Text: Ali Suleiman
Sowt, a new audio social networking platform based out of Jordan, was founded by three Zureiqat siblings. I sat down with Hazem Zureiqat (Founder & CEO) to learn more on this start-up and the power of voice. A graduate of MIT and Macalester College, Hazem's area of expertise lies in transportation engineering, planning, and economics. He has previously worked with the Greater Amman Municipality and also serves as a transportation consultant at Engicon, a multidisciplinary engineering consulting firm in Amman.
AS | Can you please tell us how the idea for Sowt came about?
HZ | The idea came about in February 2012. My sister, who works in media and journalism, thought about developing an audio platform for citizen journalists to cover the events unfolding in the region. The initial idea was for people to record news on-the-go, add a text description, a photo, and their location — something which would add credibility to the news they were reporting, and to share that post with the world. The idea then evolved into one that is more encompassing and not just limited to citizen journalism.
AS | So was the idea to give Sowt an Arabic identity there from the outset?
HZ | Yes. Sowt’s Arab identity is reflected in that the platform was inspired by the events taking place in the Arab world and that our initial target market was the Arab world. Of course, the identity is also reflected in the name (the Arabic word for ‘voice’). We looked at different spellings of the word and selected the one we’re using today.
AS | So after you got the idea down how did you go about establishing yourselves?
HZ | We decided to make the platform available on both mobile and web. Although everything is going mobile, web remains important, especially for consumption purposes. We also decided to make the interface available in English and Arabic from day one.
We worked with a development company here in Jordan first, and we’re now moving development activities in-house. We also wanted to do everything ‘by the book’; we registered the company, did a patentability search, applied for a patent in the US (which is currently pending), and we registered our trademarks.
We worked on the concept and what features we wanted to incorporate. We determined the general look and feel, and we designed the brand and user interface. The beta version was launched (by invitation) at the end of December 2012. The public version came out at the end of March 2013. During this time period, we would get feedback from our testers and adjust the platform based on it. But the basic premise of the app remained the same: you record a short audio clip [42 seconds long], you can attach a picture, share your location, and share it automatically on your Facebook and Twitter feeds.
AS | Why 42 seconds?
HZ | We wanted something between half a minute and a minute. We didn’t want anything too short because we wanted people to post substantive content and have serious discussions. So we just picked a unique number for people to remember. This number is also mentioned in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”
AS | There are many audio platforms out there, so what differentiates yours?
HZ | First off, it is important to understand Sowt’s positioning in the online audio space. You have streaming services such as radio, Spotify, music apps, etc. Then you have content distribution platforms like SoundCloud, where a band, for example, can share their music, or a university can post a lecture to distribute content. These platforms offer a one-way communication (although they may include some commenting features). Sowt is a social audio platform.
Social audio is about having people talk (literally) to one another. This space is fairly new. There are a couple of relatively big players out there, but there isn’t a single dominant player on the global scale. People are still experimenting, and there isn’t one successful working model.
What sets us apart from other social audio platforms is first our geographical advantage: Sowt is the first in the Arab world. This is significant, because voice is very language and culture-specific, so the barriers to entry from that perspective are not so low. We also believe that we have a superior platform; we’ve gotten extremely positive feedback on the quality and user interface. Furthermore, Sowt focuses very much on interaction among users, and we are patenting some of the features that relate to that.
AS | The target users were citizen journalists, and then you expanded it. Do you have specific target users now?
HZ | It’s hard to initially define a target market in the traditional sense. We’re keeping it open to see how people come and use it. That said, we have several use cases in mind that we are pushing for and promoting.
AS | This seems to deal with a larger aspiration. Can we say Sowt has a certain philosophy and mission in what it’s doing, beyond business?
HZ | Absolutely. The three of us (the founding shareholders) are all quite active in the public sphere, and we’ve realised how much can be lost when people communicate using text. Our vision when creating Sowt was to raise the level of the discussion, to elevate the online discourse by introducing voice. Voice is more personal and effective, and it is the least prone to misunderstanding. We’re not necessarily looking for content that would go viral but, rather, for people to engage in substantive discussions online that would eventually have a positive impact offline.
Nevertheless, and given how we started Sowt as an all-encompassing platform, we are seeing uses that we had not anticipated. People began recording poetry and popular songs in their voice, quickly making the hashtag #bisowti (in my voice) one of the most popular on Sowt. When we see such uses becoming popular, we learn and adapt the platform accordingly.
AS | Sowt can be integrated with Facebook or Twitter, so that’s also a way of increasing your user base.
HZ | You can integrate to Facebook and Twitter such that you can post it and anyone can click and listen to it without the need to register or sign up. It’s a balance between being usable and trying to encourage people to sign up. We have now opted to have people access Sowt and listen without the need to sign up. Sowt is not a plugin to Facebook or Twitter. We built a separate platform rather than building on these existing ones.
AS | Given access to smart phones is available across various classes and communities, can we say Sowt is in a way bringing people of different socio-economic backgrounds closer together?
HZ | Definitely. We even have some features in the pipeline that would allow people without a smartphone to use Sowt. Our tagline is “Get your voice back”. We are essentially giving a voice to those who normally don’t have one. But our aim is to bring people with different views on a topic together to have a discussion. I think more of it as a dialogue on topics and ideas rather than bringing together people from different classes.
AS | Can you tell me about the importance of voice as a medium?
HZ | Voice has unique advantage over text or video. Some may see it as inferior to video, but in many ways, it is not. Voice is simple and intuitive; you don’t need to worry about arranging where to record, what to dress, or how you look. You just [hit] record and speak. Voice is effective. In fact, it is quite effective in triggering emotions in the brain, and there is research that backs this. Voice, unlike text or video, is also something you can consume in parallel while doing other activities—while driving, walking, or shopping. Voice also has advantages in specific uses. We say we want people to discuss and debate issues; we don’t need video for that.
AS | Is it possible to have a type of “audio bias” misunderstanding where the audio alone does not provide enough context for the listener? For example, in a recording of a demonstration.
HZ | In some cases, there may be a disadvantage when you don’t see the motion, but that may also be a good thing, as it gives the listener the chance to use his or her imagination. Often all you need is a sound and picture. One thing should be clear: We don’t want to replace video services or Twitter. Each has its own uses. If anything, we complement – [rather than] compete with – these services; we allow you to add voice to your tweets and to your Facebook posts.
AS | Any cut-off topics or censorship? How do you guarantee safety of users in political discussions?
HZ | We had a few cases where we had to deactivate user accounts because of inappropriate (mostly pornographic) content. Currently, we monitor content manually; our Community Manager listens to every single post. In terms of political views, we certainly do not censor. We allow anyone to say whatever they want. Some users may want to be anonymous, and that’s fine, as long as they’re okay with using their voice, for now. Voice filters may be added down the road.
AS | What about funding?
HZ | We’ve been bootstrapping since our launch, and we are now raising our first round of funding with regional investors.
AS | So you don’t sell information to third parties?
HZ | Not if it compromises our users’ privacy or violates the terms to which they had agreed. We will certainly use the data we have for advertising purposes.
AS | When you set out on this project, what were the key challenges you faced?
HZ | Getting engaged users, not just registered users. We want people to put out content. It’s a new concept and we’re not replicating an existing service saying “this is better.” It’s a new thing. As much as I believe in Sowt, at the end of the day, it is built on a hypothesis that voice is important and more effective. Text made the leap into social media from SMS, for example, to a space where you interact with people. Audio never made that leap. We believe that because audio has these unique characteristics, it is worth making that leap into the social networking space. So we and our users are experimenting to see how Sowt can best be utilised.
We’ve had other challenges [of course]. You have an ecosystem [in the region] that is not as mature as, say, Silicon Valley. Many investors are not familiar with the social networking space and want to invest in products and services that have a more guaranteed revenue stream in the short term.
AS | So to engage users and reach out, how are you going about doing that?
HZ | Through targeted campaigns that have a specific theme and purpose. We’re working with partners to test various use cases, and we’re using Jordan as a testing ground. This, of course, is in addition to other online and offline marketing channels.
AS | Any specific lessons learned throughout the process?
HZ | We’re still learning. This is certainly not a walk in the park, and given my background in transportation engineering and planning, it’s a totally different ball game! I’ve learned not to buy into the hype that comes with being an entrepreneur. That can lead to wasting so much time that would have been better used working on one’s product.
Ali Suleiman graduated from the University of Waterloo's Civil Engineering programme (surprised?) in Canada, and holds a Project Management certificate from the University of Toronto. Of Palestinian and Turkish origin, he is fluent in Arabic and Turkish. His professional experience draws from work in Canada, Turkey, Jordan, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. Currently he works with an engineering firm in Jordan on industrial and renewable energy projects, and is an avid supporter of sustainable development. His interests include history, film, and music. At the moment Ali is completing his MBA studies in Germany.