Christos Mastoras, Director, Business Development, MENA Yahoo! Maktoob, outlines his take on sweeping transformations and how entrepreneurs can take advantage.
What is your take on the ICT market in the region?
I really think this part of the world has lot of opportunities and gaps that startups and entrepreneurs can fill through innovation. For example, 5% of the online population speaks Arabic. However, less than 2% of the content online is Arabic. Yahoo! Maktoob definitely thinks that digital media and content is a very big area of opportunities for budding entrepreneurs.
There are two things we need in the Middle East to make entrepreneurs successful; the first is to develop an ecosystem and the second is a cultural shift. The ecosystem has to develop on its own, but in the meanwhile they can partner with companies to help them monetise and gain the reach and scale, which they are unable to do themselves.
From there on, at an individual basis, it’s about cultural shift. In the past, entrepreneurs were risk averse and failure wasn’t really accepted. So, I think, it is the fundamental shift in culture and outlook which entrepreneurs and startups need to achieve in this region – not to be afraid to take the risks and to accept failure is not a bad thing; failure is just a part of the experience. Like I have mentioned many times, entrepreneurship is like the Olympics – it’s not about winning, but about participating.
If a startup wants to approach you, what do they need to do? What are you looking for?
We work very closely with startups and entrepreneurs to integrate them into our projects and to get their ideas and feedback. Therefore, we have partnered with both individuals and companies with an aim to deliver key projects. So, the first thing startups can do is identify a major market need and for us at Yahoo! Maktoob we think digital content is a big one.
We also work with startups and entrepreneurs to weave them into our projects actively. Yahoo! Maktoob is always looking to invest or, potentially, acquire very promising startups. So, we can pose as a viable exit strategy for such a company, which is always important for an entrepreneur. There are no specific criteria when we look for companies to partner or acquire, but there are areas from which we would want companies to be; those companies in the forefront of innovation who can fill the gaps.
Yahoo! Maktoob can look at very different areas, such as gaming and application, e-Commerce, mobile and tablet applications and so forth, in addition to their very unique and content propositions. But, at the same time, it’s also on a case-by-case basis. So, those approaching us would be startups from these areas or peripheral areas. On top of that, we also look at the quality of the technology and the strength of its team, regardless of geography. In any case, we operate at MENA-wide level.
The startup has to be up-and-running. We cannot collaborate solely on an idea basis. When it comes to investment and acquiring, it has to be an operational startup, which means that they must have a team and a functional product.
What has been your experience in the Middle East? What would you advise a business which enters the region?
There are a few considerations. First of all, when you look at the region, you can see a very aggressive growth which makes business very promising. Secondly, the IT sector is not as developed as in the other parts of the world, but again this is developing at fast rate and continues to record fantastic growth.
That creates a very good dynamic and an opportunity for companies like us through which we can partner with the right people. That’s why we have such a large presence in the Middle East. We are looking for other partners, across the region, which have the same plans and approach to this aggressive growth.
Does Yahoo! Maktoob have any exclusive services to the region?
Yahoo! Website portal is in English and Arabic and is customised to the region. In addition, our home page has key verticals, such as a woman’s portal, games, news and so on. Therefore, we have a dedicated offering for the Middle East in both languages. We also have a lot of products for the region in the pipeline; through a regional product engineering, editorial team and, by having that presence, we are able to cater to the regional needs.
Are there any services that would benefit businesses?
Our advertisement solutions are quite helpful. If businesses start using that, they will have access to our 56 million users which will give them visibility. We have approximately 70 million people online and, out of that, 56 million per month visiting Yahoo! which provides good visibility and helps their presence in the region.
We have to help the market to develop and to make the pie bigger. In line with that, we have a market development team which goes out and educates companies about the benefits of digital advertising. This is what we call share shift. That’s the key difference – there is potential, but we need to develop the market.
Dos and don’ts
For companies that are looking for opportunities to scale across the region, especially if it’s an Internet-based company, this region has a lot of opportunities, in particular because of the common language and common needs. So, the trick is to go regional. It’s a case of calculated risk.
They have to identify opportunities and go after something they are passionate about. It cannot be just about the money. For example, if they are based here, they can partner with key entrepreneurial centres in the country, work with incubation centres or, get into business-plan competitions. Reach out to the community, connect with the right people. I have been part of three startups and it’s good to talk about stuff you have lived through. I think, as an entrepreneur, that people are a bit hesitant about sharing their idea, while it should actually be the opposite. They should be out there, sharing their ideas and getting the word out there.
Don’t be afraid to take the risk, don’t be afraid to fail – it’s almost like a badge of honour. I have learned much more from startups that have failed than from those that have succeeded.
Christos Mastoras is the Director of Business Development at Yahoo! Maktoob, where he leads strategic partnerships, M&A and corporate ventures for the company, across the MENA region. Prior to joining Yahoo!, Chris was an Engagement Manager in the Communications Media & Technology practice of Booz & Company in Dubai.
He is very passionate about entrepreneurship and innovation and active in developing the right digital media ecosystem in the region, as co-founder of Mobile Mondays in Dubai.
Christos holds an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management and a BS in International Relations from the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.