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Clickety-click with Clickatell's CEO, Pieter de Villiers

Rewind back to the late '90s when all of mankind anxiously anticipated the "Y2K bug" - a problem that stemmed from the coding of computerised systems that was expected to create havoc in computers and computer networks the world around as we neared the year 2000.
Pieter de Villiers, CEO of Clickatell
For one unphased entrepreneur, the lead up to Y2K wasn't an issue - in fact, the young entrepreneur had something else to worry about.

It was Clickatell, one of South Africa's most successful startups and a global leader in mobile engagement and payments.

Pieter de Villiers, CEO of Clickatell, shares the journey of one of the largest breakthroughs in modern technology...

BizcommunityClickatell has been around for almost 20 years. How did you get started? And what sparked the idea?

The idea came about during the late ’90s. Together with my twin brother, Casper, and two other friends who also had an interest in the internet and the growth of e-commerce. At the time, many of our friends were taking a gap year in the UK and always spoke of their weekend travel to Europe on economical airlines. It was then that the ideas was born to start an e-commerce business selling last-minute flight deals to young adults and students.

It’s important to note, that in the 2000s, email was not pervasive nor used as a time-critical communication tool. When business hit a significant set back as a result of our e-mail travel alerts only being read every three days or so, it then prompted the realisation that connecting the internet (click) with cellphones (tell) for time-critical notifications and engagement (Clickatell) were far bigger and better problems to solve than last-minute travel.

Hence, Clickatell was founded pioneering real-time enterprise messaging and engagement using SMS, a service that became a global phenomenon and has received several international innovation awards.

BizcommunityCan you give us an update as to the current state Clickatell?

Clickatell continues to innovate where commerce meets communications and is regarded as a global leader in chat commerce enablement.

In the past 18 months alone, Clickatell was the first to launch chat banking on the WhatsApp channel, as well as full chat commerce capability for one of the largest mobile operators in the world.

The company continues to forge ahead as it brings large consumer brands closer to their customers through chat commerce enablement. The company is committed to helping brands achieve zero hold time for its customers and helping consumers get things done and paid via chat and no poor call centre experience.

Businesses choose Clickatell because it’s a trusted brand with 20 years of experience in serving leading global companies. It offers reliable (99.99%) uptime with SLAs, a cost-effective platform as a service, no major Capex, and innovative first-to-market solutions in a complete end-to-end package, helping them to delight their customers.

BizcommunityWhat has been a major obstacle you've had since starting out?

There has been and continues to be many challenges. If this was easy or we had a recipe, I am pretty sure someone would have published it on Wikipedia. Early challenges included fundraising during the dot com bust (2001), expanding internationally into multiple markets, navigating economic downturns, and growing a business in complex markets where everyone does not necessarily play by the rules. And, all this while maintaining profitability was quite the task.

BizcommunityHow did you overcome this?

This answer is simple. It always comes down to having the right people with strong values.

Going into specifics will take too long, but we suscribe to five core values:
  1. Be a Champion - do the right thing;
  2. Be Courageous - take smart risks;
  3. Be Collaborative - We succeed as a team;
  4. Be Creative - We find a way;
  5. Be Curious - We ask ‘why?’
By continuoisly caring about these values and hiring smart people whom live our values, we have been and will continue to navigate the headwinds that are sure to appear from time to time.

BizcommunityAs a successful entrepreneur, what advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs?

Be careful with handing out the "successful entrepreneur" label. It is a pretty high bar and people have a different perspective on success.

Yes, we have been able to delight many global brands, and for that we are grateful. Should entrepreneurs seek advice, I would always tell them to:
Be authentic: are you solving a real pain point in the market?

Be pragmatic: Is this a BIG pain point (read large market TAM and SAM) that someone cares about?

Be honest: Do you have an unfair advantage in solving this? If not, how do you prove you are worthy?
BizcommunityWhat has been your proudest achievement thus far?

Building a company with co-founders, a great executive team, and advisors who strive to do the right thing and have a purpose to create a better world through technology.

In addition, having many examples we can point to where we have been able to make a meaningful difference.

BizcommunityWhat does the future of entrepreneurship look like to you?

I actually think the core characteristics of entrepreneurship has not changed much in 100 years and probably won’t in the next 100. The form factor may have moved from railways to internet highways, but the core remains. You need to have courage, be able to work with others, take smart risks, care enough to do things right, be creative in order to solve complex problems, and always be curious on this learning journey...Sound familiar? ☺

BizcommunityWhat do you think is the importance of startup accelerator/incubator programmes?

We never had the luxury of being in one, and while I think mentoring and coaching entrepreneurs are essential, and many of these programs are needed especially in markets where the entrepreneurship ecosystem is barren and sparse, it does concern me that a programmatic approach to building a company will lead to risks.

The true grit and strong entrepreneurs may not emerge, and one can not handhold companies forever. I also see average companies and entrepreneurs jumping from program to program and that concerns me.

More and more funding goes to less and less impressive companies thanks to the efficiency of the programs, and it concerns me if we perfect dress up, we are not being authentic. So, yes, in some places in the world, I do not think they belong, like in the Bay Area (San Francisco).

BizcommunityWhat would you like to see changed in the South African startup landscape?

We support the work done by SiMODiSA. There are clear constraints identified with regard to entrepreneurship in South Africa in several areas that have been spelt out in a thoughtful manner.
What the South African startup landscape in essence needs is for the South Africa government to take the time and engage the community, so we can find solutions for job creation.
BizcommunityWhat do you believe are the traits an entrepreneur needs in order to succeed?

Courage. Grit. Curiosity. People skills.

BizcommunityYou've recently joined the Endeavor Network. What does this mean to you?

What Endeavor stands for resonates and this idea of paying it forward, so other entrepreneurs can benefit from our learnings and mistakes. This is something we have believed in for some time. Bill Gates once told me, you do not need to wait until you are successful before you give back to society, and that stuck with me.

With SiMODiSA and Endeavor, I am trying to make the time to do just that.

BizcommunityAnd for Clickatell?

Clickatell forms part of Endeavor’s Outlier group, and we are proud of the fact that we can help amplify their impact in the world. For entrepreneurs, we also believe in the network effect and like to work with like-minded champions.

BizcommunityCould you share Clickatell's plans for 2020?

Clickatell’s ambition is to be the leading global provider of chat commerce enablement, serving more than 1 billion consumers across the leading brands within key markets. Already, we are working with several exciting brands as we help them serve you and me better.

We are on a mission to take the services offered by brands to where their customers are through enterprise-grade chat commerce inspired solutions, so you and I get to skip the call centre hold all together and spend more time on the things we actually care about.
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About Evan-Lee Courie

Evan-Lee Courie is Group Editor at