Heunis: Mxit could have been a ‘major success’ story, but I was burnt out

Herman Heunis of MXit (South Africa)

Mxit founder Herman Heunis on Tuesday took to Twitter to express regret that he “was so burntout[sic]” when he made the decision to sell Mxit to World of Avatar in 2011.

At that time Mxit, a quasi IM and social network platform, was putting numbers into the market allowing it to make claims that it was Africa’s largest social network, with bigger numbers than both Twitter and Facebook combined on the continent.

In the same Tweet, he wrote that he still felt Mxit had “all the ingredients to become a major success story”, despite its rapid decline over the past five years.

The tweet, which is the first Heunis has posted since January, was posted in reaction to last week’s announcement that Mxit would be shutting down its commercial operations and donating all its IP to the Reach Trust, its charitable arm.

The Namibian-born Heunis founded Mxit in 2005, growing it from a small company with a team of eight into an African technological giant with more than 100 employees with users in more than 120 countries around the world.

Read more: Mxit: how did Alan Knott-Craig Jr’s R500m bet go so badly wrong?

In part, he was able to do so because of a major investment in Mxit by emerging markets media and internet giant Naspers in 2007. But Memeburn sources say that the relationship between the two companies was not easy, was often tense, with frequent fights and disagreements between Heunis and then Naspers executive Kim Reed.

That resonates with the description Alan Knott-Craig Jr gives of the situation by the time he was making his first offers for the company in 2011:

“Naspers and Herman had lost patience and energy,” he writes in Mobinomics, the book he co-authored with veteran journalist Gus Silber. “They had emotionally disengaged, and World of Avatar was far and away their preferred and most likely buyer”.

While the relationship with Naspers may have been a contributing factor in the Mxit founder’s burnout, there may have been other causes too. Former VP of Research and Development Gavin Marshall, a Mxit stalwart who was at the company from the beginning, recently told Memeburn that the company battled to transition from edgy startup to fully fledged tech company.

“We definitely stopped being as edgy,” said Marshall, who noted that the change came with increasing amounts of media scrutiny. On top of that, Marshall says there was a lot of paranoia about product and scalability just prior to the Knott-Craig acquisition.

According to Heunis, “the missing catalyst was new energy” and perhaps that’s what he saw in Knott-Craig when the softly-spoken internet entrepreneur made his first offer to buy the company in early 2011.

Read more: Interview: Herman Heunis, the mind that made MXit

The deal, which is believed to have been worth around R500-million, wouldn’t go through until October that year. At the time, Knott-Craig called it “a success story the likes of Facebook in its own context”. Heunis though was ready to walk away.

“Creating and building MXit has been an enormously interesting journey for me, and I have had a lot of fun, but it is time to inject new and young energy into the company, and I believe that Alan and his team will do a superb job,” Heunis said at the time.

“MXit is no longer a small company,” he said in an interview with Brainstorm shortly after the acquisition. “It has a staff of 150 people. I don’t think my real strength is running companies – it is starting companies.”

After leaving Mxit, Heunis took an extended sabbatical, during which he completed a number of adventure mountain bike races, practiced wildlife photography, took up kitesurfing and bought a “rundown historical smallholding” in Somerset West, a small seaside village outside Cape Town.

Image: Georgia Popplewell via Flickr.



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