Middle East

Tech in Palestine: 'Virtual market has no checkpoints'

West Bank firm Mashvisor has become the first Palestinian company accepted into prestigious Silicon Valley seed fund.

Mashvisor's development team recently held a planning meeting to determine their next steps [Courtesy of Mashvisor/Al Jazeera]

Ramallah, occupied West Bank - Last month, Mashvisor became the first Palestinian company to get into the 500 Startups programme, a prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital seed fund that accepts very few of its more than 8,000 applicants a year.

Mashvisor helps find the best real-estate properties in the United States to invest in. But the online platform differs from others in at least two ways: It analyses and presents the data quickly, reducing a research process that usually takes three months to 15 minutes. Also, its creators are Palestinian, providing real-estate information in easy-to-understand visualisations from their base in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

'Real-estate data in the US is digitalised more than anywhere else in the world, making it accessible to our team' [Courtesy of Mashvisor/Al Jazeera]

Mashvisor was born less than two years ago, developed from a personal experience of cofounder and CEO Peter Abualzolof. When he was living in San Francisco, he sought investment opportunities in the US. Realising how complicated and time-consuming the process was, he saw the need for a valuable tool that would help with the research.

He partnered with Mohammed Jebrini, Mashvisor's cofounder and chief technology officer, to create a tool to find traditional and short-term investment properties and optimise their rental performance. Their startup was backed by the Ramallah-based Ibtikar Fund, which invests in innovative Palestinian companies at their earliest stages.

Today, Mashvisor employs nine people - seven on a full-time basis, with women making up a third of the team. Al Jazeera spoke with Abualzolof about Mashvisor's achievements and the challenges facing the Palestinian start-up scene.


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Al Jazeera: Mashvisor is relatively new but has made some considerable achievements in a small time period. What implications are there for Mashvisor to get the support of the American 500 Startups venture capital fund?

Peter Abualzolof: We secured our first investment of $200,000 from Ibtikar Fund in January 2016. In May 2016, we were able to release our second version of our platform that has allowed us to [increase] our revenue by 20 to 25 percent month over month. [And] in October 2016, we were the first startup from Palestine to be accepted into the 500 Startups seed fund in Silicon Valley.

We see 500 Startups as a valuable partner in our success. We plan to utilise their network and community to continue the success of Mashvisor. Our decision to accept the 500 Startups offer was more for strategic reasons than financial. We're confident in their abilities to support our success.

Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to analyse the US market specifically?

Abualzolof: There were many reasons for us to focus on the US market. I personally understood the US real-estate market more than other parts of the world. It was something that I'm familiar with, so it wasn't much of a challenge to put the structure together.

Real-estate data in the US is digitalised more than anywhere else in the world, making it accessible to our team. [Also], the US real-estate market is the most stable and in demand in the world. It's a market that we're confident will allow us to build a company at a large scale. We already have international customers that are interested in using our platform to find real-estate investments in the US. We have customers using Mashvisor in China, the UK and other parts of the world. 

Al Jazeera: What were some of the difficulties leading up to Mashvisor's creation?

Abualzolof: The biggest difficulties were fundraising for our first investment. When we started to fundraise, we were limited to either the local accelerator or the VC (venture capital). We wanted to keep operations in Palestine and to do so, we knew we needed a Palestinian investor.

The local accelerator, FastForward, couldn't offer us enough funds to grow and we were still too early for the VC that invests $1m and above. Thankfully, Ibtikar Fund was established to invest around that time and we were able to agree on terms to receive our first investment of $200,000.

Al Jazeera: How has the political situation and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip affected your work?

Abualzolof: The advantage of tech startups is the virtual market. The virtual market has no walls, roadblocks, checkpoints and overall very little restrictions. We operate no differently than a Silicon Valley startup. The only real difference is the physical location of our startup.

We're determined to succeed and proudly represent Palestine. We don't allow the situation to affect our work. Also, the greatest part of a web-based startup is that you can build a successful company with a laptop and an internet connection.

Al Jazeera: Do you think startups are the way for Palestinians to excel, given they exist in a virtual market?

Abualzolof: I believe that it's one opportunity for Palestine to develop an independent economy. As I mentioned before, the greatest part of a tech startup is the ability to succeed by simply having a laptop and an internet connection.

'Compare Palestine to [any other] ecosystem at a similar stage and you'll see that Palestine is on the right path' [Courtesy of Mashvisor/Al Jazeera]

A good portion of the Palestinian population is connected to the internet and have access to a laptop, if not their own. I'm aware of many independent freelancers in Palestine that are starting to outsource their skills to countries around the world from the comfort of their home. Now, it's just a matter of time that these individuals come together to start companies at a large scale. We hope to be an inspiration for these people. 

Al Jazeera: Some compare Palestinian startups to Israeli ones, saying they lag behind. What are your thoughts on that? Is that even a fair comparison?

Abualzolof: Tel Aviv is considered one of the top startup ecosystems in the world behind Silicon Valley. Their tech community started in the early 1980s with support from their government and other entities.

The Palestinian startup ecosystem is fairly new ... We're still in the early years of developing the ecosystem and I can proudly say that we're starting strong. Compare Palestine to [any other] ecosystem at a similar stage and you'll see that Palestine is on the right path.

Comparing ecosystems that are in different stages is like comparing Facebook with a startup that just received their first million in funding. The startup has the potential to be bigger than Facebook, but still needs time to evolve.

Source: Al Jazeera