Making it big in the Middle East

I remember very clearly the day before Echoer launched. Sitting in San Francisco (where I had gone to speak to local press), my co-founder Davin and I were on Skype debating the merits of a US/Canada vs global release. On one hand we wanted to put all our energy into the local markets. They were on our doorstep, we knew them best, that’s where our contacts were, and if we made it big we were good to go. On the other hand we knew that any media coverage we got would be available worldwide, so why naively limit downloads, frustrate users and pretend that borders still matter? (Dori, thanks for the kick in the butt).

We opted for a global release, and thank goodness we did. On Thursday April 26th 2012 Echoer launched. The culmination of a year of very hard work. We received some great coverage, and the resulting downloads were good. But not jaw-droppingly great. Exhausted and a little disappointed I headed to Chicago, where I spent the weekend before heading back to Montreal. Downloads continued to flow on Friday and Saturday, but again, nothing astounding.

Enter Sunday. Wake up, check our analytics. Downloads steady, but no serious uplift. On to the airport, flight delayed, check analytics again, no change. Obsessive much? And then something remarkable happened. I arrived in Toronto, turned on my phone, which rang immediately, and Sydney was panicking: “someone’s hacked Echoer… tons of echoes… a new user every six seconds”.

And so began Echoer’s relationship with the Middle East. Nobody had hacked us. The downloads were real, and they were almost all coming from the Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabia. That weekend turned out to be a great one as we saw almost 16,000 downloads in 48hrs. And the piece that started it was from a Saudi blogger whom we previously had no idea about. His articles spurred others and before we knew it we were the no.1 social app in several Middle Eastern countries.

Much of that Sunday evening is a blur, but I’ll never forget the excitement as we worked through the night with an Arabic speaking friend to translate local echoes, drop instructions and explanations (in Arabic) into active Echo Spaces, answer Q&A/support requests and translate our tutorial into Arabic.  It was also fascinating to see our users in the Middle East using Echoer in ways which we either didn’t expect or hadn’t planned for so soon.

One benefit our Middle East users had was an immediate density of people echoing – the sought after network effect! The no.1 complaint we receive from users is that “there are not enough people around me using Echoer”. It’s a marketing challenge, but not one we faced that weekend in the Middle East. Very few startups get to see so early on how their products work under such circumstances, some never will. For us this was amazingly instructive and exciting, and has informed our product direction and priorities moving forward.

There’s a lot we have done since then to engage the local market and find out what those users want next from us and from their mobile apps generally. We’ve also done a deep-dive into how Echoer is being used, analysing user behaviour and content. It turns out that the commonality of place and thought (as per Echoer) is a more powerful connector to the people around you than social graph matching (as per Highlight and co). We’ve also seen Echoer being used commercially, by local vendors and businessmen, with no urging from us. And we’ve been charmed by the compliments and feedback from our users, including those in the Middle East. In response, watch this space, we have a lot more to come.

We also learnt a few lessons about the power of untapped or outlying markets. I’m not going to give away all our secrets, but if you are reading this, ask yourself for a minute what it was about the Middle East market that made it easier for us to make an impact than at home? What aspects of Echoer specifically resonated there? What was it about that first blogger and his readers that meant we didn’t have to get a piece in Techcrunch? And how can that be recreated elsewhere?

Finally, we’re learning a huge amount about the region. For us and many other startups, the Middle East (and Saudi Arabic specifically) is a fascinating and exciting market to be in. Only last month, while we were finishing off our own analysis, the New York Times detailed Saudi as the fastest-growing Twitter zone. If you have time you should also go and read about how and why bluetooth took off a few years back.

At Echoer we’re trying to think away from the norm. Getting users and then keeping them is our greatest challenge. But fortunately we’ve found an audience that’s just as excited about what we are doing and is taking engagement, adoption and innovation to new places. I look forward to seeing where else Echoes takes root, and I hope the lessons we’re learning in the Middle East will benefit our users everywhere, whether upcoming feature additions, new use-cases, or lessons in marketing and creating a network effect closer to you sometime soon.

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