An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect her identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
In the past 10 years, startups have successfully established themselves as a growing part of Iran’s economy. Although they are small businesses, their revenues have tended to be relatively high for their size.
Every year the Economist magazine publishes a list of successful startups, but Iran has not traditionally featured very high up on the list. One of the reasons for this is that the majority of Iranian startups revolve around information technology, and in recent years there has been little indication that entrepreneurs will launch startups in other sectors as well. Regardless, a number of Iranian startups have begun to make a name for themselves in the world of business, and, with the lifting of sanctions, the situation is set to improve.
Here are a few of Iran’s most successful startups, all of which have received positive responses from analysts and consumers alike.
Digikala: Iran’s Biggest Online Retailer
Digikala, with an estimated worth of US$150 million, is Iran’s biggest startup. Initially the website sold digital equipment including mobile phones and laptops, but today it sells almost anything, offering product reviews and reasonable prices. Digikala offers a reliable service Iranians have increasingly grown to trust.
“If Amazon chief Jeff Bezos were to go to Iran today, he would find a lot that looks very familiar,” a BBC article said of Digikala.
Brothers Hamid and Saeed Mohammadi started Digikala, which means “digital products” in Persian, in 2007. "Eight years ago, digital cameras were all the rage," Hamid Mohammadi told the BBC. "My brother and I were looking to buy one, but we couldn't find a single Persian review online." They ended up buying a camera locally only to discover that the lens wasn't genuine. "It got us thinking: what if there was a site where you could read a collection of reviews and buy the product based on this?”
Digikala now offers same-day delivery in smart modern packaging. Customers can return the product within a week for a full refund or a replacement. The company also produces its own mobile apps for both iOS and Android.
But what will happen if, now that sanctions have been lifted, Amazon enters the Iranian market? “I don’t think Amazon is a threat to us,” Hamid Mohammadi told the Guardian. “Even if they do see Iran as a big market, they would have to establish a Persian-language Amazon. I think lifting sanctions will be more of an opportunity for people like us than a threat.”
Aparat: The Iranian YouTube
Aparat — or the “movie projector” — has been up and running for five years. Because Iranian authorities filter YouTube, Aparat has been able to capture a vast share of the market, and it has quickly become a household name in Iran.
Mohammad-Javad Shakouri Moghaddam launched Aparat in early 2011. Within two years, it offered its users both Android and iOS mobile apps. Its estimated value is now about $30 million.
Five million videos a day are watched on Aparat, and the site gets about 150 million hits a month. Recently, Aparat introduced a new service based on the Netflix model, which is currently available free of charge.
“Of course the absence of YouTube here has helped us to grow,” Moghaddam told the Guardian, “but even if the filtering were lifted our emphasis on original content means we will be less affected.” Netflix’s recent venture into Iran may also have an impact on the business, though with such a foothold in the Iranian market, Aparat has a good chance of taking on the competition.
Café Bazaar: Filling the gap of the Google App Store
Café Bazaar is another inadvertent beneficiary of both sanctions and the filtering policies of the Islamic Republic. For a long time, Iranians were not able to download reliable and sought-after software for their mobile devices — and Café Bazaar filled a large part of this gap for Android apps.
Hessam Armandehi founded Café Bazaar in 2010. Today it offers more than 25,000 Iranian and international apps. More than 2,000 Iranian developers have contributed 10,000 apps to its library. It is valued at about $20 million and commands 85 percent of the Iranian market share for Android apps.
NetBarg: The Power of Discount Coupons
By offering discounts of up to 90 percent for merchandise and services, NetBarg (“net leaf”) has become one of the most successful ecommerce sites in Iran. Offering discounts for a range of services from health and sports to beauty and entertainment, NetBarg has won the trust of many of its customers — particularly female customers, some of whom promote the site for free.
Brothers Saman and Alireza Sadeghian founded NetBarg in 2010. They received MBA degrees from Royal Holloway, University of London, and Columbia Business School respectively. NetBarg currently employs 80 people and has sold over 2.5 million coupons. Customers can purchase coupons using the NetBarg website or through its iOS and Android mobile apps.
Takhfifan: More Discounts
Like NetBarg, Takhfifan — literally “discounts” — is a successful clone of Groupon, offering everything from discounted restaurant deals to spa days and theater tickets.
Sisters Nazanin and Negin Daneshvar founded the company. Nazanin Daneshvar holds a degree in IT engineering and worked in the ecommerce field in Iran, England and Germany before starting Takhfifan at the age of 26.
Daneshvar told the Guardian that when she started the project, people in Iran were skeptical. “Four years ago, people in Iran didn’t know what startups were, or they associated them with fraud,” she says, “but now they are taken seriously and people have begun to trust them.”
Besides running her own company, Daneshvar regularly contributes to startup events as a mentor. Her personal website can be accessed via mobile apps as well as on conventional online platforms.
Anetwork: Pay per Click
Another successful Iranian startup is Anetwork, a digital advertising company that is less known about among the general public in Iran. Founded by Shayan Shalileh in 2010, it quickly became the biggest pay-per-click (PPC) company in Iran. In the PPC model, advertisers pay a fee each time people click on their ads on webpages.
Anetwork now manages advertising on more than 7,500 websites in Iran. “In 2015 Anetwork made a strategic decision to expand its services to become the first Digital Media Agency in Iran,” its website states. “With over 9.5 million monthly unique online users, Anetwork and its partners can successfully help in increasing your online visibility within the Iranian market.”
Divar: Bypassing the Gatekeepers
Iranians involved in online commerce will be aware of Divar, a peer-to-peer (P2P) platform that connects buyers and sellers. By making it easy to buy or sell online through its websites and mobile apps, it has successfully taken over the market previously dominated by classified advertising.
In Persian, it translates as “the wall” — but Divar sees its role as trying to break down the wall between buyers and sellers, bypassing the gatekeepers. Product and service providers are able to manage their advertisements with ease, entering an email address specifying their requirements and later receiving a link to a panel that posts the ad straight to the website.
Sheypoor: Buy and Sell Anything
Reza Arbabian founded Sheypoor (“trumpet”) in 2012. The site is in direct competition with Divar. “Trumpet any second-hand item, large or small, on Sheypoor and turn it into money,” the webpage promises. “Every day, thousands of people use Sheypoor to buy and sell whatever they want — a guitar, a watch, a carpet, an old car...” It also assures Sheypoor users that advertising on the site is 100 percent free.
As with other Iranian startups, Sheypoor offers its services through both web and mobile apps.
Rosita Barzin, Citizen Journalist