The fascinating story of how Andy Higgins saved Bidorbuy

Bidorbuy is one of South Africa’s best-known Internet brands with a radio jingle which most people will recognise – biiiidorbuy-bidorbuy-bidorbuy.

Launched at the height of the dotcom boom in 1999, Bidorbuy broke ground in the local ecommerce market and introduced many South Africans to online shopping.

The story of Bidorbuy, however, did not start in 1999. It really started when its founder, Andy Higgins, decided to go to England and joined online auction house QXL.com in London.

At QXL, Higgins helped to launch online auction websites in the UK, Germany, France, and Italy. He realised there was an opportunity to do the same in South Africa.

At the age of 24 Higgins resigned from QXL to return to his home country and launch Bidorbuy. One of his colleagues suggested he meet with her father who was an initial QXL.com investor, Professor Yair Tauman.

Armed with a two-page business plan, Higgins met Tauman in an upmarket private casino. They immediately clicked and within days Higgins was in Israel to meet Tauman’s partners.

These investors were so keen on the new venture that they wanted to go much bigger. They were now planning a global online marketplace.

Higgins received a US$250,000 investment for the business which was used to launch online auction sites in South Africa and Australia as a start.

Bidorbuy South Africa launch
Andy Higgins and Telana Simpson

Bidorbuy South Africa was launched in August 1999 by Andy Higgins and Telana Simpson.

Simpson recalled launching the website from the “floor of my study” in Durban and sending out the first marketing email out to grow the site.

Shortly after launch there were very few items for sale on the site and to spark interest Higgins put his own laptop up for auction.

Simpson said they just hoped no one would bid high enough as Bidorbuy was running through that laptop and they desperately needed it.

They also launched R10,000 giveaways to boost site registrations. To promote these competitions, they printed fake R10,000 notes and handed them out all over Johannesburg.

Bidorbuy R10000 giveaway

The launch of Bidorbuy South Africa was served as a global springboard for BidorBuy.com. The investors raised another US$12 million by March 2000 to launch auction sites in 12 countries globally.

The company even had plans to list on NASDAQ by mid-2001 to facilitate further international expansion.

To head up the newly launched Bidorbuy.com, Higgins moved to Australia where the company’s global headquarters was based. Nitzan Tal took over from Higgins as CEO of the company’s South African operations.

Bidorbuy was a typical dotcom company with lots of funding and a build-it-and-they-will-come outlook.

Higgins and his team launched Bidorbuy auction sites in Australia and numerous countries in the Asia Pacific region.

Bidorbuy Australia

He soon realised it wouldn’t be straight sailing. Bidorbuy faced strong competition in Australia from competitors like eBay and Yahoo!Auctions which launched at the same time.

This was, however, only a taste of the next tsunami to hit them – the dotcom bubble burst.

The appetitive for Internet investments dried up and the newly established Bidorbuy operations found themselves in deep trouble. Severe cutbacks followed and most employees lost their jobs.

The business was basically destroyed. Bidorbuy Australia was sold to eBay and Bidorbuy India merged with its major competitor, Baazee.com. Most of the other Bidorbuy sites closed down.

Andy Higgins sleeping at desk

Only BidorBuy South Africa was left standing after the dust settled.

Higgins returned to his home country in August 2001 to salvage what he could of Bidorbuy.co.za.

With the help of one colleague, Samantha Naidoo, he had to build up Bidorbuy.co.za from scratch.

It was not easy. Broadband penetration in South Africa was very low which made it difficult to get an online business off the ground.

Higgins described the period between 2001 and 2005 as the Internet dark ages in South Africa, and for good reason.

To try to generate revenue, Bidorbuy started to charge a fee on every product it sold in 2001. This only yielded a meagre R3,000 in the first month.

The company took another hit in January 2002 when the number of listings dropped from 8,000 to less than 500. Something needed to be done to save Bidorbuy.

Higgins did what was previously unthinkable – he sold banner advertising on Bidorbuy to casinos and insurance companies.

Although not part of the plan, this advertising income helped keep the company afloat during the “dark years”.

When broadband started to gain traction, with increased ADSL penetration and new wireless broadband services, Bidorbuy boomed.

When the online auction site celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2009, Bidorbuy had 20 staff, 30,000 registered sellers, and 380,000 buyers.

By the end of 2009, Bidorbuy facilitated over 80,000 sales per month which generated a gross trading value of R30 million.

The company recorded annual growth of 120% between 2007 and 2008, and 80% between 2008 and 2009.

Bidorbuy billboard

Ecommerce was taking off in South Africa and Bidorbuy saw an opportunity to grow its operations and diversify its revenue streams.

Bidorbuy acquired price comparison site Jump Shopping, jobs portal Jobs.co.za, Private Property, and classifieds platform theclassifieds.co.za.

In May 2009, Bidorbuy also launched its own online payment service for buyers, bobPay.

As part of this new service, it opened bank accounts for all major banks to eliminate time delays with transfers between different banks.

Buyers now had the option to use either credit cards or bidorbuy’s bobPay service through credit cards or EFT.

All of this action attracted the attention of Naspers’ Kalahari.net, which approached Higgins to buy Bidorbuy.

The two companies could, however, not agree on a price and the deal fell through.

The failed deal came with a warning from then Kalahari.net CEO Gary Hadfield – if they could not buy Bidorbuy, they will compete with it head-on.

At the time Higgins predicted that Naspers would launch a marketplace like Amazon.com, which indeed happened through Takealot many years later.

Naspers also launched a classifieds site OLX in South Africa in 2011 which competes directly with Bidorbuy.

Despite these challenges Bidorbuy continued its strong growth under Higgins and continued its investment drive.

In 2010 Bidorbuy invested in online payments platform PayFast, which was sold to Kenya’s DPO Group in 2019.

After over a decade at the helm of Bidorbuy and building it into a South African ecommerce powerhouse, Higgins resigned as Bidorbuy CEO in December 2010.

He was successful in saving Bidorbuy in the aftermath of the dotcom bust and grew it into South Africa’s largest online marketplace. He was ready for a new challenge.

Andy Higgins and Jaco Jonker
Andy Higgins and Jaco Jonker

Higgins handed the reigns to then CFO, Jaco Jonker, under whose leadership Bidorbuy’s growth continued.

Jonker served as CEO for eight years before moving to Australia where he now serves as CFO and executive general manager for corporate service at Open Colleges in Sydney.

Craig Lubbe took over as Bidorbuy CEO in January 2019.

Bidorbuy has survived many ups and downs and is now one of the most recognisable ecommerce names in South African with swanky offices in Bryanston.

While Higgins is no longer operationally involved in Bidorbuy, his close ties with the company remains.

In May 2014 Bidorbuy invested into the ecommerce company uAfrica.com of which Higgins in the managing director. He also remains a shareholder and board member of Bidorbuy.

The original Israeli investors – Professor Yair Tauman, Professor Abraham Neyman and Danny Barnea – are also still the main Bidorbuy shareholders.

Neyman still plays an active role in the company as its chairman to this day. “I don’t think this kind of support is very common from investors,” said Higgins.

Mike Knowsley
Mike Knowsley

It is not only the original shareholders whose still have close ties with Bidorbuy.

Bidorbuy’s first developer, who was hired in 1999, Mike Knowsley, still works for the company from New Zealand.

Naidoo, who was the only Bidorbuy employee with Higgins in the early 2000s, is also still with the company.

Now read: Bidorbuy reveals brand revamp

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The fascinating story of how Andy Higgins saved Bidorbuy