Following a two-hour Skype call, it seemed clear to me that entrepreneurship runs in the blood of Bilal Memon, a young Pakistani who was born in New Jersey and grew up in New York. He comes from a family of serial entrepreneurs. His father founded a wholesale distribution company in New Jersey. Specializing in aluminium, plastic, and other products, it’s today run by his brothers. Despite the fact that Memon did not establish his own company in the beginning, the path he chose gave him the necessary experience to embark on the entrepreneurship adventure and work on his first app Quran Academy.
Memon memorized the Holy Quran when he was 10 years old. But over time, he began forgetting, and mistakes would always crop up at the same points in the verses. "I used to put signs next to the lines that I forget, and the page would be full with signs. I found myself committing the same mistakes,” he says. “When you review a part for four or five times, you memorize it and you would not repeat the same mistakes, but two weeks later, you will commit the same mistakes again." He spent years reviewing the Quran in this way, using the pen, until he decided to create an alternative way. And so was born the Qur’an Academy app which aims to help Muslims memorize, review, and test their knowledge.
Memon, and his team of three people, has been developing the app for four months now and they intend to launch a private beta version in August for iPads. So far, around 1,000 people have registered to test the app, hailing from US, UK, Canada, KSA, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Once feedback is received they will launch it on iOS and Android.
Displayed in Arabic, the memorizer can highlight lines that they have recited incorrectly. Each time they recite the line or passage wrong, the colours will change, going from yellow for the first time, to orange for a second time, to red if they hit the big three. The app will also hide lines in order to test the users’ knowledge. All this data about users' behaviours in the app will help Memon and his team create a better experience and enable users to track their progress and review what they have achieved in one sitting. Memon and his team will add the ability for users to make notes.
Memorization is hard and Memon is not the first to have created such an app; other popular choices for learners have been iQuran, Quran Explorer, and Memorize the Holy Quran. However, Memon is proud of the fact that his app is more interactive and social, as it seeks to build a community of Muslims within the app; it also allows the user to check the mistakes of others and send them notes.
So far, Memon is still funding the project with his own savings, but looking ahead, he has launched a crowdfunding campaign with the Indiegogo platform. Hoping to raise $120,000, he has so far had around 5,000 shares and raised $11,000. If all goes to plan, the money will help develop a second version of the app for other devices.
From employee to entrepreneur
Memon’s extensive experiences in the world of corporate management and finance have left him well equipped when it comes to being an entrepreneur, as well as managing his own team. While studying finance and international business at New York University in 2007, he began working with UBS in financial services. In 2009 he began an internship with Goldman Sachs as a financial analyst. “There, I learned a lot about team work, and I use what I learnt there to this day.” Finance, wealth management, and just management in general: these are all skills that Memon is able to put into practice with his own team.
After Goldman Sachs Memon went onto JP Morgan. "I dealt with a lot of institutions, and working in an important bank like JP was like a blessing to me,” he says, “But during my time there, my desire to become an entrepreneur increased."
His first foray into entrepreneurship came with a website called My Life is Desi. People could post about their customs and traditions of their countries, as well as jokes about country stereotypes. According to Memon, within a few months the site had attracted four million unique visitors. However, after 18 months he found the content to be repetitive and finding a sustainable business model to attract advertisers became impossible.
Despite hitting a dead end, Memon did not give up, and instead got closer to the startups environment through his next job as a workshop coordinator in India with Lean Startup Machine. The company organizes three-day workshops in 100 countries, during which entrepreneurs learn how to assess the idea, iterate the product based on feedback, and prepare their pitch for investors at the end of the workshop.
After Lean Startup Machine was taken on by the prominent accelerator Techstars in 2013, Memon got the opportunity to move on once again. While with Techstars he worked with 10 companies, leading them to presenting for over 300 investors.
Lessons of the past, fruits of the present
While Memon is still new to entrepreneurship his practical experience so far has taught him many valuable lessons that he now uses with his Qur’an Academy team:
- The importance of having a technical cofounder: With My Life is Desi, Memon hired freelance programmers from outside the US to save on cost, but discovered that it is necessary to have a person with a technical background working by your side in order to address problems in real time. He now has a technical co-founder who takes care of all aspects of the app development.
- A sustainable business model: One of the reasons that his website failed was because the content had become repetitive and he could not find a way to urge the community members to constantly publish content. So, identify a business model that will be viable in the long run.
- Iterate the product to suit the customer's needs: Through his work with Lean Startup Machine, Memon saw the necessity of modifying the product based on user feedback, a lesson he is now applying to the work he will do to create Qur’an Academy’s beta version.
- Understand the market and develop the business: At Techstars he saw the benefits of market research to establish who the target audience should be, leading to a better expansion for the service.