Mid­dle Ground

To of­fer its mo­bile games to cus­tomers in Saudi Ara­bia, tech firm Airg needed to adapt

BC Business Magazine - - Small Business -

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

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