Monday, October 18, 2010

What attracted me to Mobile Transactions

At the time of writing, I have been with Mobile Transactions for almost two weeks. So much has happened in this short time. I considered writing about my early experiences in this exciting company. But it has all gone by in such a blur and it is too early for me to put my thoughts in a coherent way. So instead I decided to write about why I made the decision to leave the cosiness of the corporate world for a young, growing company.The obvious question many people have asked me is why would I give that all up, pack up my life and join an early stage company? I can answer that question very easily with any of the standard clich├ęs (which all happen to be true by the way):

· “I was looking for an exciting new challenge”

· “I wanted to get away from the politics and bureaucracy of a corporate”

· “I was bored of being pigeon-holed in a single function and wanted the variety that comes with being in a young business”

· “I was sick of having an anti-septic, throttling corporate culture imposed on me and wanted to be part of building something different”

· “I wanted to be able to wear jeans to work”

I could go on and on. But that is only the first part of the answer and is the far less interesting part. What is more pertinent is why Mobile Transactions? What is it about Mobile Transactions that made it stand out amongst all the other possibilities I was considering?

The easiest way I can explain it is by telling the story of how it came to be.

Mike (CEO) and I met whilst studying at Oxford a couple of years ago. He immediately struck me as a highly intelligent man with great integrity. Our friendship grew through what turned out to be an amazing year. He came to visit me in Johannesburg during the soccer World Cup in South Africa. One evening, we were out for dinner with his lovely wife Isabelle. I was ranting (as is my wont) about my frustration with all the points mentioned in bullets above (and a few others I have no doubt). When eventually I stopped my self-indulgent diatribe, I asked him more about what he was doing. When he told me he was helping to run an exciting new mobile transactions business, my immediate thought was: “oh no, not another one”. For several months up to that point I had been leading a team investigating the possibility of opening a retail presence in Africa for the bank I was working for. A key part of this investigation was whether we could use mobile to deliver our strategy. I had been to several conferences and presentations on the topic. Although the promise mobile banking held was palpable, nothing I had seen got me particularly excited.

In an effort to be polite, I asked him more about it. During his enthusiastic description, my scepticism slowly changed to interest and ultimately to an incredible sense that I was at last hearing something different. The subtle tweak in the way in which Mobile Transactions was approaching this market all of a sudden made so much sense. (Feedback from Mike on his recent whirlwind trip the UK and USA indicates that scepticism, evolving to gradual awakening, culminating in that Aha! moment is a common reaction from people who hear about the business for the first time.)

With an increasingly affluent and growing population almost the size of India’s, the consumer opportunity in Africa is huge. But consumers are too heterogeneous and too widely dispersed across too many borders to be viewed as a single market. Contrary to what many people think, this is not the United States of Africa! What is common and spans borders however is Africa’s continued reliance on foreign flows (remittances, donor funding/NGO’s, micro-financing, multinational corporatesetc) and the massive role of the State within these economies. Fail to understand that, and you fail to understand Africa as it stands. Mobile Transactions acknowledges this and has set about trying to capture the consumer opportunity by first trying to capture the institutions for which the vast majority of consumers rely on in their day-to-day lives. That is the Aha!of Mobile Transactions to me and what sets them apart from all the other companies clambering for a piece of this very big, meaty pie.

Joining a business you wholeheartedly believe in comes with an increased responsibility to help make sure you do your bit to ensure it reaches its potential. Our recent good results are proof of how Mike, Brad, Brett and the rest of the team have the ability to make the business grow as fast as it can. But all great businesses are built on complimentary skills. So for the time being, I see my role as ensuring that while we grow as fast as we can, we also grow as slowly as we need to. Making sure the right processes, structures and systems are in place to de-risk the business to allow us to grow our markets and products in a controlled and deliberate way. This I hope will allow the rest of the team to focus on what they’re good at without worrying about being capsized by an internal or external black swan that inevitably comes from growing too quickly.

My concluding remarks are aimed at Mobile Transactions employees.

Upon leaving the aforementioned bank a couple of months ago, the consistently predictable counter-offer followed soon thereafter. I was offered the position of heading up what will become a retail presence in Africa for the bank. Whilst the offer was interesting (more for the timing than its substance), I didn’t consider it for longer than it took for me to explain to them that the place I am going to will be part of making theestablished financial model redundant. Our continued success in this space will render the incumbents that fail to adapt irrelevant. Why would I take a horse and cart into battle when there is an armoured tank in the garage?

Through our platform, we have the unique opportunity to change the transactional landscape forever in a very real and significant way. The best part of all this, is that we get to do all this whilst making a positive difference to the lives of the people who most need it. As employees of Mobile Transactions, we need to cherish that privilege and feel the weight of responsibility to ensure that it is nurtured. This is big stuff!

I thoroughly look forward to meeting the rest of the team in Zambia when I head up from Cape Town in a few days.