Jeeran is leading the drive for Arabic content on the web, with its community of users generating timely, relevant and locally-focused information.
Name it a digital call-to-arms. With the discussion of the lack of online content in Arabic already approaching fever pitch among the Middle East’s technology community, Google stepped in and drove the point home. “A little less than 2 per cent of the content online today is available in Arabic,” explained Ahmad Hamzawi, head of engineering MENA for Google at G-Day Jordan. “And a decent amount of that content is not particularly useful, or relevant.”
With much of that content contained in private forums, or remaining in the domain of personal social media sites, the lack of relevant business content has been called a crisis. With more of our lives, both social and commercial, moving online, the Arab language world is struggling to keep pace.
One blogging platform, though, is rising to the occasion – and helping to lead an Arabic awakening. Since its launch in 2000, Jeeran – meaning “neighbours” – has grown from a humble blogging service to a dominant hub for user-generated content in the Arab world. It now boasts in excess of 1.5 million users. With the recent rollout of its new service “Places,” Jeeran is catalysing local content creation by allowing users to rate and discuss local venues, from restaurants to furniture stores to medical service providers, in open reviews online. Launched in Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the latter half of last year, and with funding from the Gulf, the sites are thus far in Arabic only.
Omar Koudsi, who co-founded the site, explains why the company’s decided on a hyper-local strategy. “Jeeran is trying to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved internationally or locally,” he says. “We’re trying to connect people with places in their city based on what their peers think, so that people can discuss their options online.” In the process, Koudsi notes, “We’re bringing many places online for the first time.”
By becoming the default website for many companies, Jeeran is tipping the balance towards ensuring that Arabic content is exactly what Google’s local chief said it wasn’t – relevant. And with an Alexa traffic rank of 2,000 worldwide, standing at 48 in Jordan and 158 in Saudi Arabia, its leverage is considerable.
This ability to pivot into new gaps in the market and address its challenges head on has facilitated Jeeran’s rise over 10 years. It is no exaggeration to say they are leading the drive for an Arabic-centered online environment. “The biggest challenge that we face, and will continue to face, is HR,” says Koudsi. “We’re trying to compete with global players like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, for a user’s time. We need world class talent.”
But rather than wait to hire niche talent, Koudsi says Jeeran has opted to try and shape its own. “Internally, we have a culture of empowerment and learning. We give space for people to experiment, we set expectations, and then conduct reviews and ask what they’ve learned. Taking Jeeran from A to B involves taking the people at Jeeran from A to B.”
It’s not just HR that needs tweaking, however, it’s the entire ecosystem, says Koudsi. “To compete on a global level, you need the support system to improve. We can follow the models of Google or Apple, but saying, I’m going to recruit 10 engineers, and then we’re going to scale, and then the VCs will come, is naïve here.” Yet if Jeeran is any example, the landscape is changing. After a patient six years of development, the company scored three rounds of VC investment in 2006, 2009, and 2010, from IV Holdings and Intel Capital, and, in 2009, selection for mentoring support by global incubator Endeavor. Its planned expansion into the United Arab Emirates this spring seems simply the next domino to accelerate its skyrocketing growth.
Ultimately it’s a commitment to a culture of iteration, inside and out, that marks Jeeran's success. A leader must have “the ability to be self-critical and to learn from mistakes, to create a feedback loop of learning.” Koudsi concludes. “If you have those things, you can achieve anything.”
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3. Explore the Explorer: Success writ large