Matthew Buckland: Digital guru who shared his genius

The whizz kid who grew up to be a whizz adult in the world of the internet

28 April 2019 - 00:00 By Chris Barron

Matthew Buckland, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 44, was a media and internet dynamo who played a key role as journalist, entrepreneur and developer in shaping SA's digital landscape.
His first of many remarkable achievements was taking over the Mail & Guardian's online division, which had been launched in 1994 but reached a plateau by 2000 when he became its head.
He brought savvy new programming skills to the M&G platform, which he'd picked up while working on the BBC's website in London. He turned it into one of the continent's leading news websites.
One of his key innovations was a personal blogging site called Thought Leader that gave serious thinkers a platform to express their views. It acquired a huge readership and was influential for a time. Readership and influence declined after he left.
Another key innovation, in 2007, was a blogging measurement platform called Amatomu. A blog search engine and article aggregator focused on blogs published in SA, it provided the first formal insight into the blogging phenomenon in the country.
Before Amatomu, the local blogging sector was a bit like the Wild West.
Nobody knew who was doing what, people made all sorts of extravagant claims about their blogs and there was no way for the advertising industry, for example, to make comparisons or good choices, or validate the claims being made.
Buckland's innovation brought the South African blogosphere into the mainstream, helped to measure the popularity of blogs and bring a semblance of formality and respectability.
His platform helped advertisers to target and segment that media environment. It helped everyone to navigate it by showing the top 100 blogs in SA in general and in categories such as sport, music and tech.
It defined the local blogging industry and helped it mature and grow.
Buckland was born in East London on August 22 1974. He described himself as a lifelong "gadget and technology freak".
His father, the actor Andrew Buckland, bought him his first computer from the earnings of his first commercially successful show, The Ugly Noo Noo, when Matthew was a seven-year-old grade 2 pupil at Parkhurst Primary School in Johannesburg.
He would program simple computer games for his two younger brothers and build robots out of old circuitry boards that sprang to life when triggered and earned him a small income from suitably impressed passers-by in Parkhurst.
After matriculating at Greenside High in Johannesburg he studied journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown and went to London where, after doing menial work for too long and almost despairing, he got a job on the BBC website that was still in its infancy.
The fact that the BBC was an early player in the digital environment gave him the ideal background for his next job, as the internet editor for prime-time TV show Carte Blanche, the M&G online and, which he helped set up for Naspers.
He founded web strategy and development company Creative Spark and digital publishing company Burn Media in 2010, selling his majority shares in both to UK-listed international advertising agency M&C Saatchi in 2015.
One of his most important initiatives was creating Ventureburn, the first South African publication to focus on tech start-ups. It gave publicity and greater respectability to start-ups as an outlet for venture capital. He pushed investors hard to invest in tech start-ups.
He served on the inaugural board of the Silicon Cape Initiative, whose intention was to turn the Western Cape into a hub for hi-tech start-ups. It encouraged a lot of people to go into the world of tech entrepreneurship and provided them with resources.
His input was typically constructive and vigorous and showed clearly that when it came to guiding start-ups, he was someone who had been there and done that. Although he had imagination and vision aplenty, the knowledge he brought to the initiative was practical and experience-based.
Its success in getting the Western Cape government to support tech start-ups in the province was in no small measure his achievement.
Buckland was never averse to taking risks.
What set him apart from most others was his diversity of skills. He was media savvy, tech savvy and, as it turned out, business savvy as well.
None of this would have made him so successful if he had not also been personable. He was a great person to interact with, socially and professionally, even if a bit arrogant in the sense of knowing he was good and making sure others knew it too.
The fact that he really was good made this easier to accept.
He loved exploring what was possible and then using technology to make it happen.
He had great ideas but unlike most others with great ideas he had the skills to make them happen.
It was truly said of him when he was younger that he was a whizz kid.
And he remained young. He had a youthful enthusiasm, energy and sense of excitement that he never lost.
Buckland was diagnosed with stage four oesophageal cancer in October 2018.
He spent his last months writing a book on his life and entrepreneurship that is due to be published soon. He called it: So You Want to Build a Start-up?
He is survived by his wife, Bridget, and daughters Isabel and Stella.

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