Ogunte: Where does your story begin?
Eman Hylooz: My whole working life I have worked for startups. In my first job outside of University, I witnessed the growth of the company from a dozen people to over two hundred people. And it was a young company; I was fascinated by the fact that both my direct manager and CEO were under 28 years old!
After University, I did a lot of volunteering which helped to build up my skills. I was headhunted by a management consulting firm, but soon after joining, I took a seven day bootcamp at Oasis500, Jordan’s leading seed investment company and business accelerator in the Tech and Creative Industry spaces.
That bootcamp changed my life and I began to develop a pitch to join Oasis500.
I simply didn’t see myself in corporate life, so I resigned from my job before I actually got any investment! However, that leap of faith paid off and thankfully I received the funds to start Abjjad full-time.
Ogunte: Can you explain what Abjjad is and how it has developed over the years?
Eman Hylooz: Abjjad is an online community for book lovers, especially lovers of Arabic literature.The product has developed based on our users’ feedback. It was originally for reviews and online discussion, but users were asking to read books online, which is why we entered the eBooks market. And now that we’ve pivoted our model into subscriptions, we see ourselves becoming something like the Netflix for Arabic books.
Ogunte: How has Abjjad as a concept and company changed over the years?
Eman Hylooz: We were focusing more on the community, the traffic, the reviews and the ratings. But now we are focused on the business, on strengthening our value proposition to publishers, in particular, not just in terms of marketing and reach, but based on strong financial terms - digitizing their books, enabling them to publish on our platform, creating a revenue stream for them, and increasing their reader base.
Ogunte: What has been the best moment of your journey so far?
Eman Hylooz: When I started Abjjad, I dreamed of having my favorite author, Ghassan Kanafani, up on my platform. Kanafani’s writing and political activism as a Palestinian was provocative and powerful. He’s a hero to me and to many in this part of the world; he was assassinated in Beirut at the age of 36.
I wrote a long letter to Rimal Publications (the exclusive publisher for Ghassan Kanafani) and, with some persuasion, they were able to get approval from Anna Kanafani (Ghassan’s widow) to digitally publish his work only on Abjjad.
Very soon his work will become a public domain. I don’t want that day to become - the work will get published badly and his books will get mistreated. I really hope that Abjjad can play a part in raising the standards of book publishing and book reading across the Arab world.
Ogunte: What is your primary objective?
Eman Hylooz: Digital publishing for Arabic books is lagging behind the rest of the world; it has became sort of my mission to solve this. To make digitizing faster and cheaper. To provide affordable eBooks for Arabic users. To switch the Arabic world from piracy and PDFs to reading copyrighted versions with good user experience.
Ogunte: How do you measure your impact?
Eman Hylooz: Of course, our readership is the main indicator of impact. In 2018, we reached over 1 million downloads. In 2019, we’re on track to match that, but we want more.
Later on, we’d like to measure a bunch of different indicators, like our readers’ progress in a book, how many times they repeat-read certain books, the quality of connections and discussions on the platform.
Eman Hylooz and Hasan Yaghi GM of Dar-AlTanweer at Beirut Book Fair
Ogunte: What do you know now that you didn’t know then?
Eman Hylooz: I didn’t know the journey as an entrepreneur would be so tough; if I knew, maybe I wouldn’t have been so excited when I got that first round of investment!
Getting funds feels horribly impossible, hiring good talent is hard, retaining a good team is hard, and the real blow, even with the best product, the market here isn’t always receptive. B2C is tough for Arab users because they are not used to paying online and get a lot of things for free.
As I’ve scaled, transforming Abjjad into a culturally relevant product with market reach across the region has been a challenge. My stakeholders are all different - from the readers, publishers, talent, investors - it’s been ten times harder than I thought.
Ogunte: You’re one of the oldest entrepreneurs in the ecosystem. What have you observed over the years?
Eman Hylooz: Investors were much more excited when the ecosystem was just starting to develop towards 2010 with the founding of Oasis500. However, entrepreneurs are more mature now than they were back then. It feels like the rate of maturity for entrepreneurs has grown faster than the maturity of our investors.
I’ve survived seven years of entrepreneurship, but I’ve seen tough entrepreneurs with great products that didn’t make it.
It’s not about being a smart entrepreneur or a tough one, it’s about how much you are willing to keep trying (without being stupid). It’s been a mixture of persistence and some miracles to get me to where I am today. Twice I was at a critical point in my business, and out of the blue, both times, I received a financial award that I didn’t even remember applying for! Turning my business model into a subscription service was the last thing to try before I would have stopped doing what I was doing. Thankfully it worked...
Ogunte: What have been your major technical / business challenges?
A subscription model is a challenge, but the good thing is that subscriptions can be sold in bulk and based on a revenue share agreement, which is an attractive proposition for B2B deals. B2B is not the success of the product, but it’s good for some cash injection into the company and for free user acquisition. With the help of one sizeable B2B deal and lots of initiatives in Jordan that support bulk deals, the subscription model got a big push when it was most crucial.
Ogunte: What is the biggest challenge as a leader?
Eman Hylooz: Hiring and firing. The first time I fired, it was a big challenge for me psychologically, but now I’m developing the skill to sense the success and fit of a person from the start.
Interestingly, hiring juniors has always brought better results than hiring seniors who have had high turnover in this company. I think because as a startup, 50% of the senior’s work is actually junior work. But I have to do it, we all have to do it. We need to learn and keep doing whatever the task is, so we can teach others. We need to know every single detail not just by supervising but also by doing ourselves. That’s probably an expectation that needs to be better managed by me from the start.
Ogunte: Which areas of business do you find it hardest to be confident in?
Eman Hylooz: Technical and product - the apps, the back-end and even the front-end. I’ve got Abjjad to where it is now by doing the ‘low hanging fruit’ kind of technical work, but now we’re growing and making design decisions based on data, we’re being more scientific about the design, we’re optimizing for scaling up.
Eman's Mentor Oliver Beige at Enpact Program
Ogunte: Where do you draw your energy from?
Eman Hylooz: Currently from the team, although 30% of my team are international - in UAE, Egypt, Palestine, so we’re not always together. I like to feel the energy of people around me.
Abjjad won the Mohammad Bin Rashid Arabic Language Award 2019
Ogunte: What are three valuable things you’ve learned so far?
Eman Hylooz: I learned the value of money, the value of good talent, and the importance of my health and energy. Energy doesn’t come back as easily as it goes!
Ogunte: What advice would you give other women in social enterprise?
Eman Hylooz: I don’t know what the difference between male and female entrepreneurs is. Our situations feel similar, but I’m sure that being a mother and an entrepreneur is much harder than being either a female or male entrepreneur without this kind of responsibilities.
Also, I wish I had done more in University; I was so naive - my life was going to University, taking boring classes, learning things that didn’t feel relevant. I should have done more. I matured late. When I started working, I was doing what I was doing well, but I wasn’t aware of how I was doing it or thinking about how to build my career..
I was driven by passion, not by data or science or strategy. Now I’m learning how to focus more on my data. And that’s definitely a message I’d pass on.
Ogunte: Could you list 3 women in social enterprises that inspire you?
Nada Hanieh, co-Founder of SitatByoot, an initiative that empowers women through craft. Nada balances emotional awareness with pragmatism; she criticises her own work, but when she says her work is affecting someone, it is. I love what she did, what she’s doing. It’s a beautiful model. They did their part in the community, it was tangible, and that’s so difficult to achieve in social entrepreneurship.
Nora Shawwa is the founder of Rimal publishing house which is now more than 30 years old. She is a big supporter of Palestine in the types of books and topics she publishes. She is the exclusive publisher for Ghassan Kalafani, who is the most read Palestinian writer. She raised the three most beautiful people - Falak, Head of Sales and Managing Partner at Rimal Publications, a professional photographer and recently an author of a newly released book, "Mahrooseh", Ali, the Creative Director at Rimal Publications and an independent artist (painting and sculpting).and Fadia, the Managing Director at Rimal Publications and Head of Accounting & Finance.
Luma Qadoumi is the founder of several amazing initiatives like BeAmman.com, Ahel al Balad, “Go Local, Support Local” - those three things came out of one woman! I love how she created movements that are still going - to create something that grows with or without you I think is a real achievement. These three initiatives are platforms which not only improve the impression of the city for locals and foreigners, but encourages active participation of people to find local activities, buy local products and support a cleaner and healthier environment.
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