Seedstars World hosted its ‘start-up competition’ event in Amman by the end of July, and they have a winner: Yaqut, an Arabic eBookstore for smart-devices. Ammar Mardawi, serial entrepreneur, Co-Founder & CEO of Yaqut, kindly answered Nicolas Bry‘s questions to let us discover Yaqut more in-depth.
1) Usage & Benefits
NB: Yaqut.me presents a gamified and ad-subsidized Arabic eBookstore for smart-devices: can you give us exemplary use cases for your service? What is the link between gaming and book? Is there a social dimension in your gameplay?
AM: We’re trying to solve two major problems by gamifying the user experience on Yaqut. None of the eBookstore that support Arabic eBooks have a large enough user-base to be considered seriously by publishers. While Yaqut has achieved significant traction with users, gamification will help get users hooked and addicted to reading on Yaqut retaining users at much higher rates. The second problem we’re trying to solve is that most people in the MENA region are unlikely to pay for digital items. Gamification will provide an opportunity to monetize all users, paying and non-paying.
On which devices does your app run (iOS, Android, …)? Does it require a Smartphone, or do you have a ‘feature phone’ version for your service?
Android and iOS. Windows Phone on a later stage. Smartphone penetration rates in the MENA region are one of the highest in the world. Two of our key markets, Saudi Arabia and UAE, have over 70% smartphone market penetration putting these two countries at the top of the list worldwide.
What are the typical user profiles of your service? Where are they located? What is the main benefit for them: a lower cost of the book? Facilitated access? Better reading experience on smart phone? More fun through gaming?
Online Arabic book consumers are our target audience. We focus on the MENA region in general. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are our launchpad markets.
The main benefit is accessibility. With Yaqut we made sure to display Arabic text on different screen sizes with unprecedented elegance which matches fine print. We built the text rendering engine from the ground up focusing on calligraphy guidelines perfected by generations of Arabic calligraphers throughout the centuries.
On the other hand, we removed all speed bumps such as registration and payment methods to get users started.
2) Business model & Marketing
NB: How do you monetize your service? Is it all based on ad or do you have some paid subscription? Do you have to pay back royalties to book editors? Or are the books free of royalties remittance – copyright free?
AM: For 2015, all the ebooks are offered for free without any monetization. We paid the royalties to authors and publishers upfront.
In 2016, we will sell eBooks using coins. A virtual currency which can only be used to buy ebooks on Yaqut. Coins will have a dollar conversion rate. For the publishers, they are selling ebooks using the classical model they are used to and they get their royalties based on that. For users, on the other hand, we will provide several ways to acquire coins. One of them is in-app purchase top-off packages. We will also offer a premium subscription for $50/year which will provide subscribers with free monthly coins enough to buy all the ebooks they can read. However, for non-paying users, which we estimate will form the majority of our user-base, we will embed native advertisement within the book pages and between paragraphs. This will enable us to reward users with free coins as they read as long as they have ads enabled. In other words, the more free users read on Yaqut, the more free ebooks they can get. Obviously we will have to give away an initial balance of free coins when users first download the app and register, so they can download their first ebook. We will also have an offer-wall, which is very popular among casual games. Sponsors will offer Yaqut users free coins in exchange of downloading sponsored apps or watching short sponsored videos.
How many regular users do you have? How is its growing? To make your business work, how many users do you need? Does it mean you have to scale outside Jordan? What is your target market?
How do you plan to market your platform toward the Arab world? Is it the same Arabic language for all your readers? Are you looking for partners to amplify your service?
We currently have over 160k MAUs creating over 3.7 million sessions each months. While these are great metrics to report for any app, Yaqut is an ebookstore which people use to read and educate themselves. Our users are reading over 2.6 million book pages each month using our platform and have completed over 165k books from cover to cover since we started. These metrics show our impact on our society, which needs education now more than ever. If it wasn’t for Yaqut, these book reads would not have existed.
We’ve already achieved major milestones in user traction. We’re the most popular ebook app in the MENA region on Google Play. We have 170k registered users (registration is 100% optional) and we haven’t even launched on iOS yet and still have serval growth hacks down our selves. We’ve recently entered a strategic partnership with Jarir Bookstore. They are the largest publisher and retailer of Arabic books in the region.
3) Competition & Environment
NB: Who are you competing with, online and offline? What added value do you bring compared to reference offer?
How do you compare to Amazon Kindle eReader and ebook store?
We’re competing with a handful of other regional (Arabic) ebookstores online. None of which were able to achieve the same traction with users or offer a user experience worthy of book consumers time and money. One of the major challenges print books are facing in the region is the relatively high costs of production and distribution. On average, a book in the MENA region costs 10 times more than what it costs in the UK when taking in the GDP in consideration. eBooks offer an excellent solution for this challenge.
The main advantage to international ebookstores such as Kindle and iBooks is Arabic support. This has two sides. While we do have several proprietary technologies which will leave us some advantage over others, the technical side of supporting Arabic ebooks is definitely within reach for companies such as Amazon and Apple. However, for international companies to move into the region they need to do two things. First, they need to renegotiate distribution rights with their current publishers to cover the region. Second, they also need to build connections with regional publishers to build an Arabic ebook catalog, which is not easy at all given the special characteristics this market has.
Tell us about your team, who you are (you have an impressive entrepreneurship track record!), where you’re from, what are your skills, how you met, and what is your mantra?
What would you describe as a success for your venture?
Ashraf and I go back more than 15 years. We’ve met in High School while spending most of our time at the computer labs teaching ourselves how to program. Going our separate ways after graduation, we somehow both ended creating software startups.
- I founded Kindi Software, which helped over 3,000 companies around the world to protect their Adobe’s Flash applications from reverse engineering. My client list included Adobe itself among many fortune 500 companies such as Sony, Autodesk, EA, and Disney;
- Ashraf created FlashFireBug, the most popular Flash debugger used by hundreds of thousands of Flash developers around the world. Our involvement with Flash was also a coincident.
One thing i find myself repeating to fellow entrepreneurs is that money and revenue are always byproducts of success. When I founded Kindi, all my focus went towards finding a solution to code theft. An issue I had to experience first hand before realizing it was affecting the industry at large span. Success was defined by the percentage of developers using the solution. The byproduct was we had to charge something to pay the bills and that translated into annual revenue way beyond what initially had in mind.
Our mission at Yaqut is to get MENA addicted reading again using the device which took the region by surprise. When iterating over the app, we look into what other apps we are competing against over users attention and time. We launched the first MVP after we made sure starting Yaqut and resuming reading were you have left was faster than opening Facebook. We define success by time spent reading on Yaqut versus time spent on other apps by Arabic book consumers. It’s all about getting people to read more because it is no coincidence that people who read more are more successful.
And now, just try Yaqut.me!