A Look at Ugandan Web Startup NodeSix

NodeSix is a very successful Ugandan webhosting company that has gone on to offer a number of value added services to its customers; including domain registration and parking, file hosting, and free-email. More recently they’ve started deploying a number of web applications through their ‘Sandbox’, an area for beta-testing new applications: a blog community, a blog aggregator and a resource for designers. Most of their web properties are offered for free to promote the development of local content by Ugandans. By offering free products (web applications) to users, NodeSix is increasing awareness and potentially scoring new clients.

I talked with founder Benge Solomon King about his companies future, trends in web technology and his advice for other African entrepreneurs….

Appfrica: Node Six just had its two year anniversary. What does the future look like for your group?

Benge Solomon King: Well, first off all, the future looks steady. Any business that makes it past its second year has survived becoming a start-up statistic. Of course, the next few years are also full of statistics.

Our focus is on the next five years. We plan to go from strength to strength in fulfilling our mission, of harnessing the power of the internet for Ugandans.

Strategically, we’re looking to form alliances with local content providers to provide content for various Ugandan based and Ugandan related websites. A prime example at the moment is socceruganda.com, it’s still a work in progress, but we work on it almost daily.

Also we’re looking to help small discreet groups gain a better footing and understanding of both their fields of interest, but more importantly, how to use the internet to come together, and grow together. Two examples of that are the Designkingdom.ug and BlogSpirit.

A: What advice do you have for other young Ugandan entrepreneurs in software?


    1. Stay hungry, stay foolish.

    I got that phrase from Steve Job’s Stanford University Commencement Speech 2005. Anyone who’s got dreams should read that commencement speech.

    The beauty about being young is you still have time to make mistakes and make plenty of them, however silly or ridiculous they are. The history of success in software and web applications is riddled with failures, some quiet, some spectacular, but the true test of your mettle is the ability to learn from those mistakes and jump back into the game.

    In Uganda, it’s still a small industry, so we still have lots of room for growth. There is lots of untapped potential in the country, especially seeing as everyone is doing some form of IT or computer science in University.

    Which neatly brings me to my second point.

    2. Have the passion.

    I’m a firm believer in the notion that you cannot excel at something if you are not passionate about it. If you do not have the slightest interest in software or web applications, don’t waste 3 years of your life doing IT, find something that makes you happy, something you can truly excel at.

    So if you’re jumping into software or web apps, make sure that you have enough passion to take you through the tough times, the non-paying clients, and the dry spells.

    3. Work your butt off.

    Software and web developers have the incredible luxury of being able to work from anywhere, as long as you have a PC or laptop. But it’s not an excuse to slack off. Your fortune, if you choose to look at it that way, rides on your ability to consistently deliver, despite the odds.

    Lastly, remember, success is not overnight, just like any brick and mortar business, it takes time, patience and commitment.

A: You recently launched a Web Application called BlogSpirit that aggregates the Ugandan blogosphere. What prompted that and where do you see it going?

BSK: We launched BlogSpirit because we love reading blogs, and we love blogging.

Right now I run three blogs. The Node Six blog (blog.nodesix.com), my personal blog (rogueking.com) and The Design Kingdom (designkingdom.ug) So we needed a place where we could aggregate all the blogs we read, but at the same time, make that place useful for other Ugandan bloggers and blog readers who go hopping from blog to blog, it’s a bit tedious. So BlogSpirit was born. And I’m glad to say the bloggers love it.

About where it’s going, all I can say is…far. It’s running on a heavily modified version of Gregarious, an open source aggregator, and obviously, it has a few bugs here and there. We’re working on a new design, and some new features as well, like turning it into a blogger’s community, news, chat, discussions, etc. What we don’t want to do is take the power away from the bloggers, so we make sure the feed entries are not the complete post from the blog, meaning you still have to visit the actual blog.

We have two big challenges at the moment:

    1. Relevance to Uganda and Ugandans

    I go blog-trotting almost daily, looking for new bloggers, and the hardest thing to figure out is if the blogger is Ugandan, and not Kenyan, or if the blog only mentions Uganda a few times then peters off to other global issues.

    2. Integration and Performance.

    There lots of tools we’ve planned for BlogSpirit, but the integration process is a bit of a nightmare. Gregarious was made to be a stand alone application, so integrating it into another web app is harder than we thought. Plus we’re still not sure how many feeds it can take, and how that will impact our server’s performance. It’s running on the “core” server, as we fondly call it, so the stress will not affect clients.

A: What are your favorite web technologies right now?

BSK: Tough one. I love both design and technology, form over function. I dabble in visual effects, I dabble in electronics, I dabble in web apps, and I take the occasional photo. I am less of a programmer and more of a designer.

All that means the web technologies that excite me are the ones that are a mixture of various fields, and right at the top of that list is blogging. If I could narrow it down however, my favorite web technologies would be the following two, and please remember, I’m taking the term “web technologies” very broadly…

    1. Anything Open Source

    While not a discreet product on its own, the Open Source movement is almost singlehandedly responsible for the advent of the internet. Millions of web servers run a variant of Unix, which is Open Source. Millions of websites run open source web applications, like Wordpress, Joomla, Drupal, Squirrelmail and wikis. The more the big tech giants embrace open source, the bigger its usage grows, and bottomline, it means the stuff we build, online and offline, becomes cheaper, allowing impoverished countries to take advantage of technology to better themselves.

    2. Web 2.0 & Online Collaboration Tools

    The definitions vary, but user driven and user provided content has transformed the web landscape. No longer do we have a few elite websites that rule the digital domain. What we have now is millions of websites, blogs, wikis, social networks, directories, etc., all providing information at almost no cost, allowing for an insane amount of diversity, and a global information landscape that will never be the same again. From Delhi to Karamoja, you have the same access to the same information.

    Sites like Wikipedia are a testament that thousands of people can seamlessly work together without pay, with minimal regulation for a greater good.

A: Recently I wrote a post about ‘freeconomics‘, the business of giving away products to sell related products or services. In some ways Blogspirit might be viewed as an experiment in brand loyalty. What do you think of the concept of a ‘freeconomy’? Can it work in Africa, specifically in Uganda?

BSK: I found your article on Freeconomics a delight to read, mostly because it hit the nail on the head very many times, and also, because a I got some good ideas…

When we setup BlogSpirit, we didn’t see it as an experiment in brand loyalty. Put it this way, we had a service in-house, and we realized it could be actually useful to people, so we put it online. Good thing is, the bloggers like it, so we’re adding more to it. A lot of our applications start like that, more from a passion to provide a useful service than to out rightly sell our services to those same people.

But, after reading your article, I saw that a lot of the ideas we have in-house can be considered as falling squarely within the freeconomics definition, so yes, maybe we’ll get bloggers to sign up for our hosting, or maybe we’ll be able to sell advertising at some point (like we’re planning to do with our new free mail hosting package, xMail), but initially, that is not the case.

Can Freeconomics work in Uganda? Yes, but it’s not an easy path to take, it’s very expensive, especially if your services are already just a few shillings above profit margin. You need tons of money to throw at it, a good example is Warid Telecom, they have the money, they can give stuff out free, and hope that they will get decent client conversions that make sense to their bottom line. In our case, we have server space, and a couple of hours of time on our hands. So yes, if the company can afford to give stuff out free and support the free product, then it can work.

Also, it requires patience; it can take months to get a conversion, especially if your product is niche, and not mass market. If the company doesn’t have the patience, or if it dies before the conversions are made, then it doesn’t make sense.

Uganda is a very tricky playing ground for free stuff, simply because market awareness and adoption of your product can be slow. But once it gets viral, you have a huge problem on your hands because if your market is not tech savvy, your online customer support becomes redundant, and if you have three thousand customers calling you every other day with a support issue for something you gave away free… well, do the maths.
I don’t think I’ve really answered your last question, have I?


URL - http://www.nodesix.com/
Email - [email protected]

Node Six began life as a division of Elemental Edge, a leading multi-media and visual communications solutions provider in Kampala, Uganda.

Information Provided by the Afridex

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About the author: Jonathan Gosier is a UI designer, software developer and writer. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a TED Fellow.
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