Analysis The technology entrepreneurs of the Arab world have long played the supporting role to the region's higher-profile businesses.
Yahoo's Maktoob deal opens door for Arab tech sector
The technology entrepreneurs of the Arab world have long played the supporting role to the region's higher-profile property developers, traders and merchants. But when Yahoo announced last week that it would acquire the Jordanian web portal Maktoob, for a sum believed to be more than US$75 million (Dh275.4m), this small but important community enjoyed a moment in the spotlight. One well-known Arab technology entrepreneur says he received several phone calls from US venture capital firms in the hours after the Yahoo announcement. By putting real dollars and faith in the region, the acquisition has given a boost to the prospects of other promising tech companies. And while Maktoob may have been the best-known success story of the Arab internet community for many years, it is far from the region's only successful technology start-up. One worth watching closely is Content Syndicate, a digital media business based in Dubai. A number of companies have built solid businesses using the internet as a platform to aggregate and distribute news and entertainment to publishers, but Content Syndicate has cornered a niche in the translation and syndication of content in the emerging markets of the Middle East and Asia. Taking international content, translating it and offering it to the booming media markets of India and the Arab world has proven successful. But the company is finding an increasing volume of business in doing the reverse, sending news from East to West. "There's a huge appetite for content from emerging markets," says Maddy Reddy, the founder of Content Syndicate. "Publishers from outside are looking at this part of the world very seriously because their readers have an enormous interest in the region. And getting good content from this part of the world is not easy." More than 140 publishers now buy content from the company, with at least 300 producers feeding their content into the system. While the site has so far operated in a trial mode, it will launch as a full commercial service by November. "We have recently locked in three big publishers, including one of biggest in the world," says Mr Reddy. "We are in the process of migrating literally millions of articles into the system." Content Syndicate has already raised funding from the Jordanian technology fund IV Holdings. It is entering a new funding round and Mr Reddy says he expects to announce a new equity partner in the coming months. "Obviously, we get a lot of investor interest and perhaps at some point we will get bought out by a much larger media company," he says. "But for now, what we want to do is remain independent because there will always be deals out there. Being neutral and independent is what lets us attract so many customers." Another promising start-up with business booming is Woopra, based in Lebanon. Founded by two Lebanese university students, Woopra is an analytics service that gives web publishers instantaneous information on who is visiting their sites. A host of services, including the popular Google Analytics system, are available for website owners to monitor their traffic numbers and find out more about who is visiting their sites and where they come from. Woopra's biggest feature is that it does this instantly, letting the site publisher understand their traffic profile on a minute-by-minute basis. The site owner can even open up a live chat window with individual visitors. This instant tracking and feedback capability is helping move Woopra into what many believe is one of the most exciting new sectors of the web: the tracking of information as it emerges and changes in real time. The Twitter messaging service has boosted interest in real-time search and analysis, with users posting their reactions to events within seconds. Combined with other lightning-fast publishing methods, such as blogs and the Facebook social network, there is an increasing amount of information being produced and shared second by second. "A big opportunity for Woopra is to help our users track social interest in their content," says Elie Khoury, Woopra's co-founder. "People want to see how others react to their Twitter posts, they want to see how the content they publish is moving around the web and affecting other conversations." For now, Woopra is focused on capitalising on the huge interest shown in the service during its trial period, which is soon to end after three years. "The feedback for this has been really awesome, and we totally were not expecting how big this would become and how fast," Mr Khoury says. "We were expecting to get 3,000 or maybe 4,000 trial users. We had to stop taking new users when we hit 85,000 and we have a very long waiting list." In the coming months, Woopra will emerge as a full publicly released service. That release will coincide with the launch of a paid service. Users will have the choice to remain with the free service, with some limits, or upgrade to a paid service with all the bells and whistles. The success of this paid service will determine how the company approaches a new round of funding, which it plans to begin soon after the release of the commercial product. "We want to be bigger, a lot bigger, so new investors will help us grow," Mr Khoury says. "Exiting the company is not our main thing. It wasn't our priority when we started but probably in the future, if you look at how things are moving, we will be acquired." One of the best established Middle East dotcoms is Bayt, the Dubai-based jobs website. Along with Maktoob, it was part of an early group of regional internet start-ups, most of whom are no longer operating. But Bayt has become a big company, with more than 200 employees in 12 offices across the Arab world. "From a job-seeker perspective, we are now growing faster than ever," says Rabea Attaya, Bayt's chief executive. With 3.5 million job hunters uploading their CV to the site, "we are probably the largest working population in the GCC after Saudia Arabia". As the Middle East remains a rare zone of economic growth, the site is expanding quickly. More than 150,000 new job seekers register on Bayt every month, and more than 40,000 employers are now offering jobs through the service. The spike in business has helped the company build a substantial cash reserve, which it is investing into new business lines. This year, it launched Intilaq, a hybrid venture fund and technology incubator. And within the company, "we have a team working on a whole bunch of non job-related services", Mr Atteya says. "They are separate from our core business but we are tremendously excited about them, and you will be hearing a lot more about these in the next six months."
Because Bayt has amassed the cash to invest in new ventures, the company is not looking for new investors or funding sources. "It is no secret that we have been approached by some major investors but our focus really is to grow, and when these things come to us, we pass on it," Mr Atteya says. email@example.com