then and there, I’d get further insight and be able to seamlessly weave this information into a conversation,’ Matthew says. ‘Via sensors, my AR display could analyse that person’s facial expressions and voice, and, for example, I’d be able to tell if they are telling the truth or not.’

Of course, there is a downside to AR, mainly because it means kissing privacy goodbye. ‘Instant access to information means we will know more about people from their social profiles and their public information will be instantly accessible,’ Matthew says. ‘We increasingly stop living in the real world and our day-to-day interactions are tainted by constant distractions from the digital overlay that we view the world through.’

Despite his roaring success in the digital space, Matthew doesn’t see his achievements as a typical media mogul would. He believes that success is all relative and that sometimes people need to stop merely dreaming and start doing. ‘We have a saying in the start-up world: Ideas are almost worthless – there are so many of them and, ultimately, most go nowhere. It’s only real-world executions that count,’ he says. ‘The work I’m doing is still a work in progress and there is much to be done. I’m passionate about the country’s tech start-up and entrepreneur ecosystem. It has supported me, and I want to give back.’


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