x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Yadig: 'We're doing a lot of guerrilla marketing'

Saif Zarouni started up a networking site combining Facebook and TripAdvisor called yAd!G.

Saif Zarouni, the man behind  the social networking site Yadig
Saif Zarouni, the man behind the social networking site Yadig

My father is from Abu Dhabi and my mother is American.

I was born in the UAE, but I did all my schooling in the US. I went to boarding school in Florida and Auburn College in Alabama, so I was back and forth a lot between the US and the Middle East.

Everybody gets an allowance when they're growing up and if you receive US$10 (Dh36.73) or $20 a week, that's a huge deal.

I definitely had more of an American upbringing, but whenever I came back here I always got immersed in the whole big family and dinners.

My mother was stricter than my dad in terms of money, but both my parents came from pretty humble origins. My dad always wanted me to work hard and make it on my own steam. But he was always good to us and my standard of living has always been high in the UAE.

Drivers and housemaids are obviously more common here, whereas very few people would have that in the US. In the US, you do everything for yourself.

I'm now 28 years old and in late October of this year, I launched my own website and business - yAd!G (www.yadig.com).

It's a social review and networking site. When you log on to the website, there are various sections, such as hotels and restaurants in the UAE, for example.

Users who visit these places can write a short review and this message immediately goes to your friends and family. It's a mixture of Facebook and TripAdvisor, basically. Everyone has been disappointed at some point with a hotel or restaurant, or on the other side you might find a great place nobody else knows about.

The review-based site is kept really short. You only have 150 characters to review it, so people are forced to write honest and quick comments. What do you want to do tonight? You want Italian, but which restaurant? If you're able to go to this site and find honest reviews, it's a little easier.

Just because it's a five-star hotel, doesn't mean it's five-star quality. The UAE is an expensive place, so why go there and spend all that money and be disappointed?

Once we get our user base up, we hope various hotels and restaurants will post discounts, offers and special events. The business is new and we're getting the marketing together. I'm the founder, but I also have a business partner from the UK.

Starting a business like this, you instantly become more of a saver. Lately, I have been a lot more conscious of spending and going out. But I do a lot of outdoor activities and sports with DuPlays, such as volleyball and basketball. They aren't expensive and I think it costs me about Dh400 for eight weeks. I have to be more financially cautious these days with the economy and such.

We made the investment in the website, but now marketing is proving even more expensive. We thought it would be the other way around when we started.

We're trying to do a lot of guerrilla marketing with printing our own flyers and getting venues on board. If we can do our marketing free, we will. I like to try the new restaurants and I definitely spend money on that.

I really like the Shangri-La. Going out and being social is, of course, a big part of the UAE.

I have a boat and it's actually pretty rare to have one in the UAE even though we're surrounded by water. I keep it near the house and launch it in Jumeirah. I currently live in Dubai and do a lot of wakeboarding and head out on the weekends. Most of these things are pretty cost-efficient.

Launching the business has been a major investment so far. I got the idea about a year ago and since January we started hiring developers. In the past eight months, it's really moved forward. The team itself was a major expense.

We have a staff of about seven people, including our web developers and those in marketing.

My partner and I have probably invested about Dh1 million so far. We have high hopes for it and that's the great thing about this region. Dubizzle and Gonabit, for example, are rising and this is an emerging market for these kinds of websites and services.

Overall, our reviews are pretty honest and that's what separates us from companies such as TripAdvisor. We've made it as painless as possible. In fact, we've developed a mobile application so you can do it all from your phone.

When you start your own business, you really realise how much money it takes to do something. When you have to put significant amounts of money into a business, you become more conscious of everything. You realise you could spend Dh600 on a single evening. I think to myself later that I could have printed out 1,000 flyers and passed them around Dubai or Abu Dhabi. It's tough because you want your business to grow, but you also want to have fun and have a normal life. They really mesh and you have to put one before the other.

You look at everything from a business point of view and make the sacrifices.

It has been a real eye-opener.

* As told to Jeffrey Todd