From Yahoo! to Vyu

After helping shape the region’s digital landscape through Maktoob, Ahmed Nassef now has his sights set on changing the way we watch TV.

By Elisa Oddone

Regional Internet pioneer Ahmed Nassef, who left his senior position at Yahoo last year, recently launched a new app called Vyu which allows users to share and discover TV and video on their mobile devices.

At last month’s MENA ICT forum in Amman, Nassef told Venture why he decided to set up Vyu. He also shared his thoughts on Yahoo’s recent decision to close its Amman headquarters—an office he helped nurture during his celebrated tenure as the head of, before the leading Jordanian-founded Internet portal was sold for millions to Yahoo in 2009.

What did you decide to set up Vyu?

I wanted to go back to my roots and be involved in an early stage startup experience.

I looked at different ideas, eventually coming up with Vyu, trying to exploit our three major regional dynamics: TV-viewing, mobile, and social [media]. There is a yearning to share Internet information regionally, especially in light of our social restrictions and cultural traditions.

Everybody watches TV, both the classic live TV broadcast model as well as catch-up TV.

At the same time, everybody has a mobile device and, according to studies conducted in the last couple of years, when people watch something on TV, they are also active on their mobile mostly commenting on what they are watching.

The challenge is that information about TV shows is there, at least in the United States, but it is highly fragmented. It is not possible to go to one site and get all the information. I can search on Google or Twitter but this entails a lot of time, which people don’t want to waste while watching a show. What we are trying to do instead is simplify this experience.

On Vyu, one could get all information around the program, access all social conversations, and easily share it with friends on social media.

Vyu will be launched both in the United States and the Middle East. How different will it be?

The audience is certainly different in those two markets, the content side, sadly, is much easier to launch in the U.S. than in this region. This has to do with some of the challenges that businesses face here in the digital space. If you want information about shows in the

United States, you have thousands of free sources available in English. The only challenge is how to put this information together in a format that makes sense and is user-friendly.

In the region, getting the content is much harder. Some of it is simply not available and, when it is, it either lacks quality or a clear content licensing model. But I do have a lot of hope for this market. Consumers are here, using their smartphones, and craving quality content.

How difficult is to create a new social media platform?

It is very difficult worldwide, but easier in the region’s market due to the lack of competition. There are only a few applications that are really relevant, that work and offer local content. This represents a great chance for anybody who wants to really establish a space as, in the end, international companies like Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and Google, are not investing in the local side of content. Most of their operations consist of bringing in an international platform and applying it in other localities, they are not

really creating the content themselves.

Does the Yahoo office shuttering represent a blow to Jordan’s ICT sector?

I do not think so. This is not ideal for Yahoo as it is getting harder for them to be relevant in this part of the world, but this is a business decision the company took.

We have over a hundred million people who are online in the region nowadays. Thus, it is really up to the ecosystem of entrepreneurs, the industry itself to really be invested in digital and take advantage of it. Consumers lack local content for their mobile devices and that’s why most of them end up relying on international applications. We have a crisis of quality and trust between the user and the product in the region. If we were able to crack that, then the opportunity we face in this market is massive.

How was shifting from Maktoob to a big corporation like Yahoo?

Going through the acquisition stage and shifting from a firm of only a couple of hundred people to a 14,000-person company with a massive bureaucracy was probably the most difficult part of my professional life. We had to deal with the Yahoo due diligence team, which alone counted over a hundred people and once the acquisition was completed, we started to deal with a whole new team. This adjustment was very hard for us as we already faced problems within the two of Maktoob’s main offices in Dubai and Amman due to the different business cultures. Now, we suddenly had to deal with people coming in from Yahoo offices from all over the world.

If you could go back and carry out the Maktoob-Yahoo deal again, what would you do differently?

In the beginning, we probably put a bit too much trust in the Yahoo people. We should have been more confident. This would have saved us many months of wasted time, as we thought: “Of course Yahoo must know how to do this better.” But when it comes to programming in Arabic, we found that Yahoo knew very little about how to deal with right to left languages. I would have been probably a lot more forceful in how we shaped the structure of our engineering team, as one of the biggest mistakes that followed the acquisition was that the Amman team was sucked into being part of the emerging market engineering team based in India, rather than being part of developing the Yahoo products in Arabic.