As the tech world plays catch-up following the sudden resignation of Mxit CEO Alan Knott-Craig Jr on Thursday, speculation begins as to why he is leaving the company less than a year after he joined.
Acquiring Mxit from its original founder – the self-confessed “tired” -Herman Heunis at the end of 2011, Knott-Craig made the purchase of the 90 percent shareholding in the company through his investment company World of Avatar. Speaking on his big plans to grow Mxit, Knott-Craig said: “The purchase of MXit gives us the biggest social network in Africa. It provides a great platform to roll out a variety of mobile social media services”. “Our home patch is Africa,” he added.
Speaking following the acquisition, Knott-Craig also revealed plans to ensure that Mxit remained a closely-guarded social media network, which would not succumb to the temptations (and inherent troubles) of advertising. In an interview with Memeburn in 2011, he explained his vision: “Twitter does 8 billion messages a month, Mxit does 22 billion a month. Your average Facebook user spends 15 hours a month on Facebook, your average Mxit user spends 45 hours month on Mxit, people don’t know this. It is a massively engaged, massively active audience. We have to keep that community trusted, it can never be the case of Facebook where your information is available to advertisers, this is why I am heading there personally to run the show. Herman has done a good job of keeping the community guarded, the data is not sold and that is key and we need to keep that.”
Since day one then, Knott-Craig has had a very specific view on how to take the company forward – focussing initially on African-based expansion, while global growth was not a primary interest. Furthermore, Knott-Craig was intent on safe-guarding the concept behind Mxit, as a private user-oriented social media platform that would not “sell-out” under financial pressures. This may be key to his sudden departure.
From the outset of Knott-Craig’s stint as CEO, he was seen to take a very laid-back approach to management of the company. He took little notice of the company’s performance and subscriber growth – which has remained level at 9.3 million users in its home-country of South Africa since Knott-Craig’s take-over. Arthur Goldstuck notes: “He often commented that it was more important to have fun, and that he did not pay much attention to the numbers”.
Reporting on his shock departure, TechCentral quotes an inside source as explaining: “They [the shareholders] wanted someone who was a little more structured… Alan is quite unstructured in the way he does things.”
By Knott-Craig’s own admission in his leaving statement, he announced that: “While the shareholders and I share the same vision, we differ on how to get there.”
As such it would seem that Knott-Craig’s relaxed style of leadership with little concern for growing revenue – completely dismissing aggressive advertising as an option – eventually alienated him from the shareholders, who after recently injecting R100 million (US$ 11.6 million) into the company may be getting inpatient to see financial returns. Nonetheless, the departure is shocking to many who saw Knott-Craig’s interest in the company as a rather emotional attachment – particularly given the recent publication of his co-authored book on the role of social media in the economy and society, entitled Mobinomics.
This style of management in itself is somewhat unusual for Knott-Craig, who before launching World of Avatar and coming to Mxit, directed Johannesburg-based broadband company iBurst. Joining iBurst as managing director in 2006, by the beginning of 2008 Knott-Craig had led the company in growing its subscriber base from 35,000 to 60,000 in little over a year. He himself admits his attitude to management and achieving growth was vastly different at iBurst, telling the Financial Times that: “My life there was all about faster and richer.”
However, Knott-Craig seems to have experienced some personal issues towards the end of his time in Johannesburg, prompting the move to Stellenbosch in 2009 and the reformed approach to work and management. He cites personal difficulties within his marriage, and a lack of time to see his daughters as the main reason he decided to leave iBurst and move to a quieter city, to undertake a more slow-paced lifestyle. He reminisces: “I let work get in the way of more important things, like family.”
While it is unclear what Knott-Craig’s next move is in terms of work – perhaps he himself doesn’t know given the abrupt nature of his enforced departure – it is rumoured that he has also stepped down from his position at World of Avatar. Whatever his next endeavour is, it will have to comply with his three self-imposed work limitations: no work after 6pm, no work on Sundays, and no travelling for more than seven nights in a row. As such, perhaps we won’t be seeing him take over the reins at another high-profile quickly growing company.