On the death of Mxit and what I have learned

Recently Mxit, South Africa’s messaging service announced that they would be closing down. This was indeed sad for company that had seen tremendous growth and was expanding into other African and European markets. Mxit is closing down its commercial operations and transferring the IP to a public benefit organisation, The Reach Trust. Many folks in the US and many other places may not be aware that Mxit actually had more users than Whatsapp at some point. I remember using Mxit in 2010. Whatsapp was nowhere near Mxit in terms of numbers and local messaging channels. The other allure of Mxit was it was Java based, meaning folks with feature phones, like yours truly, would be able to send messages to friends for free and play games. For those who remember, Mxit also did well in part in Kenya due to the failure of SasaNet. I blogged about SasaNet here a while back. The article provides some context for those who do not know about Sasanet.

“We were never unaware of the threat of smartphones, but I personally believe that we were totally unprepared for how soon a cheap smartphone like the [MTN] Steppa would arrive, and the degree to which it would take over the feature phone market.”

Sadly, Mxit gambled on their future. Africa has seen a tremendous increase in the uptake of smart phone devices and Mxit did not anticipate a quick uptake of smart phones by most of the people in the markets they served. They were so focused on the feature phone that they not put any investment in providing smart phone client equivalents to their application. This was a huge gamble on their part. I would have expected South Africa, given is large market share on internet use and technology in general would have necessitated their need to build smart phone applications to compete with Whatsapp. This points to a gross mis-understanding of their customer. It is understandable that Mxit initially was for high schoolers and college kids for whom smart phones were not the most popular devices at their disposal. They failed to grow with the needs of their core users. Most of those who used Mxit heavily by now are working class, can afford their own smartphones and would be more likely to move to an equivalent if not better Mxit smartphone client. This happened very late. Mxit 7, the version that also shipped with smart phone client applications came to the scene too late. What I think is important to take home here is that it is equally important to keep an eye on global market technology trends and evaluate and keep re-evaluating your value proposition in such a market.

Its a global marketplace, shape up or ship out

At times, as African developers (and yes I am also guilt of this) we lack to perceive our work or products as items that could scale globally. We are to focuses on making our products work in a hyper-localized context that we forget we operate in a global market place. Lets for a minute put our selves in the founder’s shoes. I high doubt at the early stage when Mxit was mainstream in SouthAfrica, I would have though of deploying the application to other markets. The argument to justify this position is that, we first need to understand one market very well then scale. I nowadays have a totally different theory to this. Rather than focus on one market, focus on three core markets. Is the product scalable in three large markets. Is it possible to launch the MVP in these three markets and hyper-localize for each market? Markets I use to gauge are usually South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ethiopia. Capture these four markets and capturing several others should be easy.

Perception matters

Another failure of Mxit was not only the failure change with the times but also to change the narrative. For a long time Mxit was always seen as the chat application for old feature phones. The company did not try to change this narrative. This perception left a situation where users who switched to smartphones from feature phones did not see the need to have Mxit as they already had very good replacements in the name of BBM and Whatsapp.

Never serve tasteless or undercooked food

While Mxit was trying to play catch up with Whatsapp, they unleashed versions with a couple of bugs which generally got in the way of a great user experience. Bad user interface changes also resulted in high friction rates in usage leading to user seeking alternative applications. Though I am of the opinion this is a delicate balancing act. The need to balance bugs/ui changes and feature improvements.

In all it was fun using Mxit while it lasted. Requiescant in Pace Mxit!

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