Founder: Elsa Aoun and Wassim Kari
Established in: 2008
Number of employees: 10
Capital raised: Self-financed so far, seeking potential capitalization
Back in 2008, it all seemed simple for Wassim Kari and Elsa Aoun. They were studying business in France, had begun dating and were considering what to do with their lives. Then they attended a talk about making money from the Internet that seemed to offer them a path.
Among the speakers was a French entrepreneur who had designed a website at the height of the 2000 dotcom bubble, ran it for a couple of years and sold her stake for millions of dollars. The largely Western-based bubble had made millionaires of hundreds of entrepreneurs and, the couple reasoned, it was only a matter of time before the Middle East had its own version — bringing with it the opportunity to make big profits in a short time.
“We were always discussing [whether to go] the safest way and do the [stable] career, or try something else. There were some indicators in the region here that were similar to the 2000 Internet bubble. For example, the internet penetration rate [was low but growing rapidly],” Kari said. “In 2008 we saw these ingredients happening in the region and we said ‘okay the bubble will not last long.’”
Seeking to capitalize on this, the couple founded Ounousa (feminine in Arabic), an Arabic-language website whose target clientele is women. Kari designed an initial website — complete, he admits with embarrassment, with “flashy pink colors” — and within a short period traffic was booming. Soon Ounousa had become among the leading spaces online for women’s fashion and lifestyles, with a huge Facebook following (which has now reached 1.3 million) to help drive traffic.
The couple have won a number of awards
Then, in August 2009, online giant Yahoo bought Internet services company Maktoob, leading to predictions of the “start of an era” for online mergers and acquisitions in the Middle East. Shortly after, Ounousa won a prestigious award to celebrate its growth. The company, it seemed, was ripe for a lucrative takeover.
Then, nothing. Three years on there has been no initial public offering, no acquisition. In fact the largest change in the couple’s lives is personal — they are married and now have a baby. But simply put, the dotcom bubble never really came to the Middle East, with venture capitalists reluctant to spend as the market was not liquid. “This is something we did not expect,” Kari admits. “When we started the venture we wanted to be like the [French] girl who sold everything, but this is not the case. There was no bubble in the sense of liquid [mergers and acquisitions].” Aoun is becoming less and less confident that the bubble is coming as, she reasons, the “market is getting mature.”
As such the couple have given up on making a quick buck and are reaching the conclusion that the company, which is still growing rapidly, will be theirs for the long haul. “We are moving from an out-sourcing to an in-sourcing model,” Kari says. “We started because we thought it was an equity game [so] the cash flow is unimportant; let's get a nice position on the market, get good numbers and exit from it. We outsourced everything to arrange it as a good shaped investment. When we saw that the market was not liquid we thought ‘maybe there are cashflows, online advertising is getting bigger by the day.’ So we in-sourced other functions.”
As such, Ounousa, recently selected among the top 500 fastest growing Arab companies, is shifting its strategy to regional dominance. The company has been profitable since 2011, but the couple is aware that the online advertising market saturation is coming in “two to three years,” Kari predicts.
As such, diversification of revenue streams is their next challenge. This, Aoun says, will include branching out into major new projects she is leading — chief among them incorporating e-commerce into the site.
“95 percent of [our] audience are women and a lot of them are interested in fashion, leisure [and] people news,” she says. “So we are planning to develop into e-commerce; especially, we are trying to do something where, for example, I see Kate Middleton wearing this amazing navy dress, and I want her look — so I want to buy the same. The idea is to make kind of a ‘shop the look’ [service]. So you can buy the same outfit or something comparable to it.”
They are well aware that this will put them in direct competition with regional retail giants that are investing online but are hoping the undeveloped nature of the market could enable them to capitalize.
Their already-established niche will certainly help. The website has over five million page views every month, most of which are channeled through their huge Facebook support. Likewise, the brand is now fully regional, with the majority of traffic coming from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, then, for these two highly driven entrepreneurs is juggling married life with working together. The first tip they offer is to have completely separate spheres of responsibility — Aoun deals primarily with content, while Kari is responsible for traffic and technology.
But, as an hour-long conversation with them attests, they flit comfortably between business and personal conversations, from profit margins to prams. “The problem is we don’t make a distinction [between when we are working and when we are together personally]. We work, then we have a discussion about something else, then we go back to working,” Aoun says.