When Sami Al Ahmad moved to Egypt for his higher studies from his home country of Syria, he found the process extremely arduous, with no visibility on the criteria and required documentation.
"The process was so hard for me and I missed the first deadline and I was in a very sad position," he says.
"So it's sort of a promise I made to myself that I don't want anyone to feel the same ... the bad feeling of 'I can't continue my studies' because you don't understand the process … where to start, how to apply, what the requirements are, if there are missing documents. So, a lot of information [is required]."
Despite having an educational background in dentistry, the experience led Mr Al Ahmad to team up with Abdo Samy and Ahmed Elgebaly to start education technology platform Marj3 (meaning 'reference' in Arabic) in 2016 as a scholarship database to support students in the Middle East and North Africa.
The trio bootstrapped the start-up, working on the side until they received pre-seed funding from regional accelerator and venture capital company Flat6Labs's FAC Egypt Fund in 2017.
While Marj3 continued to grow, depending on advertising and marketing to support operations, the co-founders felt there was greater opportunity in getting involved in the student journey process and constantly pivoted their business model — roughly "five or six times", says Mr Al Ahmad, who serves as the company's chief executive.
Following another investment round — six-figure funding from US-based Expert Dojo in 2020 — the start-up expanded operations. In March, it rebranded as Emonovo, a technology-based platform supporting students from end-to-end in their educational journey to study abroad.
The process starts from helping students decide on a course and a university and finding out about the budget to supporting them in arranging accommodation and flight tickets.
Emonovo — the name derives from 13th-century Dutch student Emo, who was reportedly the first international student to study at Oxford University — has now teamed up with about 350 universities and educational institutions worldwide, including George Mason University, Cardiff University, Illinois State University, Swiss School of Management and The University of Sydney, among others.
The rebranding was a "risky step" to take, admits Mr Al Ahmad.
"Having huge traffic [to the website] ... and then when you change your name, there is a lot to be done, technically, to the website, to the team, to everything. So, it's very risky," he says.
The implementation took more than six months to ensure that the process was smooth and that no data was lost during the migration.
"I believe it went well ... where we are now, after seven months," Mr Al Ahmad says. "Our traffic is amazing. Students are coming from all over the world, we have more partnerships from universities, all our partners love the new name and the new vision ... I believe we did it well."
This month, Emonovo also raised an undisclosed amount of funding through a bridge round which included angel investors from the US, Europe and the Mena region and follow-on investment from Flat6Labs.
The investment will be used to boost the company's new brand strategy, as well as support the growth of university onboarding and student recruitment through the platform. It will also be used to enhance the platform's technology to optimise data management.
In terms of revenue, the universities currently pay a yearly subscription fee, with Emonovo also taking a percentage of the tuition fee if a student registers through its platform. The majority of the institutions currently on the platform are based in the US, the UK, Europe and Turkey.
At present, the offerings for students are free but the start-up could begin charging for premium services in the future, Mr Al Ahmad says.
The demand from students in the region to study abroad remains high, he says.
The Covid-19 pandemic caused a significant drop in the number of international students amid lockdowns and movement restrictions worldwide.
In the US, the biggest market for international higher education, the number of new international student to enrol in the 2020 academic year fell nearly 46 per cent, according to a report by the Institute of International Education (IIE).
However, numbers have since gone up, with a recent IIE report stating that higher education institutions in the US reported a 68 per cent annual increase in the number of new international students in 2021.
Mr Al Ahmad says the pandemic did not dent operations despite an initial drop in the number of students looking to migrate for higher education.
"When Covid started, universities had no other options, they needed to recruit [students] online. So it boosted our sales regarding universities. And also for the students, I know, with Covid, there were a lot of changes, especially for travel. While some students were unable to travel ... at the same time, a lot of changes [meant that many students] didn't want to do the process on their own. They were searching for a platform or consultant or counsellor to help them, and that also benefited our traffic and users," he says.
"So while Covid overall impacted international students, in terms of our business, it boosted our numbers."
A total of 57,564 international students from the Mena region were enrolled in US universities in the 2020/2021 academic year, with the majority from Saudi Arabia, according to the IIE.
Interest from the region is continuing to grow as pandemic restrictions are lifted worldwide.
Emonovo has more than 2.5 million monthly users and has helped place "thousands" of students so far, Mr Al Ahmad says.
The company is also expanding operations to meet its aspirations.
It is planning to nearly double its workforce to 20, although Mr Al Ahmad stresses that the hiring process will be slow and deliberate.
"After our first seed funding round, we were increasing our team members super fast and that meant not all our team had the same knowledge of onboarding and understanding the company," he says. "So, this is a mistake that we don't want to make again. Every hiring should be planned well."
On the technology front, the company is in the process of implementing "major changes" to its platform, including the adoption of advanced data management systems, which will be "highly accurate".
A big push is also being made on marketing and signing strategic partnerships across the region.
Operationally, the start-up is considering opening its next office in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. "We are already exploring some opportunities and finding what could be the best fit for us, because it's very important to have an office in the GCC area," Mr Al Ahmad says.
Emonovo is also preparing to raise its series A funding and is in discussions with investors.
"We already have investors and VCs in discussion, so we are at a good stage. So hopefully, [by] mid to end of next year, we'll close it out," Mr Al Ahmad says.
Looking ahead, the company will focus on growing its reach in the Mena region and will initially target the African market for expansion.
"For the time being, I believe we will focus on having more services for students from Mena or Mea rather than just going global without enough information about other markets," Mr Al Ahmad says.
Q&A with Sami Al Ahmad, chief executive and co-founder of Emonovo
Who's your role model?
Actually, it's a mix between Jeff Bezos [Amazon], Steve Jobs [Apple] and Elon Musk [Tesla] ... it's a perfect [combination] between each one of them.
Which successful start-up do you wish you had founded?
Booking.com. I believe they dominate the market regarding hotels.
If you could start all over again, is there anything you would do differently?
There are a lot of things, actually it's like a five-year journey can be done in a couple of months. It's a lot of knowledge about what needs to be done [that you learn later] and now I feel 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 a lot of projects, you will close none. If you open one, hopefully you will close one.
Also, money and funding is a tool, it's not a goal. So fund-raising or having money is a tool to help you to grow, not a goal to be like 'I'm successful if I raise funds'.
Focusing on profitability from day one is also very important.
What is your personal motto?
Seeing the change that can happen for a bright future for the next generation. Building something which will hopefully [support] one or many generations is what makes me wake up happy every day and go to work.