Istikana the MENA’s answer to Hulu

Istikana logo

Istikana logo

Istikana launched just over a year ago at Arabnet Digital Summit 2011, and I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Samer Abdin, one of the Founders in Dubai to chat on how things have went so far.

The key players at Istikana are:

  1. Samer Abdin and Tareq Abu-Lughod (co-founders)
  2. Sami Shalabi (Investor & Technology)
  3. Habib Haddad CEO of Yamli and Wamda (Advisor)

When I asked Samer why and how istikana started, he replied “we [the shareholders] were all sitting and complained that we couldn’t use Hulu in the [MENA] region, till now we still cant remember who asked the question: is there such a such thing for Arabs? Is there an Arabic version of Hulu?” He continued “we needed a business guy, a tech guy and a content guy and we were all on one table so there was no objection as to why not start it ourselves.” Then he went on to explain why they wanted to do it, “We wanted to prove to ourselves that an Arabic version of Hulu would work”, and after they did the research they ended up building it, from the looks of it things seem to be going well. They currently have a team of 10 people between their Amman and Dubai offices focusing on developing, curating and reaching deals with content companies.

The website revenue is based entirely on advertising at the moment, however they are keeping a close eye on things according to Samer. And they are looking to grow their revenue with their recent announcement of partnering up with Arab Radio & Television (ART) to provide streaming service access to its comprehensive film library. As well as being featured on the new smart Internet TV’s as an application that links directly to the website. When I asked Samer how they reached such agreements he replied “Tareq worked his magic” referring to the years of experience he had in dealing with media and content publishers in the region.

As for the future of Istikana “we want to be the leaders in the online video content space” said Samer, “Tareq and I are working on this full time to reach our goal and we are fiercely ambitious.” For the time being they are focusing on getting Arabic content and getting it right once that is done they can start thinking about other things.

If you use the site you may have noticed that they are available on different mobile platforms as well. Which was a surprise even to the founders, they didn’t expect users to view content, especially theirs since it was long, on mobile devices. However they realized that the amount of traffic coming in from mobile platforms justified the need to develop native apps for different platforms “it was a data driven decision to work on mobile and place more resources on it” explained Samer. “We think very hard on behalf of our users, we want to make it easy for them to view, share and be social with us.” He also added “The easier you make it for people to use the more it is shared assuming the content is good”. Samer then shared another recent example of how they managed to simplify the viewing experience, “Last summer we got whitelisted on Facebook which needed approval,” whitelisting is the process of having the videos play directly on Facebook similar to youtube. This according to Samer made the experience easier for people to view videos directly and share it with their friends without the need to go the website or any other pages.

We then moved on to discuss how they were marketing Istikana and what they found to be working for them, Samer was a big advocate of social media saying “the best thing is social, because our content is inherently social. We focus heavily on Facebook and Twitter. It’s an iteration that you have to figure out there is no set formula. You have to be on social networks, listen and respond to what people say. And don’t be afraid to try different things.”  He also mentioned that they usually run targeted Facebook and adwords campaigns, however the majority of the traffic is organic. “We would need to spend six to seven times the amount of money we’re spending right now on Adwords to get the same amount of traffic from ads – Currently the biggest generator of traffic is other people!” Stated Samer.

Finally I asked Samer if he has any advice for people starting up in the MENA. He replied that there are two major points people should be aware of and they are:

  1. When u come up with the business plan – it sounds silly but its very difficult to do – you have to be realistic. Naturally you have to be passionate to do this or you will go insane, but this passion makes it difficult to think objectively, you have to learn to take yourself outside the passion and focus on getting things done.
  2. Flexibility: The business plan is like a battle plan, as soon as the first bullet goes the plan goes out the window. You have to be flexible and you need to change, you have to be stubborn but at the same point detailed oriented and objective.

I’d like to thank Samer for taking the time to talk with me and wish him and the entire Istikana team the best of luck. Have you used Istikana? what do you think? Let us know your thoughts below, and If you’d like to get the latest startup news from the MENA region, please register to receive our newsletter.

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Having worked with top digital agencies and companies in the MENA region for the past number of years I'm now looking now to venture on my own with small side projects in online, SaaS products. Things I like include: gaming, sports, technology, social media, start ups, funny things and reading about new bright ideas.