Thursday, 20 March 2014 10:43

The Weatherman

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Through his popular ArabiaWeather website, meteorological maestro Mohammed al-Shaker is successfully tapping into Jordan’s growing obsession with the weather.

Mohammed al-Shaker first shot to fame one chilly day in early 2008, when he became the only meteorologist in Jordan to correctly forecast snow. This fateful prediction eventually led him to create ArabiaWeather, which is now one of the region’s most trusted and widely read weather websites. Its popularity can only grow in light of December’s historically bad weather, which had hundreds of thousands of Jordanians clambering for updates on the movements of storm Alexa.

Twenty-four-year-old al-Shaker started his journey to becoming Jordan’s first celebrity weatherman in 2006, when, at the tender age of 15, Ammon News began publishing his forecasts. A couple of years later, he began regularly presenting weather reports on Mohammed al-Wakeel’s morning radio. Al-Shaker then moved to Britain to hone his skills, studying at the respected Met Office College, which is tied to the country’s national weather service. He eventually gained certificates in aviation and advanced meteorology.

In many ways, al-Shaker is the perfect example of young entrepreneurs turning their passion into a successful business, and building a brand to monetize in the process. “My passion since my early childhood was the science behind the weather and why it’s happening. The passion drove me to provide the service, then the service drove me to create the business,” he told Venture, adding that ArabiaWeather now employs a team of 20 and is attracting strong interest from advertisers. He also said his website receives one million unique visitors per month from Jordan alone, and the same number from Saudi Arabia, plus half a million others from other countries in the region.

So what does he believe has been the secret behind his success? “I believe accuracy was like the fuel for people’s trust which translated into popularity,” explained al-Shaker. "At the end it’s pure science.” Al-Shaker and his team use sophisticated systems, special algorithms, and modeling systems that depend on topography and many atmospheric parameters to produce weather forecasts. “This is what gives us the competitive edge, and these numerical algorithms and models need a lot of supercomputing powers that we’ve managed to create.”

Today, his popular website offers a myriad of features. Visitors can browse hourly forecasts right up to an entire month ahead. There are also photo essays and videos on weather, space, science, and nature, as well as weather forecasts and warnings. He said his team works on upgrading the system on a regular basis to guarantee the most accurate results, particularly now that they have grown to become pan-Arab, rather than a website that only provides local forecasts. Al-Shaker said the website is particularly popular in Saudi Arabia, which can experience multiple weather fronts at any one time due to its sheer size. 

 

BUILDING THE BRAND

The company splits its business model between Business to Business (B2B) and Business to Consumer (B2C). Under B2B, ArabiaWeather provides services and reports to the aviation industry, TV stations, media outlets, and airports, as well as the agricultural sector and oil and gas companies in Saudi Arabia. “The most popular product that we produce is the early warning system which provides early notifications so businesses can save money, time, or even property,” said al-Shaker. 

Based on their services, the company’s clients are divided between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, with a 50/50 ratio. Some of their other clients are one-off projects based in other countries in the region, and even as far as Africa. 

As for the B2C, which is strictly limited to the website, social media channels, and the mobile app, the company generates money directly via advertising. Although al-Shaker dubs advertising low in fruit, figures reveal that it is actually mushrooming.

“The increase in online advertisement reflects the increase of online spending,” he noted, stating that they have seen an almost 70 percent growth in the sales of online advertisements, year-on-year. “This shows that the product that we’re producing is very important to the advertiser.” Cementing this trend, ArabiaWeather recently received two sponsorship deals from Ford and Jordan Commercial Bank. 

But B2B remains their main revenue stream. He cited their work with Saudi Arabia’s airports as an example, where they installed systems to detect the weather ahead of time, without providing analysis. In Jordan, however, they signed an agreement with Royal Jordanian to provide satellite data. 

Al-Shaker said ArabiaWeather had yet to break even, but forecast that it could start making enough money within the coming two to four years. “We are trying and things are moving smoothly now,” said al-Shaker, who in 2012 was named Ernst & Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year.

 

CLOUDY SKIES AND FUTURE FORECASTS

But getting to where he is today hasn’t been easy. He has faced numerous challenges, perhaps the most difficult of which was just how new a concept a dedicated weather website is to Jordan and the wider Middle East. “We have a lot of weather companies in the world except for our region,” he said. This means less data and scarce financing, as investors would rather put their money in a business they are more familiar with. 

But despite global weather companies being their only real competition, al-Shaker believes regional competition is coming very soon. Yet this does not intimidate him, as he says competition will only enhance the quality of work.

Quelling weather rumors, which he believes is an exclusive trait to the Jordanian community, puts another obstacle in the way of the smooth day-to-day management of the business. He says rumors limit their capabilities to broadcast their long-range forecast. “If you mention that towards the end of January there will be low pressure, this information will be turned into the biggest, strongest snow storm to ever hit Jordan,” he said. “It’s something very exclusive to the Jordanian community. In other countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia, we didn’t face this issue and I blame the culture for that.”

Al-Shaker’s future plans to expand the business include upgrading the system in two to three years to provide clients with a 28-day forecast, enhancing their sources to reach a level of predicting the weather every 15 minutes for the next 48 hours, and upgrading the hourly forecast to five days.

They are also considering the possibility of offering premiums and professional subscriptions on the website, giving subscribers more features and no advertisements. But before going there, they are planning to expand into the GCC countries, cover all the Levant, and tap into south west Asia by the end of 2014. He also believes that the lucrative aviation and media industries should be their main target, followed by other industries after 2014.

Rain or shine, al-Shaker has clearly managed to fill a gap in the region, providing a different perspective to metrology and turning it into the talk of the town. 

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