Amira Azzouz is one of the region’s long standing entrepreneurs. Back in 2009 she launched Fustany, an online publication focused on fashion, beauty and lifestyle aimed at women across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). She bootstrapped the operation, raising only a seed round from HIMangel in Egypt in 2012. The website today attracts more than two million monthly users and publishes in both English and Arabic. The portal’s longevity is down to Azzouz’s ability to understand her audience and evolve with them.
Over the past few years, she has expanded the Fustany portal into other niches in the fashion space, including a personal stylist subscription platform and an edtech service called Fenun (which translates to arts in English) targeting professionals and amateurs in the creative industries.
Fustany’s evolution in the digital media space is reflective of a maturing landscape across Mena. Back in 2009, internet penetration stood at less than 30 per cent across the region according to Statista and a small percentage of the population had a smartphone or social media account Today, more than 70 per cent of the region has access to the internet, smartphone penetration exceeds 95 per cent in the GCC and the region overall boasts the highest social media penetration in the world.
According to the Arab Youth Survey 2020, 79 per cent of Arabs aged 18-24 consume their news on social media and 80 per cent “frequently” make purchases online.
While online subscriptions models are nascent in Mena, Azzouz launched Ask A Stylist in 2019 as a way to diversify Fustany’s income stream. The service currently has 3067 subscribers based across the region.
“As an entrepreneur, I always have harboured the urge to try out new products and to avoid getting stuck with one business model. With Fustany attracting up to 2 million users per month, we, thought that we might as well introduce more services to further engage with our existing base of users and branch out into other niches,” says Azzouz. “Over the past few years, we have come to realize that our users are becoming increasingly more and more interested in fashion and interact well with the content we publish about fashion, that’s why we decided to launch Ask A Stylist.”
Ask A Stylist offers four services – online shopping assistance ($12), a three-day style transformation ($25), a mix and match of your wardrobe ($25) or a monthly subscription for styling support whenever you need it for $22 per month. The company is now experimenting with integrating all of its online styling services offered through Ask A Stylist into a unified subscription-based box to add more value to its clients.
Over the past few years and especially during the pandemic, people have become more accustomed to making purchases online and that includes digital content. The likes of Netflix, Anghami, and Shahid have reported higher figures this year. According to the Arab Youth Survey, 62 per cent of the youth subscribe to a music streaming service while 53 per cent subscribe to a video streaming service. The convenience and quality of services offered as well as increasing familiarity with subscription-based services have enabled this sector to grow.
The development of online payment solutions has also played a crucial role in enabling this growth.
“Online payment services made it easier for us to launch our services within a short time span. With these online payment methods, we are able to continue attracting users from inside and outside Egypt. Our current clientele includes users from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the US. We are currently planning to partner with Saudi Payment Networks (MADA) to facilitate online payment to our clients in Saudi Arabia,” she says.
This increased comfort in making purchases online also encouraged Azzouz to launch Fenun.
"At the early stages of the pandemic, we were heavily impacted by the falling advertising revenues - which is our primary source of income. Also, we noticed that the overall user appetite in fashion was dampened as people, in general, were not reading much about fashion or even had the desire to shop for new clothes as the Covid-19 economic uncertainty was hovering over our heads,” says Azzouz. “So, we had to swiftly come up with a turnaround plan that would bring forth immediate profits to pull us out of the rut.”
Azzouz noticed the boom in education technology (edtech) and decided to launch her own platform.
“We already have the know-how to produce engaging digital content, we thought about building a platform that offers courses online for the creative industry. That’s how the concept of Fenun came about,” she says.
Fenun offers courses that range from fashion design, photography, sewing, drawing, to scriptwriting and acting.
“These courses are conducted by the industry’s leading practitioners and offered mostly in Arabic and at affordable prices. We help both regular people who want to develop their artistic talents and those who want to turn their hobby into a business,” says Azzouz.
To date, Fenun has acquired 2400 subscribers and the platform currently offers five courses with plans to expand to 21 courses next year.
“We were not after the perfect website at the beginning for Fenun, but by leveraging our experience and the large database we are already sitting on, we have come to fully grasp our customer behaviour and how they would react to our new product. This made it easier for us to launch Fenun within a relatively short period of time and attract customers soon afterwards,” she says.
Buoyed by the success of its two new platforms, Azzouz is now looking to raise funding for both Ask A Stylist and Fenun.
“The fashion industry has definitely undergone a sea of change over the past few years. There are a lot of areas to the business that have cropped up lately- including online stores, digital publications, online styling services, and the consumer interest in local designs has grown significantly,” she says. “However, the growth of the fashion tech industry is stunted by the lack of access to proper funding needed to help small businesses expand. There is still very little attention being paid by investors to our industry as it is deemed less crucial compared to other sectors such as fintech, foodtech etcetera.”