Can this Dubai startup revolutionize market research through crowdsourcing?

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Late last year, against the backdrop of Dubai’s gilded markets, Karim Aly sold his share of Ecobility, the startup he’d cofounded in 2007.

With the ensuing economic crash, the company, a hybrid between a boutique VC and an incubator focused on the clean tech space, took on a “big challenge,” says Aly on a call with Wamda – and a bigger learning experience.

“Fighting through the crisis, we were able to build six portfolio companies under Ecobility…. And then in 2012 we were ranked the #1 SME in the UAE by the AllWorld Network,” with a three-year growth rate of 364 percent.

It’s the experience he gained fighting through the crisis with the tough sell of an eco-friendly startup – and, of course, the windfall he received from selling – that led him to launch his newest venture, Task Spotting, an app that stands to revolutionize how brands in the region conduct market research.

We created Task Spotting to provide local visibility to businesses that are looking for insights, by connecting them to a smart phone population ready to provide them,” Aly says. The app leverages two important regional developments – a surge in the popularity of crowdsourcing and some of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates – to provide real time, geo-tagged and time-stamped market information to companies for which lack of clarity at the point of sale is a pain point.

Point-of-sale “is where FMCGs [fast-moving consumer goods companies] have the least visibility and least control,” says the founder. Further, according to feedback the Task Spotting team has gathered from client interviews, the traditional method of collecting market research – syndicated consumer data published by private research firms – is questionable. “The feedback we’ve received is that there are a lot of question marks around the accuracy of the information and about how representative [it] is,” Aly says.

Task Spotting is attempting to fill the need for a constant stream of easily accessible, trustworthy consumer data directly from the point-of-sale.

When engaging Task Spotting, clients get access to its network of users, to whom they pitch missions made up of tasks (including yes/no questions, short answer questions, 5-star rating questions, pictures, etcetera.). Users complete missions on the app and submit data directly to the company.

For example: say a major soda brand launches a seasonal promotion for a sports event. They set a deal with a supermarket chain for 16 places on an eye-level shelf for one month. Through Task Spotting, the soda brand sets missions for users to go to the supermarket and report on whether it’s keeping up its end of the bargain, through simple questions and pictures.

Task Spotting users aren’t giving their feedback for free, of course: “Payout is based on the complexity of the mission,” Aly says. At the moment, the average payout per mission is between 20 to 100 Emirati dirhams (~USD$5 - $30), but “cases exist where pay is significantly higher.” Missions average about 10 questions and take a few minutes to complete, says the founder. Users can collect their earnings via PayPal, or any UAE Exchange Outlet (a new model facilitated by a strategic partnership); they can also choose to have their earnings donated to Noor Dubai, a charity that works to eliminate blindness around the world.

Since its June 3 launch, the 2000 users who have downloaded Task Spotting have completed over 1200 missions comprising 9000 data points, Aly says. Of the around 80 businesses that have registered, there are currently +/- 20 clients with active campaigns.

But while Task Spotting is no doubt doing well right out of the gate, it’s not without its share of challenges. The major challenge the young startup faces, according to Aly, is simultaneously procuring “deep insights” that clients will find valuable, and making the app as intuitive and user-friendly as possible. “This is not going to be a challenge that we ever solve permanently,” he admits, but to address it, the team is taking client and user feedback very seriously. For the time being, the Task Spotting team is relying on community engagement to drum up downloads, and on their extensive collective networks to harvest low-hanging fruit (companies that they know can already derive value from Task Spotting).

While they work to meet these challenges, Aly and his team, including co-founders Dirk Stevens and Walid Sherif, are already looking ahead. Aly has been the primary investor so far in the startup, using his earnings from the Ecobility sale, but the team is “currently in discussions now to raise a $1.8 – 2.2 million Series A round.” This is all without approaching a single investor: “they’ve approached us,” Aly says.

Once the Series A round is in hand, Task Spotting will be looking to expand, namely to “highly fragmented, large consumer regional markets, which have poor visibility at the retail level,” Aly says, clearly speaking about Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Significantly, around 600 of the 2000+ downloads so far have been from outside the UAE. The region is clearly ready for Task Spotting; it’s now up to Task Spotting to get ready to take on the region.

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