Ayman Awartani is practically glowing as he tells the story of his startup, Idevator, and with good reason. It’s an exciting time to be a technology entrepreneur in Palestine’s West Bank. As of last year, the first local venture capital fund was established. And with the annual number of graduates in technical subjects exceeding two thousand a year, there’s no shortage of qualified employees.
I met with Ayman in Ramallah a few weeks ago to discuss his startup, , which he founded in July 2012. The 24-year-old computer science graduate has been designing games since he was teenager, and had long envisioned running his own startup but lacked the necessary resources. Last July, however, Ayman met with Mercy Corps staff at a Startup Weekend event in Nablus where he pitched his plans for Idevator. Within weeks he received seed funding as a part of Mercy Corps' Youth Enterprise Start-up Initiative (YES), a corollary to the organization's Arab Developer Network Initiative, which covers Gaza and the West Bank. With this boost, Idevator went from blueprint to company.
The Nablus-based startup focuses on creating social gaming apps in Arabic for computers and smartphones. Seeking to target the entire Middle East and North Africa [MENA] region, the games are embedded with different dialects and cultural values to reflect each player’s country. For example, Egyptian characters wear the traditional clothing of Pharaohs while female Saudi characters don the abaya. The games are free of charge, but offer users the opportunity to pay for an upgraded version. Players can use social media outlets like Facebook to play with friends and users around the world.
When I asked Ayman whether he planned to eventually charge a fee for the games, he explained the utility of the free versions. “It’s important for us to continue distributing free versions because it provides an opportunity to test the product and get feedback”. The idea is that if people are truly addicted to playing the game they’ll want the upgrades and accessories that come with the paid version. Paid users, to Ayman, are therefore just as important as unpaid users.
I was shocked when Ayman explained to me that there are less than 10 social gaming apps in Arabic. Considering the vast youth population across the MENA region and their increasing access to the internet and smartphones, it seemed unbelievable that no gaming company had yet unlocked this potential source of profit.
According to UN reports, young people between the ages of 15-25 represent almost 50 percent of the population in Western Asia, 38 percent in North Africa and 14 percent in the Arabian Peninsula. Given that Idevator’s target age group is 18-25, their pool of possible users is enormous.
With two games already on the market, a third about to be released and a fourth in the mix, Idevator’s five employees have their hands full. But Ayman was keen to point out that the company could not have reached this stage without continued support from Tom Sperry, a Portland-based businessman who Mercy Corps recommend become his mentor. He explained to me that although the Palestinian IT community isn’t lacking in technical education, business planning skills are somewhat elusive. Tom’s experience in that area proved to be incredibly valuable. “Tom has over 20 years of experience with some of the largest companies. He understands how games are developed and also about raising money. He really helped us with everything.”
Idevator, however, like the rest of the technical startup community in Palestine, is not without challenges. Ayman outlined funding as the major issue facing most startups. Garnering investors is difficult because of Palestine's image as unstable and violent. Although the West Bank has enjoyed a prolonged period of prosperity and stability for the last few years, it is still considered a high-risk investment environment with extensive bureaucracy. Although small grants through organizations like Kiva are possible, these grants are typically only few thousand dollars at most. Startup businesses need significant steady capital, particularly during early stages before profits can cover expenses.
With strong aspirations to keep the company local and eventually employ 100 people, Ayman’s goal is not an easy one. But with over 100,000 users playing Idevator’s games everyday, the future is looking bright.