Mervyn Goliath has over 25 years of experience in the telecommunications, mobile banking, payment and transaction services industries and has held and excelled in executive roles at leading outfits, including ABSA (part of Barclays), MWeb (part of MIH) and Telkom. Most recently, Mervyn was the Chief Operating Officer of Digital Banking Services for ABSA one of the largest financial services providers on the African continent, where his primary responsibility focused on transforming the bank’s digital channels. Before ABSA, Goliath served as CTO and General Manager of Technology and Operations at MWEB and as Group Head in National Telematics and Data Services at Telkom.
Founded in 2000, Clickatell is a global leader in providing the ability for its customers to alert, interact and transact with their customers, business partners and communities. Utilizing its global footprint, Clickatell can deliver short message services (SMS) through its Clickatell Mobile eXchange (CMX) to nearly every mobile phone user in the world. In addition, with Clickatell Transaction eXchange (CTX), the company is providing the essential link between the mobile consumer and their financial institution through such services as airtime top up. With its investment in Social Mobile Solutions, Clickatell is uniting customer communication, community creation and transaction services.
1) What is the nature of your business?
A: Clickatell is a global leader in mobile messaging and transaction service. We enable our customers to alert, connect, interact and transact with their business partners and communities on the mobile device.
We are the international pioneer for Business-2-Consumer mobile messaging. We have grown since the inception of the company in 2000 to our present global market position where we serve more than 65% of the top banks, insurance companies and retailers in South Africa as well as an impressive and diverse set of international clients.
2) Where did it all start?
A: The Clickatell story is such an exciting and inspirational story. It is a large part of the reason that I decided to leave a corporate financial services conglomerate, despite the fact that my primary role, just two months ago, was to head up the digital transformation of the largest bank in South Africa.
Clickatell has grown from a cash-strapped startup operating out of Cape Town 12 years ago to become a leading US-based multinational with very impressive annual revenues.
De Villiers and his twin brother Casper founded Clickatell with Danie du Toit and Patrick Lawson in 2000. It was the time of the Internet boom and they wanted to build a dot-com business. They originally planned to capitalise on the proliferation of low-price airlines and set out to build an Internet business that would sell discounted flight tickets to students at short notice. They looked for a mechanism that would enable them to inform customers by SMS about last-minute airfare deals. They couldn’t find one. That’s when they recognised the potential for a service like Clickatell, which would provide an interface between the Internet and telecommunications services.
Initial capital of R180 000, raised by the four founders, was quickly consumed, but fortunately they managed to secure funding from two angel investors who injected R1.2 million into the business.
By 2005, Clickatell was performing well and generating healthy profits. One of its international rivals then made a bid to take over the company. Their angel investors were keen to sell but management wasn’t. Ethos Private Equity stepped in, bought out the angel investors and enabled them to stave off the takeover bid. They recognised then, that they had to expand and grow internationally.
Ethos and Internet Solutions co-founder David Frankel funded an acquisition in 2006 and helped facilitate the relocation of the firm’s headquarters from Cape Town to Redwood City in California.
Soon after Clickatell moved to the US, prominent venture capital firm Sequoia Capital invested $7 million in the company. Sequoia was an early investor in technology giants Apple, Google, Cisco, Oracle and LinkedIn. Together with fellow venture capital firm DAG Ventures, Sequoia stumped up a further $12 million for Clickatell last year in its second round of financing.
3) What are the most memorable moments in your career?
A: I am humbled and pleased to have been part of some of the best teams in the telecommunications industry, all the way back to where I started as a pupil technician at the then South African Post and Telecommunications.
I was part of its transition to what is now called Telkom, serving in the very exclusive Telematics division, which was run by the legendary Allan Knot-Craig before he started Vodacom.
A memorable first career highlight for me was running the national technical support call center for the first online banking service, in the form of a videotext service known as Beltel.
We were all so privileged to work inside the nucleus of the telecommunications industry at the time, at the very beginning of the internet.
My move to MWEB was a key career change for me and right at the inception of the company. During my 12-year career there, I transitioned through numerous roles in technology, which culminated in a marathon tenure as Chief Technology Officer and arguably the most exciting phase of my career so far.
I once again found myself in an environment where I was able to contribute to both changing South African telecommunications regulation and as part of one of the best executive and technology leadership teams, blazing a trail of innovation and excellence. This culminated for me personally in building the largest IP network in South Africa, initiating and establishing open peering for the first time in South Africa, becoming a very significant anchor tenant on the SEACOM undersea Internet cable and bringing uncapped Internet to the market. These were game changers that created excitement and energy and again made a real difference across South Africa.
4) Any bad moments you can recall? If yes, how did you overcome them?
A: It hasn’t always been plain sailing. I will never forget the day that I was fired and re-hired by my CEO on the same day. The market was tough due to disruptive competition and nerves were frayed.
My CEO was extremely unhappy about the slow rate at which we were developing new value propositions. Our software engineering practices were no longer serving us effectively. Smaller players in the market were outsmarting us left and right and my tenure as CTO came to an abrupt end.
I took one last breath and re-organized my team to introduce an Agile / Scrum methodology into our software engineering. Just 6 months later we were the darlings of the boardroom, rolling out projects with high levels of precision, speed and agility.
It was the best thing that I ever did. It took months of focused effort and many weeks of sleep deprivation to get it right – but we did it. I have many people from my team then to thank for believing in me and helping me to turn a sinking ship around and we still talk about it today.
While the SA ISP industry is small and while people never forget about the bad times and the failures, they also don’t forget about the successes and great times. Success should never be about the triumphs of you as a leader on an individual level – its ultimately highly collaborative teams that create winning companies.
5) What is happening in the mobile finance industry in Africa?
A: I delivered a number of talks last year on my strongly held view that “the future is decidedly mobile”. In 2013, the message is still the same, but amplified in orders of magnitude that have exceeded even the most aggressive forecasts.
Africa is the region that is leading the charge in mobile transactions and payments. It is fastest growing mobile financial services market globally because of the technology’s ubiquity, cost-effectiveness and the sheer unmet demand for financial services.
6) And what about Cickatell? What’s been happening?
A: I joined Clickatell because it was particularly appealing for me to take on the challenge of leading a Clickatell team of engineering and financial services experts charged with growing the Clickatell enterprise business in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Clickatell’s deep enterprise and financial services experience in Africa positions us well to continue to be a technology innovator in this region. Expansion of the necessary intellectual capital and skills capability has already entered its second phase, with some key talent additions to our enterprise and engineering teams.
7) What is going to happen next?
A: We are entering Africa in a more determined fashion. Although Africa is the place where everyone wants to be, it’s not for everyone. There are enough failed mobile financial services starts in our industry to necessitate caution.
That said, we have already and will continue to expand our mobile financial services footprint into the rest of Africa, with the assistance of partners that complement our plans and capability. The partnership opportunities and benefits abound and the right time is now.
8 ) Do you think you are on the right track insofar as reaching your goals?
A: With the Clickatell team and partners behind our goals, absolutely YES.
9) Where to from here?
A: Pieter and the rest of the team have an incredible story to tell of tenacity, skill, and the courage and will to succeed. The strong Clickatell company culture that embraces these traits will see us charge into the next chapter of Clickatell’s growth and success.
Expansion into West and East Africa with Mobile Transactional services, are just some of the big plans for the business. We will continue to be an integral player where mobile, Internet and the consumer come together.
10) Is there anything you would like to add?