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Pieter Nel, SVP of Operations, YouNow

Pieter Nel, SVP of Operations

Described as “a Renaissance man of the digital age,” Pieter Nel – Senior Vice President of Operations at YouNow – is also a pilot, a yacht skipper, a mountain rescue volunteer, and a MIT-award-winning entrepreneur. Previously, the South African-born executive and engineer was the CTO who helped propel the massive early growth of Africa’s largest social network, Mxit – which, at one point, was…
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How is your team changing the game within your industry sector?

Open communication and easy interaction between people of different backgrounds always have a net positive impact on society. We saw this at Mxit where we allowed millions of users to interact and communicate at a mere fraction of the cost of an SMS. Once again at YouNow, we are using the video medium to allow users from all over the world to socialize, meet friends and exchange ideas.  It’s an extremely interactive platform – you are chatting directly with the broadcaster and fellow viewers, live. There is this powerful need for social interaction, to share ideas and opinions, and this is a fantastic channel for that impulse.


What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your organization or industry sector?

I believe very few American startups have an understanding of global markets and user bases and how to serve them well.  The Internet has moved to mobile and the potential markets in Brazil, Africa, India and South East Asia are far bigger than what you find in the US.  Understanding how to be successful in those markets early on in your growth is a key differentiating factor. In that respect, the Mxit experience was extremely advantageous, as we were in many respects years ahead of the curve in terms of building mobile-first global communities.  In general I find South Africans to be much more comfortable in a global context and within a culturally diverse environment.  


How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture, and how is it being optimized?

Innovation is a culture that is driven from the top. One needs to create an environment that allows for experimentation and failure. If your team is too afraid to fail, and not incentivized to experiment, they won’t do it.  It actually requires a lot of discipline too – engineers are bound to continue tinkering with something for too long and one has to have the discipline to move on to try new things.  When Herman Heunis was running R&D at his Swist Group Technologies – the directive was to try 10 new things each year.  One of them ended up being Mxit.


What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?

It is going to become increasingly difficult for business leaders to be effective without the ability to engage deeply in analytical thinking and understanding data, complex systems and non-linear effects.  We live in an increasingly complex world, and it’s all too easy to make bad decisions based on data that is not fully understood. Every business executive should have a basic understanding of data science and statistics. 

From a technology perspective, mobile video, virtual reality and the Internet of Things are of course the big trends that most analysts agree on. In the emerging market context I believe that there is a large potential for drones combined with smart data analysis to revolutionize smart farming in Africa. Africa has enormous potential in terms of agriculture and it unfortunately doesn’t come to it’s full right given all the strife, corruption and policy failures like we’ve seen in Zimbabwe.


Can you share a specific innovation strategy you’ve recently encountered which you find compelling?

One of the successful behaviors of innovators is to bounce their new ideas off of as many people as possible. MIT professor Hal Gregersen describes this as one of the 5 traits of successful innovators in “The Innovator’s DNA.” Steve Jobs was always talking about his ideas to everyone – and a diverse set of people too.  Innovators continually iterate and enhance their thinking in this fashion. The opportunity to do this is of course much better in dense environments like Silicon Valley, Cambridge, MA and NYC.  It’s a behavior I try to imitate all the time.

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