Omar Koudsi is the CEO of the freshly-funded Jeeran, sometimes called the “Yelp of the Arab world.” Koudsi says his ambitions are more grand, with an eye on all emerging markets: “We want to be a company not for the Arab world, but from the Arab world.” Jeeran is live in five countries now, and with a focus on Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We caught up with Koudsi to learn about the unique challenges of bringing a culture of a reviewing to parts of the world where digital penetration is low, and concern with face-saving high.
FAST COMPANY: What’s Jeeran?
OMAR KOUDSI: Jeeran is a local platform centered around places and reviews.
You’ve been called the Yelp of the Arab world.
I think that’s kind of an oversimplification. The problems we’re solving in our part of the world are much bigger than our counterparts in developed markets. The lack of data is a big issue we tackle, as well as the lack of a review culture where people feel the need to talk about their experiences.
Lack of data?
In our part of the world, a lot of places don’t have websites. There’s a statistic from Google–that 80% of small and medium businesses don’t have a web presence in the emerging or developing world.
But if I wanted the best falafel in Amman, I’d go to Jeeran, or not?
Yes, you’d go to Jeeran for that. But the kind of problems we’re solving go beyond that. The first problem we’re solving is compiling a data layer through various sources, and that’s pretty tough to do.
How do you do it?
Various sources–publicly available data, government agencies, data you can buy. It’s scraps here and there. More importantly, we have to go on the street and write down data. We can’t get the majority of it, but we have to get a significant nucleus which we can launch and then incentivize people to add data themselves.
You’ve gone out knocking on doors?
Yes. You get various weird things. Some people think we’re from the tax authority. There’s cultural challenges everywhere. In Saudi Arabia, there’s a suspicion of people walking down the street and taking pictures. We had someone there get stopped several times, whether by shop owners or by the police. He had to figure out a creative way of being able to take pictures, so he got his kid, and started taking pictures of his kid at every place. He basically put his kid in front of places and took the picture.
What other challenges have there been?
In the emerging world, customer service is not very centric. We have a lot of initial negative reactions, where people want to sue us. One time, we put the wrong phone number for a cake shop, it was the phone number for a competitor. He wasn’t too happy about that. But we converted him to a happy business customer with a Jeeran sticker on his window. [Pictured up top.] We educated him and told him he can claim his page and edit the info himself.
So for many of these businesses, you’re their only web presence?
Yes. Sometimes people send CVs to us, wanting to apply to these places. They think we are their site. At our business contact email, we get a lot of people thinking that we are actually the business itself.
Since you’re tackling more than Yelp did in the U.S., you could be way ahead of the curve in your markets.
I think so, and it’s a lot harder. It goes both ways. It’s hard, so nobody’s doing it. But nobody’s doing it because it’s very hard. We do have an advantage because we’re solving a big problem. We consider ourselves as much an offline as an online business. A lot of our energy is literally on the streets. If you take the average street person–not the elite that use Foursquare–their first reaction is, “Why the hell would I put time into writing a review?”
In many parts of the world, there’s also a concern over saving face.
In our early days in Jordan, we brought a bunch of users–good users who we thought had really figured out how to use the site–to a café. Everything in this café was a negative experience, but when everybody went home, they put up positive reviews. Later our community manager asked them, “How come you wrote good reviews? The waiter was slow, the food wasn’t good–you all agreed it wasn’t good.” The response from the majority of them was: We couldn’t write a negative review when you had invited us to this place.
They were worried about offending you, Jeeran?
Their main priority was not about writing an objective review.
So how do you foster a review culture in traditional societies?
Meetups, education, reaching out. We try to focus on universal themes. There are religious sayings.
Where in the Koran does it say, “Thou shalt Yelp”?
There’s one saying from the prophet Muhammad: “Removing harm from other people’s way is pious work.” We do talk about this, depending on the context. You have to say things people connect to and understand. Writing a review is removing harm from other people’s way, right? Another thing we talk about is the concept of hearing the individual voice. I would say in our part of the world, there’s a kind of self-defeatism: The notion that one person cannot make a difference is prevalent. I think the Arab Spring did show that you can control your destiny, you can make a difference. So we tie that to our small angle: Your own review can make a difference. When combined, small voices do have an impact.