When Sami Al Ahmad moved to Egypt from his native Syria for his university studies, he found the process extremely tedious without being able to see the criteria and required documents.
“The process was so tough for me and I missed the first deadline and was in a very sad position,” he says.
“So it’s kind of a promise I’ve made to myself that I don’t want anyone to feel the same way… that bad feeling of ‘I can’t continue with my studies’ because you don’t understand the process… where to start , how to apply, what the requirements are, whether documents are missing, so a lot of information [is required].”
Despite his dental educational background, the experience led Mr. Al Ahmad to join forces with Abdo Samy and Ahmed Elgebaly to launch the Marj3 Educational Technology Platform (which means “Reference” in Arabic) in 2016 as a scholarship database to support students in the Middle East and North Africa.
The trio built the start-up and worked part-time until 2017 when they received pre-funding from regional accelerator and venture capital firm Flat6Labs’ FAC Egypt Fund.
As Marj3 continued to grow, dependent on advertising and marketing to support operations, the co-founders saw greater opportunities to get involved in the student journey process and kept changing their business model – about “five or six times,” says Mr. Al Ahmad, who works as Chief Executive of the company.
After another round of investment – six-figure funding from US-based Expert Dojo in 2020 – the start-up expanded its operations. In March, it was rebranded as Emonovo, a technology-based platform that supports students from start to finish in their study abroad educational journey.
The process ranges from support in making study and university decisions, through the budget, to support in organizing accommodation and flight tickets.
Emonovo – the name derives from the 13th-century Dutch student Emo, who was reportedly the first international student to study at Oxford University – has now partnered with around 350 universities and educational institutions worldwide, including George Mason University , Cardiff University and Illinois State University , Swiss School of Management and The University of Sydney.
The rebranding was a “risky move,” Mr. Al Ahmad admits.
“Having massive traffic [to the website] … and if you then change your name, there is a lot to do, technically, on the website, on the team, on everything. So it’s very risky,” he says.
The implementation took more than six months to ensure the process went smoothly and no data was lost during the migration.
“I think it was going well… where we are now, after seven months,” says Mr. Al Ahmad. “Our traffic is amazing. Students are from all over the world, we have more partnerships with universities, all our partners love the new name and vision… I think we’ve done well.”
This month, Emonovo also raised an undisclosed amount of funding through a bridge round involving angel investors from the US, Europe and the Mena region, as well as follow-on investments from Flat6Labs.
The investment will be used to drive the company’s new branding strategy and to support the growth of university onboarding and student recruitment through the platform. It is also used to improve the platform’s technology to optimize data management.
In terms of revenue, universities currently pay an annual subscription fee, with Emonovo also taking a percentage of the tuition fee when a student signs up through its platform. The majority of the institutions currently on the platform are based in the US, UK, Europe and Turkey.
Currently, the offerings are free for students, but the startup could charge for premium services in the future, Al Ahmad says.
The demand from students from the region for studying abroad is still high, he says.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a significant drop in the number of international students amid lockdowns and restrictions on movement around the world.
In the United States, the largest market for international higher education, the number of new international students enrolling in the 2020 academic year fell by nearly 46 percent, according to a report by the Institute of International Education (IIE).
Since then, however, numbers have risen, with a recent IIE report stating that higher education institutions in the US reported a 68 percent annual increase in the number of new international students entering 2021.
Mr Al Ahmad says the pandemic has not affected operations despite an initial drop in the number of students wanting to migrate for higher education.
“When Covid started universities had no other options, they had to recruit [students] on-line. So it boosted our sales related to universities. And also for the students, I know there have been a lot of changes with Covid, especially for travel. While some students have not been able to travel…at the same time, a lot is changing [meant that many students] didn’t want to go through the process alone. They were looking for a platform or an advisor or advisor to help them, and that benefitted our traffic and users as well,” he says.
“While Covid has impacted international students overall, in terms of our business it has boosted our numbers.”
According to IIE, a total of 57,564 international students from the Mena region were enrolled in US universities in the 2020/2021 academic year, most of them from Saudi Arabia.
Interest from the region continues to grow as pandemic restrictions are lifted around the world.
Emonovo has more than 2.5 million monthly users and has so far helped place “thousands” of students, says Mr. Al Ahmad.
The company is also expanding its activities to meet its goals.
It plans to nearly double its workforce to 20, although Mr Al Ahmad stresses that the hiring process will be slow and measured.
“After our first round of seed funding, we grew our team members super fast and that meant not all of our teams had the same knowledge of onboarding and understanding the business,” he says. “So that’s a mistake we don’t want to make again. Every hire should be well planned.”
On the technology front, the company is in the process of making “major changes” to its platform, including introducing advanced data management systems that will be “very accurate.”
Marketing and signing of strategic partnerships across the region are also going strong.
Operationally, the start-up is considering opening its next office in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. “We are already looking at a few options and finding what suits us best because it is very important to have an office in the GCC area,” says Mr. Al Ahmad.
Emonovo is also preparing to raise its Series A funding and is in discussions with investors.
“We are already talking to investors and VCs, so we are in a good phase. Hopefully [by] We will complete it mid to late next year,” says Mr. Al Ahmad.
Looking ahead, the company will focus on expanding its reach in the Mena region, initially targeting the African market for expansion.
“I believe that for now we will focus on offering more services to students from Mena or Mea instead of just going global without having enough information about other markets,” says Mr. Al Ahmad.
Q&A with Sami Al Ahmad, CEO and co-founder of Emonovo
Who is your role model?
Actually, it’s a mixture of Jeff Bezos [Amazon]Steve Jobs [Apple] and Elon Musk [Tesla] … it’s perfect [combination] between each of them.
Which successful start-up would you like to have founded?
Booking.com. I think they dominate the hotel market.
If you could start over, is there anything you would do differently?
There are many things, actually it’s like a five year journey can be done in a few months. It’s a lot of knowledge about what needs to be done [that you learn later] and now I’m feeling like “I was so stupid to do it” but it’s part of the learning curve.
What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?
Focus, focus, focus. There are always good opportunities, but leave them and focus [on one] because if you open many projects, you will not close any. If you open one, hopefully you will close one too.
Also, money and funding are a tool, not a goal. So, fundraising or having money is a tool to help you grow, not a goal that says, “I’m successful when I raise funds.”
Focusing on profitability from day one is also very important.
What is your personal motto?
See the change that can happen for a bright future for the next generation. Build something that hopefully will [support] One or more generations make me wake up happy every day and go to work.
Updated September 26, 2022 at 4:30 am