Generation Start-up: How Dubai’s Belong is helping to spice up social lives

The company is bullish about growth and plans to scale up its operations across the GCC and the US

The founders of Dubai's Belong, Matthew Gaziano, left, and Michael Askew. Photo: Belong
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Finding like-minded people and making friends can be difficult, even daunting, especially for those trying to settle in a new city.

Michael Askew and Matthew Gaziano, founders of Dubai-based online social platform Belong,say they have first-hand experience of how big a struggle it is to connect with the right people and build a social life.

The two entrepreneurs lived in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh for about seven years, where they worked for a private company until 2016. They later moved to Dubai, expecting it would be easier to socialise and make friends in the tourism and commercial hub of the Middle East.

Their experience was very different.

“When we moved to Dubai we were excited because the place is amazing. We expected to have a packed, endless social calendar but then when we got here we realised we'd got to make friends first,” says Mr Gaziano, who is also chief operating officer of Belong.

“How do you get out and find like-minded people and do all these fantastic things? How do you approach people? It's not [easy] to go over and speak to someone in public or wherever, and start talking about yourself and trying to introduce yourself.”

Like many, the duo found it difficult to build a social life in a new place.

“So we thought, can we change it? Can we solve this problem for people in general?”

They set out to design an app which was “online meets offline”, where people break the ice online and then meet up in person, “so it's not awkward and not daunting”, Mr Gaziano says.

“The idea was to make Dubai the easiest place to make friends.”

The city-focused social networking app was launched in 2019 with just two users: Mr Askew and Mr Gaziano. Four years later, the user base has grown to more than 350,000 with a presence in Dubai, New York and San Francisco.

Belong caters to the social needs of people with varied tastes, including those interested in fitness, knowledge, food, travel, arts, sports, wellness and technology. The platform also allows users to connect so they can attend events together.

“They can select their interests … and can start posting and discussing common interests,” Mr Gaziano says.

“You can break the ice in the groups and get to know people in the community that you would normally never meet.”

The app and all main features are free and will “always be free” because Belong wants to foster the broader community, he adds.

“But if you want additional features, you can pay to upgrade and unlock the full suite.”

The market for social networking sites has been growing at a breakneck pace, driven by higher demand from millennials as well as people of all age groups, according to a Mordor Intelligence report.

Businesses are also using online platforms for marketing products as the use of smartphones continues to rise across the globe amid higher internet penetration.

The social networking market size is expected to grow to more than $153 billion by 2028 from almost $70 billion in 2023, at an annual growth rate of about 17 per cent during the forecast period, the report said.

The global social networking app market is expected to reach more than $310 billion by 2030, expanding at an annual rate of 26 per cent from 2023 to 2030 due to growing demand for digital marketing services across the globe, according to a Grand View Research report.

“Revenue is growing month on month and we are breaking records each month,” says Mr Gaziano.

The company has secured $3.5 million in financing through crowdfunding and angel investors. It plans to raise more funds next year to scale up its operations in the US and expand in other markets in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country.

“We are seeing some really positive metrics from the US market, so we are going to continue to explore that and then continue to expand in the region as well,” he says.

Start-ups in Mena continue to attract funding from local and international investors as the ecosystem expands.

Which social media platforms have offices in London?

Which social media platforms have offices in London?

Venture funding in Mena jumped 32 per cent on a quarterly basis to $250 million in the third quarter, driven by a sharp rise in early-stage investments in the region, despite the number of deals being flat at 78, Magnitt said in its quarterly update last month.

Start-ups in the UAE have raised $371 million in the first nine months of 2023, according to a separate report by Magnitt.

A total of 109 investors put their money into UAE-based start-ups in that period, down 41 per cent on an annual basis.

“The UAE is a fantastic place to launch your business,” says Mr Gaziano.

“It’s such a melting pot of cultures and nationalities and you can really put your start-up to the test here.”

Once a new venture is tweaked and flourishing the potential for scaling it in the local market as well as to India, the US, Europe and other Middle East countries is limitless, he adds.

The UAE aims to become home to 20 start-ups valued at more than $1 billion by 2031, in its push to become a regional centre for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Last year, the country launched the Entrepreneurial Nation initiative to offer support through public-private partnerships that will help entrepreneurs set up operations in the Emirates, expand their businesses, export products and tap into online sales.

The UAE’s digital economy is expected to hit $140 billion mark by 2031, rising from about $38 billion currently, a report by the Dubai Chamber of Digital Economy said in February.

Company profile

Name: Belong
Based: Dubai
Founders: Michael Askew and Matthew Gaziano
Sector: Technology
Total funding: $3.5 million from crowd funding and angel investors
Number of employees:
12

Q&A with Matthew Gaziano, co-founder and chief operating officer of Belong

What new skills have you learnt in the process of starting this company?

One of the biggest skills, I think is resilience. You have to consistently be resilient because things are going to be good and sometimes bad. But it's about showing up every day and pushing through, never quitting.

You learn all about investors, reports, company structures, how to run cash flows and finances and then, once you start to grow, the HR [human resources] side of things comes into play. You've got to hire people and this is all new to you because if you have worked for a company you only get told that these are your teammates and this is your job.

When you select people, it's very different and working in a start-up means you have to wear many hats. It's just one of those things – you do as much as you can because you are always trying to make the dollar stretch as far as you can.

What is your mantra for success?

We’ve got a quote on the wall: Success is no accident, it’s teamwork, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and, most of all, love of what you are doing. We love what we are doing. It’s a mission and we are focused on building communities in the UAE and the US for people to find support, and friendship – which is something that is completely neglected and is critical to mental health and well-being in today's social landscape.

What successful start-ups do you wish you had started?

If there was a company out there doing something similar to what we do, I would say them. But I can’t see any [like that] at the moment.

Who is your role model?

We have advisers on the board who are a great role model: people who have been through Series A, Series B rounds [of funding], people who have been there and done that.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

We will be the global go-to app for people to find their local community, make friends and do more in real life together.

Updated: November 27, 2023, 6:28 AM
Company profile

Name: Belong
Based: Dubai
Founders: Michael Askew and Matthew Gaziano
Sector: Technology
Total funding: $3.5 million from crowd funding and angel investors
Number of employees:
12