Growing up, Bubu Buna’s schtick was changing the world, so much so that in 2010, on a ride to school, he blurted this out to a classmate. Five years later, he would become co-founder of Jobox, a social startup built to solve a social problem—in other words, change the world. Jobox is an early-talent discovery ecosystem that partners with universities to connect students to companies looking to hire freelancers, part-, and full-time employees.
The teenage Buna admired Apple founder Steve Jobs’s ability to spot problems and get the best people to fix them. Although his devotion to Jobs is tainted with caution these days (Jobs’s leadership at Apple was reportedly tyrannical), back then, Jobs’s talents resonated with the South African native’s dream to change the world. “I’m like Steve,” he tells me. “I’m not the best developer, I can’t code. I can do some design. I can do a lot of things—naturally, I’ve always been able to—but I’m not the best at that one thing. This guy [Jobs] changed the world with Apple, and I wanted to do a similar thing.”
The question was how. He didn’t know.
His natural ability to dabble in different interests (including rugby) turned out to be a curse when in 2010 he tried to pick a university degree and realised he didn’t know what he wanted to study. His father, who worked in construction, decided to step in and supplant his son’s indecisive vision with his clearer one: Buna would study construction management and, after graduation, take over the family company.
In January 2012, Buna left his childhood hometown of Barberton in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province to enrol at the prestigious University of Pretoria, 200 miles away, for a degree in construction management. He hated every minute of class. “I didn’t know how I was going to change the world building buildings,” he tells me on the morning we spoke, leaning back with a small exasperated laugh.
Around that time he read Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, and in its pages chronicling the former US president’s academic and political rise up until 1995, Buna found a new human mould to pour his restless ambition into. He could be Obama, he thought. He would study law and get into politics, then become president.
In his sophomore year, he dropped out of construction management and transferred to law. He didn’t enjoy this degree either, although he persevered and completed it.
One day, while stopping by a friend’s place to pick him up so they could hit the gym, he struck up a conversation with the friend’s brother. They were in the sitting room downstairs. The brother said he had an interview with management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Buna didn’t know them. But after the other guy explained what they did—they advised companies on problem-solving and growth—the now 20-year-old Buna punched his own palm. He had found his purpose: helping companies. He could become a management consultant. He got together with 2 friends, Siphamandla Mazibuko and Darryn Rabec, and formed a consulting club on campus.
A few months later, Rabec would come up with the idea for Jobox, and all 3 undergraduates would become the startup’s co-founders.
When Jobox started in 2015, its mission was grand: reducing youth unemployment in South Africa, which that year was at 25%, the eighth highest in the world. The original intention with Jobox was to connect artisans—roofers, painters, tilers—to people who needed their services. But Buna, Rabec, and Mazibuko soon realised it was going to be nearly impossible onboarding artisans who weren’t digitally literate onto the platform. They decided then to pause on building Jobox for artisans and refocus the idea towards students.
Jobox became a platform connecting students to companies for freelance gigs, in order to help them gain work experience.
But student freelancing was a perilous arena: while students had the technical skills to do a job, often they lacked soft skills. “They may never have had to send emails through to the client or manage expectations and deadlines with them,” Buna says. These things weren’t taught in school.
In 2018, Buna and his co-founders shut down Jobox and went on to get regular jobs.
In February 2019, Buna got a call from the organisers of Akro Accelerate, inviting him to join their accelerator programme. He promptly resigned from his management consulting job at IQbusiness, dusted up Jobox, and applied to the programme with it.
Akro was “life-changing”, he tells me. He, Rabec, and Mazibuko sat in a room with former head of business at SnapScan, Rupert Sully, who would go on to become Buna’s mentor. Sully took one look at their pitch for Jobox and told them their idea was “nothing special”.
It was a painful truth Buna had sensed for a while but was loath to acknowledge to himself.
“Have you ever thought about building this platform for universities?” Sully asked. “I got my first job through my university. Go figure it out.”
Buna and his co-founders revised their idea.
In Jobox’s new iteration, they would focus on partnering with the graduate careers departments of universities to improve students’ soft skills through work experience. The companies Jobox connected gig-seeking students to were required to star-rate the students on skills such as leadership, communication, and teamwork. The more work students did, the more polished their soft skills would become; and with the ratings, Jobox would collate data that universities could use to provide insight to the public on the employability of their graduates, thereby influencing their global ranking.
The arrangement was perfect, an assured win for Jobox and the universities. But they hit yet another bump. Employers were conservative about who they contracted for gigs: once they found someone whose work they liked, they kept requesting that person. The issue? If a company kept contracting the same freelancer from one university for short-term projects, then that freelancer wasn’t working for very many companies. It meant that students from other universities wouldn’t get a chance to work with the given company. There would therefore not be a diverse number of employers providing feedback about different freelancers’ soft skills across universities; and there would be no data for Jobox to collate for the graduate careers departments of their university partners.
At first, Buna’s team was unhappy about this development but realised that their feelings didn’t count here—only what their users wanted did.
Buna’s other schtick, besides his desire to change the world, is his love for startups, a sentiment he expresses with a brief shutting of his eyes and a sigh, like he’d just smelt oven-fresh bread. For him, the founder’s knack for spotting problems and solving them is “something magical”.
In-between running a startup and participating in various accelerators and tech events, he is capturing his learnings and sharing them with other founders.
It was at Y Combinator’s Startup School (not the same as the accelerator programme) in August 2018 that his team learnt the basest of lessons for founders: speak to users first before building a solution (something his team failed to do with Jobox’s pre-2018 iteration). During the period Jobox was on hiatus (2018–2019), Buna floated another startup Doot, a “dining experiences meet-up platform” based in Japan, which connected English-speaking travellers with locals who wanted to improve their English. Doot was selected for 500 Startups Kobe in October 2018, and there, the team learnt that as a startup, the rate at which they could experiment and evolve correlated with their chances of success. It was there he learnt the importance of storytelling to business.
As a business coach, the now 29-year-old Buna teaches founders how to hire talent, manage their cap tables, raise funding, and work with investors. Ultimately, this is the work he wants to do; the one that could be important to the world. He suspects he’ll move on from Jobox someday and hand over its reins to someone else. His reason? The prospect of running a startup that might, in the future, have grown to employ over 100 people “scares” him. He’s not desperate to lead, he insists. “I don’t care if I am a footnote in the history of humanity,” he says breezily, seeming content, in that moment, to have long retired his aspirations to be a Jobs or an Obama. “I may not be the person to plant a seed, but if I’m the person that has ploughed the field and gotten it ready for the people that are going to plant the seeds, and the seeds are going to be the people that grow, I am at peace with that.”
My Life in Tech (MLIT) is a biweekly column that profiles innovators, leaders, and shapers in the African tech ecosystem, with the intention of putting a human face to the startups and innovations they build. A new episode drops every other Wednesday at 3 PM (WAT). If you think your story will interest MLIT readers, please fill out this form.