Bootstrapping the first online health network in the Middle East, with a female founder: 3eesho

Rafah Alkhatib is the founder of 3eesho (pronounce: eyee-shoo), the largest Arabic social network for healthy living. 3eesho reaches more than half a million Facebook fans and more than 6 million Arabic speaking followers across all its social media channels, says Rafah.

According to the Arab Media Who’s Who, 3eesho delivers a truckload of pageviews every day in the Middle East and North Africa: “After 3 years of operations, 80,000 page views are delivered per day to a community of more than 2.5 million fans.”

3eesho was also among the 100 finalists in the Arab MIT business plan award and was selected as part of the top 500 Arab companies in 2011.

Rafah, the ambitious founder behind 3eesho, is a female entrepreneur who started her company in Saudi Arabia as one of a growing number of female entrepreneurs in the country. A study from 2012 shows that, ‘in spite of significant challenges, both societal and institutional’, female entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabiaare founding and managing more small and medium sized companies than at any time in the past, and that the trend is accelerating.

She’s also a seasoned entrepreneur – 3eesho is her second company, and and without knowing about any theories like ‘The Lean Startup’, she’s also performed a successful pivot.

But first, the story of how 3eesho came to be. Rafah Alkhatib: “A few years ago I started noticing a huge problem in the Gulf region: a lot of kids are having problems to eat healthy, to get enough excercise, to live healthy. Like kids everywhere, they’re addicted to electronic gaming. The whole region, it seemed, was just becoming more lazy and depending on unhealthy food.”

“With my business partners, I was looking for a way to do something about that. And it seemed best to us to communicate about a healthy lifestyle somewhere where the audience was spending so much time – on social networks. We were the first to really develop a vertical on healthy lifestyle. Most of the health information in the region at that time was on big media portals, that were more interested in generating clicks than getting good content out or educating the readers, you know: “How to lose 5 kilos in a week” kind of stuff. From the beginning, we focused on original content. And: no quick fixes.”

“This won’t work”

3eesho was her second company, she explains. “The one I started before was a coaching and training company for female entrepreneurs and  businesswomen. But that proved to be a little complex in Saudi Arabia. We weren’t able to build a scalable company.” It’s not that there aren’t enough women entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia, she says. “There was more than one reason, but one of them was also that a lot of coaching companies targeted both men and women, and – we just couldn’t find that this would become a market that we wanted to grow in.”

Rafah freely admits that she had no idea how to do a web startup. “I didn’t have enough information about startups, and how you should build them. I just wanted to follow a passion and solve what I thought was a huge problem.”

So Rafah started working on a very ambitious plan: a mobile application with nutritional information about every kind of Middle Eastern food.

“It was a very premature idea. Mobile devices weren’t even popular back then, so we wanted to deliver the information over the cell phone network. We built this huge database of nutritional information. We spent 1,5 years on the database, plus a web service to check the records and the reports.” The result was something just short of a complete disaster, she says. “We ended up with a service that was very complex – and way too sophisticated for our users. Instead of an easy to read chart, users were presented with something that looked like a stock market report. (laughs)

On top of that, because of the delivery through the mobile network, Rafah and her team had to negotiate with different operators in different countries in the region. “It’s a hassle. So we worked for 15 months on it, and then we decided: this won’t work.”

The pivot

In the process, the team burned about $ 300 000 in seed funding from Rafah and her cofounders. At that point, the team radically pivoted and went back to the core issue it wanted to solve: to provide information about living healthy. So it put up a social network and started seeding it with content.

Rafah: “The users were very hungry for this kind of content – we could immediately feel it. There were so many issues that they had no clue about, and there’s so much information about health that isn’t accredited on the internet. So we took some experts on board who can help people, and created groups and support for people with different questions. Users can register and ask questions that the experts and other users answer.”

3eeshoo took off from there, she says. “We reached a million users within a year. After that, growth was exponential – we now reach about 6 million people across all our channels – Facebook and Twitter mostly.” 3eeshoo gets around 500 000 unique visitors every month nowadays, she says.

I ask her how close 3eesho skirts to cultural taboos in the Gulf region with their main subjects: health, body culture, excercise, relationships. She dismisses the subject. “There are no specific limitations on what we can write. Of course, there are certain sensitivities when it comes to certain topics, but we know how to tackle them. We speak about every topic – body, relationships – but we know how to address these subjects.”

The same goes for the fact that she is a woman entrepreneur, she says. “It’s like being a woman entrepreneur anywhere in the world. It’s definitely not easy, and not popular here, but I have a good support network of people who are prepared to see a woman willing to take on an entrepreneurial journey from start to end.”

3eesho currently makes money with advertisements and sponsorships of the new fitness and excercise videos. “We’re trying a lot of different things – sponsorship for videos, but we’re also releasing an e-book on healthy food in the coming weeks. We did a few issues of an iPad magazine which was very successful.” The team also provides social media marketing to fund the site’s operations. “It’s just something that we got very good at, so we used that to bootstrap ourselves. We’re now at a break even point with the business.” 

To Silicon Valley and beyond

At this time, Rafah is in Silicon Valley, where she’s taking part in the Blackbox accelerator programme. “I read about their programme to connect Middle Eastern entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley, and I thought it would be a great opportunity. To see how startups here start and grow, and have a successful journey. And I’m meeting a lot of entrepreneurs from around the world.”

The main goal of her trip to Silicon Valley is to connect to health industry heavyweights, she says. “I want to get closer to some main players in the online health industry. It would be great to meet some of the big names and have an alliance or partnership – to be the Arabic version of their online business.”

She’s also learning about how she has to build her business to Silicon Valley standards – important if you want to get investments or partnerships. “I learned here that you need more than great acceptance from users. You have to grow and scale, and grow more. There are definitely certain areas that we need to focus more on. When I go home next week, I’ll start working on that, and when I come back here in June, I can show that we made progress with a clearer strategy.”

The visit to Silicon Valley taught her about the importance of focus too, she says. “I’m now questioning whether we should continue to offer the marketing services. I’m thinking we should focus on growing our userbase in the Arabic world to get a big market share – there are 75 million Arabic users. We should try to target about 20 million of them, I think. But we will need to find extra revenue if we want to achieve that goal.” 

That might become a bit of a problem, she says, given the reluctance of VC’s in the Gulf region to invest in early stage startups. “They’re not taking enough risks – they don’t like it if it’s unclear whether there will be a profit in the next years.”

“In the Middle East, you have to show a very successful track record to get investments. You have to show a real product, with revenue, users, a complete case. Here, as long as you have an idea and you can show strong validation with your customers, there are a lot more opportunities – people are just more willing to invest. It can be enough to have a prototype that tests really well.”

[Photo: Rafah Alkhatib / sandstorm in Riyadh, Pedronet, Flickr]

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Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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