If you’ve ever clicked on a video only to be met with the warning “Sorry, currently our video library can only be watched from within the United States” on Hulu, you know firsthand how frustrating regional restrictions can be. While VPNs that allow access are readily available, the access problem lies deeper- you won’t necessarily be able to access regional content.
To fill this market gap, several video-on-demand (VOD) startups have burst onto the scene in the past year in the Arab World, each one in turn being dubbed “The Hulu of the Arab World.” Following Al Jazeera’s launch of Talaam.tv, the first Arabic educational VOD channel for children last January, Yahoo Maktoob launched a VOD channel in August 2010, and MBC quickly followed with shahid.net in September of last year, which offers MBC programs for free after they air on television.
To fill another niche in the market, Amman-based channel Istikana launched this March as a VOD portal offering classical Arabic content. Now, Cinemoz, a Beirut-based rival, has made its debut this summer, promising TV and film content tailored by region for the Gulf, Levant, and North Africa, and even by country. While Cinemoz faces the challenge of being based in Lebanon, which suffers one of the world’s slowest internet speeds, it has gotten off to a fast start with the help of incubator Seeqnce.
While founder Karim Safieddine admits that introducing the concept to the region has been difficult at times, as more viewers come online to consume content- especially during Ramadan- his job will get easier.
We asked Safieddine about his experience founding the VOD portal with the banana logo.
1) How did you decide to start your company?
I decided to start Cinemoz on a flight back from the Istanbul film festival. At the time, I was working for Miramax in New York City. On the flight, I read about Saavn, a New York-based Video-On-Demand (VOD) platform targeting India and Southeast Asia. I immediately realized the Arab World could use a similar platform. My love for films and my desire to return to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) also finalized my decision to create it.
2) What were the most important decisions that you made in your company, or what was a key turning point in your approach?
A critical decision was deciding to stick to premium standards. At a certain point when no one would give me the funds to build Cinemoz as I envisioned it, I was given the choice to start smaller with a lower investment. I rejected the offer and went on to meet Seeqnce, a Lebanon-based startup accelerator founded by Samer Karam. This was a turning point- Seeqnce fast-tracked our fundraising process, became our strategic partners, and delivered the seed investment we needed.
3) 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?
While not a “problem” per se, the educational process that comes with our daily activities is challenging. The business model and technology for creating our platform have existed for awhile in the rest of the world, yet the MENA region’s Video On Demand environment is still virgin territory. So we’re selling not just our product but also the entire concept, to content owners, advertisers and investors.
4) Do you see your market as local, regional, or global? Do you plan to expand? How?
Cinemoz is by definition for and from the Arab World, in both its content and target audience. Our approach is nuanced- we cater to a Pan-Arab audience while pinpointing local and regional needs. For instance, our catalog of feature films catalog is extremely diverse, including titles from the Gulf, Levant, and North Africa, but we also highlight and recommend local preferences for users in each country. We will expand by offering more content and enhanced user experience after we secure a second round of investment.
5) How do you plan to generate revenue? How did you decide on this model?
Cinemoz will be generating revenues through in-video advertising. It's also how content owners will generate revenues with us since we'll sharing any ad-revenue with them. We simply followed the model of all the premium major VOD players in the industry such as Hulu. Ad-Revenue sharing for premium video content has proven to be the most reliable and lucrative model for all parties, whether its us, our advertisers or our content partners.
6) How long did it take you to get funding if you received funding?
It only took 31 days, thanks to Seeqnce’s help.
7) If you have partners, how do you manage your partnership?
In my opinion, our current team is ideal, since we respectively cover all the pillars that are vital to our business. I manage the content and media, while Maroun Najm of Seeqnce manages the technology as our CTO, and Samer Karam of Seeqnce manages our marketing and sales strategy. We're all directly involved in day-to-day operations, and I manage these partnerships mostly by cracking bad jokes weekly and keeping the promise of a party around.
8) What does your spouse or family think of your company?
Similar to the way in which I have to introduce the whole concept to potential partners, I’m still stuck at the “educational process” with my family!
9) Have the recent revolutions affected your approach?
Absolutely. As far as Cinemoz is concerned, it's very simple. The effect of the revolutions meets Cinemoz’s vision on two points: the awakening and revival of a genuine Pan-Arab entity, and the need in the Arab World for a "better everything": better jobs, better life, and better Video On Demand access!
10) What are five pieces of advice that you would give a fellow entrepreneur?
1- Keep no strings attached. Your venture is your full time job and more. Leave everything else behind.
2- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Today we're surrounded by many successful models with proven track records. Absorb from those and add a simple twist that will make the difference. For instance, while Cinemoz follows the Hulu model, we remain an innovative company.
3- Use the power of your imagination. At the end of every strenuous workday, take a few moments to envision yourself and your project in the future, including how you want everything to look, be and feel. This is what keeps me going.
4- Talent has no price. I believe that surrounding yourself with an outstanding founding team and being able to rely on those people makes a huge difference. So don’t hesitate to spend your resources on the talent that will bring your company to life.
5- Don’t forget to treat yourself. Entrepreneurship has its upsides, so make the most out of them! We're all in it for the freedom it implies, the sense of creation, and the bigger purpose it draws us towards. Although it can hard on the body and mind, remember to take a casual day away from it all sometimes and indulge yourself. I tend to go for a gastro meal, a 50's movie evening and a tailor made shirt once in a while.