Whatever happened to Herman Heunis?

Almost 8 years ago, Herman Heunis set-up African instant messaging platform Mxit – flying in the face of critics who insisted Instant Messaging (IM) was over. Heunis’ faith in his project has been well placed – Mxit is now Africa’s fastest growing social networking site and rivals are also having successes, with 2go, billed as the next Mxit, having reached over 10 million users – proving that Heunis was right to insist IM still has a long life ahead.

So with such an ability to predict the market, why did the Mxit creator quit?

The Mxit he made

Mxit began as the phoenix that grew out of the ashes. In 2000, a unit of Heunis’ company Swist Group Technologies, known as Clockspeed Mobile, thought it had spotted a gap in the market for a multi-player mobile game. Following protracted research and development, the project collapsed, with the company forced to accept that rising SMS prices spelled a demise for SMS-based gaming.

Committed to finding an alternative solution, the team managed to develop an IM platform allowing users to exchange frequent messages at a low cost. Following further tweaks in 2006, Clockspeed Mobile finally re-launched itself as Mxit Lifestyle – the phoenix was born.

Mxit went from strength-to-strength, and today is estimated to have over 43 million registered subscribers across 128 countries. At times over recent years, the platform has seen rates of 40,000 new registrations per day – pointing, if anything, to a growing demand for IM services.

Endless possibilities

“There were many people who told me in 2004 that the concept of free mobile instant messaging would never succeed. The opportunities for Mxit are endless”, Heunis told ITWeb. It would appear that he is right. More than six years after Mxit launched, the demand is strong as ever and competing companies race to produce innovations to steal the market.

According to Heunis, the possibilities for innovation in the IM sector are endless. “I can think of at least five ideas that could be real game-changers. Why compete with smartphones, for example? Embrace them, utilise their power and capabilities and create something so irresistible that users cannot wait to engage with the platform”.

Brimming with so much enthusiasm, it is difficult to see why Heunis left the helm of his company while it was at its prime.

The Game-Changer

Heunis suffered a serious motorbiking accident in the Zambian desert in 2007, breaking his back and multiple bones. He underwent a course of rehabilitation lasting over seven months – during which time the idea to leave Mxit formed.

After selling his company, Swist Group Technologies, to Altech for R52 million (US$6 million) in December 2010, Mxit Lifestyle was next in line for disposal by the fully-recovered Heunis. Pointing to the growth that the company had seen since its inception, Heunis said: “Mxit is no longer a small company. It has a staff of 150 people. I don’t think my real strength is running companies – it is starting companies”.

Hence Heunis began looking for buyers for Mxit, and was quickly approached by World of Avatar’s Alan Knott-Craig. In a secretive deal at the end of 2011, the details of which were not disclosed, World of Avatar swiftly became the new majority owner of Mxit Lifestyle. Of course, speculation has been rife, suggesting that the deal must have been valued at around R500 million (US$57.7 million).

Where to, for Heunis?

Since leaving Mxit a self-confessed “tired” man, Heunis has delved into life and his passions. Travelling widely, he has spent the past year practising wildlife photography and enjoying the natural beauties of Zambia’s and Botswana’s national parks, and Thailand’s famed islands.

He also undertook the gruelling Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike Race in March of this year – a punishing 700 kilometre bicycle trek around the Western Cape of South Africa.

Where to, for Mxit?

The Mxit team need to watch out. Rival 2go has conquered the Nigerian market and has made quite a dent in South Africa too. But Knott-Craig intends to push Mxit to even greater heights, with his first target being to tweak Mxit’s functionality on a range of cutting-edge handsets.

While Knott-Craig claims that “Our home patch is Africa”, opportunities will no doubt present for further global expansion.

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