First, a disclosure: I know a fair number of people at Mxit. I’ve known CMO Vincent Maher for almost a decade. New rockstar chairman Michael Jordaan. Product manager Peter Matthaei. Brad Whittington. And a few ex-Mxit staffers, like Sarah Rice.
I haven’t spoken to any of them about this piece. Nor have I spoken to them about what’s gone on behind the scenes over the past year.
What I know is what I’ve read. And what I’ve experienced as a user. Jordaan will probably crucify me for calling him a rockstar (and as an aside, it’s vaguely amusing to see all the credit for Mxit 7 that people are foisting onto him, despite him only becoming chairman a month ago)!
It’s important to remember that Mxit was written off as largely irrelevant a year ago. Of course, this was the automatic assumption following the departure of Alan Knott-Craig Jnr. The “dream” was “over”. Ignore the over-the-top Alice in Wonderland themed party, the hype, the starry-eyed ambitions. Knott-Craig was right about one thing 18 months ago: Mxit had “one last chance” to get back on track or the company was dead.
Since Knott-Craig Jnr’s ousting, the company’s been in a sort-of holding pattern. There hasn’t been an awful lot of movement. Until now.
There’s no overstating just how much effort has gone into Mxit 7. A go-live in mid-November was likely always an impossible deadline. In hindsight, it makes sense why things were all so quiet in Stellenbosch in recent months.
There’s a great team under CEO (and former CFO) Francois Swart. Maher is one of the hardest working people I know. I first saw this during our time together at Rhodes University. Ditto for Matthaei, whose reputation precedes him (and while we know each other, we’ve never met in real life).
Mxit seems back on track. There’s a vision. It’s shipping product. It feels as if the company — perhaps by accident — has grown up. It helps, perhaps, that the seemingly endless torrent of investors’ money has moderated somewhat…
But is there value in the platform? And the 6.5-million-strong user base?
Someone recently told me — in an almost sagelike way — that if Naspers CEO Koos (Bekker) sells something, there’s no value in it. We’ll see.
Perhaps Paul Harris and the other investors were a little naïve a few years ago when the deal to buy Mxit from Naspers was done. At the time, of course, all the mumblings at dinner parties (the kind that I’d definitely not find myself at) were about investment opportunities in “tech” and “mobile”.
The entire mobile messaging and social media landscape has been upended since then. There are hundreds of mobile messaging/social apps. Many weren’t around 18 months ago. Some have very strong regional bases. Some are popular on specific operating systems. And there are tons of precedents. Of what to do. And, of what not to do.
Ironically, the messaging client that has done the least innovation (no gaming-layers, no virtual currencies, no gifting) — WhatsApp — is the most popular.
Importantly, there is no winner takes all.
Mxit — which has undergone an identity crisis over the past 18-24 months — needs to be as focused as Swart spoke of it being.
In March, Mxit had 6.9-million active users (over a 30 day period). It has managed to hold onto most of them. The number dipped to around six-million, but is back up to 6.5-million as of last month.
No doubt with Mxit 7, that number will jump significantly. But there’s a big gap between getting someone to install the new app, and them actually using it. Think BBM for iPhone (mine is languishing with a somewhat embarrassing total of three contacts, and has been banished to a folder).
The single biggest challenge Mxit faces right now with Mxit 7 is onboarding new users. Once you’ve signed up, there no obvious “next step”. It’s a problem faced by every new platform.
Facebook makes it easy by leveraging your social graph and suggesting friends. LinkedIn harvests your e-mail address book via a deliberately opaque UI.
WhatsApp (and many similar clients like WeChat) solves the problem by integrating with your phone’s address book. Mxit’s gone the route of Mxit IDs (I can’t pretend to understand the thinking or technical reasons behind this), but in using a separate identifier, the process of onboarding new users becomes very, very difficult. Twitter faces a similar problem.
Solving this will go a long way to making the platform instantly sticky (and don’t think the team in Stellenbosch doesn’t know this). Not solving it means the Doodlechat and Backdrop features are pretty meaningless to new users (“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)
I’m rooting for Mxit. Not because I know people who work there. As crazy as it sounds, a successful Mxit is important for South Africa. To show that the country’s tech space can compete toe-to-toe with the best in the world. To inspire bright young minds. And to show that it’s not just limited to Mark Shuttleworth or Fundamo… or even worse: poorly researched US coverage of M-Pesa (which is all but irrelevant in the country).