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With artificial intelligence disrupting almost every business function there is, marketing is one area that is being particularly impacted. Moustafa Mahmoud, Founder & CEO of Cognitev, saw the opportunity and took his chance. Today, the ardent entrepreneur is setting new standards of quality in the marketing world. 

Moustafa Mahmoud is slowly building his reputation as a local marketing genius with his new technology solutions. He entered the entrepreneurial scene in 2015 with his company called MENA Commerce that focused on e-commerce rather than marketing. However, he soon realised that his technology was better equipped to provide unique value to marketers across the world. Rather than dwelling on what didn’t work, he switched gears and focused on what did work.

He turned things around with the launch of Cognitev, an artificial intelligence (AI) technology company focusing on providing marketing automation solutions for the world. Cognitev’s product line includes an industry-leading progressive platform called InstaScaler that helps start-ups and SMEs completely automate their advertising, as well as AdRelated, the world’s first semantic marketing platform focused purely on performance, allowing advertisers to match their ads with engaging content relevant to their business. While AdRelated covers the entire GCC, Instascaler is a global product supporting Cognitev’s clients across the world.

Speaking of the science behind his success, Mahmoud says: “We had a major pivot in our business around one year ago.  We mainly tried to solve the issues we were facing ourselves while trying to market our work, and we stumbled onto a much bigger opportunity with a much larger market size. We believe that online marketing is a key to success for any online business. However, it’s one of the most difficult areas to master. Using AI, we have created solutions that can automate the process of acquiring customers online for any website, all we need is their URL and the countries they want customers from. We’ve almost tripled our size over the past 12 months, we became profitable and cash-flow positive as well. I think a key driver for our growth is that we found our product-market fit. We managed to build a product that solves a real pain for a large market. We are currently serving customers across the world, all the way from the US to China.”

Focus on growth

Not only has Cognitev managed to surpass the critical ‘three-year’ SME milestone over the last six to 12 months, it has also expanded across several regions outside MENA. In May 2017, it underwent a comprehensive rebranding effort as its vision expanded from being a technology company that caters to the MENA market to a technology company with a global vision.

With a team of 40 people experienced in engineering and data science and with offices in Dubai and Cairo, Cognitev is currently raising a US$2 million round of growth capital. Mahmoud has a clear plan for what he wants to achieve with this funding. “One of our objectives is to make ads beautiful again. With the introduction of artificial intelligence to run performance-based advertising campaigns, companies can have an exceptional performance with minimal effort. We have recently built a unique automated advertising solution and now introducing it to customers from across the globe. We raised a little bit less than US$ 2 million as of last year. We are currently raising another US$2 million round that will be used purely for growth. It is mainly for customer acquisition, team hiring and infrastructure costs. I believe that we were very lucky in the type of investors we attracted, they all bought into our vision, even though we had very little progress to show at that time. I think they betted primarily on the team, followed by the technology that we build, and finally the market size and potential of the problem we are solving,” he explains.

The emergence of solutions such as the one Mahmoud’s team is offering is rampant within the region. So, what set him apart from others? “Automation is the core value proposition that we offer our customers. With automation comes a lot of benefits, everything is simpler and available at the push of a button. It becomes an on-demand type of service that is accessible to everyone no matter what his/her background or skill level is. All you need to do is push a button,” he responds.

Solving challenges head-on

With growth and funding on his side, what are the challenges that worry Mahmoud? “Leading a team that spans different countries is definitely a challenge. It affects hiring, decision making, my ability to interact with all team members is limited due to this. There is a speed element that comes into play when the entire team isn’t in the same physical location, especially when it comes to decision-making. Over the past two years, we struggled a lot with this, but we recently found our magic formula for tackling this issue. And, it is much better than when we started.”

Explaining his magic formula, Mahmoud adds: “We made sure to delegate authority across geographies so that there are people on the ground in each country that can take decisions without waiting for someone in a different time-zone. However, this is not possible for 100 percent of the time, but for a large part, it is. We also try to have daily communication channels and real-time collaboration (using tools such as Slack) to ensure the free flow of information across countries. Our hiring process can be improved as we are currently trying to scale; we need a completely revamped process that allows us to hire at a much higher throughput and with a larger audience. We also need to build internal policies for our team to support this scale, without proper policies and internal processes, scaling our hiring will crush us instead of helping us, it would cause an implosion and chaos.”

Even as he is generally focusing on surpassing the challenges that come with expansion, Mahmoud is preparing for his scale-up mode by ensuring that there is no room for error or slack. He believes that the larger the organisation, the larger the waste. Every company in the world has this “waste” problem. It can be communication-related, execution related, or any number of things. For now, his team is focusing on eliminating all waste across ranks as they kick into overdrive on their quest for global domination. “While this is a challenging and somehow a painful process, it’s the cost we need to pay as we move from a “start-up” to a “scale up”. Growing up is definitely not that easy!” he surmises.

Redefining how marketing is done

Mahmoud wants Cognitev to be the first business that comes to mind when anyone thinks of marketing their business online. It is quite an ambitious dream for an SME owner with humble beginnings. How does Mahmoud plan to achieve his goal? “Serve more customers, deliver them more value, and help them serve their customers as well. We really believe in trying to make the Internet a better place using technology. Our vision goes beyond advertising, I believe we connect businesses to people, it is this “match-making” that allows people to find things that are valuable for them, and businesses to find the people who need them. It’s as simple as that,” he opens up.

The next step for Cognitev is an expansion to the US. The company is currently acquiring almost all its new customers beyond the MENA market. While it continues to have a strong standing in the MENA region, its biggest market is the one in the US. “Due to the nature of our product, we can acquire customers anywhere in the world purely online. We want to be the first thing anyone thinks of when it comes to marketing their business online, regardless of where they are in the world.”

When it comes to marketing as a business vertical within the region, Mahmoud believes it holds enormous potential for change. “Online marketing will be completely democratised using AI, and it will no longer be a barrier for people who try to do business online. It will be more affordable and deliver higher ROI as machines optimise for the maximum value. As a result, more and more businesses will be able to move to the online from all parts of the world, developing regions especially, and businesses will find it easier to connect with customers across the world.”

But his optimism comes with a word of caution, “Beware of fragmentation, there are tons of players in this industry each offering a different product/service with seemingly the same value proposition. While they are definitely not the same, customers aren’t savvy enough to tell the difference. Make sure you nail your value proposition in a way that immediately separates you from everyone else and get your customer’s attention,” he concludes.

Rushika Bhatia

Rushika Bhatia is one of the region’s leading commentators on business and current affairs issues. She is the Editor of SME Advisor magazine - the flagship title of CPI Business. She is passionate about infographics – with special emphasis on data, research and statistics. Rushika has a Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University, USA and is also CIMA qualified.