'Trep Talk: Audrey Nakad, Co-Founder And CEO Of Synkers
Lebanese startup Synkers aims to disrupt the education sector by introducing a personalized learning technology to enhance the academic performance of learners
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Audrey Nakad, co-founder and CEO of Synkers, a peer-to-peer private tutoring app launched in Beirut in 2016, says that her biggest challenge is testing the product in "such a small fragmented market that is not fully ready for advanced technologies." She adds, "Most Lebanese consumers prefer to stick to the old way of doing things, especially if it is working fine."
The 27-year-old Nakad is no stranger to entrepreneurship; she claims to have sold her first startup, a painting business called Student Works Painting which she launched in Montreal, at 18. She went on to earn a finance degree from Concordia University, and while studying, she worked as a private tutor and teaching assistant. It was in Montreal that she realized that learners and qualified private tutors had difficulties finding each other amid the noise of numerous and unvetted online offers. "However, after studying the market, I realized that it wasn't a Canadian problem only, but one that crosses borders," she says. "Hence, I decided to quit my job in Canada, and start my own venture in the Middle East."
At the core of Synkers is its adaptive learning technology, which connects learners seeking help in specific courses with highly qualified private tutors through a quick online personalized booking process. The minimum viable product was built with the support of Beirut-based technology accelerator Speed@BDD and a grant from the Lebanese government. Additional funds for this initial stage were secured by the team winning cash prizes at four startups competitions, including Femme Francophone Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, Arabnet, and Brilliant Lebanese Awards.
The Synkers team approaches the market with two business models: a B2C model for which they charge a commission per transaction, and a B2B model for which the institution using the platform is charged a monthly fee. To date, they have collaborated with more than 50 schools and universities in Lebanon and the UAE. The app has grown to 30,000 users, 1,000 mentors, and more than 30,000 tutoring hours. However, Nakad says, "Our clients and potential customers are skeptical when it comes to online tutoring solutions, and, more importantly, they are reluctant to pay online. The credit card penetration rate in the region is still very low compared to cash transactions. In addition, parents are not used to finding tutors online, as they still don't fully trust e-services and have doubts about the quality of these services."
In November 2017, the Synkers team closed the first seed funding round with Phoenician Funds, a Beirut-based venture capital firm. The same year, Synkers was one of the 40 startups, and the only one hailing from Lebanon, selected by the Dubai Future Accelerators (DFA) to try to build a solution for a challenge imposed by the UAE's Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA): to create self-regulating, future-ready school communities to be among the best in the world by 2025. "DFA was an amazing opportunity for us to understand the UAE market, since we were invited to spend two months there and work on the education challenge," Nakad says. "Thanks to our partnership with the KHDA, we were able to implement our peer-to-peer mentorship and after-school support program in one school. After successfully proving that we are increasing the academic performance of school students, we were approached by 40 schools all across the UAE, as they were interested in implementing our program. We are also proud to announce that the American University in Dubai and the University of Sharjah are using Synkers as a platform to allow their students to help out each other."
Going forward, she fears growing too fast without putting a proper infrastructure in place first. "We have already started putting in place a strategy to implement the right processes to ensure a smooth scalability, especially that we are planning an aggressive expansion plan regionally that will take us into the UAE, KSA, Kuwait and Egypt," Nakad says. "And then, every time we enter a new market, we face new cultural issues. In addition, we expect the legislations in some countries to increase the barriers to entry in a new market. To alleviate this risk, we study the market and prepare our entry at least six months ahead of time to minimize facing unexpected issues."
Audrey Nakad, co-founder and CEO of Synkers, shares her tips for entrepreneurs
1. Hire a strong team "When you start your own venture, make sure to surround yourself with top talents who compliment your skills. At the beginning, the only thing that matters is to have an A team."
2. Build an MVP, not a full product "We are all too excited at first to build a full fledge expensive product. But what happens if you do so then realize that no one wants to buy your product or service? Instead, develop the first version of your product and see if your potential customers would actually buy it. Once you validate your idea, you can then invest in building a better product."
3. Sell your vision "Since you don't have enough money when you start, it is tough to attract co-founders and employees when you are still at the "idea' stage. That's why you have to focus on selling your vision and showing your potential team members how much they can grow if they join your startup."