THE moustache is dead. It's hard to believe.
Naspers [JSE:NPN] CEO of MIH Holdings, Antonie Roux, who I worked for
and with from 1999 to around 2009, was the most livewire person I've ever
encountered in the workplace.
I can't be more precise about dates and hierarchies because
even when Roux handed over responsibilities to others, you still felt he was in
charge. It felt like every project you worked on came from him.
So if some of the projects I list below actually belonged to
other people, I apologise. But they'll understand if I make any errors.
Probably the worst thing Roux made us build at MWEB was an
Ancestry website. Ancestry.com was in the top 10 sites globally at the time. To
any right-thinking person, this would mean that the market was saturated.
To Roux, it was an opportunity to take on the world.
Actually, implementing QQ.co.za was pretty bad too. Building a version of
Naspers' massive Chinese Tencent instant messaging platform was always going to
be a thankless task in South Africa.
In China, there were millions of active users (currently
over 700 million). In South Africa, at the time there were probably less than 3
million users of the internet in all.
But Roux's definition of failure appeared to be
"something you haven't tried". He believed that true online progress
came from having many massive failures, and a few startling successes.
Roux started with Naspers in 1979 as a lowly technician, and
gave the company 33 years of service.
He was a founding member of pay-TV channel M-Net before
taking over as MWEB CEO in 1997, and then moving on to head Naspers internet
With his energetic guidance and help, Naspers acquired
holdings all over the globe: Tencent in China, Allegro in Poland, Mail.ru in
Russia and various other companies in Brazil, India and the USA.
He was always willing to try something new, no matter how
stupid it seemed to the people under him. An example of his lateral thinking
was when he made us run two front pages at MWEB, then one of the biggest
websites and ISPs in South Africa.
We monitored the traffic, and the one that got the most
users was the one we'd roll out. The first was the usual content-rich front
page, with the huge bucket of Media24 content underneath it.
The second was an empty page with just a big fat button in
the middle saying "E-Mail". Quite what that would have done to
Naspers' online content strategy if it had succeeded, I shudder to think.
Some of Roux's criticisms of new designs and products could
be exasperating. At times he'd veto a design because, he said, his wife
couldn't use it. I'll never know if this was true, or just his way of reminding
us that usability is everything online.
He was always far ahead of his local peers - and indeed most
people in general - when it came to technology.
At MWEB, with his impetus, we
launched messenger systems, blogging platforms, video emails, gaming platforms
and much, much else, all of it way ahead of its time in the internet backwater
of South Africa.
Roux was a true online person, and it's no exaggeration to
claim that he shaped much of what the internet in South Africa has become. He
didn't see media, only opportunities.
He made many enemies by his cavalier disregard for legacy
systems, and in legacy systems, I include the worlds of print and television.
If he thought there
was a better, newer way to do something he made you do it, his moustache
bristling with aggression as he issued his orders. He was abrasive, irritating
and an online star.
When I heard he had died, I tweeted "Roux was a man who
taught us that belief is a legitimate business principle, and being a whizkid
(sic) is a function of acumen not age."
It's true. He never seemed to tire of exploring the endless
possibilities of the new, or of embracing the opportunities of the now.
on Sunday June 24 in Heidelberg, Germany, after undergoing surgery for
* Chris Roper is the editor of Mail & Guardian Online
and blogs on chrisroper.co.za. Follow him on Twitter @chrisroper