VENTURES AFRICA – African mobile social network, 2go is extending its successful feature phone app to smartphones, while growing its team of software developers and support staff.
The mobile app currently boasts over 10 million active users who send more than 6 billion messages a month, mostly on lower-end feature phones in Nigeria and South Africa. “Feature phones have been an incredibly successful platform for us and will continue to be so for the next few years at least,” says Alan Wolff, who founded 2go with fellow student Ashley Peter while still at university. “Research firms such as Informa indicate that by 2015 there will still be 5.6 feature phones in the African market for every one smartphone. But now is the right time to start extending to iOS, Blackberry and Android platforms as well.”
The secret to 2go’s success, say co-founders Alan Wolff and Ashley Peters, is careful attention to user needs and a rock-solid technical foundation. They say this is especially important in African contexts where users face high data costs and scarce bandwidth.
“We’ve custom-built both the user app and our backend systems to work fast, reliably and efficiently,” says Peter. “We’ve been self-funded from the start and so we’ve learned how to make the most of very scarce resources – we still have a very low ratio of engineers to users.”
“With our recent rapid user growth and the emergence of newer platforms such as Android and iOS, there’s now a need to aggressively grow the team,” he adds. “We are actively recruiting new developers who have an appetite for the technical challenges we’re taking on.”
“Having abundant resources can make people lazy,” adds Wolff. “We didn’t have money at the beginning, so we had to squeeze every last bit of performance out of our hardware. That’s why we still own, control and manage all of our servers, which now total more than 50. We’re working very close to the hardware layer.”
These backend challenges are mirrored at the level of the feature phones the 2go app was originally developed for. Wolff notes that designing a successful app for feature phones brings complexity not faced in the smartphone world.
“Most of these phones have a very low memory footprint, so we’ve had to be creative to develop an app that’s fast, fun and easy to use,” says Wolff. “We’ve developed some proprietary compression and other ways to make the app as lightweight as possible. There is such diversity in the number of feature phones one has to support – we have several hundred phones in a cupboard that we’ve collected over the years, and we test every version on every phone.”
The company is currently on the lookout for world class developers with expertise in Java, Blackberry and Android.
“2go recruits passionate developers who want to make an impact on the world while solving complex problems,” says Wolff. “The most interesting challenges in software development are not necessarily the most glamorous. We’re solving problems at the level of millions of users, which makes for a stimulating technical challenge. We’re also enriching lives by providing affordable, entertaining communication.”