STARZ PLAY Arabia, a subscription video on-demand service catered toward the Middle East, announced in July that it had raised a third round of funding, which now brings the total amount of investment in the 2015-founded enterprise to US$125 million. The financial boost comes in from new and existing investors including international media and entertainment company STARZ, global asset manager State Street Global Advisors, and technology investment firms SEQ Capital Partners and Delta Partners. The digital streaming service plans to utilize the new funding proceeds to primarily enhance its customer experience, acquire new programming content, and enter additional markets.
STARZ PLAY Arabia is American television network STARZ’s first branded streaming service outside of the US. Besides having a collection of Hollywood movies, international TV series, and children’s entertainment, the digital service also streams dedicated Arabic content to 19 countries across the MENA region. “We initially launched with around 3,000 hours of content, and this has now increased to 6,500 hours in 2017,” says Maaz Sheikh, CEO, STARZ PLAY Arabia. “Since our launch, we have also introduced Arabic and French language content as part of our service. Our aim is to continue to add more relevant and up to date TV series and movies as the year progresses.”
With industry giants Netflix and Amazon having recently entered the region, Sheikh acknowledges that while they have an opportunity to get acquainted with best practices of such peers, STARZ PLAY Arabia “continues to stay ahead of the game by offering value for money, exclusive content, and a localized user experience.” With its current pricing model starting at AED30 per month, Sheikh considers their service “a premium yet affordable” service catered specifically toward this region, with one of its differentiating factors being partnerships with the region’s telecom operators, which allow for customers to easily subscribe to the STARZ PLAY Arabia service.
Sheikh credits this and a “continued support from industry giants and strategic investors” for STARZ PLAY Arabia’s success in introducing various service enhancements over the years. This includes a download function for offline viewing enabling subscribers to save their favorite content to personal devices and watch offline, additional telecom partnerships in North Africa, and content agreements with major Hollywood studios. “During the last three years our team has acquired a unique e-commerce skillset for the high-growth markets in the world. We will continue to leverage that skillset, and plan to expand beyond the MENA region into markets that offer similar economic opportunities in the media and entertainment sectors,” he says.
Headquartered in Dubai, STARZ PLAY Arabia says it has signed up more than 700,000 new paying subscribers since its launch in 2015. In May 2017, the platform reported a total of 95 million viewing sessions across the MENA region, earning them the status of 11th most visited website in Saudi Arabia, and 25th in the UAE, according to SimilarWeb’s data. Speaking about the company’s long-term strategies, Sheikh believes that “even a year can seem like an eternity” in an industry such as theirs. “We have adjusted and pivoted elements of our business hundreds of times since our inception three years ago, and we will continue to listen to our fan base while creating long-term value in the company,” he says.
Maaz Sheikh, CEO, STARZ PLAY
Based on your track record of raising funds in the MENA region, what would be your top tips for the region's small businesses and startups to pitch and clinch funding for their ventures?
“Beyond the obvious idea, market size, and business plan, I think investors invest in a team. When starting from nothing, ambition and conviction are good, but humility and flexibility are even more important. For us, having an experienced management team was the most important aspect of our fundraising success. When pitching for funding, entrepreneurs should always think of creating lasting and long-term shareholder value. Finally, despite one’s zeal to raise funds, entrepreneurs should not compromise on the type and number of investors.”
What is your take on the MENA region's current business ecosystem?
“For our industry, the MENA region offers a unique opportunity due to a combination of favorable factors such as population, demographics, smartphone penetration, and mobile broadband growth. The MENA media ecosystem is going through a major shift as the business model of broadcast and linear TV gives way to on-demand streaming behaviors. The challenges to this legacy business model are creating opportunities for emerging players such as STARZ PLAY.”