Lessons in navigating Silicon Valley from a Middle Eastern entrepreneur who’s blending fashion with mobile and big data

spencer-chen-1Jordanian entrepreneur Evelyn Zoubi.  (Image: Spencer Chen)

NB: This is an extended version of a piece which was first published by ZDNet.

In 2010, Hillary Clinton — the then US Secretary of State — launched the TechWomen initiative.

Designed to deepen relationships between the USA and the MENA region, the programme creates opportunities for female STEM professionals (science, technology, engineering and math) in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, to spend five weeks working alongside their Silicon Valley counterparts.

Since 2011, the scheme has enabled 332 women from 21 countries (Algeria, Cameroon, Egypt, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe) to experience life inside companies like Tesla, Symantec, Google, Mozilla and GoPro.

A Middle Eastern success story

Jordanian entrepreneur Evelyn Zoubi was part of TechWomen’s 2012 cohort. “I thought they’d want someone with way more experience than me,” she told ZDNet, “[but] I got accepted and matched with Adobe and Flipboard.”

Four years on, and now resident in the Bay Area, Zoubi is busy building what her AngelList profile describes as “disruptive technologies in the space of digitizing fashion.”

Her company GLANSE is primarily “an analytics company for fashion merchandise planners and buyers.” It does this, Zoubi explained to ZDNet, through a consumer app which features sale items from 1,500 affiliated clothing brands including Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Nordstrom and Nasty Gal.

Users harness a “Tinder-ised (swipe right/left) experience,” to buy items or save them to wishlists. Through this, Zoubi notes that her product is able to collect “data that shapes decisions for merchandisers and buyers.”

“On average,” Zoubi told us, “interactions per session per user (items swiped right or left) is 280… and the average session time is around 6 minutes.”

Glanse has attracted funding from the Plug and Play Tech Center, as well as angel investors such as Hadoop firm Cloudera co-founder Amr Awadallah, CEO Ihab Hinnawi of Umniah Mobile, one of the biggest telcos in the Middle East, and former Google and Facebook executive Kinh DeMaree.

Much of this success, Zoubi acknowledges, is due to the encouragement TechWomen gave her, and she remains an active member of their expanding alumni network. “I feel like we’re a big family,” she says, “I’m in touch with people around the world and we can easily hop on Skype and exchange advice.”

Glanse App Demo: via eClosetme


Auspicious beginnings

Zoubi built her first app as a classroom project whilst studying for her B.Sc. in Management of Information Systems at Jordan’s Princess Sumaya University for Technology.

“It would take me a while to get ready in the mornings and to figure out what to wear,” she recalls, “and it turns out a lot of women never get rid of this problem.” To remedy this, Zoubi turned to technology to help solve her daily dressing dilemma.

“I took pictures of everything I had in my wardrobe and I turned it into a digital closet,” she explained, “so I was able to pick different items and create an outfit and save it into a calendar, just to plan ahead or remember what I wore so I wouldn’t repeat it.”

“Honestly, I did it just for the grade,” Zoubi says, but the experience of creating and coding a product which met a personal need, “triggered a journey that I didn’t know would go this way.”

Lessons from TechWomen

Selected from 550 applicants as one of 40 professionals who made up 2012’s TechWomen intake, Zoubi admits “I felt like I was coming to the Bay Area to conquer the world.”

“It was nice to have that enthusiasm,” she reflects, “but my first year [in the Bay Area] was a very humbling experience.” After seeing what others were doing, she says her reaction was: “Oh, I really have a lot to work on.”

Differences in funding, customer acquisition and networks meant “it was like I’d never had a start-up and was having [to learn] everything all over.”

“To begin with, I had to learn product market fit,” Zoubi says, as well as a different style of networking.

“In Jordan or the Middle East you can easily approach major companies and they’re probably one connection away. Here you can’t just get a contract with AT&T because you’re one connection away.”

Attracting customers in the US also required different tactics. “In Jordan for every 2–3 cents spent on advertising I would get a conversion. Here it’s at least $4–5. Initially I thought with a budget of $5,000 I thought I could do [a lot] … but I’ve had to learn about the mentality of acquiring users through virality and for free.”

2012 TechWomen toured the Department of Energy’s NERSC at the Berkeley Lab’s Oakland Scientific Facility. Original Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab (published here).

Initial funding challenges

Zoubi’s TechWomen placement at Flipboard “was a great opportunity for me to see how a small start-up (c.50 people at that time, it’s now 200+) was structured here in the Bay Area.”

“I got to talk to a lot of people and I took advantage of being here in the Bay Area, by meeting many people and pitching to investors.”

Nonetheless, Zoubi, like many entrepreneurs, didn’t necessarily find it easy to secure the support that she was seeking. “I got a few rejections,” she told ZDNet, “and people were initially telling me, if you’re not based in the Bay Area, then there’s no point in you pitching.”

Undaunted, she continued pitching and asking for advice, including from the VP of investment at Plug and Play. Following that conversation, Zoubi was invited to join their boot-camp for start-ups, becoming the first Jordanian to be accepted into a Bay Area accelerator.

Breaking through

Being part of this start-up programme enabled Zoubi to further develop her networks, whilst at the same time refining her proposition and helping her better navigate the VC ecosystem.

“In Jordan I thought having unique visitors was really important,” she says, “but here I’ve learned more about daily active users, retention and corporate analysis.”

Zoubi also developed an understanding of “traction” and “how to validate a product” which was in tune with the language — and needs — of potential funders.

“After talking to hundreds of investors, it’s a no brainer that they want their money back,” she says. “And they want a guarantee that they’re investing in someone who’s … familiar with some common connections.”

Being based in Silicon Valley for an extended period of time enabled her to forge these connections; whilst proximity and opportunities for close contact, were important components in her start-up journey. That said, she feels these concerns are becoming less important as increasing numbers of Middle East start-ups begin to attract attention from Silicon Valley.

Following in her footsteps

For anyone keen to learn from Zoubi’s experience, she notes the importance of recognising “how crowded the [US] market is in some aspects, so it can be very hard to stand out.”

“In Jordan,” she adds, “we just have different factors, so standing out in the Middle East is actually quite easy.” To make the cross-over, and to attract VC and Angel support, Zoubi argues, you need “a product that has potential for growth and solves a real problem.”

She highlights the Egyptian start-up Instabug, an in-app feedback and bug reporting tool for mobile apps, and Silkroad Images as two examples of start-ups fulfilling that brief.

Alongside this, Zoubi highlights that “there are different challenges [for start-ups] in the Middle East.” In particular, she stresses “getting the right mentorship,” and the importance of “getting the right investors, because there’s not many investors there.”

These tenets are fundamental, she suggests, if you’re to grow in the right direction strategically.

“I know a few of the start-ups were doing great five years ago, but they completely disappeared because of bad investment strategy,” she says. “The infrastructure doesn’t make it easy to build a tech start-up in the Middle East just yet,” Zoubi suggests, “but it is improving,” she observes.

Other takeaways

Additional considerations which Zoubi had to take on board included incorporating her company in the States (which enabled her to receive American originated funds); and navigating a notoriously complex visa system.

“Once I got that [the visa] out of the way I felt much more at peace,” she says.

For fellow female start-up founders, depending on where you’re from, Zoubi indicates that the lack of gender diversity may also come as a surprise.

“Honesty, I had no idea that there were issues about lack of women in entrepreneurship until I came here. Thirty-five percent of women are entrepreneurs in the Middle East, but in the US when it comes to tech it’s less than ten percent.”

“I thought it would be the opposite,” she recounts, describing this finding as unexpected. “I thought if we had 35% then the US would be 50%,” she says.

Future Plans

“I have pivoted a couple of times,” Zoubi says. Besides the Glan.se consumer app, she launched a dashboard for retailers and brands to show user trends and preferences in different locations.

“We get 280 swipes per user, per session on average, so that allows us to get tons of data,” she says. Tapping into the world of big data, she feels, is the next stage of her start-up’s evolution.

“Data supports and changes the way things are in terms of efficiency and in terms of making everything more efficient,” Zoubi argues. “We have so much data from all over the internet,” she adds, “it’s very important to start disrupting the way that planners and buyers decide what to have and what to order for their retail company or brand.”

“If we can collect data form wardrobes around the world, [then] we can project it in a way to help brands, in targeting and perfecting their supply chain, in helping them in merchandise planning… [as well as] losses on inventory which no one wants.”

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