Vodacom’s Please Call Me legal battle has been making headlines recently; a case in which former employee Nkosana Makate is seeking compensation from Vodacom for his claimed invention of the service. One of the contentious issues is who really invented the service.
While Makate claims to be behind the Please Call Me idea, MTN owns the intellectual property (IP) rights for the service and also launched it before Vodacom. Ari Kahn, who previously consulted for MTN, was behind the idea and the patent.
To complicate matters further some media reports stated that Knott-Craig said in his biography “Second is nothing” that he was behind the idea for the Please Call Me service.
The Mail & Guardian reported that in his biography Knott-Craig wrote that he “was standing on his balcony when he saw two security guards trying to communicate. One gave the other a missed call to get his attention”.
“According to his account, that was when the Please Call Me idea occurred to him and a few minutes later he was discussing its implementation with senior managers,” stated the Mail & Guardian report.
Times Live ran with the headline “Ex-Vodacom boss says he came up with ‘Please Call Me’ concept” while Business Report said that Knott-Craig said in his biography that he masterminded the idea.
The New Age also reported that Knott-Craig claimed that he invented the Please Call Me concept while standing on his office balcony 13 years ago.
Knott-Craig: I never claimed to have invented Please Call Me
Knott-Craig dismissed the reports that he invented the Please Call Me service, saying that he never claimed it in his book Second is Nothing.
“What the autobiography actually says was that the head of new products and development brought an idea to me,” Knott-Craig told Radio 702’s Stephen Grootes.
“What I did not know at the time was that this idea had already been given to him – and that is what the court papers show,” said Knott-Craig.
“So it does look like the idea for the product has come from one of the employees and not just from product development in general.”
In another interview, this time with Alec Hogg on CNBC Africa, Knott-Craig said that in the year 2000 “there was a young chap in Vodacom who came up with an idea”.
“Now, that idea turned into a product ultimately, and some eight years later he would like a cut of the revenues,” said Knott-Craig.
What Knott-Craig said in Second is Nothing
Here is exactly what Knott-Craig, with his biographer Eunice Afonso, wrote in Second is Nothing in Chapter 10 “Rollercoaster Ride 1994 to 1999”:
The Please Call Me idea happened by chance. Alan was leaning over the railing of the Vodacom building chatting to a colleague, Phil Geissler, when Phil pointed out one security guard trying to attract another’s attention, and because his buddy didn’t see him, the security guard called him on his cellphone.
Alan immediately spoke to Leon [Leon Crouse] about creating a Please Call Me service. Because the Please Call me SMS sent was free, Vodacom made money by adding short advertisements just below the message, but the real money came from the return call. The concept generated hundreds of millions in revenue. By 2008, Vodacom generated 20 million Please Call Me requests daily.
This description may be interpreted as Knott-Craig initiating the idea for the Please Call me service. There is also no mention of an employee coming up with the idea.
Alan Knott-Craig explains
To avoid any further confusion, Knott-Craig provided more details on what happened. For the sake of accuracy the full explanation is provided below.
As the court records show (and as the book describes, albeit very briefly), Phil Geissler, who was the head of product development in Vodacom at the time, took me to the atrium in Vodacom (balcony) and explained what the guards were doing as we leaned over the balcony – attracting each other’s attention with a missed call. That was the idea which he illustrated to me in detail (in the book described as “pointing out”) – brought to me by Phil Geissler as acknowledged in the book.
I had no idea that Phil Geissler had already been prompted at the time. Although not entirely original, I thought it a good idea and went to discuss the financial implications of turning it into a product with Leon Crouse our Group CFO, as was my practice.
I subsequently instructed for a product to be developed from this rather basic idea and released into the market, which was done.
What I did not know was that the idea had originated from an employee (Makate) who communicated it to Phil Geissler. Phil Geissler certainly did not mention this to me when pointing out the “idea” from the balcony. So I had no idea that the idea had originated from Makate and not Phil Geissler or the product development section in general at the time.
It certainly did not seem pre-conceived at the time, as I can recall. I most certainly have not claimed credit for the idea. I was only responsible for ensuring that an acceptable technical solution was found by the product division and that the product was launched.
It subsequently turned out that MTN patented a very similar idea at almost exactly the same time, but with a different technical solution (IVR and SMS). As far as I know they ultimately used the Vodacom technical solution (USSD and SMS).
This so-called idea, was not much more than a “missed-call”, i.e. prompting someone to call you back.
The court case is not about whose idea it was, but whether the employee who brought the basic idea to the attention of Phil Geissler should share in the Vodacom revenues generated by this product “Please Call Me” at all.
It is generally accepted that the original idea came from Makate, at least in Vodacom. Based on documentation which I have seen relatively recently, no one has disputed that, except MTN, who claim credit in that they patented the entire product, not just the idea.
This all happened some 13 years ago.
This is my brief recollection of those events, backed up by documentation which was subsequently shown to me years later.