/ 28 September 2011

Is MXit worth the money?

Alan Knott-Craig Jnr is looking for attention. He wants so much of it, in fact, that he’s just bought the attention of 40-million people in 120 countries. Yes, I’m talking about the MXit acquisition.

Last week, in a completely unexpected move, Knott-Craig swooped in and bought Africa’s biggest social networking platform. The widely quoted but totally unsubstantiated price was R500-million.

That might seem a lot, but compared to current Silicon Valley valuations, it’s dirt cheap. Twitter, with its 100-million users, is currently valued at about $8-billion or R640 per user at current exchange rates. Facebook, with its $80-billion valuation and 750-million users, is even pricier at R850 per user. So, at R12.50 per user for MXit, even if Knott-Craig paid ten times the speculated amount it still looks cheap by those standards.

But MXit has drawbacks that trouble neither Twitter nor Facebook. The most obvious is the age and affluence of its users. Predominantly young and African, these users simply don’t have the spending power of the millions of upper-income hipsters who have taken to a platform like Twitter.

A second caveat is the rapidly changing local bandwidth market. MXit has thrived in large part because it replaces costly SMSes with cheap internet-based messages. Even when mobile bandwidth was pricey, the simplicity of MXit’s format kept the cost per message low.

Now bandwidth is rapidly falling in price, that simplicity starts to look like a drawback rather than an advantage. Kids increasingly expect the richer features and graphical capabilities of a platform such as Facebook on their phones.

The third and most serious drawback is the oncoming wave of fierce competition from international players. MXit has always excelled at reaching consumers on low to mid-range handsets — the kinds of phones that parents are willing to buy for their children.

But smartphones are quickly becoming ubiquitous, even in Africa. Huawei, a Chinese mobile telecoms giant, has captured half of Kenya’s smartphone market in a matter of months. MXit hasn’t yet made the jump to smartphones, and when it does it will face stiff competition from the likes of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and WhatsApp which do essentially the same thing as MXit.

Knott-Craig is no fool. He is well aware of these dangers, and talks about having a “a window of opportunity” — presumably to successfully migrate to smartphones. He’s also under no illusions about what sort of business he has bought. Asked to describe MXit, he calls it a service for users that are “looking for a cheap way to send SMSes”.

While he is still cagey about discussing MXit’s revenues, admitting only that “MXit South Africa makes money”, Knott-Craig is quite open about his intentions for the platform. His current business, the rather grandly named World of Avatar, specialises in mobile applications, mostly aimed at the kinds of mid and low-range phones owned by, you guessed it, MXit users.

And so, rather than revenues or assets, Knott-Craig is buying something much more precious in the new global economy — attention. Businesses like Google and Facebook have shown just how lucrative that attention can be. Even if MXit only commands that magnitude of attention for another four or five years, it would still be worth many times the speculated price.

So, was this a good deal? Naspers, which owns 30% of the platform, has never sold anything without extracting a fair price. You don’t get to be the R145-billion gorilla in the African media market by giving away value. And while Alan Knott-Craig Jnr may be the son of a billionaire, and a self-made millionaire, he isn’t known for overpaying.

But the real clincher is the fact that Herman Heunis, the founder of MXit, was willing to sell. Having poured a decade of his life into the company he started from scratch in 2001, Heunis is not the kind of man to sell out to a corporate raider.

I have an inkling that both Heunis and Naspers realise that MXit’s growth, both in value and in influence, has already peaked. I suspect Knott-Craig is also well aware of this. The real question is whether that peak will be followed by a long plateau of value (like Microsoft) or a sharp plunge (like Yahoo!). Knott-Craig is clearly betting on the former.

While we may never learn the selling price for Africa’s largest social network, we can be sure that everyone involved feels they are getting a good deal. Naspers and Heunis are cashing in their hard won value, and Knott-Craig is buying possibilities.

Asked about whether his fellow investors in the deal “understand this market well” Knott-Craig sums it up: “Well, I’m not sure I understand this market well, so I would say it’s people that are excited by this market and interested in this market and want to be exposed to this type of asset.”

Follow Alistair on Twitter: @afairweather