By Reem Boudraa
Rola Fayyad is the founder & CEO of Friendture, an app that allows travelers and expats in a country to discover new experiences and meet like-minded communities. Lately, Friendture has raised $175,000 in funding, $115,000 of which came from Qatar after winning Challenge 22, an innovation award launched by Qatar in 2015. The award strives to attract entrepreneurs from across the Middle East region to help Qatar deliver its promise of an amazing 2022 FIFA World Cup.
In this interview with Al Bawaba, we go behind the scenes of social apps, entrepreneurship and startup funding in Qatar.
1. Tell us more about Friendture. What is the app all about?
The idea behind Friendture is simple: To digitize travel experiences by offering a tour guide for travelers to discover new experiences and meet like-minded people. Both expats and travelers can benefit from our dynamic management tools, to create and plan their own experiences, engage with each other through a chat system and photo sharing hub, set budgets, and split costs.
Think of Friendture as a Slack for travelers with features to ensure they travel more, and plan less.
Friendture boasts an array of innovative features. The app has a currency converter, a feed for local information, weather forecasts, suggested itineraries, and much more. Furthermore, users can easily buy or sell experiences and get rewarded with a point-based loyalty program.
2. What gave you the idea for Friendture?
Friendture started in 2016 as a group activity planner and events app, when I faced a lot of trouble creating group activities with my friends and finding what was happening in town. I am not a fan of multiple WhatsApp groups to plan events, social gatherings or weekend getaways, so I created a solution where I could plan it all in one place.
Recently, Friendture became a travel app after noticing that 60 percent of our users were expats or travelers who needed to find nearby experiences and meet new people. Travelers use an average of four apps to create, manage and execute group trips, and it can get very messy. So instead of spending hours and hours checking websites for events, group travelers can now manage their trip using one app.
3. Now, tell us more about Challenge 22, and the funding you received in Qatar.
Back in 2015, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (SC), came up with a unique concept of Challenge 22, an innovation award challenging the creative and technological minds in the Middle East region to find solutions to certain ‘problems’ the organizers of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar had to face.
We were among the winners of this award and were given a cash prize of $15,000 and a grant of $100,000 for our project.
The winners will fly to Doha this year and will be given office space, resources and the mentorship they need to ensure the smooth transition from the ideation phase to creating a tangible product for the World Cup.
For me, Challenge 22 was one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences ever. The competition wasn’t anything like the other competitions we see in the region; it was highly organized and very professional, with the presence of high-level judges, mentors and advisors. Challenge 22 is a very prestigious award. You don’t get many opportunities to enter competitions like that in the Middle East region and benefit from such a high level of exposure. I’m very grateful!
4. To what do you contribute your win at Challenge 22? What was your formula for building a winning app?
The will to learn and accept failure, and never give up. The passion and inspiration of why I was building the app made me fight every single day.
At Challenge 22, when the winners were announced, one of the judges came up to me, smiled and said “You are a hustler.” That’s what differentiates startup founders in terms of success - the fighters always make it.
5. How do you think winning Challenge 22 will help your business grow?
With the 2022 World Cup less than five years away, Challenge 22 is expected to expand to other parts of the world and gradually be all-encompassing so as to involve as many people as possible, which would support the massive football extravaganza.
Serving 1 million travelers to Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup is a dream come true for any startup in the region.
Qatar Airways and Qatar Tourism authority are partners of Challenge 22, and our solution is a perfect fit for both companies. Challenge 22 has proven to be one of the most successful achievements, and I am confident the organizers, sponsors and every party affiliated with the award will ensure our success by offering us the best resources.
6. What were some of the challenges you faced while developing Friendture?
The lack of software engineers was terrible, we lost a lot of time finding resources and I had to revamp Friendture three times, and that was very stressful. For our new version of Friendture, I am very careful building the manpower and have a consultant on-board with me to ensure efficiency and productivity of the team.
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Another issue was the lack of interest from regional investors for a social app. We struggled to convince many but only managed to find two or three who believe we were on to something. The last two years took a lot of my energy, and I faced multiple barriers, but it was worth it because the hard work paid off, and that’s what matters.
7. What is your view about the future of social apps in the region?
I have seen a few startups developing social apps when it comes to sports, like football, and specific activities, like nightlife. I saw potential in that market, because when you are from the region, and have the characteristics to understand the culture, you have an added value compared to foreign apps entering the market.
I always look at the Careem and Uber example; Careem won the region because they understood the people of the region, and tailored the product to meet the region’s mentality and behavior.
8. Looking ahead, what do you see happening with Friendture five years from now?
By 2022, our plan consists of covering the MENA region, and being prepared to serve the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and the 1 million travelers who will be in Doha. Our app will have extra integration for live events, ticketing and matches, and more.
We seek to finalize partnerships with multiple companies in the region, experience providers, and governmental entities related to tourism to give a complete full World Cup experience to our app.
As for technology, we will have several other stand-alone products related to the travel industry, serving different segments with tailored products, but our focus now is building our Slack version for travelers.
9. Any plans for regional or global expansion?
Our product fits a global need, but we are working based on the resources we have at the moment to cover the MENA region. We will start testing the European markets in 2019, with a few selected partners we are in talks with right now. That does sound a bit far, but we expect to fully launch the new Friendture concept by the end of 2018.
10. Finally, what is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Focus and give your 110% to build your dream, don’t be afraid of criticism or failure, such aspects make you stronger and more focused on solving problems. Listen, and don’t ignore any feedback about your product, whether from investors, users or friends, even if they are negative. At the end of the day, you want to build something people will value and use.
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