I had the opportunity to sit down, once again, with Alan Knott Craig Jnr, to discuss his high profile exit from Mxit. We spoke about his thoughts on the industry, the future of Mxit and what’s next for him. We met in the very same office as the first interview, which we filmed just after he acquired Mxit.
Alan is currently in America. Why? Watch the video interview to find out.
See the video and full transcript after the jump.
Charl: Allan welcome back to Bandwidth Blog video
Allan Knott-Craig Jnr.: Thanks Charl
C: So, before we get into recent events lets give the viewers some context. Tell us more about World of Avatar and what the original idea behind World of Avatar was and how mxit fitted into the picture.
AKCJ: Yah well, It’s a bit of an old story but it started off about two and a half years ago and me and Pete Matthaei, and the ideas was to, to make smart apps for dumb phones. You know, just looking at my daughter and how she is getting ahead with playing with an iPhone. It occurred to me that not only does it, is there a lot of opportunity and money to be made, but you can probably make a hell of a difference. And that was World of Avatar and then about a year and a half into that we came across the mxit saga and we bought it, yah. So I mean mxit is probably the biggest part of World of Avatar. You know 10 or so companies inside there and I guess up until recently it was a very big part of my life.
C: How did you, did you sit down with Herman Heunis and you know say hey I wanna buy this or was he looking to sell. Like can you tell us more about that process?
AKCJ: That was an amazing deal hey. I guess it just started with like a kind of a rumbling that in the market that Herman might be a seller. So I popped over to his office on my scooter and said howzit dude, you know, like to catch up, talk shit and the next thing you knew I had my hat in the ring and we were doing a due diligence and we had a deal and we, I mean we had to raise a hell of a lot of money . We failed and then we won and then we, you know had lots of ups and downs. It’s a long story – you can read it in the book.
C: Okay. Mobinomics. Check it out. Okay and a couple of weeks ago you were an inspirational leader sailing the ship, today you’re completely out. I mean, what happened?
AKCJ: Yah. Thanks for framing it that way. That’s very nice. No, I think the gist of it is that my partners in World of Avatar, my co-shareholders and I just very amicably kind of reached a conclusion that the path I wanted to go was not the path, we couldn’t agree on the path. And whilst we all agreed on the vision, just couldn’t agree on how to get there so, yah, I basically had to take a view and get out. So, not involved anymore in Avatar. Not involved in mxit as an employee, director or shareholder and yah a little bit unexpected so, I’ll have to see what’s next.
C: What do you think of the future of particularly mxit?
AKCJ: Well, I think it’s…It is the biggest opportunity on the continent. I mean, there’s no question, there’s nothing even close to the scale that mxit has and because of that huge momentum and head-start, you know still, I think it can take over the world. So the guys there are still world class. Just before I left we had them, we did the Motribe deal and those guys coming in was a hell of an addition to the tech crew. I think the guys are gonna win. It’s actually a little bit depressing in a sense cause I’m not on that bus anymore but having said that, it’s a bus that had a big chance to take it over. It’s not just mxit stuff, there’s also Pondering Panda, there’s Shinka and all of that stuff and all of that stuff is turning the corner really doing well now. So, who knows, maybe, maybe Stellenbosch is famous.
C: The 2go.im guys. I mean you know there’s rumblings in the market there as well. They seem to be really well, you know running quite a lean ship I know they got like very few employees like are they on mxit’s radar?
AKCJ: Yah I think so. I mean I can’t speak on behalf of mxit anymore but I know it was definitely on the radar you kind of think about them. They not close to as big but they’re a great example of how you can be a lean startup in an African context and you know literally those guys are 10 of them, I think, two of them until recently, now 10 of them and they’ve built something incredibly successful so those guys are doing great. Are they, are they a threat to the likes of mxit? Yes. On the one hand you can look at it as a threat on the other hand you look at it as another as the rising tide and I just think in general the more startups that are doing well in South Africa and on the continent the better everyone’s gonna do.
C: What’s taken mxit so long to build a smartphone IM client you know for Android and for iOS. I mean surely this should be priority you know to try fight off the Americans Whatsapp etc.. or is the strategy like feature phones, you know, cater for that market, try get the next billion people in Africa you know instant messaging by their feature phone?
AKCJ: Yah. I mean that’s a good question hey. I mean, definitely… you know I’ve got a few lessons as they say from the last year, two and a half years and one of the lessons I learned is that user experience is core so you can’t outsource that type of thing. And one of the first things I did when I came in was think okay look , iPhone client’s not that great. Let’s get somebody, some third party to kind of write for it and whilst there’s nothing wrong with the third party developers in general, the complexity of a beast like mxit of the system, of a world, like of what’s in there and there’s a lot of stuff in there means it’s pretty, pretty difficult for somebody to come in cold and kind of reskin it. So, we made a couple of mistakes along those lines. I think, you know, mxit’s perspective from my perspective of mxit so I still think on the iPhone stuff it hasn’t delivered but there’s some cool stuff coming so watch that space. On the Android stuff not too bad and definitely on the BlackBerry stuff, if BlackBerry’s a smartphone and then that stuffs pretty good you know. But I still do think that iPhone’s where it is I mean the only guys using Android are the guys trying to make a point. I mean the vast majority of influencers in the world are using iPhones . So, until the mxit guys got the iPhone client right it’s just not good enough and…but I do think also that the core team inside mxit are, should be responsible for that type of thing and it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, if you’re in this kind of game you need to be responsible for your own UX. And they’ve got the skills and they kind of, now they got the, kind of accountability to do it.
C: I guess it’s tough when the mxit’s this whole eco-system translating that into an app versus Whatsapp that’s really an IM.
AKCJ: No, its phenomenally difficult and one advantage I have is that I don’t know how complex things are cause I’m an accountant. I’m not a techy. But the one disadvantage is sometimes you know, you kind of go down a road which the complexity, because it escapes you, you know, is a dead-end. But, that’s the beauty of mxit as a platform. The very fact that when you writing for the API it’s going to publish to BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Android, two and a half thousand feature phones, iOS and you just sit back and write for one API and mxit takes care of all of that heavy lifting. It’s a big thing so I think that’s actually going to be the key to it’s success.
C: Technology lesson learned. What other lessons have you learned in terms of business deal making from this experience?
AKCJ: Look , I’ve like learned lots of lessons but in this particular stance, I’ve, you know going forward in the next, next thing I’m gonna do two things slightly differently. I’m gonna pay a little bit more attention to bringing somebody into my system that’s a good salesman. I’ve never really been a big fan of guys who can really sell good. Why? Because they irritate me. But having said that, there’s a place for them and without that type of person you always going to have a challenge for short term revenues and you know whilst it’s always good to keep your eye on the big picture there’s no shame in paying the bills that owe. The second thing is process and you know process is different from detail so you don’t want to necessarily find people around you that are good at detail, you, you do need that but I’ve always lacked, and I’m only conscious of it now, really good process people, people who know how to put in place systems that kind of ensure repeatability and minimise the kind of loss of energy along the way so those are the two big things. I’m pretty sure some other things with come to me in the next few months.
C: You said mxit made the opportunity. What other big opportunities do you think there are in South Africa and up in Africa?
AKCJ: Where do you start? Look everything’s mobile but I think the two big categories are gonna be games and education. And I know how difficult both are. Education for all the vested interest, games because it’s pretty damn difficult. But I think those are the two big things hey. You still need platforms though. You know a lot of the stuff can’t be dealt with until you’ve got some kind of operating system that you can write for and billing mechanism but I’d say the two categories that are probably the most exciting in the industry, from my perspective, at the moment are games and education.
C: Okay. What’s next for AKC?
AKCJ: Yah so the very next step is I’m hopping on a plane, gonna take my kids and my wife and we gonna rent a motorhome and we gonna travel through The States, the deep south.
AKCJ: To start off the republicans lost which should be interesting.
AKCJ: Yah I think. Agh I’ve just got an opportunity…I’ve got a friend once. I’ve got a friend who played this practical joke on this friend once and he said…basically what he did he bought some laxative chewing gum and he kept feeding the guy chewing gum laxative and the guy’s so like going to the toilet a lot and then his wife kept feeding him Imodium and then his friend would give him more laxative and then Imo…and then like could wake up in the middle of the night having an anxiety attack. Now in a sense I’m a little bit like that at the moment you know, I’ve got this kind of huge amount of sadness in a sense about getting off the bus but there’s a huge amount of excitement as well because I’m blessed to have the opportunity to take a bit of time off and go for another thing you know. So, the main thing though for all of that is not to make any decisions for a while so until the 19th April next year, no decisions. Lot’s of business plans and ideas and things coming my way but no decisions and hopefully in that time I can read some books, spend some time with my family and do a bit of travelling. I know one thing for sure, by the time I get there I’ll be more, I’ll be more convinced than ever that I’m living in the right place at the right time.
C: So back to South Africa you know when you come back, do business in South Africa again?
AKCJ: Yah, flat out. No, this is the place hey. South Africa is first world infrastructure, third world opportunity. That’s what it is. When you living in America and Europe and stuff you trying to, as a government, you’re not trying to think where you’re going forward you’re trying to minimise your downward glide path you know that’s what you’re trying to do. Here, it’s all upside and you feel like you making a difference cause people have real problems. But on the other hand it’s not difficult, you know you go to Lagos and Nairobi and those things you know the novelty of two and a half hour in the traffic from point A to point B and its two kilometres you know wears off quite quickly so, here you have an incredibly good quality of life and you got all the infrastructure you need to make a big business but you also have the third world kind of opportunities and problems that you can try and address.
C: You wiped out on your scooter on the way here.
AKCJ: Yah, this morning. I might have been. I’m struggling to concentrate at the moment so this morning whilst I was on the scooter I wiped out but luckily I’m okay just got a couple of grazes.
C: Good. Dude thank you so much for your time and enjoy your time off. For the viewers, get the book, Mobinomics and there’s some other books in the pipeline maybe.
AKCJ: Who knows?
C: Cool. Thanks Allan. Bye bye.