Generation Start-up: UAE's Play:Date – the app that finds friends for your child

The socialising app, which is looking to raise $300,000 to expand to Saudi Arabia and Egypt by 2022, wants to hire more mothers

Shamim Kassibawi, founder of Play:Date. The company wants to raise an additional $300,000 after securing $250,000 from New York venture capital company Modus Capital. Courtesy: Play:Date 
Shamim Kassibawi, founder of Play:Date. The company wants to raise an additional $300,000 after securing $250,000 from New York venture capital company Modus Capital. Courtesy: Play:Date 

Watching her sister raise four children and juggle the family’s budget with other responsibilities made Shamim Kassibawi wonder how she could help ease the load for busy parents who want to keep their children engaged.

It was also an issue among couples within her social circles.

“I was meeting people who were the first couples to get married within their circle. While their friends were out partying, they were struggling to get play dates or the wife was not working and they could not afford to send the kids to nurseries,” Ms Kassibawi says.

“The idea came to my mind for kids to make friends online and I started to think about how to commercialise that.”

I'm so big on this being an Arab app going to the rest of the world ... We're a UAE-based app, we're Arab and we're female-led.

Shamim Kassibawi, Play:Date founder

The public relations professional began conducting her market research and the result was Play:Date, an interactive app that helps parents build their child’s social circle while offering deals through partner brands.

The Dubai app allows parents to set up online profiles for their children and connect with like-minded friends for a play date.

Launched in March 2017, the app currently has more than 3,500 subscribers, 60,500 swipes and has amassed 50 partner brands with operations in the UAE and the US.

To create an account, parents can select details such as preferred language, hobbies and activities, as well as write a paragraph about their child.

Designed for children up to 12 years old, the app allows parents to swipe right to select a profile or swipe left to keep searching.

To generate revenue, the start-up offers free vouchers on goods and services from its partner brands to its subscribers.

The partner brands can then advertise on the platform to reach parents.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Play:Date hosted free events for its members in cafes or play areas in return for a fee from brands eager to boost their footfall or build awareness.

It also engaged in “product seeding”, a marketing strategy where brands use the platform to send gift bags to target audiences.

However, for the “pro-community” social app, the pandemic proved to be a challenge as social distancing measures were enforced.

The virus ended most outdoor events, slashed companies’ marketing budgets, cut consumer spending and prompted investors to postpone their funding decisions until the end of the year, Ms Kassibawi says.

However, it also presented an opportunity to be creative.

“During Covid-19 we developed a new revenue model,” Ms Kassibawi says. “People and nurseries can use our digital platform. So, for example, a nursery with a summer programme can put up its newsletter on the platform.”

Play:Date also began hosting live online entertainment events for children to keep them engaged and sent gift bags to families during Ramadan and on Mother’s Day.

While schools and nurseries in the UAE have yet to open, Play:Date has provided an important outlet for socialising – a fact that investors have taken note of.

In July, the start-up secured $250,000 (Dh917,500) in seed funding in a round led by New York venture capital company Modus Capital.

Now the company is in talks with various venture capital funds for an additional $300,000 and intends to close the funding round by October, Ms Kassibawi told The National.

“That’s a lot of kiddie dates. We want to make sure our tech is totally up to scratch as we move ahead and accelerate our expansion into the US,” she says.

“I’m so big on this being an Arab app going to the rest of the world ... We’re a UAE-based app, we’re Arab and we’re female-led.”

The funds will be invested in technology upgrades, marketing, product innovation and recruitment.

“We plan to make sure 80 per cent of the team are women,” Ms Kassibawi says. “There [are] not a lot of women in technology. We have an HR strategy to hire women and mothers.”

Play:Date is also offering a flexible schedule to working mothers and internships for those who took time off work and want to rejoin the corporate world. The funds will also be used to expand operations in the UAE, with plans to grow to 50,000 subscribers by the end of next year, up from 3,500 currently.

“By the end of 2021, we want to be the intermediary connecting government entities and brands with families in the UAE,” says Ms Kassibawi.

In the US, Play:Date intends to grow its operations by hiring mothers to help market the brand.

The company also plans to expand into Egypt and Saudi Arabia by 2022 to capitalise on their large and mostly young populations. Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country while Saudi Arabia is the biggest Arab economy.

“I’ve been speaking to Saudi investors and they think it would work in [the kingdom] and not just in compounds,” she says, referring to expatriate communities. “People would want the vouchers too. It has been tough for families.”

Still, Ms Kassibawi admits there were many naysayers along the journey of setting up the business and says she faced criticism along the way.

“A lot of people just didn’t see the value of it. One said ‘It’s Tinder for kids! What happened to meeting other kids in nurseries?’ And I say what happened to hailing a cab? Uber happened,” she says.

“I’m just simplifying the process. A lot of kids are homeschooled and after Covid-19, God knows if families will send their kids [back] to school in September.”

The founder took the criticism into account and carried out further research to improve the concept.

“One woman said ‘I’m not putting my kid on Tinder’ and you have to take people’s feedback,” Ms Kassibawi says.

She says other mothers would approach her after events and thank her for hosting free gatherings – given that people are now more conscious of their spending.

“Not everyone can afford to send their child to nursery,” Ms Kassibawi says. “We need to consider the whole UAE society and how to give back to families.”

Q&A with Shamim Kassibawi, founder of Play:Date

Ms Kassibawi says she wants every child to have a friend and have access to all forms of kid-friendly entertainment activities, without the family worrying about money.  Courtesy: Sharaf Media 
Ms Kassibawi says she wants every child to have a friend and have access to all forms of kid-friendly entertainment activities, without the family worrying about money.  Courtesy: Sharaf Media 

What already successful start-up do you wish you had started?

This is a funny question as I am one of those people that wakes up with an idea every day. I feel there is so much opportunity in the start-up world. I had thought of the “beauty at home” concept – Uber your hairdresser or nail technician, find who is available and book them; I came up with it years back, today it is a popular concept. I do wish I got into it though.

What is your next big dream?

I would love to see Play:Date grow; for every child to have a friend and have access to all forms of kid-friendly entertainment activities, without the family worrying about money. I would also like to see more women in tech and more mothers being accepted into the workforce.

What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching a start-up?

So much. I never had a tech background; I am literally learning something new every day. I also learnt the art of taking rejection really well. Not everyone will love or believe in my concept and vision, and that’s OK. We are not for everyone.

I’ve learnt to multi-task and really stretch every dollar as much possible. I wanted to ensure my concept was working before speaking to any investors. Today I am happy to say that we have real families enjoying our app, our events, product gifts and our discounts codes.

How has Covid-19 changed the way you do business?

We had to move ahead and launch our Play:Date product seeding concept during Covid-19, however, it was good for us as a business as it really pushed us out of our comfort zone.

Product seeding is key to brands, at times when marketing budgets are being cut, we wanted to give brands an opportunity to reach UAE homes and at the same time spoil our UAE families – two birds, one stone. We also hosted several online activities for the families through Instagram live, we wanted to give families a little bit of love [during the coronavirus-related restrictions].

What are your main drivers for growth?

To actually solve the problem and have kids all over the world make life-long friends through Play:Date, nothing gives us more joy than seeing two (or more) families meet, connect and bond through the app. Additionally, I’d love to be able to offer fun family experiences across the world (giveaways, event, products), as we understand how expensive it can be for a family.

To see Play:Date funded, running and giving mothers and women in general, a working environment that is best suited for them. A place where they can work flexible hours, bring their kids to the office and have a nursery/day care centre at Play:Date HQ. I would love to see more women in the tech world, both regionally and globally.

My last wish is non-Play:Date related. I’d love to be able to give aspiring entrepreneurs, start-ups, and even students the opportunity to pitch their ideas, where I can advise, support and also fund them. I’ve struggled in the past to actually launch my business; thus, I want it to be easier for others, ensuring I am approachable and reachable no matter how crazy their idea might be.

Timing is important when starting a business. Were you too early or too late?

I think our launch was perfectly timed. We began when people were much more comfortable with meeting strangers online and building relationships – from LinkedIn to Facebook groups, and many other platforms ... We are now ready to scale and grow.

Updated: July 20, 2020 02:33 AM

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