With alternatives to Google and Bing, such as Seznam (Czech Republic) or Yandex (Russia) already existing, entering this saturated market can be considered a brave, if not suicidal, business endeavour. Yet, armed with an arsenal of academic qualifications, valuable business knowledge and an indecent amount of motivation, the CEO and cofounder of Gjirafa.com Mergim Cahani (34) tells inventures about his journey and why his project is far from a lost cause.
From academia to entrepreneurship
Originally enrolled in medical high school in his hometown of Prizren, it didn’t look like Mergim Cahani was predestined to venture down the geeky path. However, when the war in 1999 forced him to discontinue his studies, he started on a completely new path. He worked for the United Nations, leading a team building network infrastructure. Following these first steps in IT, he moved to New York to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in computer sciences. Taking “hardworking” to a whole new level, he completed a Master’s in computer sciences at NYU and an MBA at St John’s University simultaneously, while also working full time as an assistant professor.
His nearly perfect academic records caught the eye of Broadridge Financial Solutions, a global company building applications for the financial industry. Giving him a taste of corporate environment and teamwork, this experience led him to founding his own company Phronesis Technologies in 2012. The startup developed the initial versions of Gjirafa.com and iziSurvey as products, but later spun both off as independent companies.
The birth of Gjirafa
The idea of developing a search engine for Albanian speakers came to Mergim in 2011, while working on a New Zealand search engine for his thesis with prof. Torsten Suel, a pioneer in the field. He relied on a combination of his IT skills and on his knowledge of economic growth and conducting business in Kosovo. “I saw an opportunity, as [internet] giants had left this region behind – and reasonably so from a financial perspective – since [it] classifies as an emerging market.”
Initially working on his own, Mergim easily convinced Ercan Canhasi, one of the few Albanians who have a PhD in the search engine field, to join him as a cofounder in 2012. “He’s one of the few persons in the world who could do the job, so for him doing something that he excels at and that nobody has done before was thrilling” Mergim says. Megrim’s good friend Diogjen Elshani, who works on the business development side, found the idea of building something competing with the best of the best on the web an exciting challenge, and he too joined the team.
The project, which includes a full-text search engine, a news aggregator, a transport scheduler, and a weather widget, rapidly received both funding and encouragement. In addition to support from the Innovation Centre Kosovo, investors from New York and the Czech Republic, and from early venture Eye-Kosovo, Gjirafa received a grant of 10,000 dollars from the Young Entrepreneurship Programme in the US. Mergim then purchased powerful server infrastructure and much needed office equipment. “That was a big push for us, it made us more serious about what we wanted to do,” he says.
Thanks to those various investments and to its participation in Prague-based incubator StartupYard last year, the company managed to secure enough funding to cover operating and marketing costs for about a year.
But is there actually a market?
Our primary market consists of about six million people; we aim to reach four million in three years.”
According to Mergim, the utility of this search engine relies on the uniqueness of the Albanian language within the Indo-European family. Constituting its own lexical branch with no close relatives, Albanian has been overlooked by internet giants, mostly for the reason that the language is not fully recognised by the search algorithms they currently use, as even Google admitted in a video. The search giant only introduced google.al to the world in 2013. To solve this issue, the Gjirafa team works on creating a tool that programmatically and intelligently makes sense of what Albanian speakers search.
Based on its own research, the startup estimates that there are at least 12 million Albanian-speaking people worldwide. A pool of potential users that Gjirafa divides in two segments, a primary market consisting of Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro and a secondary market that is the diaspora around the world, with Turkey and the US among the top-five countries. “Our primary market consists of about six million people; we aim to reach four million in three years,” Mergim says.
The entrepreneur highlights the importance of accessing the web in Albanian, as the internet penetration in Kosovo is 87 per cent and nearly every second family has relatives living abroad. “We try to identify target groups, yet even today, we don’t have a particular demographic in mind,” Megrim says. “That is because Gjirafa would serve many purposes: High school students look for material to prepare for their tests, university students look for academic resources in Albanian, and professionals look for jobs and business matters, and older generations don’t speak a word of English but still want to know what’s happening. “
Bringing the region online
Mergim and part of his team; Photo credit: Gjirafa
Beyond the language aspect, Gjirafa also aims to address an equally important issue, the serious lack of online resources in Albanian. According to Mergim, because the war and political turmoil have set back development in the region, the Albanian web is still at an early stage, which explains that not only is the market not penetrated by global companies yet, but some basic information is simply not available online and e-commerce is almost inexistent. “For example, in the Czech Republic, there are about 200 e-commerce sites, while in Kosovo there are two, and about ten other being built,” he says.
In addition to bringing offline data, such as bus schedules and water distribution tables, online Gjirafa also aims to increase the e-availability of academic resources and reading material, including e-books, essays and papers, thanks to a partnership with the University of Pristina and is talking to 32 higher education institutions in Kosovo that possess digital resources as well.
The startup estimates that there are currently between 15 and 20 million web pages in Albanian, compared to only 10 million last year. With this rapid a growth, Megrim expects the local web experience to improve by 200 per cent in the next two years. “The type and nature of content will also increase across different media, that’s why people need Gjirafa to aggregate all this info,” he says, adding that “by tackling both the language factor and the lack of online resources, we will have a direct impact in stimulating the growth of the Albanian web.”
We are not direct competitors with Google, we just serve this market better”
For Gjirafa’s passionate team of sixteen, split across two offices in Pristina and Prizren, the next three months will be a capital test phase. “If we see constant growth between October and December, then it will be easier for us to get to Series A in January,” Mergim says, adding that getting additional funding will be crucial to keeping the project running after June, given their high operating costs.
Mergim is confident in the value of Gjirafa: “We are not direct competitors with Google, we just serve this market better becausewe go and get data manually.” However, he remains realistic about the challenge, well-aware of the Goliath he’s battling: “With a dedicated team, Google could beat us in three to six months.”
“But as far as we are aware, we are the only ones in the world focusing our research on processing the Albanian language text programmatically utilising NLP, so we have a head start.” he says. “And can Google get the information at the costs we have and build partnerships in Kosovo like we do? I don’t think so.”