For Yasser Abdulaziz, organising weekly football matches in Bahrain, after finishing a finance degree in the UK was an exercise in frustration.
“I play three to four times with my friends and family and I was always the one who was organising the matches, booking the venue, talking to people, getting people on board for the game,” says Mr Abdulaziz, the co-founder of Malaeb, an app developed in Bahrain that connects players with venues.
For a region obsessed with the game, organising football matches seamlessly was still an uphill task as Mr Abdulaziz discovered when he tried to book a venue to play with his friends on a Wednesday evening couple of years ago.
“The first venue I called wasn’t picking up. I called someone else and he said he didn't have the book that he used for bookings and asked me to call him in three hours. Another told me he was fully booked and when I finally found a pitch, the guys decided they didn’t want to play,” says Mr Abdulaziz, 26.
Exasperated, he thought of an online platform that would simplify his search and also minimise the time for football aficionados to plan and organise a match at any time of the week.
A chance meeting with his brother’s friend Ahmed Al Rawi at a barbecue led to the end of all his woes and the birth of a new app.
Mr Al Rawi, 23, had also thought of a similar app and the duo spent weekends after work, building their project together.
Today Malaeb, which is simply plural for 'venues' in English, is growing across the Arabian Gulf with 300 registered fields on the app, of which one-third are from Saudi Arabia, its biggest market. Check-ins on the app, which refer to the number of matches played via the platform are 5,000 per month, which Malaeb plans to increase to 10,000 this year.
The early days were a challenge for Mr Abdulaziz and also his partner Mr Al Rawi, who was still in college when the two co-founders started developing Malaeb. Football field owners were sceptical of the app and they decided to offer their service free of charge until the market realised the need for Malaeb.
“The first ten venues were the hardest,” says Mr Abdulaziz.
“Convincing venues to join has been easier since. Whenever we launch in a new country, there’s still some resistance. We need to basically convince them and get them on board,” he adds.
Today, Malaeb is present in Kuwait, its first market outside of Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and a small presence in Oman following a soft launch. The startup also plans to launch in Abu Dhabi by the end of this month and looks to further grow operations in Dubai.
“Right now we have two to three venues [in Abu Dhabi] and once we get them on the app, we can then start marketing and creating matches for people to join,” says Mr Abdulaziz.
Malaeb, which has around 150,000 to 200,000 users across the GCC, operates on a monthly subscription-based model for football field owners, the revenue strategy they now follow after an earlier commissions-based model.
“They pay us per month and it’s basically an all-you-can-eat buffet. So if it’s 10 bookings or a 100, it’s the same [subscription] amount,” says Mr Abdulaziz, declining to specify the average cost of subscription in the region for pitch owners.
For teams, the average cost of booking a pitch is around 30 Bahraini dinars (Dh300), he says.
Malaeb has since evolved to allow users to not only book pitches as a team but also find players looking for matches to play on a certain day.
“In January, we launched a new feature called the match feature and that’s where we are kind of shifting to - a social community app,” says Mr Abdulaziz.
“You can [announce] that you would like to play Wednesday at 10pm and you want to join a match but you don’t know anyone in Dubai. Then you can gather 10 to 12 players through the app and meet up at the pitch and play,” he explains.
The company is currently perfecting a social networking platform for Malaeb users that would allow the growth of an online footballing community, with research underway to possibly tap into the Indian, UK and US markets as well.
Malaeb, which fellow Bahraini entrepreneurs are betting, could easily become the country’s first unicorn, a term referring to a privately-held startup valued at over $1 billion, is currently embarking on its Series A fund raising and is proactively seeking investors.
Hassan Haider, the chief executive of Tenmou, Bahrain’s first angel investor firm and a pre-seed investor in Malaeb sees great potential for the startup.
“Malaeb is tapping into a market that has mostly been offline and used pen and paper to manage bookings, which has been the culture here and even globally as well. So there is a massive opportunity,” says Mr Haider, a partner in California-based venture fund 500 Startups.
"On the consumers [side], there is a big number of people who like to play football and other sports. There’s a big, big market available to [Malaeb] around the world.”
Yasser Abdulaziz, chief operating officer, talks about plans to expand the startup in the GCC and beyond:
How do you market Malaeb?
“Our focus, since we started, has been on Instagram sponsored ads, Facebook sponsored ads, Snapchat, Google ad and all of social media. The number one source of users today is still word of mouth.”
How many venues in the UAE do you have on the app currently?
“We just started a couple of months ago so when it comes to venues around 10 and pitches around 30.”
How different are regional footballing communities from reach other?
“In Bahrain, people don’t pay on the weekends whereas in Saudi Arabia, people actually wait for the weekend to play football. Geographically, Saudi Arabia was very challenging, getting to the venues, etc. Dubai is much more advanced, and mature market when it comes to venues.”
Do you have plans for an exit?
“If there’s an opportunity to exit, we’ll definitely consider it. We’re keeping our options open right now. We are not actively looking for it as a plan.”
Bahraini entrepreneurs see the country as a good testing ground before setting up base elsewhere. What about Malaeb?
“We need to evolve, Bahrain is the ideal test market. We have a very strong base over here, when it comes to our relationship with the venues, etc. So we can do a lot when it comes to experimenting, launching new features, launching new revenue models. Our base will remain Bahrain.”