Mobile communication has grown exponentially in Africa over the last couple of years and the need for mobile users to stay in contact with one another has been the driving force behind innovation.
While mobile communication applications such as MXit, have been around for a number of years, there is still room for growth – and this is where 2go comes in.
Based in South Africa, 2go is a mobile social network that allows users to chat and share content for free and this service is growing at a rate of 50 000 new users per day. That is no small feat as the application is already being used by over 9-million people in Nigeria and almost 2-million people in South Africa – with a total user base of over 20-million across Africa.
We sat down with 2go executive Marc Herson to find out what makes the company so successful, future plans for expansion and the innovative strategies they have adopted to compete in a crowded market.
You have ventured into a very competitive space. Why has 2go been so successful?
First and foremost 2go is an African technology company with a focus on serving users in Africa and other emerging markets.
In Africa less than 10% of users own a smartphone and the other 90%, who own a feature phone, are price sensitive to mobile data charges.
2go was purpose-built for these 90% of mobile phone owners and offers users a lightweight application that empowers them to chat and socialize at a low cost. We differentiate based on our intuitive user interface and the way our custom technology minimizes mobile data consumption for our users.
In order to stay ahead, one needs to innovate. What strategies have you adopted to deliver new offerings and develop products?
Innovation is always about people. We are still a small team of less than ten people and our current focus is on attracting and hiring the best possible talent. This was one of the primary reasons 2go recently moved offices to Cape Town where there is a vibrant community of software developers.
We are also working hard at building a strong company culture focused on excellence, where developers are challenged daily to rapidly build and deploy best-of-breed technology that impacts millions of people every day.
What is your opinion on the current mobile landscape in Africa?
It is an incredibly exciting time in Africa, especially in countries like Nigeria with a population of over 160 million and plenty of room for mobile subscriber growth.
Mobile phones have the ability to radically improve people’s lives. The well-known World Bank Report showed that for every 10% increase in mobile phone penetration in developing markets, there is a 0.8% increase in GDP. I actually think this could even be understating the impact that mobile phones may have on people’s lives as there is also a large intangible social benefit of accessing mobile services such as 2go.
At 2go we are privileged to have a bird’s eye view of how people use their mobile phones.
We poll the 2go user base from time-to-time and a recent poll of our user base in Nigeria indicated that 66% of people spend two hours or more on their phone every day and almost 20% spend more than four hours travelling every day.
This time is spent not only communicating on phones, but also consuming media. For instance, over 50% of Nigerian 2go users get their daily news on their phone; 44% watch video on their phone and 55% listen to music. And this is all on a feature phone!
These are pretty amazing stats when you consider the results of an additional poll taken in the country, which showed that 31% do not watch TV and 40% do not yet have a bank account.
There is therefore still a huge opportunity to improve people’s lives through mobile media and inclusive financial services. We hope to be able to play a small part in this mobile revolution.
What goes into developing a great user experience and how important is it?
I would argue that user experience is the most important aspect of any consumer technology application. If you think about great companies like Apple and Google, they are fanatically focused on elegance, simplicity and ease of use.
When one develops for low-end feature phones, getting user experience right is really hard to do with hundreds of different types of devices with varying nuances, such as the size and dimension of the phone screen. Added to this is the memory limitation of these handsets and the price sensitivity of users to data communication fees.
2go thinks about all these issues when trying to create a compelling intuitive experience for our users.
What would you ascribe 2go’s success to?
We think our growth is due to the combination of creating a lightweight application that has an intuitive user experience, together with our ability to efficiently scale our backend.
We have also always encouraged users to give us feedback on technical and other issues and being responsive to their needs has been a critical component of our success.
With other offerings such as MXit and WhatsApp available, how do you retain your current users?
We have been fanatically focused on giving feature phone users the best possible messaging and social chat application. We plan to continue to bring them the best possible communication service, even as they evolve to newer generation handsets.
Innovation is the heart of being the best. What is next in the pipeline for 2go?
We will continue to focus on developing best-of-breed technology centred around messaging and social chat. Our next versions will have tighter integration into the handset and we will develop the application to better serve users as they move to semi-smart and smart phones.
How big is the need for affordable mobile communication in Africa?
It is massive. It changes people’s lives. I recently met a 2go user in Cape Town who has left behind all her relatives in Zimbabwe. She cannot afford to stay in touch with her family through traditional phone calls or even SMS. Affordable communication services like 2go greatly enhance her life.
How did the concept of 2go come about? What is the company’s back-story?
2go was initially started in 2007 by Alan Wolff and Ashley Peter (the current co-CEOs) while studying computer science at Wits University.
They wanted to build software that people would use every day and thought they could offer a fresh messaging application with compelling features and an intuitive user interface.
The company was entirely self-funded and was initially bootstrapped, with them working out of their parents’ houses, doing the programming themselves and hosting a server on a friend’s Internet line.
Where do you like to see the service in five years?
We would like to continue to be a leading mobile communication service focused on improving the lives of users across Africa through low-cost, intuitive software. There are many strategic paths where we can take 2go, from mobile payments to mobile entertainment.
What needs to be done to accelerate mobile growth in Africa?
Many people say that a US$50 smart phone is the key to the future. I agree that low cost smart phones are critical, but this would still largely only benefit more affluent users if voice and data costs are not reduced significantly.
Africa has some of the most expensive mobile phone connectivity rates in the world.
What are your biggest challenges?
There are a myriad of challenges. We face the technical scaling challenges of having millions of messages being sent across our service every minute and developing technology that provides a seamless cross platform experience.
I would say our key challenge right now is to attract and hire world-class developers. This is not easy when one is competing in a global economy with tech giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. But we seem to be making great strides here and are proud to be attracting the type of technical talent we currently have on board at 2go.
IT News Africa