Finally, Facebook has turned its entrepreneurship eye to the Arab region, hosting FbStart in Dubai on March 27 in an attempt to help startups grow by leveraging Facebook tools.
FbStart Dubai is the 5th edition of the event, following meetups in Moscow, London, Paris, and Tel Aviv. Dubai was not selected by coincidence. Nicola Mendelsohn, the Vice President of Facebook Europe, Middle East, and Africa, says “Dubai is the most exciting and disruptive place in the world. We didn’t organize the event sooner for logistical reasons. This journey is only 1% over.”
With 1.2 billion monthly users, “Facebook knows people better than anyone else what helps companies target their clients and reach a larger number of them,” says Jonathan Labin, Head of Facebook MENA.
In addition to the News Feed, Mobile App Ads,and the mobile app backend platform Parse, Labin discussed other specialized tools that will help companies drive greater business results. For instance, he mentioned custom audience and lookalike audience targeting, both of which have contributed to the success of Just Falafel.
Besides these tools, Labin stressed the importance of mobile in “building, growing, and monetizing.” He urged all the startups in attendance to focus their marketing campaigns on mobile, insisting that “mobile is not just a trend. We witnessed a mobile revolution at the end of 2011 with 62 million active users in the world, 42 million of them in the MENA region.”
During a chat on the margin of the event, Julien Codorniou, Director of Platform EMEA at Facebook, echoed Labin’s emphasis, saying that the most promising industries in the Arab region and the world are those relying on mobile. He listed companies in the gaming, e-commerce, travel, music, and entertainment sectors.
Codorniou also considers this region to be a land of opportunity especially for gaming companies, if developers can customize their games to target the right users in the region. “Five years ago, it was very difficult to develop a game in Dubai and promote it in the U.S. You had to open an office, get marketing partnerships, and pay money. However, today, it’s very easy. You publish your game on Facebook and on mobile and you win the bet.”
The challenge that remains is how to reach the largest number of users. He pointed out that the biggest challenge facing startups in the Arab world, and especially Dubai, is “how to build an app [here] and have users download it in Australia.” In addressing this, he said, “Facebook can play a big role.”
Recently, Facebook has made headlines for its acquisition deals, the most recent of which was Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset; Codorniou said that Facebook continues to look for successful companies to acquire. Despite this, the main goal of FbStart Dubai is to find “partners in the region.” Rather than employing Arab developers, Facebook would prefer to build partnerships to help build a healthy startup ecosystem in the region.
“Things are different in Silicon Valley, London or Paris where the ecosystem is already active,” he said. “It has role models to follow like Facebook and Google. In this region, it is different because few companies like these exist.”
FbStart also held a discussion panel with some of the best-known figures in the Arab startup ecosystem to share their experiences using Facebook to launch their startups. The participants in this panel were: Wamda’s CEO Habib Haddad (reprensenting Wamda's Chairman of the Board and Aramex founder Fadi Ghandour), Eddy Farhat from Marka VIP, founder and CEO of Souq.com Ronaldo Mouchawar, the General Director of Social.com EMEA Nicholas Syper, and the Client Partner at Facebook, Narain Jashanmal, who served as moderator.
The event ended with a networking session and with the hope that Facebook will soon disclose productive results of this event: new partnerships in the Arab world.