Rola, originally from Haifa, was born and raised in Dubai. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan. 5 years ago, Rola had no clue what a startup was. A friend of hers, had a startup, but she never quite realized what it actually was until she was able to catch a glimpse into her friend’s struggle to promote his business. Still, she never really understood the challenges startups faced and how a successful startup was achieved. But also, for her, the notion of a 9:00-5:00 job, didn’t seem thrilling, especially as a lifelong career. This is Rola’s story.
One of the first attempts for her, was an event planning startup MCIET.co, which didn’t reach the level of success she had hoped for. The reason for its lack of success? The technology wasn’t up to par with the current market needs. After two years of struggling to keep her business afloat, she decided to call it quits. While her first attempt at a startup proved unsuccessful, she described the experience as a disheartening learning experience, one in which, if she had the chance to offer a fellow mentee a piece of advice, she’d advise, to first, “never start a startup before working for one. Understanding the market, and the current ecosystem, is crucial for any startups success”. Rola took a break from the startup world to enhance her knowledge of the startup world, and get a better understanding of the ecosystem, she desired to be part of. She channeled her newfound drive into the launching of “Friendture”, her second startup. She describes the experience as facing many of the same mistakes which happened the first time, but, this time around, she found it especially difficult to find the technical resources, and getting people on board. After losing nearly $40,000, she realized the ultimate success factor lied in the technology. Thus, she focused her energy on learning the technological logic, flow, scalability and infrastructure of the technology. Most recently, Rola hired a co-founder that would take over the technical aspects of the work. With her newfound hope for her startup, Rola took the decision to quit her 13 year career, to focus on her startup.
Initially, she found it extremely difficult to obtain funding to start the business. She described the ecosystem in the Middle East, as very ‘uninviting’, with many people hesitant to to get on board. The main reason for this being the high level of uncertainty that comes with a startup. “Many people in the Middle East, are already come from financially difficult backgrounds and really need a steady income”, she added.
So how did Rola manage to come up with her successful business idea? She took her love for her friends, and fun experiences to another level. She realized, she couldn’t find an app that could plan all aspects of the perfect outing, or perfect trip, all in one. So she created Friendture, an app geared as a group activity planner, similar to Tilt. The app itself, aims to help people who find it difficult to plan outings with their friends easier. “Initially, the mere idea of my startup, was unconvincing to Middle East investors; and as a woman aiming to launch an event planning app… Let’s just say it wasn’t easy”.
What makes Friendture, different than its competitors? Frienture pivots its target users to a travel marketplace region, similar to the Airbnb experience, but with more of a focus on interests. With Friendture, you can look at different travel destinations and experiences in your chosen area of interest. Rola describes its utility as such: “We want people to land in their destination, open the app, and find an abundance of activities to do. The uniqueness of our app is the ‘slack for travelers’ aspect, which is catered towards groups”. Currently, Friendture, has 1600 beta users, which is great for the Middle East. Local communities, especially the youth, are really interested in using this type of app. Friendture, also has an algorithm that authenticates your interests and matches you to things of interest to you.
Rola realized, that what Facebook groups, google drive, Whatsapp and similar apps lacked, was a more formal ‘stay in touch’ aspect, which she describes as another success factor of Friendture’s. Another element she incorporated into the app, is money management, which can prove especially advantageous during trips. This is where FinTech, or P2P lending, comes in. Through P2P lending, people are able to lend one another money through the app, and keep track of it, in order to get it back. What makes the money-lending factor in Friendture better, is its cost-saving nature. In other apps, business providers are charged anywhere up to 30 percent, which is relatively expensive, for the Middle East. “With Frienture we take up to 10 percent from business providers, which is a lot more affordable for our users”.
Since the app was launched in Jordan, Rola highlighted the importance of grant raising, for travel experiences in Jordan, not only Amman, but to focus on building a model where people are able to increase their visibility and use of the technology, to make money, which Friendture is able to do through its partners. As most of its partners are Jordanian, experience providers are recommended through companies like Zain and Telcom.
Currently, the technology is primarily utilized by expats, therefore Friendture, took the decision to change its target to the GCC countries, as “locals, don't even realize such technology exists”, Rola highlighted. “We currently are planning to scale out of the Middle East market, to a more extensive market. Many of our apps features can be stand alone apps, which we believe would benefit us for our exit plan out of the Middle East”, she added.
Some advice for other striving entrepreneurs - “Patience, you have to be determined, set the goal and focus on that goal. You really have to be a hustler, Rola says. “When I won Challenge 20, I was up against startups with 20 patents. Out of 25 startups, the ones that won, were the ones that hustled. The only highlight of the feedback the judges gave me, was that I was a hustler. Being a hustler, is so important in the startup world. The ones that hustled and never gave up are the only ones that are raising money and successful”.
As for her mentor, Rola paid tribute to one of her best mentors, Mr. Samih Tucan -the ex founder of Souq.com, which was acquired by Amazon, and Maktoub. With that, Rola expressed how hard it was to find mentors in the travel industry. Currently, they are looking for Saudi mentors for help, as they have extensive experience in the travel industry.
Rola expressed interest in helping other startups in Palestine, particularly in Gaza, who she describes as, “being war torn and still managing to awe everyone with their innovativeness, creating amazing products with the little resources they have”.
Currently, Friendture is being labeled as a Silicon Valley startup, and not a Middle East startup, which wasn’t exactly the goal Friendture was aiming for. “Sadly, we realized in order to make it, we need to leave the Middle East region”, Rola says.