Recently we caught up with Herman Heunis founder of Africa’s biggest social network MXit which now has over 7 million active users. Having made his successful exit from active duties at MXit in 2011, we asked him some questions regarding what it takes to succeed as a tech entrepreneur in Africa today.
TG: You left Namibia for Stellenbosch in the late 70s, how was it being a programmer during that time?
HH: Some background, I was born in Namibia (Rehoboth), my parents had a sheep farm near Kalkrand (My grandparents and great-grandparents were all from Southern Namibia). I matriculated at Jan Mohr in 1976 and in 1977 I started a B.Comm degree at Stellenbosch University. In those years computers filled entire buildings. The 1st time I worked on a computer was in 1977 at Stellenbosch University – Computer Science 101. My career as a programmer started in 1980 whilst I was doing my compulsory 2 year National Service in the SA Navy.
TG: How did you come upon the original idea for MXit? Was it a flash in the pan moment or an iterative process?
HH: It was an iterative process. In a nutshell, the very original idea (root) of MXit was an Astral SMS-based game – I believe it was one of the very first Massive Multiplayer Mobile Game (MMMG) in the world. It did not work due to a number of reasons but the main one, lack to find a sponsor for SMSs. An integral part of the game was communication between players. After several metamorphoses we dropped the game idea and focused only on the communication part – that worked extremely well. Years later we introduced several gaming platforms on top of the communications platform.
TG: What were your biggest challenges as a tech startup in Africa?
HH: Many. Lack of human resources (software developers) was the biggest challenge. Funding, affordable and stable internet bandwidth, unstable platforms (and lack of expertise), the press, mobile operators, etc.
TG: What in your opinion are the main characteristics a tech startup founder should have?
HH: Perseverance, Passion (for tech), Visionary, Disruptive(Rebellious ?)
TG: There aren’t a lot of tech startups in Africa that have reached the kind of success MXit has, do you think there is a specific reason for this?
HH: Timing was perfect and I had a fantastic team. The word “failure” was never an option.
TG: Is there a particular technology that excites you which you would like to see more innovation by Africans in?
HH: Most technology excites me but currently Energy (solar, batteries, fuel cells, etc) is on the brink of major paradigm shift. I think personal wearable devices, monitoring and recording all sorts of data, will be huge. In Africa we might not have the leading (sometimes called bleeding) edge R&D capabilities, but we surely have the in ingenuity to utilize these inventions and take it to another level.
TG: Do you believe that there is an emerging identity of the African tech user or do you think there is a general global homogenisation due to the critical mass movement of technology adoption around the world?
HH: Strangely I think we have a combination of both right now but that will (should) eventually disappear as the tech space (internet access, devices, user savvy etc.) in Africa gets on par with the rest of the world. Then there are more practical issues such as legislation, e-commerce, language, etc. that tech startups need to consider.
TG: Location is always touted as a major component for tech startup founders to think about when deciding to set up, should African tech startup founders be more wary of where they set themselves up in your opinion?
HH: Tricky question – I think starting up is one thing, building/growing the business is another. Access to infrastructure, HR, users, funding, etc. are important – if your location does not have these, you might have a problem. Having said that, some tech startups will depend more on the ideal location than others. Building a large social network on mobile is different to patenting a new type of battery. Coming back to MXit, I think the fact that MXit started in Stellenbosch was a good choice – access to University graduates, access to funding, access to bandwidth, very large potential userbase (with featured phones) and we knew the mobile Operators landscape pretty well.
I think the mistake we made was to stay in Stellenbosch only, too long. My opinion is that we should have moved our head office in 2007 (2 years after we started) to San Francisco. Maybe we could have been the biggest social network in the world today (bigger than Facebook)? Why do I think it was a mistake? 100 times better access to funding, 1000 times better access to software developers and great NETWORKING opportunities with other similar companies.
TG: MXit is Africa’s largest social network with over 40 million users worldwide and as a firm employs more than 150 people now, when you made your exit in 2011 did you have misgivings about leaving?
HH: When I started MXit – there was no exit plan. I started MXit as I was passionate about technology. The ride from 2004 to 2011 was very tough and selling a company that you have started is traumatic. Fact of the matter was, I was extremely tired and burned out and staying on as CEO was not in the interest of the company. MXit needed new blood and new energy.
TG: Do you think more African tech founders should be building their startups with exit strategies in mind?
HH: I do not. Cannot do harm but the question is, are you doing it for the money or because of passion?
TG: You have said in previous interviews that you saw your strength in founding rather than managing large companies, does that make you a serial entrepreneur? Are there more ventures for you on the horizon?
There are no ventures on the horizon right now. Am I a serial entrepreneur? I don’t know if starting 2 or 3 businesses makes you one?
TG: What advice would you give young Namibian software developers/ tech entrepreneurs?
HH: Do as much research as you can possibly do. Ask yourself the question, how will my product/service be different. Will it be chat worthy – will people talk about it?
Surround yourself with likeminded, honest people. A startup is not for sissies – doing it solo is tough.
TG: Do you still visit Namibia? Do you have any hopes for the tech sector there?
HH: We visit Namibia many times a year. Recently (13 Dec 2013) I did the Desert Dash 24 hour 369km Mountain bike race from Windhoek to Swakopmund, solo. In October I cycled from Noordoewer to Swakopmund. We go to Kaokoland on a regular basis to do photography.
If you ask an optimist if there is any hope – the answer will always be YES!