Arabic Q&A site Jawabkom turns down 4 VCs

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It took Twitter 24 months to reach one million users. Tumblr published its one-millionth blog after 27 months. Facebook’s millionth user signed up 10 months after founding.

Jawabkom, an Arabic language question and answer site featuring certified experts in dozens of fields from all over the Arab world, registered its millionth user in just seven months. “We never imagined we’d be hitting these numbers,” says cofounder and serial entrepreneur Raed Malhas on a call last week with Wamda. “Jawabkom has blown our minds.”

But not only is Jawabkom, launched last February, smashing big records; its team is also taking controversial decisions with regards to the startup’s future. After beginning to turn a consistent profit in November, and seeing user and revenue numbers multiply exponentially since then, Malhas found himself in a rarefied position as an entrepreneur: having the luxury to turn down money in the interest of staying hungry.

“I spoke to all the interested VCs [three in the Middle East and one in Silicon Valley] this week and turned down all their offers,” the entrepreneur reveals. “What are we going to do with the VC money besides give ourselves a fat salary? Our resources have always been really tight [they raised $450,000 from two angel investors shortly after launch], and therefore our decisions have been carefully considered. We wouldn’t have been this focused if we’d had money in the bank.”

How has Jawabkom managed to achieve such impressive stats in such a short period of time? And, perhaps more relevantly, what do Jawabkom’s crazy growth figures say about how Arabic speakers are using the internet today?

Applying competitive SEO practices to the Arabic web

Malhas and his cofounder Deniz Erkan met during long stints at Microsoft’s Seattle campus as developers and program managers. Shortly thereafter, the two launched Mineeds.com, a hyperlocal services marketplace based in Seattle. At first, says Malhas, “we wanted to create something great for the community without thinking about monetization.” The last three years of the Mineeds’ business cycle, though, were “focused all on monetization; we pivoted the business model like a dozen times,” the founder laughs.

By contrast, Jawabkom was making money from Day 1. Users pay an average of $10 to get answers to their questions, in fields ranging from mathematics to nutrition to marriage counseling, from experts that have been working in their fields for at least five years. “It took us 10 days to do the minimum viability test,” says Malhas. “We knew the market was ready for this.”

For their next venture, the entrepreneurs wanted to retain the community service aspect – but also find a way to earn money from their work. The Arab world was an obvious choice for the two given its current small size and huge growth potential. First, traffic from social media marketing is still easy to come by on the Arabic language internet, because the market is not as flooded with marketers and SEO specialists trying to get your attention as it is on the English web. “People will respond to Twitter and Facebook ads because they’re not being bombarded yet,” Malhas says.

Even better, advertising on websites is still cheap in the Arab world. “The cost of marketing in the US is astronomical,” says Malhas. Generally it’s much cheaper to get the word out online in the region, in any language, than it is in the West or other better-developed corners of the internet.

But most importantly, Malhas believes that it’s the technical expertise that his team brings to the table that has given them such an obvious edge. “There are a ton of Arabic websites, about everything… that aren’t properly done with SEO. A lot of them are run by editors, but people don’t search for quality.” Thus, a huge opportunity for Arabic language site run by people with experience selling content in a more competitive market.

Putting the business model to work

Another trick to hitting their massive user numbers, Malhas says, has been the fact that a Q&A site is, quite simply, user generated content. Each new question a user asks is a new page for Google to index (which in turn drives up SEO). “A few weeks back, we hit 1.5 million questions,” says Malhas, which means the number of pages available for Google indexing is nearing two million. (By comparison, Wamda’s content site, which has been producing daily articles in three languages for over three years, has around 9,000 pages.)

The Q&A model has also allowed users to generate content in the different dialects of Arabic spoken throughout the region, allowing the Jawabkom team to skirt a challenge faced by many regional entrepreneurs in the Arabic internet sector: that of choosing a dialect. “Jawabkom ended up creating a platform for content that is written by locals in whatever dialect they use,” the entrepreneur gushes.

“Most of our traffic comes from the Gulf,” says Malhas, unsurprising based on the GCC’s soaring internet usage statistics. “But we also get good traffic from Egypt. We’re also starting to focus on North Africa; Morocco and Algeria are probably just as powerful as Egypt in terms of numbers.”

As Jawabkom goes, so goes the region?

“When we launched,” Malhas reflects, “people were telling us that the user base in the region is not as interactive as that in the West. My experience has been completely different; we’ve been overwhelmed by how interactive users in the Arab world are.”

Jawabkom’s success may be the first in a potential flood of startups in the region that are applying sophisticated SEO skills, honed in better-developed markets, to the increasing and diversifying Arabic language internet. People made fortunes in the US and East Asia when the internet spaces were at similar levels of development; now is the time for the Middle East, believes Malhas.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of VCs in the US, almost yelling at them: ‘this market is ripe right now and the opportunity is going to be gone in a couple of years,’” Malhas laughs. “Something big is happening here in the online sphere. Our website is an example of that.”

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