Fast-forward to the future with new Naspers chief

2014-07-13 15:00

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Bob van Dijk thinks about the future constantly.

The 41-year-old’s predecessors guided Naspers, which serves more than 1?billion people every day, through massive change. Now Naspers and VanDijk are bent on mastering ecommerce.

Speaking from the company’s Cape Town office where he works during trips from his home in Amsterdam, Van Dijk is one of a band of entrepreneurs studying the horizon for changes small and large in how human beings behave.

“I don’t lose sleep, but what keeps me alert is that I think the world is changing around us quite rapidly. I think we can compete well with anything, but you always run the risk of being out-innovated,” says Van Dijk.

Change happens fast. In 2007, when Van Dijk and his Norwegian wife Tina’s youngest daughter Eline (7), was born, Apple’s iPad was still a distant fantasy and the first iPhone had just been launched.

Today, Van Dijk admits that he has occasionally used his iPhone to dim and brighten the smart lights in their family home from another country to get his wife’s attention. They have another daughter, Sophie (9).

Another big innovation that gets Van Dijk thinking is Twitter?–?although he doesn’t use the platform himself.

“I was an early adopter in 2011. Then I found, because I was travelling a lot?–?about 80% of my time?–?that I was tweeting a lot about that. When you travel a lot, you get tired and sometimes a bit cynical. I found I sometimes wrote some amusing things but travelling is frustrating. Then you come across as a tired traveller, a frustrated traveller, and I didn’t really enjoy that much.

“I think just being on Twitter for business purposes doesn’t fit our company culture so much. I think we are more focused on building a business rather than writing about it.

“I think the big value in it is that it’s very quick and forces people to be succinct?–?two great things. And it has the ability to instantly reach many people which, of course, is transformational in terms of news distribution.

“I think the drawbacks are that the quality of what gets published is the quality of the person who happens to publish it and how much energy they put into it. It’s very different from the way news is produced. It is completely unedited.”

With rivals like eBay, where Van Dijk worked in Germany, and key markets including Russia, China, India, Indonesia and Brazil, agility and experimentation are key to the future success of Naspers.

Naspers’ army of entrepreneurs includes the likes of Pony Ma, the chairperson of Tencent, in which Naspers bought a large stake in 2001.

Tencent’s profit of R 33?billion last year made him China’s fourth-richest man. Tencent’s QQ messaging service had 848?million unique monthly users by the end of March. That’s more than Twitter.

Van Dijk puts this success down to a “market that has real potential with a really strong management team, a really strong group of entrepreneurs”.

He reckons there are two other ingredients?–?curiosity and “a genuine desire to understand how people behave”.

“It is very comforting to look at what we do know, but it’s quite uninteresting compared with figuring out what we don’t know.

“The other is having a genuine desire to understand how people behave. The core of any true consumer business is to understand what people like, what they don’t like.”

He’s enjoying South Africa?–?particularly the natural beauty and bobotie, a dish he enjoys.

“I like a lot of the energy that I feel. If you come from a flat country that is mainly urbanised, it’s hard not to become excited about this country. And people are very sporty.

“What worries me about South Africa is, I think unemployment that remains high even though there is some growth, it’s very unhealthy for a country. It carries major risks with it. I really hope it can be solved.”

But there are no easy, sexy, solutions for poverty nor quick fixes for the commercial conundrum many newspapers face.

“There are two things newspapers do that address fundamental customer needs.

“One is to help ensure the integrity of society and accountability of everybody. I think that’s really fundamental, really important, and hard to place a value on, and hard to monetise. The other fundamental is to have curated, nuanced information.

“How they are served will probably change, but those needs won’t change. I think what is really important is that you set yourself up to move along with customers rather than to say, ‘Well, this is the way we have solved this problem.’ It is through newspapers and journalists and that will not change.

“I think that’s a really dangerous road to be on.”

» City Press is part of the Naspers stable, through Media24.

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