“Connection gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
This famous quote by American professor and author Brene Brown is the motivation behind Wasta, a Dubai-based technology start-up founded by British entrepreneurs Shyam Visavadia and Lalita Chopra.
The name also plays on an Arabic word that denotes one's use of connections, which sometimes has a negative connotation due to its association with nepotism. But that's not what this budding start-up is about.
For the founders of the company, it means “clout or who you know in context of making new connections, building meaningful relationships and supporting those around you”.
“Everyone deserves wasta to move forward in their entrepreneurial or professional journey,” Ms Chopra, 28, chief technology officer and co-founder of the company, tells The National.
Founded in June, Wasta helps users build their professional network. The platform curates one-to-one professional introductions between people who share common goals, interests and objectives across the region.
“Wasta helps founders, investors and entrepreneurs build stronger connections,” Mr Visavadia, chief executive and co-founder of the start-up, says.
“It builds social capital by stimulating conversation, creating cross-border communities, promoting collaboration and problem-solving in high-growth markets,” adds Mr Visavadia, 32, who has worked at various organisations in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the US and the UK before starting Wasta.
Wasta works by allowing potential users to express their interest in joining platform through its website. As Wasta is an invitation-only platform, users are first put on a waiting list.
Once verified, Wasta’s automation technology matches users with people closely aligned to their goals and they are then introduced through opt-in emails, allowing them to connect and plan an in-person or a virtual meeting.
After the meeting, Wasta also seeks feedback from users to improve its platform’s matching algorithms.
“Verification of users is based on a number of factors such as education, work experience and interests … this is important to ensure the seriousness and professionalism of the platform,” says Ms Chopra, who previously worked as a software engineer in the UK and the UAE.
“We have also put together a few house rules to ensure you get the most out of the platform.”
Members can be blocked if they violate the platform's guidelines. That can happen if fake information is provided, if a member misses three consecutive meetings or if there are any complaints against them by other users for inappropriate behaviour, harassment or maliciousness.
The global social networking platforms market has boomed in the past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is expected to rise at an exponential rate in the coming years, according to industry experts.
The industry is expected to reach a market size of nearly $939.7 billion by 2026, growing at a compound annual growth rate of more than 25 per cent from $192.9bn in 2019, according to a report by Dublin-headquartered market research company Research and Markets.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which upended many businesses worldwide and hit the global economy, motivated Mr Visavadia and Ms Chopra to start their company.
“I was stuck indoors but yearned to continue growing my professional network … I often relied on platforms like Clubhouse, LinkedIn and Lunchclub to connect to others but found little relevance and lack of personalisation,” Mr Visavadia says.
“The pandemic helped us find a gap in the market … it is allowing us to scale organically as people can’t physically access events or workplaces where they’d normally meet new people,” Ms Chopra adds.
The global economy is recovering from Covid-induced disruptions but the pandemic's economic fallout could last for years, the International Monetary Fund said in October.
The global economy contracted by 3.3 per cent in 2020. In July, the IMF estimated it would grow 6 per cent last year and 4.9 per cent in 2022.
“The region is unique and meeting new people is tough [due to Covid]. We all must adapt to the Covid-centric world we live in and continue engaging in new ways that transcend regional borders,” Ms Chopra says.
The self-funded Wasta is now aiming to raise fresh capital from outside.
“We are totally bootstrapped but are currently in the middle of raising funds from outside … we are looking to raise money from investors within the Middle East and North Africa region,” Mr Visavadia says.
“We have already started speaking to leading angel investors and other investors in the region who have invested in similar solutions. Many of the leading investors have now started using Wasta as a first step,” he adds.
The co-founders did not disclose how much they have invested in Wasta, but they are aiming to raise $750,000 in the coming months.
The new capital will be used to strengthen the platform's technology and fill key positions. It will also support the launch of a new mobile app for Wasta in English in the next 12 months.
“We will focus on upgrading the technology stack and on various marketing activities such as co-hosting events, initiating new partnerships and social campaigns,” Mr Visavadia says.
Online networking is the future, industry experts say.
Globally, nearly 63 per cent of professionals anticipate they will rely on online communication networks more in the coming months, according to a survey conducted by Wasta.
Almost three quarters of respondents believe online communication has helped them create meaningful connections and 40 per cent say they network more online than in person.
“Nearly 75 per cent of respondents find solutions such as LinkedIn impersonal … 80 per cent of professionals believe that they can elevate their career success through professional networking and almost 50 per cent find it easier accessing networking events online,” says Mr Visavadia.
Wasta currently operates across the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — the Arab world’s largest economies. Over the next 18 months, it intends to expand its operations across the GCC region, Jordan and Lebanon.
“Our long-term plan is to move to high-growth markets such as India and Africa,” says Mr Visavadia.
Mr Visavadia and Ms Chopra, who are currently evaluating Wasta's future monetisation plans, say the company is not open for an exit.
“Wasta is currently free to join … we are still reviewing our monetisation plans,” says Mr Visavadia.
“It is too early to comment on any exit plans, however we believe software giants such as LinkedIn or government organisations may be interested in the community and data that we have on the region.”
Wasta is exploring a subscription model for regular clients and a tokenisation model for its premium services.
“These plans will be executed in the coming months … under tokenisation, we plan to issue our own tokens/cryptocurrency that our premium subscribers can buy in lieu of the services,” says Mr Visavadia.
Currently, Wasta has more than 500 members, who are verified and admitted to the platform after thorough screening. This includes employees from companies such as LinkedIn, Swvl, Careem and VentureSouq.
“The platform has stimulated over 800 introductions since its inception and currently has hundreds more on the waiting list,” says Mr Visavadia.
Q&A with Shyam Visavadia and Lalita Chopra, Wasta’s co-founders
What is the goal of Wasta?
Ms Chopra: our goal is to make meeting people more relevant and meaningful. Wasta takes away the things we hate — constant self-promotion, likes, inbox spam and small talk. We are building a community that really supports first-time founders, solo founders, professionals with side hustles and women entrepreneurs.
Where do you see yourself 10 years?
Mr Visavadia: Wasta aspires to be the leading networking site in the Middle East, India and Africa for curating meaningful conversation, building professional connections and forming new communities.
Are you a risk-taker or a cautious entrepreneur?
Mr Visavadia: we believe in intelligent risk-taking, results through collaboration, being diverse in everything we do and being transparent, open and honest. The region is diverse and we remain sensitive around interactions based on culture, religion and demographics.
If you could change one thing in your entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?
Mr Visavadia: not to get bogged down in the detail … rather work exceptionally lean and remain agile in our approach. Not dwelling on decisions … rather make intelligent and informed choices based on users’ feedback.
Are you on a hiring spree?
Ms Chopra: we are looking to build a diverse remote team. Once we complete our first round of funding, we will appoint key hires including a community manager, marketing manager, front/back end developers, app developers and others.
What is your mantra for success?
Ms Chopra: solve an everyday problem that affects the lives of everyday people. Fail fast, learn from your failures and do things that scale.
Mr Visavadia: be ridiculously obsessed with the problem statement and listen to your customer. Be passionate about your work because without this any normal person will give up at the first hurdle.
As an entrepreneur, who is your role model in life?
Mr Visavadia and Ms Chopra: our parents. We are both second-generation East African/Indian immigrants born in the UK. Based on our family adversities, we understand the hardship of building relationships … it has, in fact, inspired us to launch Wasta.
Are there any success stories to share?
Mr Visavadia: there are plenty. A recruiter has made Dh350,000 through introductions made on Wasta … a founder has met their angel investor on Wasta … a UAE-based founder of a company has initiated his network in Saudi Arabia through Wasta. We are also in the process of signing partnerships with accelerator programmes, start-up communities and co-working providers.
Company name: Wasta
Started: June 2021
Founders: Shyam Visavadia and Lalita Chopra
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: technology, social networking