Launched by Zaidoun Karadsheh and Tamer Qarrain in January 2013, BeeLabs produces interactive educational and entertainment applications for Android and iOS devices. They create content for all ages, inspired by our region’s culture and traditions. In collaboration with multimedia company Media Plus, and animation studio Sketch in Motion, BeeLabs seeks to create top-notch applications that can bridge the current digital gap between Arabic and English content.
Why did you decide to set up BeeLabs?
Karadsheh: Our kids are always playing with their iPads. Tamer’s son Hani and my daughter Joelle are both in third grade and they are addicted to these screens. We found that there is no appropriate content for them because it is mostly in English.
Qarrain: We also always hear that children are not very good at the Arabic language these days, which was another reason for us to go ahead with the project.
What was the first step you took to help Arab children know and value their mother tongue?
Qarrain: We wanted to create something that represents Arab culture and have themes people can relate to. We tested an app for kids two years ago called My Arabic Letters, and it was a hit.
We also partnered with author Taghreed al-Najjar to animate her stories, and in a way, bring her characters to life through music and video. This was deemed very successful, and kids loved this new kind of interaction.
Are the apps you make just for children?
Karadsheh: We’re working on two different streams. One for creating educational and entertaining content for kids, and one for creating games for everybody. For example, we have a new app being produced for all ages called Shibshib War, where oil hungry aliens have descended upon Earth in order to strip the Arab world of all its oil reserves. This took us more than a year of development because of its high-tech quality.
Our apps are for everyone. They have reached many places all over the world. We usually start with creating Arabic apps, and if they are a hit, we translate them into English.
Qarrain: We have another app called Sheep Run where you have to direct a sheep away from the butcher’s knife, and if you’re caught you become a feast of mansaf. This got 30,000 downloads in its first six months of release. On the other hand, an example of a kids app we have is The Gnome and the Sheep, a story app that allows children to decide how incidents progress. Another one we’re working on is DomDomTak, a musical application with instruments like the oud, tabla, and mizmar.
Why did you decide to portray a specific or ‘stereotypical’ side of the Arab world and more specifically, Jordan? Don’t you think that would be offering children a one-dimensional portrayal of our country?
Qarrain: We wanted to create something that is both culturally relevant and witty, something that Arabs can relate to and foreigners can understand and enjoy. For example, in Shibshib War, different levels are played in different Arab countries, each containing some signature elements immediately recognizable. In Jordan, you can see all elements that relate to standard Amman. For example, you can hear the distant sound of Beethoven’s Für Elise, which to Jordanians, is an instant indicator that a truck selling gas is on its way to your neighborhood.
As for Sheep Run, it’s just fun. The idea that the butcher runs after the sheep until it becomes mansaf is nothing stereotypical, it just relates to something we celebrate in our culture –Eid Al Adha. It’s not everyday that consumers play games that have their culture portrayed—which is why it’s fun!
You are competing in a global market where competition is high and where most apps can be downloaded for free. How successful has BeeLabs been so far? Can you sustain it?
Qarrain: Success comes in two parts. The first one is to have people know that your content is in the market and download your apps in the thousands, if not in the millions. The second part is profit. At this point, we are not marketing our products enough therefore we are not generating revenue. MediaPlus has been developing games since 2003, so we have the workforce and expertise to implement our ideas; we’re not starting from scratch. We have strong animators who came from Sketch in Motion under the direction of Moaiad Zaidan. He is the third partner in BeeLabs, and he is the one who provides us with all character animations and backgrounds.
This is a relatively new product in the MENA region and consumers might still be reluctant to pay for downloading apps. Do you offer free apps and how are you encouraging people to buy the paid ones?
Karadsheh: Some of them are for free, and some are for one dollar. We’re also introducing freemium apps where customers get to try out the game for free, and then if they want to unlock more levels, they will have to pay.
Qarrain: The market in general prefers free apps. Our free apps get downloaded 1,000 times per day, whereas apps that require money are less popular.
It is bound to be difficult to enter this field, given its growing popularity. What are some of the challenges you have faced?
Karadsheh: Competition is fierce. There are hundreds of millions of apps all over the world, and we are considered a tiny speck in comparison. This is a challenge for everyone in this kind of market − even the creators of Angry Birds faced this problem. That is why we are investing in 20 apps to experiment, and then create the app that everyone will love and enjoy. You can say this is our trial and error period.
Qarrain: Another thing about the apps and games market is that it is forever changing. What was popular one month ago is no longer popular today. People get bored quickly, therefore we need to keep up with what’s new and this can be very challenging at times.
What about your plans for the future?
Karadsheh: One of the biggest projects we are working on at the moment is a platform for kids called Atfalino. We will convert offline children’s books to digital media, and add interactive characters and sound effects. It will also have separate sections for games and music videos for children. It is a very big project, and we’re working with several content providers so we’re hoping it will be ready by 2014.
Qarrain: By the end of the year we will evaluate how [we will go forth.] The problem with this industry is that it is changing very quickly so we can’t have a long-term plan.
This piece was published in Venture Magazine.