Ala Alsallal was still a university student when he perceived a need for high-quality published content in the Arab world. While he was completing his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Philadelphia University in his home country Jordan, he gathered 50 volunteers with the aim of translating the widely read Harry Potter books into Arabic. Alsallal posted the translated titles online in 2007, at a time of year that coincided with Eid Al Fitr. They racked up one million downloads in two weeks.
“I was sued by J.K. Rowling because I didn’t have the rights to translate Harry Potter,” Alsallal told Wamda. “That was a shock. I apologized and told her I just did it for my people to benefit, and it went fine. But that experience provided me with insight: if I got one million downloads, then the market for translated books exists, but there are issues with logistics and distribution [of print copies].”
Beginning is always difficult
Before founding Jamalon in Amman in October 2010, Alsallal, just like any other entrepreneur, grappled with moments of uncertainty.
“I was choosing between a master’s degree and developing my Jamalon idea,” Alsallal said. “I decided to start my studies at Athens Information Technology [an education and research institute in Greece] with a partial scholarship, but I still needed funds to cover my rent. My father said he would cover my monthly rent and other expenses. Then my father [fell] into a coma and died six days later.”
Alsallal said he was torn between continuing his degree and staying with his family. His mother encouraged him to continue his studies. Still in Athens, he committed to working as an automation engineer at CCC (Consolidated Contractors Company) for eight hours a day and attending classes for four hours.
“I told my mom I wanted to start Jamalon two years after working with CCC and she thought I was crazy,” Alsallal said. After leaving his Athens job, he kicked-off his Jamalon dream. “I started Jamalon at home [in Amman] with my family. All we had was a landline, a van inherited from our father, and our house. I also had $2,000 in savings from CCC at the time. I had reserved the Jamalon.com domain since 2007, so I built an ecommerce website with 12 titles.”
A market with potential
During his university years, Alsallal was a volunteer with Ruwwad, an NGO in Amman, through which he made the acquaintance of Fadi Ghandour, CEO of Aramex and general partner at Wamda Capital, a Dubai-based venture capital firm.
“I asked Fadi to connect me to Aramex when I first launched Jamalon,” Alsallal said. “I got 10 orders in the first two weeks. If I could deliver 10 orders in two weeks, there was clear demand for the product, but I needed to fine-tune the operations.”
Two months after partnering with Oasis500, an early-stage investment company in Amman, Alsallal received $400,000 for Jamalon from angel investors across the MENA region. In November 2011, he used the funds to build independent offices in Jabal Al Weibdeh, a cultural hub in Amman.
Wamda Capital first invested in Jamalon in August 2015, leading the Series A round with $2 million.
“At that point, I decided to bring print-on-demand (POD) to MENA,” Alsallal said. “I did that by building my own experience. I went to the biggest printing facilities in London and in the US and took a cue from market leaders in the publishing field. I brought the first print-on-demand facility to Dubai, a production line in Jabal Ali.”
Alsallal estimates the MENA publishing industry’s worth $4 billion, with Jamalon targeting five percent of the market. If his estimation is correct, it would indicate that the region falls well behind other regions and countries in this regard. For example, Germany’s book market alone is worth $9 billion.
With MENA encompassing 22 countries, there is also the issue of a market fragmented by borders. But Alsallal remains unfazed.
“With print-on-demand, I don’t need Arabs to unite into one larger area,” Alsallal said. “We transcend borders because we don’t have cross-border shipping costs. We solve MENA market fragmentation by enabling print-on-demand in Dubai, which we will hopefully scale to every Arab country.”
Publishers in the region do not pay royalties to authors, which is why there are barely any full-time writers, Alsallal pointed out. Jamalon, on the other hand, allocates 25 percent of profits to the owner of the work in question. As a result, Jamalon emerged as a publishing platform that incentivizes Arab writers to fulfill their calling.
Jamalon has a POD model, which is frequently upgraded. Alsallal said his goal is for Jamalon to become the McDonald’s of operations in the region. “When someone orders from McDonald’s, they have a challenge to deliver within 30-60 minutes,” Alsallal said. “If you have print-on-demand in every country, fast delivery becomes a prime target.”
Development and agreements
Today, Jamalon offers 10 million Arabic and English titles and is connected to over 3,000 Arabic publishers, with 80 percent of sales coming from Arabic books. The business has fulfillment hubs in Amman, Beirut, Dubai, and even London. Jamalon is also the first to offer the POD service in the region. Alsallal attributes Jamalon’s success to the fact that he was committed to realizing his vision at whatever cost.
Last March, Jamalon signed a POD agreement with Lulu.com, a global self-publishing platform, to offer two million new titles to Middle Eastern readers. The company also signed during the same month an agreement with the German publishing house Omniscriptum, as a step for the European industry leader to enter the Middle Eastern market. Executives discovered that it was cheaper to work with Jamalon than to ship via DHL from Frankfurt to the Middle East.
According to Alsallal, Jamalon is looking into expanding to the Saudi market, and establishing a fulfillment hub there to further expand the POD model.
“What keeps me patient with Jamalon is my values,” Alsallal said. “I have a message for my people and my nation. I like to work and live with educated people, and that’s what keeps me [going] every day. This journey has been a rollercoaster with ups and downs, but one thing is for certain: it’s not an easy ride.”