To offer its mobile games to customers in Saudi Arabia, tech firm Airg needed to adapt
One day in June 2014, Raj Bhangu got off a plane in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The vice-president, business development, of Vancouver-based mobile software developer Airg was there on a trade mission to meet with executives of cellular service providers. As he waited for his luggage, he saw a billboard advertising a one-terabyte (1,000gigabyte) data plan—about 100 times what a typical family plan offers in Canada.
“That's nuts!” Bhangu said. “Who uses one terabyte a month?”
A lot of people, he was about to learn. Although his company already offered its packages, including games, chat rooms and dating sites, in North America, Western Europe, Latin America and parts of Africa, Bhangu had been a bit intimidated by the cultural barriers of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is led by an Islamic dictatorship with religious police enforcing ultraconservative laws on all manner of public behaviour, including dress codes, a ban on women driving, strict separation of the sexes, and attendance at prayer five times a day.
After encouragement from VP Brian Roberts at Vancouver's Wavefront, which helps startups in the wireless industry with development, growth and building international ties, Bhangu decided to join a trip with a handful of others. The billboard told him he'd made the right decision. “Here's the reason that games do really well in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “There's no movie theatres, no Netflix, no Apple TV, no porn, no alcohol. There's nothing else to do.”
Since its founding by Frederick Ghahramani in 2000, BC Chamber of Commerce member Airg has done well at providing things to do. It now employs about 130 people in its Vancouver office and counts more than 100 million registered users in 135 countries.
But Bhangu was right about the cultural barriers. At the first meeting in Riyadh, an awkward moment arose when the Canadian consular representative, a woman, extended her hand to an executive of one of the Saudi companies, who refused to touch her. Bhangu was offering a package of 1,000 games available by subscription, and he'd done an unusual amount of preparation. All of his presentations had to be wiped clean of references to Airg's chat or dating sites, or any suggestive words like “single.” The trade mission resulted in deals with several cellphone operators in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
First, however, the games needed work. The company hired a Lebanese woman who spoke Arabic to vet them. One in particular, Big Barn World, had to be entirely redesigned. It's a social farming experience in which players can buy
animals, raise crops, and sell eggs and milk, relying on puns and innuendo (“I just fertilized your garden”). Big Barn World is immensely popular—paying users across the globe spend an average of US$108 a month buying add-ons and play for 82 minutes a day—but for Saudi Arabia, the developers created a separate universe as a straightforward game with no flirtation. The female host, originally a cartoon figure holding watermelons and wearing overalls, was dressed in a head-to-toe hijab. Pigs were replaced by camels and ostriches.
There were other cultural challenges. Soon after the first trade mission, Bhangu went to a recruiting company in the UAE to hire a salesperson. The recruiter asked if he wanted a Sunni or a Shiite. “I said, `I didn't think of that,'” Bhangu recalls, “and he said, `You have to.'”
The recast games caught on, and Airg signed deals in other Middle Eastern countries, including Bahrain, Jordan, Iran, Kuwait, Oman and Yemen. This February the company opened an office in Beirut. In the Middle East alone, Airg is on track to do $3 million in revenue for 2017. The company doesn't disclose financials, but Bhangu says total sales are above $70 million.
Though Airg was willing to adapt its products, sometimes Bhangu needed to draw a line—and found that being Canadian offered a kind of neutrality. When the contract was presented to the Saudi company, the executives noticed the name of Airg's lawyer and asked if he was Jewish. “I said to my sales guy, `You tell them he's Canadian,'” Bhangu recalls. “You have to have the same mentality as we do. We're just doing business.”
GAME CHANGER Airg's Raj Bhangu found a new market in the Middle East