SA's own Sergey Brin and Larry Page

Cape Town - An internet connection, two computers, and a thirst for knowledge! That's all that 25-year old co-owners Alan Wolff and Ashley Peters needed to make their start-up 2go a formidable player in the mobile social networking space.

In just four years the Cape Town based company has grown to 20 million registered users across South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.

Of their active users, 1.5 million are in South Africa and 9 million in Nigeria where it has come to dominate the market – with several million more users from Facebook.

Wolff and Peters met each other in 2006 while studying computer science at Wits University and started working on the business full-time in 2009.  

Fin24 had a brief chat with the guys behind a seven-person business that’s gone from start-up to profitability in just four years – without ever marketing itself or taking a cent of outside financing. 

2go co-owners Alan Wolff and Ashley Peters (Supplied)

What exactly is 2go?

2go is a mobile social network (similar to Mxit) focused on emerging markets, particularly Africa, where users can chat, share photos with friends, meet new people and play games in chat rooms.

Users can buy GoCredits within the 2go app. The users are billed via premium rated SMS and the revenues are shared between 2go and the mobile network operators.

How do you make money?

Direct messaging between friends is free. 2go’s mobile currency, GoCredits, enable users to buy content, play games and message each other in chat rooms.

2go also sells advertising and text based content. Users can buy GoCredits by sending an SMS to premium shortcodes with the revenues of these shortcodes shared between 2go and the network operators.

What did you use as start-up capital if you never used outside financing?

We designed and programmed the first version of 2go without any help, so very little money was required to launch the first version of the application. In fact, it already started generating revenue from its launch.

As it seems to be your first jobs, how have you sustained your business and how did you remunerate yourselves?

2go’s success, in part, is due to a very lean team with Alan and I working incredibly hard before we started hiring extra developers and maintaining a very conservative ratio of engineers to users.

As were students at the time, our living expenses were very low.

Where did you start the business?

The business was started at a spare desk and piggybacking on the internet connection in the home office run by Ashley’s father.

What did you need to start your business?

An internet connection, two computers, and a thirst for knowledge!

If you never marketed yourselves, how did you gain 20m registered users?

2go has grown completely organically. From the launch of our first mobile messaging platform at Wits University, Alan and I kept innovating and releasing new app versions to a loyal, core group of users.

It’s only been in the last 18 months, with the release of Version 3 of 2go in July 2010, that the app really started taking off.

Users have helped market the application by inviting their friends to join.

Who is your target market?

2go is aimed at emerging market customers, typically using feature phones that range from low-end Nokias to Blackberries.

Who are your role models?

We don’t have specific role models, but we're definitely inspired by other entrepreneurs and people who are working on changing the world.

What is your recipe for success?

Every step of action that you take towards building your business should be done with having your customers in mind and with a vision towards improving your services or products for them.

Any learnings you'd like to share with fellow-entrepreneurs?

Definitely. Firstly you have to have a passion for the product and the willingness to make sacrifices.

We started developing 2go while still studying. Needless to say, balancing a full time hobby with full time classes was a challenge. We often thought about dropping out of university to focus on 2go full-time, but we persisted.

Never give up, even when the going gets tough.

Secondly, find a strong partner with a shared vision and good chemistry.

Getting 2go to over 20 million users was a team effort. We shared a strong vision and a passion to develop technology that would have a real impact on people’s lives.

Because we managed to keep that goal in mind, we kept pushing towards it. It definitely helps when you have someone who’s always got your back.

Thirdly, understand that it will take hard work, patience and stamina.

We went through many iterations of the product. The perception is that 2go is an overnight success, but in fact we’ve been working hard at it for several years.

Fourthly, be flexible, fail quickly and learn from your mistakes.

We tried various things until we found a formula that worked, which means that we often made mistakes along the way.

We’ve learnt that it is okay to fail, but it’s also important that you learn from them and move on quickly. Never adopt a defeatist attitude, keep persisting.

Last, but not least, understand your market and listen to the customer.

This is an essential component for any entrepreneur. We spent significant amount of time engaging with our users and incorporating their feedback into the product.

Customers are becoming more fickle, and less brand loyal.

The quickest way to keep them interested, particularly on social media-related sites, is to provide them with content they actually want.

Never assume that you know what the customer wants, do your homework.

*Share your experience of setting up your own business, or simply ask a question. Our business panel can put you on the right path.

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