My Business: Egyptian mothers on the net
- 1 February 2012
- From the section Business
What makes an entrepreneur? BBC Arabic's Marwa Amer and Tom Santorelli spoke to Yasmine El-Mehairy about setting up an Egyptian website designed specifically for mothers.
When Yasmine El-Mehairy looked online for pregnancy advice for her sister-in-law in 2010, she was bombarded with conflicting opinions and what she thought were old wives' tales.
She identified a niche in the online market and the idea for SuperMama was born: A website offering tips and expert advice for mothers and mothers-to-be, the first of its kind in the Arab world.
In gestation for over a year, the site has now been live for nearly four months, winning business competitions and developing increasing numbers of visitors - and revenue - every day.
But for Yasmine, it's not simply about the money: "We didn't want to have just another commercial product, we wanted an idea that made a difference."
Yasmine met the first of the site's co-founders, Zeinab Samir, in 2007 when they both worked for an internet startup which went under in the global economic crisis of 2008.
Along with family friend Shereen El Sammaa - now the site's marketing director - they hit upon an idea for a site offering parenting advice which is checked by healthcare professionals.
Chat forums for mothers do exist in the Arab world but as Yasmine says "the information isn't verified. It's people chatting, so you may stumble upon completely destructive advice". She gives an example of the idea that feeding honey to a baby in its first three months could result in disfiguration. She sees it as the site's responsibility to dispel such myths.
It is also possible to search the online forums in which mothers share advice. Other sites do not have this feature. "It makes it very difficult for new users to find old topics," says Yasmine.
The site has a large network of researchers and writers comprised of mothers all working from home, not in one centralised office.
They meet once a month to discuss upcoming topics and articles.
"The writers send their work in through email and we send it for verification to the specialists," says Yasmine.
These include doctors, teachers, psychologists, nutritionists and exercise experts - all volunteers - who provide the essential final checks that enable the mothers "to preserve the knowledge that has been passed between generations" as Yasmine puts it.
Although still its infancy, SuperMama is projected to have an annual turnover of over $1.6m after its first year, making its money in the traditional online way: Selling advertisement banners, sponsorships, and product placements inside the articles and videos. It has also worked out deals with affiliate sales sites to provide specialised discounts for mothers keeping an eye on their budgets.
Setting up the site was a big risk for Yasmine. She invested her life savings in the project without, she says, "any clear direction of where it was going to go".
Help came in the form of the MIT Arab Enterprise Forum Business Plan Competition, where entrepreneurs from across the Arab world pitch their business ideas.
Out of 3,800 applicants, SuperMama was one of the 30 semi-finalists. Yasmine picked up invaluable contacts in the IT industry who helped develop the business model and pointed out its weaknesses.
The site went on to win two other entrepreneur competitions, developing networks of mentors and investors which helped the start-up find its feet.
It was a huge confidence boost for Yasmine.
"It just proves that we can do it and the site has a lot of potential."
One of SuperMama's main aims is to remain non-political and non-religious so it can be used by anyone and everyone across the Arab world.
Yasmine recalls some of the violence in Cairo's Tahrir Square last November as security forces clashed with protesters accusing the military of trying to keep their grip on power.
One of the mothers in the online community complained that the site was not offering any condolences to mothers who had lost children in the fight.
"For us what kept us through is that the other mothers on the site supported this argument and told that mother that we are a non-political and non-religious site and that this is a parenting site and not a place to discuss political issues."
Another problem they face is access to finance - but there are a few tax breaks open to the business.
Investment in Egypt is slowly growing, and Yasmine says there are promising signs as people return to the country after years away.
"I think we as a country are new to this entrepreneurship, and therefore it's going to take some time."
Yasmine has big plans for the site in the future, including the expansion of current online tools which help mothers manage their time and budgets, and directories of local services such nurseries, paediatricians and maternity clothes shops.
She hopes one day "the word SuperMama would be the first to jump into the mind of every mother or pregnant woman when looking for information".