With the objective to become “the world’s go-to solution for traffic acquisition,” entrepreneur Moustafa Mahmoud founded Cognitev, a tech startup working on artificial intelligence (AI)- powered marketing tools.
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As a small business owner, who is constantly racing against time to manage the various business tasks to help your enterprise scale, you can definitely appreciate the crucial role automation can play in help easing your overwhelming burden. And when automation lends a hand in one of the key and nascent areas of business today –digital marketing– it sure gains more significance. With the marketing landscape undergoing rapid changes and being all about traffic, SEO, and campaign management today, there is a need for small businesses to master the art of digital marketing, and hence, a tool that promises to “democratize online marketing” can definitely make a difference to their prospects.
With the objective to become “the world’s go-to solution for traffic acquisition,” entrepreneur Moustafa Mahmoud founded Cognitev, a tech startup working on artificial intelligence (AI)- powered marketing tools, in an attempt to simplify the practice as well. “When people think of search, the first name they think of is Google; when people think of online marketing, we want them to think of Cognitev,” says Mahmoud, founder and CEO, Cognitev. The Egypt-based Cognitev, which has a presence in Dubai and the US as well, can put your company’s advertising on autopilot, and ensures your site acquires targeted and quality visitors.
“At first, we wanted to democratize online marketing for small and medium businesses, giving them a single button that they can push to take care of all their traffic acquisition needs,” says Mahmoud. “We wanted online marketing to be available in an on-demand model, and we wanted to do for our industry what Uber did for transportation and Airbnb did for accommodation,” he adds. But Mahmoud and his team soon realized that there was a robust demand for such solutions from both SMEs and large online businesses, which often struggle to master traffic acquisition after getting their websites up and running.
Having officially launched in 2015, and pivoting to its current model in 2016, Cognitev’s major AI product in the market today is InstaScaler, an automated advertising platform for anyone who wants to focus on growing their business. As a user, InstaScaler will just need your URL and the list of countries you want to target, and based on these inputs, it will analyze your website, identify the best marketing channel, and also create ads on those channels on your behalf. As a continuous process, it also optimizes the ads, and hence helps direct high quality traffic to your site.
“Regardless of your knowledge, budget, or requirements, all you need to do is enter your URL and push a button, and then you start getting traffic,” Mahmoud says. “We fully automate the entire marketing stack; we are integrated to hundreds of channels including Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Yahoo, Bing, Quora, and others.” In this way, InstaScaler automatically selects the most suitable channels for your business, and creates campaigns that brings relevant and targeted traffic.
Charging customers per visit, Mahmoud emphasizes that a “visit” for Cognitev is a verified visit on the customer’s Google Analytics, and not an impression or a click. “I believe that this is a concrete unit of value that is transparent and measurable in terms of quality and conversion, customers can see it on their source of truth, their analytics tool. I see us sticking to this model for a while.”
Armed with a computer science Master’s degree, and a wealth of work experience in tech majors such as Oracle, SAP, EMC, and others, Mahmoud is a serial entrepreneur who, prior to Cognitev, set up ShopShopMe.com, a Middle East-focused shopping search engine, which allowed consumers to search for products across a number of online and offline stores from one single platform. Starting Cognitev along with co-founder and COO Ahmed Hassan, Mahmoud says they aim to “make the internet a better place” by simplifying the complex task of digital marketing for business owners.
“I believe traffic should be as readily and easily available as electricity,” Mahmoud says. “The entire infrastructure should be hidden behind a simple switch or a button that you press, and that’s it. If we are successful in achieving this vision, we can literally change the internet to the better.” And to help them achieve this endeavor, the Cognitev team has raised around US$1.7 million from undisclosed investors since its inception, with the startup also claiming to be profitable and cash flow positive at the moment. “However, we are looking to raise a Series A round for the purposes of scale and growth in the US market,” Mahmoud adds.
And Cognitev enjoyed a shot in the arm recently with regard to its global ambitions- it was the only Egyptian tech enterprise to showcase its product at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco in September 2018. “We saw amazing startups coming from all over the world to showcase their products and innovations. Many of those companies were never in the US before. So it was really exciting to see that innovation happens all over the world,” says Mahmoud.
Sharing his experience presenting at the global tech gathering in Silicon Valley, Mahmoud says, “My key takeaways is that you should always think global, no matter where you are based; the world is a much smaller place today than it was 10 years ago.” Mahmoud also walks the talk, as Cognitev counts customers from around 22 countries today. “Everybody in the world who has a URL wants traffic!” he exclaims, noting that they serve over 500 customers globally, and are doubling their growth year-on-year.
As for the global digital marketing space, and the benefits Cognitev expects from being an early mover in the region, Mahmoud notes that the industry is almost a $300 billion market today. “If you think of digital advertising, that is literally what funds the free internet that we use today,” he explains. “Services like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and others are free because they are supported with advertising revenue models. So we’re happy we’re tapping into that huge market and disrupting it.”
As for the MENA ecosystem and its potential for entrepreneurs, Mahmoud believes it all depends on one’s personal ambitions. “How big a business do they want to build is the first question to answer,” he says. “The MENA market is large enough when you think of some industries, but in others, you have to think global if you really want to build a multi-billion dollar business.”
Besides being a digital marketing tool, Cognitev has the additional distinction of working on one of the hottest emerging tech today- artificial intelligence. Though AI is now being applied across industries, Mahmoud believes that its use in the online marketing industry is huge, but largely untapped. “We are one of the first companies to use AI in the model that we currently provide,” says the entrepreneur.
While being pioneers in a specific technology can bring enormous benefits to a business, Mahmoud acknowledges that the growth journey can be that much harder, as well. “Don’t be afraid in being a first mover,” Mahmoud says. “There is a cost to that, because you mostly have to discover stuff on your own and make a lot of mistakes, but when you succeed, you could end up creating an entirely new space, which didn’t exist before in your industry.”
Cognitev founder and CEO Moustafa Mahmoud
How is the experience of starting and running a startup different from working in the corporate world?
“I believe that running a startup should be exactly the same way someone runs a professional soccer team. I hope someone writes a book about this someday. The role of the founder is that of a coach; he should recruit and train A-players to the team. The team [members] are the ones who play and win, management is there to support, and build a platform for those stars to grow, shine, and win.”
What are your tips for an entrepreneur to start and scale a business in the MENA region?
“Well, we are still very early in our journey, in my opinion. The only advice I can share is that you should think global, not local. Think big, act fast, and keep growing.”