Brokering a New Deal with Old Media at Istikana

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Imagine a nostalgic version of Hulu. Not just boasting the latest sitcoms, but filled with your favorite classic TV shows. In Arabic. And free of charge. There you would have Istikana, one of the hottest startups coming out of Jordan.

After signing a deal with Arab Telemedia Group this April to secure archived content, founders Tareq Abu Lughod and Samer Abdin are betting that they will succeed where regional TV stations have failed, in reaching a consistent audience with vintage shows. Rather than force competition with television stations, they hope to prove to media moguls the value of selling shelved content.

Backed by investor Sami Shalabi, who sold Zingku to Google in 2007, Istikana plans to generate revenue through advertising alone, in order to keep viewing 100% free. The site will face competition this year from rival Cinemoz, another online content portal launching soon in Beirut. Yet with Istikana's pageviews on the rise as the entertainment-hungry month of Ramadan descends, its bet on classic content is looking wise.

We asked founder Tareq Abu Lughod about his experience starting the Amman-based content portal.

1) How did you decide to create Istikana?

We created Istikana as an arm of Abu Lughod studios to address three major issues.

Firstly, many of the classic TV titles we grew up watching are almost impossible to find. They hardly play on TV stations, and clear, legal DVD copies are a rarity. The clips available online are short and of bad quality.

Secondly, we saw an opportunity in the fact that great content was lying around on shelves gathering dust and not making any money.

Thirdly, we saw a possibility for monetization through selling to online advertisers who would want to associate their brands with some of the best Arabic content ever produced.

2) Do you see your market as local, regional, or global? 

Our main market is regional, as our site is fully Arabic as well as English. However, we are seeing great viewership numbers coming from Arabs living in Europe and US, likely because the availability of this content in their markets is even more scarce.

3) What are your ambitions? How do you plan to grow?

We are currently focused on developing our product and plan to grow gradually with the market. Long form online viewing is a new and growing worldwide trend, and we would like to be a major player in this domain in the region.

4) What were the most important decisions that you made in your company, or what was a key turning point in your approach?

Choosing a good business model is a critical decision in any business, and many great concepts have failed due to flaws in this dimension. We have carefully built our business model to monetize our platform in interesting ways.

Also, selecting qualified partners who share a common vision and can dedicate their time to delivering a product is key, as is choosing the right investors and advisory board.

5) What is the biggest problem that you faced (or are facing) in your company, or what were the biggest mistakes you made as an entrepreneur?

Our biggest problems have been in communication and logistics. We operate from three cities around the world: Amman, Dubai, and Boston, so sometimes coordinating a conference call poses challenges.

Also, some of our titles are available on video formats that are extinct, so digitizing and uploading them on our servers can be a nightmare.

The best lessons that I have learned as an entrepreneur are to make it right, make it fast and keep it light.

6) What is your role in your company? If you have partners, how do you manage your partnership?

I am a co-founder and my role is to determine what content goes on Istikana and to locate its producers. My co-founders help with the marketing and advertising. 

7) How long did it take you to get funding if you received funding? Has owning a company made you financially more secure, or not?

This is not my first project, and I’ve had mixed experiences. In some cases, owning a company proved financially rewarding. In other cases, I wished I were just the office boy.

8) How does technology enable your business? What is a technical tool that you cannot live without?

We are obsessed with delivering the best experience to our viewers, content owners and advertisers. This requires us to continually provide the best technology, titles, advertising solutions and accessibility through multiple platforms.

9) What does your family and/or spouse think of your company? Would you advise other people and/or your kids to become entrepreneurs?

My wife and kids have always been very supportive of me. They are my silent partners in everything I do and probably those who pay the highest price in any business. I believe that business plans should factor in the cost of being away from your family.

I can feel their support every day, as my wife sends me relevant statistics and information for Istikana, and my kids keep asking me "Is Istikana famous?” or “What’s more famous, Istikana or You Tube?" Bless their hearts. 

I will encourage them to become entrepreneurs. But I will also support any decision they make for their careers.

10) Have the recent revolutions in the region influenced your approach?

I think it has taught us all that change is the only constant in life.

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