From Vodacom to Startup, South African Mobile Social Networking Founder Makes Waves

Vodacom's The Grid just launched, but team leader Vincent Maher is already onto his next venture—a Ning-equivalent for mobiles in South Africa and emerging markets.

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Vincent Maher was formerly the social media portfolio manager at Vodacom South Africa and The Grid, a Vodacom mobile social networking tool that recently expanded beyond the borders of South Africa and into other markets, was his baby. But today Maher launched a separate, independent, recently-VC-funded Ning-equivalent for mobiles, Motribe, again targeting South Africa and other emerging markets. The Grid literally went global less than two weeks ago and Maher is already off working on his own startup? Well, the guy is quite the entrepreneur and seems to have something of a reputation in the startup scene in southern Africa. He previously co-founded Amatomu.com and is set to keynote Mobile Web in Africa 2010 later this month.

Motribe is innovative, but how will it compete with Vodacom's products? "Something quite fundamental that the structure of our networks does is that it allows people to organize their social networks around their own interests and groups, rather than trying to fit them into a bigger more generic service like Facebook. The separation of communities and profiles means that there are less incidences of social-group spillage where people from one group see stuff that was intended for another," Maher tells Fast Company. Curious to know more about how his new venture fits into the startup scene of South Africa, Fast Company caught up with Maher to get the inside scoop.

How does Motribe compare to or improve upon Ning?

Motribe is completely focused on mobile web community building because this is the most effective way to bridge the gap between developed and emerging markets. Ning's focus is on the desktop web and mobile apps, whereas the mobile web is the platform for large-scale internet access in Africa, SE Asia and South America. We think there is enough space in the market for us to co-exist with Ning, especially in regions where PC Internet access is limited.

What countries are you targeting?

We are taking on the neglected emerging markets as well as providing solutions for North America and Europe. We support mobile billing and community management for the emerging market users and desktop management and reporting for users in the developed markets.

What is the most innovative aspect of Motribe?

The mobile-centric nature of our platform and tools is at the center of our innovation. Users can sign up, pay for and manage their networks via standard feature phones as well higher-end devices. We support 4000 different handsets and hope to put a massive amount of opportunity into the hands of ordinary people with ordinary phones.

How has your experience at Vodacom and The Grid informed your product vision and product development?

Working with Vodacom's social media strategy was like being at the coal-face of mobile social networking in Africa and it is experience that will stand us in good stead in the future. Out of necessity, network operators work at a different scale and pace to start-ups but having a good understanding of how operators work is invaluable for a mobile business.

What is the startup culture like in South Africa, generally?

Until recently the startup culture has suffered from a general lack of investment, particularly in the seed stages. Our investors, 4DI Capital, have been gradually changing this and there is growing momentum behind the idea of a tech and startup hub in Cape Town known as the Silicon Cape. The environment is similar to San Francisco in many ways and both the Motribe founders relocated from Johannesburg to Cape Town to launch this venture.

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