A study conducted by the Northwestern University in Qatar, which polled more than 6000 respondents in six Arab nations in 2015, indicated that nationals in these countries are increasingly interested in accessing Arabic content online (93% in 2015, compared to 80% in 2013), with online English content finding less favorability among them as well (33% in 2015, compared to 41% in 2013). It is this need for Arabic content that ignited Kasra’s inception- founder Nawaf Felemban says the Arabic website aims to “empower Arabs to be narrators of their own stories by publishing compelling content that readers will want to share.”
Though there is Arabic content already available on the web, Felemban says that “what does exist is niche, intended for some, but not for all. This lack of content makes people feel alienated from the Arabic internetand do not see the value of expressing themselves in Arabic.” With that being the case, Felemban explains that Kasra was built with the purpose for Arabs to find “relevant and engaging stories” that speak to them.
Launched in May 2014 and currently in growth stage, Kasra is headed by founder and CEO Nawaf Felemban who describes himself as an engineer-turned-management consultant. Originally from Jeddah, Felemban had stints in Boston as an engineer developing advanced algorithms for radar tech, as well as advising CEOs and ministers on education and healthcare reform at McKinsey & Company in Dubai. He was also one of the authors on a 2011 report on the state of Arab youth E4E: Realizing Arab Youth Potential published by the IFC/World Bank. With its headquarters in Dubai, the startup also has offices in Riyadh, Jeddah, Cairo, Amman and Gaza, and its user base appeals to the young and old alike, while also boasting of clients in the FMCG, e-commerce and automotive sectors, among others.
As for its source of funding? “Venture capital,” Felemban says, opting not to disclose other details of its financials. As for its business model, the team decided to pry away from display advertising, avoiding the negative impact it would have on user experience as well as its ineffectiveness for advertisers and brands. Instead, the startup decided to “pioneer Arabic native advertising, where ads are creative editorial that delivers value to the reader and the advertiser. Our broad presence and deep understanding of local markets allow us to target the entire Arabic speaking market. We work with brands on regional companies as well as hyperlocal ones.”
It’s an exciting time for the startup right now, as the demand for Arabic content is currently very high. It’s quite a turnaround from when they launched- Felemban says Arabic content wasn’t a “hot topic,” especially among the investor community- he recalls that they met naysayers who didn’t believe Arabic content would be successful. Another difficulty for the startup was finding creative talent- the region had abundant journalists, but Felemban says that the market “provided little opportunity for creative talents to hone in their craft.” Recognizing the gap, Kasra sought out raw talents themselves and train them. Despite their initial challenges, the team “continued to pour our energy” into Kasra. “This taught us that if we believe in something, then we must work hard and persevere for us to realize our dreams.”
With the current demand for Arabic content, there’s several startups vying to bridge that gap. During a talk on building a startup at Tomouh Summit 2016 in Dubai, Felemban asserted Kasra’s strategy to vary from traditional mediums and style of creating Arab content. He noted how consumer habits have changed, and English-based content has “evolved with every generation to stay relevant,” yet the Arabic sphere in this regard had stayed stagnant. Kasra’s strategy stems from understanding how their readers consume content and engage with others, with even an “intelligent tech-based platform” in the works to allow the team to understand user behavior, interests and affiliations.
“To break the cycle of stagnant Arabic content, Kasra has launched a website where Arabs can find stories that are relevant and engaging,” Felemban says. “Content becomes accessible when it is written in accessible language that everyone can understand. And in today’s global world where content is at your fingertips, content must be engaging. For example, we understand and recognize that in our daily lives, we communicate in dialect, therefore we encourage our writers at times, to write in dialect if it could better communicate the emotion intended by the piece.”
As for the future of Arabic content, Felemban remarks on a “revolution in video content” happening with Telfaz11, a YouTube production studio startup in Saudi Arabia, but none so far in the realms of non-video content. The next big thing though? Integrated content, Felemban says. “Today, we segment content into text, video, audio, print, etc. Going forward, we will see content that is agnostic of format. The user today tries to experience content using different format by seeking the same topic across different formats. Publishers have a role in providing that rich experience in one place.”
And for Kasra’s future timeline? On a short-term level, Felemban says it’s all about continuing to pilot their advertising offerings with top brands in the region, while on a long-term level, Felemban states that they would continue to invest in tech and expand their content verticals. “We often joke and say we want to ‘unite the Arab world one cat picture at a time.’ Our goal is to break the status of Arabic media by becoming the first large-scale publisher of viral Arabic content, on a safe platform where everyone feels welcome. Along the way, we hope to inspire [the] youth to express opinions, thoughts and creativity.”
Nawaf Felemban, founder and CEO, Kasra
What should businesses keep in mind when it comes to working with online Arabic content ?
1. Building a non-tech based content business is outdated and relies on subjective, stereotypical views of users.
2. Businesses should think of themselves as content developers not a website vs a YouTube channel, etc. Platforms change rapidly and publishers must evolve as fast as platforms do.
3. Embrace native editorial advertising and leave display advertising behind. We are seeing business fall apart now because display advertising is starting to slow down.
What are your tips for starting a business in the MENA region?
1. Make sure you are passionate about the idea and go all in. Don’t run a business on the side.
2. Be in a constant mode of learning.
3. Focus- in this region where opportunities are plenty, we could be tempted into doing everything at once, and thus, start to lose focus of what truly matters.
Besides funding, what is lacking for startups in this region?
Seasoned mentors. We’ve seen an increased number of mentors for startups, however, many of them come from academia or big industry. These mentors may have the academic or traditional knowledge, however, many times that knowledge is not relevant in the startup environment. The ecosystem needs mentors who are founders or have experience working in startups.