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Nurturing Connections: UBQT Co-Founders Jonathan L. Hasson And Lara Varjabedian Jonathan L. Hasson and Lara Varjabedian, co-founders of UAE-born social networking app UBQT, are on a mission to help people reconnect in-person with those who (really) matter.

By Tamara Pupic

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Jonathan L. Hasson and Lara Varjabedian, co-founders of UAE-born social networking app UBQT.

Finding the right time to start up a business is something most aspiring entrepre- neurs struggle with. But for those who find themselves in such a situation, Lara Varjabedian, the Dubai-based co-founder of social networking app UBQT, has come up with a fairly straightforward formula to help them make a decision. "You can be between option A and B in a 50/50 zone for some time, with A being where you are, and B being where you want to be," she explains. "But, when one day you wake up, and you are at 51%, i.e. 1% closer to B, and it is then that you make that change happen."

Now, this strategy comes from Varjabedian's own experience in December 2023 when she called Jonathan L. Hasson -an old friend- to say that she was ready to join him as a co-founder on UBQT. "Jonathan had asked me multiple times to come onboard as a co-founder during the journey of building the first minimum viable product for UBQT, but in my thought process, I had still been in the 50/50 zone," she shares. "Then, one morning, I was at 51%, and we met for coffee, did what represented a 'historic' handshake to me (probably knowing him, he would add, 'to us'), and the same day, we changed the shareholder agreement of UBQT, and here I am, the happy co-founder of UBQT."

Despite her initial reluctance, UBQT follows a clear sense of progression in Varjabedian's trajectory in the entrepreneurial world- after all, she had left a corporate career in the insurance industry in 2018 to join the leadership team of Prenetics, a Hong Kong-based healthtech startup offering genetic testing and digital health solutions. "I was based in London at that time, and I was itching for an environment where we build things fast, we take decisions fast, while making an impact on people's lives," Varjabedian says. "Then, I got let go in 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, because they smartly pivoted to COVID-19 testing, and I was an expensive asset, as genetics became the lowest priority for insurers. Although it could have been the opportunity to go back to the insurance world, which would have been a safe option during COVID-19 times, I took it as an opportunity to start my own thing."

This is when Varjabedian's launched Kojo Innovation, a London-based consulting business aimed at bridging the gap between established (re)insurers and innovative insurtech and healthtech startup solutions. "I knew the language of both worlds which was quite rare at that time," Varjabedian says. "I was supporting both sides mainly in innovation, strategic partnerships, and go-to-market strategies." Then, she visited Dubai for what was supposed to be "only two weeks of remote working," but she quickly got exposed to the regional startup ecosystem and decided to stay. "I am from the Armenian diaspora of Lebanon, and I grew up in Algeria, so the MENA region is where my roots are," she says. "It was time for me to go back to them. Dubai quickly grew in me, and I co-founded consultancy business Thought On Paper here to support founders at idea stage. I built an ecosystem by 'Uberizing' the services that an idea stage founder would need. I was also an advisor to multiple startups, helping them to fundraise or enter new markets."

Thought On Paper thus got Varjabedian involved in startups building many different solutions, all of which served as an exponential learning curve for her. That said, she also found herself craving to build her own startup from scratch. "By being close to founders, you see and feel how hard is the journey behind the scenes- all those years going through their frustrations, which, inevitably, are, to some extent, yours too, teach you to be patient, but also make you feel you are missing out on the whole package of being a founder," Varjabedian says. "I realized that, if I wanted to have 'my own baby,' I would not want it to be an insurtech, because that would not be a challenge big and meaningful enough to me. So, I co-built UBQT with Jonathan, because it is my story, our story, and I felt that if I had to pursue something, it would be something that is me."

With its name derived from the word "ubiquity," UBQT aims to enable people to connect digitally globally, and then, catch up in person locally- a premise that got crystallized through Varjabedian and Hasson's own interactions with each other. "Jonathan and I realized that we were in the same city for almost a year without knowing it," Varjabedian says. "That's the story behind UBQT- but not the only one. My co-founder and I grew up in Africa, we then both studied in Brussels, where we met, and we both lived in Asia. Between my father's job, my studies, and my career, I had the opportunity to live from a short period of few months, to a longer period of few years in total in seven different cities. Where is my tribe today? How can I make sure not to miss the chance to meet my meaningful connections again?"

In line with this objective, Varjabedian says that UBQT's target audience are over-35-year-old global citizens "who have a personal and professional network scattered around the country, the region, the world." She adds, "While Generation Zs -those born between 1997 and 2011- are spoiled with social media and have multiple options, older generations have much less. We are mainly on LinkedIn, which is great, but do I have meaningful connections with my 5,000 followers? Certainly not. Do I have all my meaningful connections on LinkedIn? Not the case either. UBQT's unique selling proposition is to effortlessly reconnect people with each other in real life- without the noise from social media, nor the effort and time of reaching out via messaging apps. We had, so far, many apps to grow your network, but none to nurture your network."

Available for both iOS and Android devices, the UBQT app has 1,300 unique downloads to date. And it is with a bid to increase sign-ups that the co-founders launched the Dunbar's Number Challenge on the app, which is a nod to Dunbar's number, which signifies the number of stable relationships people are cognitively able to maintain at once- this limit, as it turns out, is typically 150. "As such, the top three people reaching 150 connections on UBQT can win up to AED15,000 flight vouchers," Varjabedian says. "We also decided that each download would donate AED1 to Al Jalila Foundation Child Fund via digital fundraising platform Yallagive. The idea was to make donations over paid ads as our dear tech giants make enough money, so we are hoping instead that the feeling of doing something good while downloading the app would boost the word of mouth."

In terms of revenue, the co-founders are making use of a freemium business model for its product's current version (i.e. offering its basic services at no cost), while charging a monthly subscription for its premium, artificial intelligence-powered version. "I think people have been consumed enough by the current social media model that monetizes through paid ads, so one thing we are clear about is that we do not want to have anything to do with media, but rather bring back the social with meaningful connections," Varjabedian adds. "Having no media will push us to be creative, and also to bring true value to the consumer."

Jonathan L. Hasson and Lara Varjabedian, co-founders of UAE-born social networking app UBQT. Source: UBQT

When it comes to funding their business, Varjabedian and Hasson chose to bootstrap it at the beginning, and, later on, got a few angel investors on board their enterprise; plus, they have also opened a pre-seed fundraising round which, Varjabedian hopes, will close by June 2024. The co-founders' future plans also include launching a community feature on the app that will be called the Emotion Network. "We are launching it for the Tech.Emotion 2024 Summit in Milan; we are their 'human connection' partner," Varjabedian says. "Using the Emotion Network feature, anyone, any corporate, MBA alumni, or association can start their own community on UBQT with the unique purpose of not missing a chance to catchup in real life whenever people from the same community are in the same city/ place, at the same time, now or in the future."

As for Varjabedian herself, the UBQT app will show Dubai as the place one can connect with her- and she aims to keep it that way. "I chose Dubai even before thinking of starting up a business here," she says. "It so happened that we lived in the region, so it was natural for us to start the business here. I heard many people telling me that being in this specific industry, we will have at some point to move to the US, because all the big venture capitalists are there, or because in the region people won't invest in a startup that has a global reach, but I am hoping that we can prove them wrong. I hope that by staying here, we can still have the support to grow and conquer the world."

'TREP TALK: UBQT co-founder Lara Varjabedian shares her tips for entrepreneurs

Don't let people stop you from doing what you want to do
"There is this fine line where we all know it is important to be a good listener, but the reality is, above all, listen to yourself. If you have an idea that you think is great, that you are passionate about, and that you would give all your brain and heart to execute, just go ahead and do it. Your passion will come out, and that passion will make people want to embark the journey with you. Also, whenever you are in doubt, remember that the creator of Spider-Man was told that it was the worst hero idea ever."

Embrace failure so that you can focus on bouncing back "Things are going to go wrong, or at least not as you wish every single day. When we just started, every single thing that was going wrong was driving us crazy. Then, I said to my co-founder that we would end up with a heart attack if we continued like this! So, instead, the best tip I can give you is to do this early, for your own health: embrace failure, and just focus on the action/reaction post-failure. The more you embrace failure, the better you will manage it, and the faster you will turn things around."

Choose your co-founder carefully "It is not about being similar- my co-founder and I are, in many ways, complete opposites, and that's actually very good! You need to trust each other, you need to complement each other, you need to have each other's back. Jonathan and I worked together for a year before starting this journey, and we both knew exactly what we were getting into. At the end of the day, it is a business marriage for the professional adventure of our lives!"

Related: Striking Out Alone: Developing Your Identity As An Entrepreneur [The How-To]

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.

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