Yasmine El-Mehairy is a native of Cairo, Egypt. She studied Computer and Information Science at Ain Shams University in Egypt before later receiving her MSc in Interactive Multimedia at the University of Westminster, UK in 2004. She has worked in IT since then, holding positions such as Quality Assurance Specialist at International Business Machines (IBM) and Portal Project Manager at Al-Masry Al-Youm Newspaper. Her dual interest in entrepreneurship and social change ultimately led her to co-found SuperMama a year and a half ago with her partner, Zeinab Samir. SuperMama is a parenting website that features support, advice, videos, feedback and much more for parents and parents-to-be, a completely new idea in the Middle East. SuperMama is the epitome of creating a new market instead of entering an existing one, and Yasmine was kind enough to share her startup experience with us!
How did the idea of SuperMama come to life?
Right off the bat, let me state that I am not a mother myself. The thing is, my partner and I always knew that we wanted to do something that added value, not something for the sole purpose of money-generation. We were on the lookout for the right idea until coincidentally, my sister-in-law announced that she was pregnant. We soon realized how lucky she was because my entire family is made up of doctors, so anytime she needed advice she had easy access to verified opinions and was comfortable researching the web to get authentic information regarding her pregnancy. However, that is not the case with the majority of mothers and mothers-to-be in Egypt. It’s not easy to get practical parenting advice – in fact, the most popular source of information is someone’s mother or mother-in-law. These sources advise based on how they did it, or how their sister or aunt did it, and so forth. There’s no guarantee that the information the parents receive is authentic or credible. It’s all based on lessons from past experience, which I’m not belittling at all, but we are now faced with problems that our mothers and grandmothers didn’t have to deal with back then. That’s when we realized we wanted to offer something that would help mothers manage their lives accompanied by practical, tested and proven advice such that they can spend the time they need focusing on their families.
Who is your co-founder and how is SuperMama structured?
My co-founder is Zeinab Samir – we met in 2007 on our first day with a startup called OpenCraft. The startup didn’t survive the economic crisis and had to shut down in 2009, but we’ve been working together in different ventures and companies since then. We started with two other partners that have since left, and we recruited two more people, one of whom is now a minor shareholder but is no longer active in the company. We also have three investors at the moment that are involved in the decision-making process, as well as seven fulltime employees and eight or nine ‘working from home’ employees. We encourage the latter because one of our ideas is to provide a platform for mothers to work from home. Many different circumstances in Cairo and around the world inhibit 9-5 jobs, but there are so many mothers that want to do more with their time and share their experiences.
Raising funds in the MENA is very hard. How did you fund the startup and how long did it take to get the funding?
It’s ridiculously hard and a never-ending process. Combine the difficulty of getting investors with Egyptian laws and it becomes even harder to secure and establish something. We started in December 2011 and only a few weeks ago did we finish the incorporation process. How did we get the investors? We stalked them. You have to keep at it: Travel, pitch the idea, meet the investors, and keep pushing. One of our investors is Wamda, which is based in Lebanon. There’s also MBC Ventures, based in the United Arab Emirates. I had to go to both locations, pitch, and get these companies interested in the idea. That’s not even the hardest part; it’s the follow up process, as well as getting the different investors to work together. It took about three months to get them to agree to sign on, and the rest of the time was spent negotiating and drawing up the legal work.
How did you decide on the investors?
The thing with seeking investment is that at the beginning, you don’t know where to start. We were very naïve; we just knocked on every door regardless of suitability. Once you start pitching you realize each investor is interested in a different angle. You need to make sure that the investor’s interest works with your content – what you want your content to be. Then there’s also investors that may be great, but there’s no chemistry between you and them. It’s not just about getting funding; once we had about five or six people to consider, it became about adding value. For example, Wamda has a solid network established. They can connect us with whomever we need, whenever we need them. The lead person on board, Habib Haddad, also knows the technical side of the business, so when I have questions about how to do something he tells me exactly what to do based on his experience. Then there’s MBC and their media excellence– I mean, who else is as good at media as MBC in the region? If, for example, I wanted to enter the Saudi Arabian market, they already have someone who has done something in Saudi that can help us and has the leads to facilitate it. Be selective with who you choose to fund your initiative because they should be resources, not just investors.
Once you got the funding, where did you focus on spending it?
Marketing – we needed to reach out to people. Before we got funded, our marketing budget was about $150 a month on Facebook ads, which is nothing. So yes, people did return, I think our return rate was about 45%, but it’s not enough. We needed to spread the word, which meant we needed to market ourselves heavily, and it definitely worked. Pre-funding, in June, we had about 55,000 unique visitors to the website a month. Today, that number has gone up to 180,000 unique visitors a month.
How did you spread the word about the company, given that the percentage of online people is not as high as it in places like the US, for example?
Actually, you’d be surprised. Up until recently, our main market focus was Egypt. There are about 4.5 million women in our target age range here, with the specifications we are looking for (recently married, about to get married, and expecting)- that’s a very large amount of women. From the beginning, we made a conscious decision to focus only on people who were online. We knew it would be too difficult to reach people who were offline, and that brought us down to a specific group within that pool. We didn’t want to fool ourselves into thinking that we’d be able to reach every single woman in Egypt.
Your startup is steadily growing. How do you plan position your company in a way that enables you to generate revenue?
The revenue generation stems from advertising, like all other media companies. One of the most unique aspects of SuperMama is that it’s not a women-only website; it’s one of the very few parenting websites out there. The content is very high quality, all exclusive, and the content is specifically tailored to provide answers that parents are looking for. There are interviews with doctors, videos, research – it’s very selective.
Can you tell me a little about the business challenges of building a consumer application in the MENA?
The biggest challenge for us was deciding on the market segment. When we first started, we provided information in both Arabic and English, and we focused on all socio-economic classes, let’s say from A-plus to C-plus. Over time, we had to weigh the costs and benefits of keeping the English and A-plus segments, and ultimately decided to drop them. There’s actually another challenge, and I’m not sure how to categorize it, but there are things that nobody tells you. Nobody tells you what key performance indicators to measure, if something is good enough, or how to calculate your cost of acquisition, for example. You end up with all this data, and unless you stumble upon a helpful mentor or your investors are also advisors, there are points in time when nobody will tell you what criteria to be looking for. There are things, it can be argued, you learn through trial and error… But as a startup sometimes such an error can be catastrophic. There’s a lack of knowledge sharing, and it’s hard to know who to reach out to. We were very lucky because we had a mentor who was with us from day one, and only pulled away recently when he felt that we were standing on our two feet. However, even with that, sometimes Zeinab and I were faced with questions we had no idea how to answer, but we couldn’t get ourselves to ask our mentor because we felt it was too trivial! There’s no such thing as a crash course called Entrepreneurship 101, where you’re taught the A-Z of this process. Who tells you the basics? Then there’s even more trivial stuff, things that you cannot imagine will be challenges and I thought were Egypt-specific until I met entrepreneurs from other countries. For example, finding an office that has Internet access with functioning telephone lines and that also has electricity 24/7. As a startup founder, you don’t have an office boy to run around for you; these are things you need to get set up yourself, and fast. It begs the question, why isn’t there something that facilitates this?
Now that your website is live, what do you look back on as the key learning points?
Everything was a learning point… I’m still learning! That doesn’t stop, especially not at the stage we’re at now. The paradigm shift was when we actually started to meet our users; it was amazing! Let me tell you a little story, though I will keep the identity of the woman to myself. At the beginning of the year we began hosting competitions, such as a Mother’s Day competition in March (that’s when it falls in Egypt). There were three winners, and we delivered their prizes with our numbers on the packages in case of returns. One of the women called me to thank me, tell me about herself, and show me a picture of her kids. I was stunned because nobody says thank you. After that I discovered that she left posts on the website, also thanking us. I contacted her on the website and we chatted a bit, and that was the end of that. At some point, something happened that I’d like to call the ‘tour-guide effect’. That woman took it upon herself to help new users navigate the website and moderate the content. This woman came from a lower socio-economic class and education, and would sometimes hit her kids if they misbehaved. Along the way, we noticed that she stopped doing so, saying that SuperMama changed her, and she now actually forbids family members from hitting their kids in front of her! Moreover, in October, when we announced that it was Breast Cancer Awareness month, she changed her avatar to a pink ribbon in support of our campaign. This was one of the most amazing and gratifying things I have experienced; she grew as a person and the website grew because of her.
Was it harder to be a female entrepreneur in the MENA?
You know something, almost everybody asks me this question. In reality, it wasn’t true at all in my case. It wasn’t easier or harder, just equally as annoying. Of course, when we had to deal with office furniture and the like, we jokingly said that next time we should have a male co-founder to handle the dirty work! That’s about it though, we honestly didn’t suffer at all. In my field the ratio of men to women is almost equal, so maybe that’s why.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs in the MENA?
Go ahead and do it; don’t wait. Before we launched, there was a point where we hesitated and thought it wasn’t good enough. Eventually, I decided we just needed to do it; we had already spent way too much time and attention to worry ourselves more. The other thing is, as an entrepreneur, you worry a lot about losing equity and your investors taking your rights. Along the way though, once the money is in the bank, you realize that equity isn’t the issue. That’s something you don’t feel that at the beginning, you only realize it afterwards. I hope that aspiring entrepreneurs do take this into account. It’s one of those things nobody tells you that I was complaining about earlier. Focus on the basics, it’s not about money, it’s about creating a successful project and adding value as an entrepreneur.