Hanging on the office wall of a Taiwanese startup company is Saudi Arabia’s national flag. Not your typical office decoration. However, to a team of young entrepreneurs, it signifies hope and opportunity.
The idea for Gogolook Co (走著瞧), which was founded 10 months ago, was spurred by a chance remark by Google Inc executive chairman Eric Schmidt.
Speaking to a group of technology heavyweights during his visit to Taiwan in late 2011, Schmidt mentioned a Taiwanese app that had caught his attention.
“An app called WhosCall tells you who a strange number’s from. It’s growing fast in the US, India and China, and it’s made in Taiwan,” he said.
Jackie Cheng (鄭勝丰), one of the three developers of the app, said he could not believe his ears when reporters told him about Schmidt’s remark.
He and the other two developers –– Jeff Kuo (郭建甫) and Reiny Song (宋政桓) –– were hit by a rush of adrenaline and decided to quit their jobs at big companies and start their own business.
A long-time college friend, Edgar Chiu (邱彥錡), who was a consultant at IBM Corp, joined them and the four founded Gogolook. Their ages ranged from 28 to 33. At the time, the app was just a moonlighting project.
Less than a month after the app was released, the developers noticed some interesting, yet puzzling trends.
Online analytical data showed that it was gaining the greatest traction in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Also, 60 percent of the users worldwide were female, and in the Middle East the percentage of female users was more than 70 percent, the data revealed.
The phenomenon intrigued the owners of the startup and they acted fast to get to know their users in the most economical way possible.
With the help of Kuwaitis in Taiwan and Arabic-language students at National Chengchi University, they interviewed female users in Saudi Arabia via the app’s Facebook fan page.
Gradually, the mystical market landscape of the Islamic state unfolded.
In a country where women are required to wear a long black robe called an abaya and cover their faces in public, the chances of them engaging in public exchanges with the opposite sex are rare, said Chiu, Gogolook chief operating officer.
In addition, Saudi Arabian women are banned from driving and cannot travel without the permission of their male guardians.
“However, the Yellow Pages helped the men out of their plight,” Chiu said.
Some Saudi men would simply look up women’s telephone numbers in the Yellow Pages and “just randomly call, or disturb them, if you will,” he said.
“Many women in Saudi Arabia who want to avoid unwelcome phone calls find WhosCall a perfect app,” Chiu said.
The app allows the women to block unwanted calls, shows the identity of callers from strange numbers and users can also look up unknown numbers in the app’s database, he said.
As an ambitious startup, Gogolook is not content to break the Middle Eastern market, but is also looking to expand into some of the most advanced mobile markets in the world –– the US, Japan and South Korea.
To this end, Gogolook signed a partnership deal in September last year with Heroz Inc, a Japanese mobile social gaming company with more than 20 million users.
The Gogolook app currently operates on the Android platform, but will be developed to run on Apple’s iOS. The startup is also eying a version for the Windows Phone 8 system.
Its recent partnership with the Kuwait-based Future Communication Co, an authorized national distributor for Nokia, is more than likely to give Gogolook a leg up on Microsoft’s latest mobile operating system.
To those who might question the young entrepreneurs’ decision to quit stable high-paying jobs in favor of a startup, Chiu says it is a matter of a changing national landscape.
“Increasingly, people in Taiwan are seeing startups not as a second choice, but rather a first option,” he said. “Apps are here to create a better world for people.”