Recently launched social networking website Intheloop.me, which aims to link Arab professionals, has attracted 6,000 users so far, says el Nashar.
New site plays up local connections
It may not have the fun and games of Facebook or the cachet of LinkedIn, but Rony el Nashar is hoping Intheloop.me, his Middle East-centred social networking website, can have a big impact in the Arab world. Mr el Nashar launched Intheloop, which targets professionals and executives, just three months ago. He says the website has more than 6,000 users who were attracted by word of mouth and web advertising.
Other Arab-based social networking sites such as Talasim and Maktoob have had success, while YallaStartup and ArabCrunch.net, a pair of technology-specific social networks, have also emerged in the past few months. Online social networks can be popular with advertisers, who see them as a way to easily direct their advertising to specific audiences. The Arab online advertising market is set to expand as much as 60 per cent this year to about US$100 million (Dh367.2m), participants forecast.
Mr el Nashar used his own money to pay for the design and programming of the website once he finished writing a business plan. Once Intheloop was launched, he advertised on Facebook and Google to attract users. He said his site differed from LinkedIn, which also catered to professionals, by providing a more regional offering. "On LinkedIn, my network is generally not here. They're in Europe or in the US," Mr el Nashar said. "I rarely communicate with those people and I'm not getting much value from that network.
"The network I do get value from are people close to me in the UAE, or in the GCC." Mr el Nashar's minimal marketing has paid off, as his website's users - senior executives, entrepreneurs and other businessmen - view it as an opportunity to network with like-minded peers. Still, Intheloop's user base is tiny compared with its global counterparts. Facebook says it has more than 350 million users worldwide after launching in 2004, while LinkedIn says it has added more than 50 million registered users since 2003.
"Social networks grow by word of mouth," said Mr el Nashar, a venture capitalist based in Abu Dhabi. "You have added incentive to use it in a professional context because the larger your network is, the more you'll benefit." A premium subscription model that will cost between $10 and $20 will be introduced this month. Mr el Nashar declined to say how much he had spent on his website. Prashant Gulati, the president of the Dubai chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs, a not-for-profit international business mentoring and networking group, said that as the Middle East online world matured, it would provide more opportunities for ventures such as Intheloop.
"For all the bashing that comes up with Facebook and MySpace, usually you'll never find anyone say anything bad about LinkedIn," Mr Gulati said. "People use LinkedIn for serious discussion and networking. And for something as serious as [Intheloop] in the region, its time has come." Manal Sarah Ibrahim, a civil engineer based in Doha, signed up with Intheloop about two months ago. She uses the website to network with potential employers.
"These days, you can't get connected by people on the street anymore," Ms Ibrahim said. "At the moment I feel stuck with my profession, so I have been looking to make connections for other jobs on the website." Mr Gulati said that Intheloop's organic growth could be very slow until investments were made to improve its credibility. The website's "about" section simply lists a basic overview and a one-line description of Mr el Nashar.
"The problem with these people is that when you don't put a detailed 'about' section, serious people will not put serious profiles," Mr Gulati said. Mr el Nashar said he was prepared to put more time and resources into building the website. And he is set to sign his first investment deal with an unnamed investor by the end of this month that he said would provide more capital to help attract users.