The South African mobile app that’s bigger than Facebook
One of South Africa's quietest tech success stories is a seven-person business that's gone from startup to profitability in just four years – without ever marketing itself or taking a cent of outside financing. In the process, mobile social network 2go has come to dominate the Nigerian market, where it has over nine million active users – several million more than Facebook.
The secret, says director Peter Lockhart, has been balancing a tight focus on what 2go's users really want – a cheap, easy way to chat and socialise using their mobile phones – with the deep technical expertise needed to deliver that experience across thousands of different devices.
“Building mobile technology for an African market is tough,” says Lockhart. “Data and SMS are expensive, and our users are price sensitive and savvy. That means we have to deliver an application that uses the absolute minimum of system resources and bandwidth. Our response has been to develop proprietary communications protocols and compression algorithms that minimise the app's data usage.”
The 2go team has also cracked the technical challenge of producing an app that works equally well on all of the myriad feature phones that still dominate the African market. “It's much, much harder to develop for feature phones than for smartphones,” says Lockhart, “partly because there is such a variety of platforms and operating systems. You need deep technical knowledge. This technical knowledge also extends to our ability to scale the back-end in a very resource efficient manner.”
The fact that 2go works well on many handsets has been critical to the viral spread of the app, says Lockhart, adding “feature phones aren't going away any time soon. Projections from Informa indicate that non-smart phones will still comprise 85% of the African handset market in 2015.”
2go has resisted the tempation to bloat its app with added features, adds Lockhart. “Our users log in and out quickly, several times a day – they want things to be quick and simple,” he says. “We've thought through every menu item; every pixel is there because it serves a purpose.”
Alongside this technical focus, 2go has also remained extremely alert and sensitive to the needs of its users. “Our target market is not some kind of generic 'Africa',” says Lockhart. “We ask what country are they in, what region, what city? 2go really took off in Nigeria when we noticed that our users wanted to be able to chat within their university communities. So we did the research and created a chat room for each university in the country.”
2go also actively solicits and follows up on suggestions from its users, adds Lockhart. “People want to be asked for their opinion. Many of our users are starved for entertainment and engagement. 31% of our Nigerian users tell us they don't watch television, but 66% of them spend two or more hours on their phones each day. It's a very sociable society, and 2go supports that sociability.”
The insights gained in Nigeria have fed back into the South African market, where 2go has 1,5m active users and counting. The app also provides gateways to other popular social networks such as GTalk, MXIT and Facebook. “I use 2go to chat with friends on Facebook and they have no idea,” says Lockhart. “Our whole mission is to make chat easy, cheap and painless, no matter what device you're using.”