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A Look Inside the First Year of Business for CNVC ’19 Winner, podU

Wessam Abozeid, AB ’19, won the Polsky Center’s 2019 College New Venture Challenge (CNVC) with his startup, podU, the world’s first platform for podcasts in Arabic. After winning the $15,000 prize, he went on the participate in the 2019-20 Polsky Founders’ Fund Fellowship Cohort (PF3).

Abozeid returned to Egypt that July to set up podU’s offices (and recording studio). He and his brother and cofounder, Mohamed, had the space, the platform, everything was set. Except for the content. With a month before their August launch, they approached well-known Egyptian YouTubers with the idea of hosting a show, (though some people came to them, having always wanted to record their own podcasts).

podU launched on August 6 with nine podcasts available. To find more listeners and content creators, Abozeid ran an advertising campaign through mid-September. Many people in Egypt didn’t know what a podcast was, so he was unsure how this new market would react, but the response was overwhelming. podU received so many requests, Abozeid had to hire someone just to go through the company email. He wanted serious creators who would make a podcast “that has value and [will] be entertaining to people.”

The company almost couldn’t handle the incoming demand. Between limited studio time and hosts who needed help with artwork for their show, Abozeid had to put a system in place. “We created a pipeline,” he says. “If [you] talk to podU today, we will agree about creating a podcast, you will record it and we will create all the design stuff in the next month and it will be published the month after that.” This process worked; one month in the fall of 2019, podU already had 100,000 visitors and between 20,000 and 30,000 registered users.

Though the startup was creating content and attracting listeners, it wasn’t making enough money to get investors. A few media and tech companies offered to buy podU, but Abozeid was firm in his refusal; it was a startup and he had ideas he wanted to try. In January, he decided that before approaching investors again the company needed to focus on two things: cutting costs and generating revenue.

Mohamed Abozeid’s background in digital marketing gave him an idea for how to make money. He spoke with tech companies about creating an ad network, then pitched website ads to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). From these talks, he secured two major advertising campaigns in the spring with the mobile phone brand, Realme. This led to a major milestone: podU is now post-revenue.

In terms of cutting costs, Wessam Abozeid looked to the website. “In media companies,” he says, “the biggest part of the cost of sold goods is the network bandwidth.” So, the more successful podU’s website became – the more users consumed data and downloaded episodes – the more money the company owed its website host. podU was billing around $1,200 USD per month, a viable cost. The solution was to use a new codec (an encoding signal that compresses data, thereby decreasing storage space). Instead of using MP3 files, podU switched to Opus files, which are 70% smaller. The monthly bill shrank to less than $300 USD.

The cut in costs and the advertising campaigns came just in time for COVID-19. The industry as a whole took a few hits this past spring. Abozeid believes it’s due to the complementary nature of podcasts; for users, without the activities their shows once accompanied (working out, daily commutes, etc.), they stopped listening. There was difficulty on the recording end, too. Many hosts didn’t feel comfortable coming to the studio. With everything canceled, there was no content for podcasts covering current events. Though some creators invested in their own studios, and other episodes had been pre-recorded, out of podU’s 80 shows, only 30 aired during the spring.

Despite the pandemic, Abozeid and podU have had a very impressive first year. When it launched, the startup had nine shows and four genres. Now, just nine months later, it has 90 shows, 13 genres, over 85,000 app downloads, and 63,000 registered users. Excepting the dip in listeners caused by COVID-19, podU consistently reaches 100,000 users every month.

In the long term, podU intends to expand to the other 22 Arabic-speaking countries in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. Already, several podcasters from Saudi Arabia and Jordan have expressed interest in hosting a show on the platform. Before expanding, however, Abozeid wants the full picture of the business in Egypt.

The company has big things in the works, such as a subscription model. Listeners have reached out to Abozeid saying they’d rather pay than have ads. A goal of his from the beginning, he’s excited to see it come to fruition. The new model will include a revamped user experience. This will consist of improved queuing capabilities, playlists, better recommendations, and enhanced visuals. The team plans to have everything ready by September, when the website’s slated for another major advertising campaign.

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