The challenges of bootstrapping a mobile app as a single female founder in Lebanon

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This piece is part of a new series on the challenges of young entrepreneurs who are bootstrapping their startups. If you know someone who's overcoming a major challenge while getting off the ground, let us know. 

After working through some major challenges, Lebanese entrepreneur Alia Khatib recently launched Feeditch, a new mobile app designed to serve the Arab world’s foodies. The app acts as a mobile taste-tester, allowing users to discover and review specific meals at restaurants across the Middle East. 

Khatib first dreamed up the project while living in Dubai and working at a distribution company after graduating with a degree in marketing. When looking to go out at night, she found it difficult to trust the few restaurant review sites available at the time, particularly when wanting to try different ethnic cuisines. She decided that she could do it better.

“I was learning [in Dubai], but then the learning curve stopped at one point and I wanted to try and go to another company. But then I thought ‘since I’m young, why don’t I start now’… because later when you get older you can’t make sacrifices for starting your own business as easily,” says Khatib.

Finally, after two years in the UAE, she left her job and returned to Lebanon in 2011 to try her hand at her own startup. “Then when I came here, I was doing research and a new restaurant would open and everyone was talking about it, but the food wasn’t that great. So you end up realizing you tried the wrong thing,” says Khatib.

Feeditch hopes to change that.

The app, which is now in beta, is photo-based and is actually very simple. Available only in Arabic on iOS, Feeditch gives users the ability to “itch” for new cuisine and specific plates that they’d like to try and then recommend meals via photo capture and brief comments (perhaps the name sounds a bit weird until you realize how the app uses "itch"). The app displays specific restaurant profiles, taken from Foursquare, and compiles these crowdsourced reviews for specific menu items. As you walk through the city, the app updates to let you know the highest-rated meals closest to you.

So far, Khatib has seen a decent 1,600 downloads after officially launching in late July; 36% from Saudi Arabia, 31% from her native Lebanon, 18% in the UAE, and the rest divided up among other countries in the region.

Currently, the app isn’t making money; Khatib hopes first to build a loyal user base and body of content. Once the app gains more traction, however, she plans to monetize by offering specific restaurant deals and discounts, letting users see the highest-rated offers closest to them in real time.

Finding a niche

The idea for Feeditch isn't new; other startups like Foodspotting offer a similar service in English, and Khatib had initially built the application in English to be an iteration of that model. 

Yet at Wamda’s first Mix N’ Mentor Beirut last year, one of Khatib’s mentors pushed her to find a way to differentiate and find a niche that could engage customer demand. She decided that Arabic was it; no other Arabic-only mobile food review app exists to date.

A few local apps, like Lebanon's Beirutna, offer food reviews in English for a local audience, but Feeditch is designed to be regional. Others, like Jeeran, have gone regional, but don't necessarily focus on meals or food items alone (although this was something Laith Zraikat was playing with, with Olgot).

“I thought, ‘why would anyone use Feeditch?’ There’s Instagram, Foursquare, Foodspotting, so why don’t I find a niche and pivot into the Arabic community?” Without an Arabic interface, Khatib explains, Foodspotting only has a handful of users in the Arab world.

The challenges of launching a startup alone

Recent studies have shown that women are more likely to found companies on their own, and Khatib is no exception. Yet, it's been a stumbling block for her. Because she's not a developer, she's had to hunt down technical talent to build the platform.

In 2011, she hired an Indian developer to build the first, English-only platform. Once she decided to redesign, she hired a developer in Dubai to rebuild the app in Arabic, and launched in beta this July. But that developer is already moving on to other projects, so now Khatib is looking for a new one, possibly from Jordan, to push forward.

Of course, chasing freelancers isn't a sustainable long-term solution; her biggest hope is to find a technical co-founder.

It's also been one of her biggest challenges; when Khatib applied to SeedStartup in Dubai, she laments, “One of the main reasons I couldn’t join was because I didn’t have a technical cofounder.”

Now this reality is affecting her search for investment. To date, she’s been self-funding the project, but admits that she needs a new funding source by year’s end. For that, she continues to apply to local and regional startup incubators and competitions.

“One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t apply to competitions early on,” says Khatib. “Don’t go for funding, go for competitions. Even if you fail once or twice, keep applying because at each competition, different people see your business plan and develop your idea.”

Moving forward

Without a technical cofounder and funding, Khatib has hit a wall. She's certainly not the first to meet this challenge, but it's a tough one and one that other aspiring entrepreneurs shouldn't underestimate.

It's also particularly challenging to find a cofounder who is willing to join for an equity percentage, especially when the startup- in this case Feeditch- isn’t yet making money. But Khatib is pushing on anyway, hopeful that she will find a cofounder who's as passionate as she is, or get accepted into an incubator in the region to keep her idea going.

She’s currently and applicant to the Oasis500 bootcamp and, most recently, Feeditch was chosen as one of 22 semi-finalists at the Webit Congress Startup Challenge, where Khatib will have the opportunity to travel to Istanbul to showcase her app and pitch her startup to potential investors or partners.

In the short term, the app will soon be available on Android, and in English, for expats or those who may not jump to Arabic first; she's decided to cater to both audiences after all. 

What have been some of your major challenges to bootstrapping? How important is having a team to building your startup? Let us know in the comments section below.

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