This is a terrific story of a South African team of entrepreneurs who have provided tremendous thought leadership in mobile chat commerce and have built a great company.
Along the way, they raised money from Sequoia Capital and have achieved (unverified) Unicorn status. The beauty is that this is not a glorified Unicorn built out of financial engineering but one that is firmly rooted in strong revenue growth.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start by introducing our audience to yourself as well as Clickatell.
Pieter de Villiers: I’m a father of three, a mountain biker, and also Co-Founder and CEO of Clickatell. Clickatell is a digital commerce leader. We enable large consumer brands to connect, interact, and transact with their customers inside of the chat platforms they already use.
Sramana Mitra: Where are you dialing in from?
Pieter de Villiers: Cape Town, South Africa.
Sramana Mitra: How did Clickatell come about? Give us a bit of the genesis story.
Pieter de Villiers: It’s truly an innovation story. I started reading about internet entrepreneurs and got inspired by many of the internet pioneers. We thought about creating a travel website for travel deals in the early 2000s only to realize that the average person back then only read their email every third day. Our deal would expire before people get to read it. We were looking for ways to send information to people in real-time on a mobile device.
Sramana Mitra: What year was this?
Pieter de Villiers: This was early 2000.
Sramana Mitra: So not really much of a mobile phone infrastructure yet.
Pieter de Villiers: Exactly. In fact, we spent three months to try and find a solution to send information from the website to the mobile phone. Clickatell brings in the internet by way of an SMS API.
Sramana Mitra: You wanted to communicate these deals via text to consumers in real-time.
Pieter de Villiers: Yes. If the utility existed, I would be running a travel business today, but because it didn’t exist, I built that for entrepreneurs.
Sramana Mitra: The dot-com bubble was just about to burst and the next wave of the internet was starting to happen.
Pieter de Villiers: Absolutely. We launched the API in November of 2000 after the bust.
Sramana Mitra: Who were the customers?
Pieter de Villiers: Initially, e-commerce websites wanted to alert you about something happening on your account or order. Fast forward 20-plus years, we still find ourselves in this intersection between communications and commerce. Instead of the connection between the website and SMS, we take app-like experiences and put them on chat platforms like WhatsApp.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s do some use cases. Let’s do a detailed understanding of how it works.
Pieter de Villiers: Let’s do a use case in emerging markets first. In emerging markets, Clickatell was the first company in the world to launch chat banking. These are banking services that I would be comfortable with but doing it inside of a chat. That’s a big deal.
In emerging markets, the best-performing banks only have 24% to 28% of their customers using their apps, largely because of data cost and smartphone penetration. When you take the same investment they’ve made in the app but now leverage it via Clickatell’s orchestration layer, you can map every single instruction and journey to a chat journey and activate it on things like WhatsApp.
Now the consumer doesn’t need to have a mobile banking app. They can do it inside their chat platform. The benefit to the bank is staggering. Quite frankly, they’ve already made the investment in digital transformation but only 28% use those capabilities. When we launch that same feature on WhatsApp, they can reach two to three times more of their clients.