How two twenty-somethings built one of Nigeria’s biggest mobile social networks

South African-based mobile social network application, 2go, has taken off in Nigeria and is bigger than Facebook in the country. What is incredible about this is that 2go’s success in the West African country is a phenomenon that seems to have developed almost completely on its own.

Alan Wolff and Ashley Peter

Alan Wolff and Ashley Peter co-founded 2go in 2007 when they were studying computer science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. The app first started as a mobile timetable for students who were struggling to find which lectures to go to next on campus, a problem experienced by Wolff and Peter.

“Ashley and I met each other at varsity and we were both always hungry to do something practical so we were always talking about our ideas and various different things we could possibly do,” explained Wolff, who was 21 years old at the time. “We started off with the timetable thing as we thought that was probably tremendously useful because we are not the only people with this problem. So we made that and we realised, why don’t we build something that lets students talk to each other and start forming a whole ecosystem for students?”

What was meant to be a three month project became 2go, an easy to use app that offers one-on-one private messaging and mobile chatrooms. It currently has around 20 million registrations, with over 10 million active users. Nigeria makes up 90% of total users. 2go has grown in Nigeria without any form of marketing and nothing but an ‘invite contact’ option on the app.

“We try and provide the user with something which they find nice to use and which actually has a strong use for them, and I think these are the side effects of that,” explained Wolff. “If you can just do that, it can grow nicely by itself.”

One of the reasons for 2go’s success is the fact that the mobile app is aimed at lower-end feature phones, which the majority of African mobile phone users currently have. It’s for this reason, and the fact that the app is cheap and simple to use, that Wolff believes it developed “legs of its own”.

“I mean even when we started it, it was crazy how quickly it spread throughout the Western Cape from Gauteng [in South Africa], and at that time we didn’t even have any ‘invite user’ option,” said Wolff.

Marc Herson was brought on in June as the new director of 2go. His experience in mentoring start-up businesses through his years as a venture capitalist has provided the company with the business skills required to compliment Wolff’s and Peter’s developing skills. Herson said that although most would want to focus on the latest tech phones, for Africa and the developing world feature phones are still predominant.

“It’s a big part of what we are trying to convey to people and brands in an advertising space – that they have to think about feature phones much more as being where they need to go,” said Herson.

Feature phones usually have basic internet access, the ability to take photos and listen to music, but do not have all the computer-like functions of a smartphone. While Wolff and Peter are developing a 2go app specifically for smartphones, which they hope will be available in the next few months, their focus will remain on their large base of feature phone users.

Herson also said that 2go looks at markets where SMS costs are high and where users are cost-sensitive about data usage.

“Everything that [the founders] thought about when developing this technology, was around how to reduce the amount of bandwidth consumption that a user would have to use, because people obviously are so price sensitive,” said Herson.

The company’s three largest markets are Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya with tens of thousands of users in other African countries and even the Middle Eastern market Syria.

“I think where our business model works well is in identifying the large markets, and then being really good at what you do in that market,” said Herson.

Wolff and Peter self-financed the company and believe in running a “lean” business. According to Wolff, the most important thing an entrepreneur can have is passion for what they do. “I think it’s exactly what Steve Jobs said. He said it’s so difficult to grow a business that the only thing that will keep you going is your passion and that probably is the best advice I’ve had.”