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12 August 2018

London’s Islamic tech star

Ikbal Hussain, Chief Executive Officer, Islamic GPS, shares the story of how Islamic GPS become the go-to guide for Muslims all around the world to find a place to pray and engage more in halal travel


Tell me the story of Islamic GPS.

I’m a designer by background. I studied graphic design and traditional media. I worked for Samsung for five years doing research for them, and developed a business that learned from that journey. When I was travelling in 2012, I went to Turkey with my wife. There were a lot of apps growing at that time—mobile technology was really improving. But in the Muslim market, the app world was very dark. There were not nearly enough apps there. For what was there, the design interface was underdeveloped, and there was a decided lack of content. I thought to myself that there should be an app that could help people find places to pray if they are travellers. I thought that it should be done with a wow factor, and that is where augmented reality entered the equation. I had been doing research on augmented reality, so I thought, let me try out this idea and see if it works.

In Turkey, there is a lot of amazing heritage that I was ashamed to not know better. I wanted to give people a way to do so. I came back and talked to people about it, but I had never done my own project app. I decided to try and see if I could. I didn’t research the market, but I knew that the Halal travel market would grow, and that technology would continue to go sky high. From there, I formed a group of people, and we didn’t think about the business side—we just thought to make it and see how it worked. We spend a year of research looking into technology that was very new. Some of the apps that were there already were not very accurate. In 2015, we did a test at an event that we thought would be perfect, as our audience would be there—techies, travellers, everyone. The people there were amazed, they loved it. We had a lot of ideas, but we cut them down and thought, let’s make this about heritage and places to pray, and let’s make this a worldwide app. No matter where you are in the country, where you are in the world, you would be able to find a place.

This is how we grew. We found research on heritage sites on Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and more, and we targeted the market there. From there, we developed on the iPhone and saw a very high number of usage, and in 2016, we launched on both iPhone and Android. We made the app free, in order to see how the app would evolve, how people would use it, and get customer feedback. Every day, there is a new mosque added, and people have also used it to host their homes for prayer on Friday. It became a personal tool—people send us emails and we add them. We have about 100,000 downloads, and we spent no money towards marketing, it all came organically. We still haven’t taken investment yet, because we’re still looking for the right amount for how we can grow this market. The augmented reality (AR) is huge—about $30 billion by 2020. Six to eight months ago, Apple launched its own AR kit, after Pokémon Go became a worldwide phenomenon.

Was Pokémon Go a boon for your app?

It was a great thing, because we no longer had to teach users how to use augmented reality. The group of people that were going to use the app were all of a sudden educated through that game. This is what we found. We were very concerned that people wouldn’t know how to use it, but the users are very clever— they can figure things out very quickly. Most of the app has been developed from user feedback. We first tried to create a perfect thing, but there is no such thing as a perfect thing.

How have you turned towards the business model since then?

 Now we have our business minds on it on how to sustain the app, and how we can generate revenue. Because it’s a travel app, we are focused on travel. We’ve been featured in numerous media platforms across the world, and from there we started getting hits through other countries that we hadn’t before. Every stage now in our business plan is about figuring out when and where we should ask for investment. It’s not about money, it’s about the right people and the right organisation. Money can blow away quickly, and we don’t cost too much as we developed it ourselves. There was no extra cost in hiring developers. The only thing we need money for is marketing and hiring more people internally.

Having come to Dubai to develop the Islamic economy. In London, how much do you feel as a Halal business that you are tapped into a Halal economy? Do you feel isolated, or is there a good environment here?

It is a good environment now. In the last five years, it has evolved. For example, food places. Currently, we are near Brick Lane in London, and around here there are about four to five mosques, so this area has always been developed. Some are even not readily visible. But even in central London, Halal food is available more than ever. Five years back you could find maybe one or two places, but now there are about 20 to 30 steakhouses that are Halal, for example. Major brands are now Halal. Prices are premium, but they do get customers. It is a massive industry. There is no isolation—there is a huge potential.

Are you able to work with Takaful, Islamic banks, or Shari’ah-compliant investors in London?

Similar to food, before there were maybe one or two, and now there are many. There are not enough investors in the Islamic economy in London yet, however. There are a few, but they may not have enough experience. I worry about getting x amount of money and then run out of money. We want something that can sustain itself, and we want to be able to give back to the Muslim community here. We want to be able to hire people and give them jobs.

How are you engaging with the Muslim community?

From this app, we also developed a few different apps, and they also raised massive interest. One Saudi app from the holy sites found very high usage. From that, we have made a lot of connections, and we have people contributing from all of the world. We have made a network of friends for this project, and we hope that to be a stepping stone. We will be participating in an exhibit at the Tate Modern to show off our augmented reality. We want to establish ourselves locally strongly. I have been to a few countries, and all to these countries have different elements of the Islamic economy. Malaysia and Indonesia are where most of our downloads and usage are from. In London, users will use it during Ramadan, Hajj, or Friday prayer. We want to find a way to get people more engaged in other markets.

How have you received mentorship within the Muslim community?

We have been taking advice from mentors, and we participated in the Islamic economy boot camp from the Global Islamic Economy Summit in Dubai, who helped train us how to fund, how to write a pitch, how to write a business plan, and how to make your idea simple and easy for people to understand and attract investors as well. Before it was like a zig zag, and now hopefully the journey is a straight road. We’re in a situation now where we need to take this to the next level. The market is there—we need to tap into it.

What’s the benefit to being based in London as opposed to being based in Kuala Lumpur or Dubai? I have been thinking to myself about moving to Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. London is a hub for start-ups. Because of that, I thought to myself, let’s stay in London and see how it goes. In London, you see all types of people. It’s not just Muslims, there is a very diverse community of designers and developers. If I go to another country, for me to adjust will take time. Say for example if we get investors from those places, and they want us to come on board, that is a different story, and then maybe we can focus the app around those markets, but for now London is the best place for us.

 Where do you see, financial growth coming from?

There’s a lot of usage in Southeast Asia, but the users are not as financially stable. Other areas, people use it when they need it, but they also spend money. From there we can look at in app purchases, such as guide books, audiobooks, and more extra elements on the app where users can engage with different sorts of material and provide us with revenue as well. For example, a Hajj guide, or a Turkey guide, people are happy to spend GBP 20 or 30 because they need it. That is what we’re thinking about how to approach the future.




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