After a remarkable career of highs and lows, Brett Loubser has a plan to grow WeChat on the continent and, in doing so, challenge the dominance of WhatsApp, which has double the number of users.
WeChat is probably the most important app in China right now. It’s a cross-platform instant messaging service developed by Tencent (34% owned by Naspers). More than a platform to chat, it allows users to play games, transfer money, order food, read the news and book appointments.
Loubser has been CEO of WeChat Africa since 2013. Prior to that, he had a colourful career.
Having gone through several rounds of retrenchments in various jobs over the years — the first when he sold clothes at Edgars in Bloemfontein — Loubser shows remarkable resilience. He has worked at a number of small businesses and trained as a draughtsman. He has also designed kitchens, and is well acquainted with computers: he built his first computer game at the age of 13.
"Resilience is probably the single most important characteristic for any entrepreneur. Even though I haven’t succeeded in building my own company, one day I will try again," Loubser says.
While designing kitchens, earning R1,300 a month, Loubser bought a computer instead of a car, so he walked to work. He taught himself about computers, which opened the way for a job at MTN.
Nine years later, he was hired as product marketing manager for Nokia, but he left soon after. He then joined a small supplier that underwent a split six months later, during which time he also lost a restraint of trade case. By the time his 18-month restraint period was over, Loubser was broke.
He went on to work for Samsung and began to shift his focus from hardware to software. "It became clear that the future was software driven," he says.
After an attempt to join a startup failed, Loubser joined WeChat.
"I’ve loved this WeChat gig so much," he says. "Even though I haven’t had individual success as an entrepreneur, it’s enabled me to get involved with other entrepreneurs to see if those people can get going."
In SA, WeChat has launched a delivery service called Picup and developed Rush, an aggregation service providing quotes from couriers. It has also launched a music-streaming service called Liedjie to cater for nonmainstream music tastes.
WeChat is the primary voting platform for SA reality TV shows, no doubt helped by Naspers’s pay-TV monopoly. And it has nearly 900m users (650m are in China).
"This is a tough environment — it’s super-aggressive— where you’re up against the giants of the industry," says Loubser. "I don’t think you can underestimate the necessity for learning; the pace of change is accelerating and people need to get their head around it. If you’re not making learning a part of your everyday to-do-list you will get left behind."