Most technology start-ups die within the first five years. Sadly, many entrepreneurs fail to re-invent their ideas and end up being overtaken by time.
Mobile Planet Ltd, a local technology company has survived for 10 years. The entrepreneurs behind it, Karanja Macharia, Nyanjiru Macharia and Kigen Kandie say it has not been a smooth ride; they had to come up with new ideas every other day.
Mobile Planet is a licensed premium-rate services provider, delivering the now popular short-code SMS service in competitions, news, entertainment, chats and ring tones. For the last decade, they have been creating customized mobile solutions that mobile networks and corporate clients use to connect with the growing number of mobile users in Africa.
One thing that ails technology start-ups is the inability to transform great innovation ideas to profitable businesses. Before 2001, Karanja who is a Computer Science graduate had tried several other software ideas, all had died as soon as they were born.
So when he came up with the mobile solutions idea, he had to do something different to make it survive. He pitched the idea to his sister, Nyanjiru who helped turn the innovation to a business. "She made the difference from just another tech idea to a business by taking care of all the stuff that us programmers do not want to think of," says Karanja.
The Law graduate convinced his brother to demonstrate the mobile platform to the then Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph who bought the idea. A while later Kigen, who was unknown to them, showed up at Safaricom offices with an almost similar idea and was told to join hands with the siblings.
With no money, the three hopeful entrepreneurs rolled into business. "There is a lot of potential in software, even without money. You just need to have a computer as capital," says Karanja.
Karanja , 40, is now chief executive officer, Nyanjiru and Kandie in their 30s are chief operations officer and chief commercial officer respectively. One of Mobile Planet's initial commercial product was Safaricom 'Get it 411', an info-tainment service that is still running to date.
What followed were a series of other Sms-based services including live-sport scores Sms reports for cricket in 2001 and later the 2002 World Cup. "At the end of 2002, MPL launched another revolutionary service in the market, reporting the general elections via SMS," says Karanja. By 2003, they had already fully commercialised, having ventured in to Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FCMG) Sms promotions that were fast growing in popularity.
Things also got better two years after opening business, when the company was gazetted as a premium rate service provider, enabling it to serve across all mobile networks. By then there were two networks, but it was good enough for them as it meant inclusion of all mobile users. "Subscriber numbers in Africa continue to grow at a phenomenal rate; this spells great potential for the use of mobile technology to address Africa's unique set of circumstances and challenges," says the CEO.
In Kenya, most premium-rated Sms cost anything between Sh10 and Sh60, despite the cost they have been attracting thousands of the millions of mobile users. The revenues are shared between the service provider, mobile network operators and the client on the agreed proportions.
In the 10 years, MPL has developed some notable solutions for leading companies like Royal Media Services' Zawadi 2929 and Tazama Chapaa promotions, Guinness Football Challenge promotion,Tusker Project Fame 1, 3 and 4, Bambua Tafrija promotion among others. The company's most notable milestone happened in 2008 when Google invested in it, buying an unspecified minority shareholding.
The entrepreneurs say this has opened doors for MPL's push into the rest of Africa. It is now connected to 26 mobile networks in 15 different countries around the world. The company is looking forward to the next decade and beyond, to defy the myth on survival of tech companies."The last 10 years of MPL were about SMS. The next 10 years will be about mobile internet and mobile applications," says Kandie.
In East Africa alone, the number of internet users is expected to be over 100 million in the next five years. They admit competition has also intensified in their trade, with over 30 mobile solution providers, necessitating them to work harder to stay on top of the game. Some of MPL's competitors include Cellulant, Cellnet, MM mobile, Datalet and Better SMS among others. "We will take what we learnt about mobile subscribers in the last 10 years and apply the know-how into building new and innovative mobile web applications that will help empower mobile subscribers," Mobile Planet's CCO says.