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Until three weeks ago Frans De Villiers worked at Mxit as a special marketing project manager. He explains what life under Alan Knott-Craig Junior was like and how his departure could affect Mxit as a brand.
Alan Knott-Craig Junior was Mxit’s Barack Obama. He rocked up at the scene at a time when the brand was certainly on the down. By no means am I implying that former CEO Herman Heunis was George W Bush, I regard him as a visionary tech leader who built an amazing company, but let’s be honest: the company had lost a lot of its amazingness by the time Alan and World of Avatar came knocking at the door.
I’m sure a lot of people will be doubting whether Knott-Craig really is a visionary based on the events of the last 24 hours (his investors clearly didn’t), but let me tell you that the man is damn inspiring. He keeps an incredible cool head under pressure, has a long-term view and understands that aspiration is an important building block of any brand.
Mxit has two brands: the business/tech brand and the consumer brand. We will talk about the consumer brand later, but the tech brand has managed to dominate the news headlines since the inception of the company. The reason is simple: it has all the elements of a good story. Small town boy does good (we all love a success story), falls from grace (the unfortunate paedophilia twist) and then finds redemption in the arms of a saviour (Alan Knott-Craig). That was how Knott-Craig was typecast: as a saviour. Whether it was him, the media or the PR approach, this was the ultimate result.
Knott-Craig certainly didn’t shy away from this. The recently launched book Mobinomics, which the title implies is about the mobile industry, reads as his personal biography. His history is literally intertwined with that of Mxit’s. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, clearly it worked for Steve Jobs and Apple, but as we now know there is no happy ending to be had between Knott-Craig and Mxit.
The Mxit business brand and the personal brand of Alan Knott Craig Junior was one and the same thing. The brand was positioned as a tech visionary (Knott-Craig being the prophet) and the rest of us his disciples. Knott-Craig himself enforced this view in one of his personal blog posts where he states the importance of form over substance. He makes a pretty convincing argument, but perhaps things just spun out of control.
Mxit probably has the flashiest office in Stellenbosch, the small Western Cape town where it is head-quartered, and certainly the most expensive rental. For most of 2012 it had elaborate staff parties every week (these days bi-weekly).
The yearly party was something out of millionaire’s dream. It was inspiring stuff. The staff was happy and sold on the dream that Knott-Craig played out in front of them. What was even more inspiring was that Knott-Craig himself looked like he truly believed. During his 12 months at the helm we all believed that we were part of an inspired mission. And then they let him go. Suddenly all the magic is stripped away and all you see is a company spending money it clearly doesn’t have.
The brand foundation has been yanked out of Mxit, the very thing that it has been selling us over the last few months. This might go down as a famous case study of how dangerous it can be to tie a person into your brand. There are lots of case studies where it worked: Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, etc., but with Jobs gone and Branson still capable of a scandal (I hope not, he is my hero) we might still see the a delayed effect of what a personality-driven brand can mean for business.
What about the consumers? The people who actually use Mxit? My feeling here is that they most probably don’t give a toss. All they want is to chat, play and trade. The typical Mxit user does not follow tech news and don’t even know who Alan Knott-Craig Jnr is. This is good. It means that Mxit still has a chance to turn things around with its core base. All Mxit needs to do now is to figure out how to make enough money out of them. If it does that the business brand should recover alongside it.
My personal hope is that we don’t lose one of South Africa’s, and indeed Africa’s, greatest success stories. Mxit is broken, but Knott-Craig leaves some very smart people behind in the business who might yet crack the elusive mobile wallet code. When they do, I will be the first to applaud them.