Last week we interview Reza Sadeha, the found of I’m Halal. Today, we caught up wtih Kareem Arafat, the CEO of WatWet, essentially an Arabic Twitter! I like it, and I certainly like the fact that you can access the service through SMS from several countries in the Middle East.
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TheNextWeb (TNW): What inspired you to create Watwet when twitter seems to be making major inroads in the region?
Kareem Arafat (KA): We actually started working on Watwet before the Twitter hype.
The founding team of our mother company, TootCorp, have been always focusing on user generated content and citizen media. Before Watwet, we launched Ikbis (ikbis.com), a leading video sharing service in the Arab World, and Toot (itoot.net) a blog aggregator. We believe the micro-blogging scene is still maturing and we want to focus on populating this expression format across the local mass in the markets we operate in.
TNW: How many users do you have today? Can you provide us with some demographic details (age and location)?
KA: I prefer not to answer this question until we have reached a certain milestone.
TNW: How do you intend on competing with twitter in the region?
KA: We want to focus on the local mass market. Twitter and Watwet are still popular among the early adopters and the tech savvy. In the coming year or two, it will be about taking it to the masses, and we want to have a decent share of this segment of the market.
TNW: Any interesting upcoming features you would like to tell our readers about?
KA: Well, we are working on a set of new enhancements. We are focusing on availability across platforms; desktop apps and mobile apps. Since we don’t have millions of users, developers are less keen to create apps for us via our APIs. Thus, we are taking our time developing these apps since we are an extremely small team.
TNW: What was your largest challenge in establishing watwet in the Middle East?
KA: Many! At the very beginning, users did not understand the concept of micro-blogging. Now it is a bit more popular among people. Today our main challenges are around getting mobile operators to work with local brands like us and not only global brands, and finding the right strategic investors to fund our ambitious plans.
TNW: How is your website financed and do you intend on accessing any of the venture capital companies in the region? If you’ve already dealt with a VC, what is your opinion of the regional VCs and access to capital for start-up companies?
KA: We are financed by an angel investor. Yes, we are talking to VCs around the region. A couple of days ago, I attended a talk by Joi Ito in Amman, and one of the things he said that Japanese and Middle Eastern investors like to invest in what he terms “safe investments” i.e. companies with globally recognized brands, and end up with little upside if any. I agree with his point. I think VCs in the region should take more risk, and should increase their stakes and go for the steeper upside.
TNW: How do you view the regional start-up landscape?
KA: I think it is starting to mature up. I think investors will recognize technology as the new sector to invest in; after years of investment in lands, real estate and financial markets. So I think we will see some more funds available for startups. But having said so, mistakes and gaps in expectations (not every startup will be bought by Google!) will happen in the process. Generally, technology sector is more complicated, and will require more institutionalized approach to investment.
Additionally, while availability of funds will stimulate and entertain a startup scene to develop, it also requires other factors to sync in to make it all happen. We need more users connected to true broadband internet (an area I think that needs much more committed investment in), investment in knowledge and research; our universities should be improved massively. I really consider it an amazing miracle/achievement to have the talented people we have today in the region (mostly attributed to people improving their capacity on an individual basis and not driven by the educational institutions around them). Imagine, if the process of creating talent is institutionalized, we would be much better off.
I think Amman is one of the most startup-friendly cities in the region. Talent is more available relatively, and operational costs are reasonable. Dubai is great for networking, but operational costs are too high. Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Doha and Cairo are emerging fast. More and more clustering will happen in the coming 5-10 years. Hopefully by then, we will be VCs! :)
TNW: Finally, for our many twitter users who would like to migrate to watwet: Is there a way of integrating twitter posts with watwet (I know I can integrate watwet with twitter, but I’m already established on twitter, any advice)?
KA: Yes, you could migrate your latest tweets on Twitter, and sync in your Watwet and Twitter posts. Try out Watwet, if you like it, sync the accounts. We are happy to hear any suggestions from anyone. So write in.