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From Product-Based to Story-Based: the Syrian Entrepreneur Disrupting E-commerce with the Power of AI

“The world of e-commerce is traditionally product-based, but people buy with their emotions,” says Oubai Al Hendi. So he is building a platform that responds to that. 

By Merna Fawzy

“People buy based on their emotions,” says Oubai El Hindi, determined. The Dubai-based entrepreneur is heavily entering the world of e-commerce with his brainchild TwigBIG, which uses artificial intelligence to provide people with what they need by learning their behaviour and feelings. “TwigBIG is making e-commerce contextual in every way, so customers always find what’s relevant to them when they are shopping online or offline.”

Having left his home country for Dubai In 2006, Oubai El Hindi defied multiple difficulties on his journey following his passion. “I left Syria in 2006,” he recalls. “I moved to Dubai and started looking for a job as it was not possible to stay in the country. All Syrians face the decision of leaving the country at some point.” 

“However, I found out there was a lot I could do outside,” he continues;  “I started working in Dubai after 20 days of my arrival, and after six years living there and doing my daily job, I wanted to do more. I had lots of ambition,” he explains, “that was what drove me in the first place to leave my country when all my family was in Syria. I wanted to be somewhere I can grow – which is why I chose Dubai. I had passion and I wanted to make an impact using technology.”

“It is always best to start your idea or business on the side of your job to keep things stable for as long as possible, until you’re settled,” he says, as he recalls the early days of Twigbig. 

“After six years working in Dubai, I wanted to do more. I had lots of ambition. That was what drove me in the first place to leave my country. I wanted to be somewhere I can grow. I had passion and I wanted to make an impact using technology.”

Following this idea, Oubai decided to start working on his business. But, life had yet one more obstacle in store for him. “In 2016, I lost my job,” he narrates. “Throughout my career I was working in program and program management and coding – I was a senior program manager in the digital department. After leaving my job I realized it was very difficult to find another one, especially in another country where I needed a visa.”

Regardless of the challenges, Oubai decided to move forward and create his own product, following his dream. “I have experience in e-commerce, development and digital marketing. I have passion for using artificial intelligence because I believe in its power to increase productivity and its power to change the world we live in.” He added; “I wanted to use it in a way that can make me super rich (he laughs). Plain and simple.”

Why does Oubai want to be super rich? “Because unfortunately in our world money is power. Today there is a lot you can do if you have money. And I want to make an impact and create a change,” he observes.

His offspring, TwigBIG, is an e-commerce platform that leverages on the power of storytelling combined with AI to offer customers products they want. “The world of e-commerce is traditionally product-based, while people will buy with their emotion. So I thought: what if we can make it story-based?” he explains. 

“People love to view videos and stories on daily basis, which influence them in every way, thus TwigBIG is using stories to sell products and services of the businesses within the context of marketplace business model.” Contextualization comes in different ways using AI and AR; the startup learns users’ behaviors and preferences from their clicks through the app and website, in addition to learning from their social media. “So the platform shows them what would they like to buy in the form of a recommendation story, hence machine learning is helping laser-targeting customers for the businesses. This way, businesses sell more and customers are happy,” he explains.

“Using artificial intelligence that is personalized is a bit scary, because the system can learn everything the customer wants. It learns what the customer likes and what they don’t like in every way.”

The entrepreneur elaborates that there are two types of users: “there are the ones that know what they want and the ones who do not know what they want, and for the ones that do not know what they want, the system asks them what they feel instead.”

Just one click is all it takes for TwigBIG to start turning customers’ needs and wants into real, tangible products. “ Just a click, and it shows you different feelings,” Oubai reveals, “whether it is hungry or bored; so if you click bored, the system will learn your feeling and start suggesting what would be better for you to do if you’re bored; it will show you stories of people who tried specific activities that other people did and that you can select from, that are suitable for you. The system shows you similar stories where people used products or services when they were feeling the same feeling you are now, and they are recommending such products for you.”

On the other hand, twigBIG will use AR to allow customers know what are the good stuff at every place or for each product or service before they buy it, and it also allows them to buy what they see, wherever they are.

Oubai’s considerations on predictive sales have long been considered in marketing; according to Forbes, companies such as Netflix and Amazon use deep learning, statistical programming and predictive analysis of massive data sets to capture their customers’ behavior. The popular show House of Cards, for example, was a result of these AI pattern learning techniques. But Oubai’s novel approach lies in its key motivation: the emotional connection and the monetization of user-generated content.

TwigBIG pushes users to share their good experiences rather than reviews, while it also rewards content creator who post content with a commission on every transaction, so they make continuous revenue from their content,” Al Hindi explains.

The future of e-commerce?

The content on TwigBig is buyable – and that’s what makes TwigBig different than other platforms – that is, the availability of buyable content. As Oubai explains it, stories of people who did things, with each story having a product behind it. Customers get to buy the product behind the story and they get to learn more.

User generated content allows people to relate to the product; so the more stories you have, the more retention and customer satisfaction you can reach. 

Like a Tinder for e-commerce, the platform digitizes and monetizes word-of-mouth users’ recommendations for products and services across indutries, fro food & drinks, to health & wellness, travel, activities, home services, kids, electronics, and auto.

E-commerce in the Middle East is huge; with mammoths in the market such as souq.com – recently acquired by Amazon; Jumia, and segment-focused startups such as Mumzworld raising massive investment rounds. “I know it is not easy to compete with the giants, but I am not taking it as a challenge. I believe that what makes you stand out is the user experience, and I am aiming to raise high funds for my business,” says the entrepreneur, whose platform garnered 2,300 users in the first four months.

The entrepreneur is going all-in, with a strategy that involves getting influencers on board and accepting crypto currency.

The greater challenge

As for many entrepreneurs coming from conflict-affected areas, registration remains one of the main challenges to start the business. “To be registered, the process of registering was a bit difficult; being Syrian was truly difficult for me especially in dealing with banks, as many banks refused to open an account. They sadly have it in their criteria; plus, I had a desk space, but not an office so it was difficult.”

To Oubai, it was one more obstacle to crush and he was thankfully able to overcome this issue; “I found a bank that I had never heard of before, and by chance they just allowed me to open an account. Syrian people are not ‘normal’ in a way; we always need to prove we are good,” he says. “But I overcame that, and am now focusing on raising funds.”

Photo: Courtesy of Jusoor.

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