My name is Leila Muhaizen. I am the Founder and CEO of Baklava, which we have deemed "the true Arab relationship app." I’ve been working on developing the best app possible to connect the worldwide Arab community and help create relationships, friendships, and marriages through it. People on the app can use it however they wish, as long as the goal is to get to know other Arabs or learn about Arabic culture.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I was raised in a traditional tight-knit community in Lebanon with my single mother and brother. Technically, it was just us three, but it always felt like we had a village supporting us. People there have known each other for generations and have developed a sense of responsibility and loyalty to one another. I used to complain as a teenager that I had five women mothering me at once. It was an atypical family dynamic, but it is what shaped my appreciation for community.
My fascination with tech startups began when my brother landed a position in Silicon Valley. I was captivated by the world of entrepreneurs, investors, risk-takers, and freethinkers. I peered into the collective minds of the community whenever I visited my brother. It’s an environment of innovation, achievement, and success. You can feel the sparks of infectious energy as people discuss their work. Once each visit ended, I would return to my job in Los Angeles and that energy would wane.
After working for five years at a corporate job, I was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I jumped at the opportunity to do something personally meaningful. For the first time in my life, I let my career aspirations wander beyond the confines of corporate America to the realm of tech startups. I quickly learned that applying to cold, impersonal online listings were ineffective. I asked myself, “How do I differentiate myself from the enormous amount of talent competing for the same positions?” I shifted my attitude from “hire me” to “teach me.” If I wanted to work in tech, I had to think like a techie. The key was to find industry leaders who were willing to take me under their wing. This was much easier than expected. There is no shortage of serial entrepreneurs and successful executives who would love to tell you their roadmap to success once you’ve offered your curiosity. Doors started opening as I spoke to incredibly inspiring figures like the Director of CEO Communications at GitHub, a hosting provider for software development; the Founder of Redoor, a mortgage startup acquired by Airbnb; and the CEO of Onfleet, last-mile delivery management software. My efforts came to fruition when I started getting interviews through referrals and receiving job offers. I continued to grow my network and learn the lingo until my mindset and efforts paved the way for my entrepreneurial journey.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
My journey to becoming an entrepreneur started with standing on the shoulders of giants. I studied successful executives and company founders and replicated their methods. This knowledge gave me the framework necessary to understand and develop the logistics to launch Baklava.
Choose someone who has had successful experiences with similar product concepts to what you're developing.
Eventually, I met one of my colleagues, who brought the technology experience and the funding. He had experience in everything tech and dating apps. He pinpointed the significance of learning the interactions between humans and technology and that a successful app feels natural.
Our first step was to make the concept clear enough for the designers to create a layout. Once a click-through model was produced, we presented it to our network of friends, family, and mentors to collect feedback. That step was crucial because people aren’t robots, and there is a specific flow of human behavior that can give you great insights that you will want to incorporate into the app. For example, where do people’s eyes first go when they open a page? Which features catch their attention? Does swiping up feel more natural than diagonal? You should remove any aspect that seems robotic or unnatural.
Once the app was developed and we cleared the testing phase, the next challenge was to get people to use it. Our friends and families blasted it on social media, and that's how we received our first few hundred founding members, and from there, Baklava went viral on social media. Now, we get thousands of downloads from TikTok videos and Instagram Reels.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Every day it seems like we're peaking, and then we see more exponential growth! As of the most recent time, the app was at 160,000+ downloads and growing! The app now sees more than 70,000 members using it daily, with 3 million "matches" created and 10 million messages (on average) exchanged per month. The steadily increasing numbers are overwhelming and humbling. I'm incredibly proud of what we’ve built. Our expectations are high and we want to exceed them.
We are focusing on managing the various challenges different regions can pose. For example, compared to North America and Europe, our users in the Middle East are still small. We are working on winning their trust and proving our genuine goal of helping them meet like-minded people. We want to encourage them to put themselves out there and have faith in the process. We have success stories to prove it!
Finally, we would love to enhance our app with some fun, new features. We’re toying with adding a feature that plays a person’s anthem song while their profile is being viewed. It's a cool conversation starter, especially if the music is Arabic. We are also considering incorporating a feed where people can post their success stories.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Starting a new business does put you in situations where you need to develop a thick skin. I certainly see attacks and negative comments. Of course, compared to the 160,000+ happy users, it still gets to you now and then.
Six months after we launched, I panicked and wanted to put the app on hold because of extreme activity originating in Germany, and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Downloads were blowing up to the tune of hundreds every few minutes. I wondered to myself, “How could this be happening? We just launched!” It turns out Germany is a huge market because of the large Middle Eastern immigrant presence. This experience advanced Baklava as a cutting-edge app and accelerated our growth as young professionals, which felt like overnight.
It was a monumental moment for us to understand that the app was skyrocketing in the most spectacular ways in an unexpected market. And from that experience, we learned more about our markets and how the opportunity for the app was not altogether confined to the USA and Canada. Today, Germany continues to be our #1 market and we couldn’t be prouder!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Google Firebase to measure our growth. Measurement can get very complicated, but analytics can provide in-depth numbers in the many ways we need to see them. Our team gets so deep into this to the point where many of us don't know why we want to know what we want to know. But it's this kind of data that has driven our market research.
Other platforms like RevenueCat help us keep track of our subscriptions and revenue. As for communication tools, we are very in-person at this stage and we like to throw our ideas at each other.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The only book (series) that will stay with me forever is Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. The story and lessons are timeless, especially as they relate to how Harry navigates his two identities of being a “normal kid” but also the “chosen one.” Harry sets an example of what leadership should be. It is his grounded and honest character that makes him best suited for power even though he never sought it. Similar to how startup founders find themselves thrust into leadership positions and must take the mantle; they are often surprised by how well, or not, they wear it. It's a story that speaks to the new person we all want to become while remaining true to ourselves as we embrace the unique challenges that arise with our growth.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The best way to start developing an idea is to find a mentor. Choose someone who has had successful experiences with similar product concepts to what you're developing. I was fortunate to have met a mentor who was Arab-American and had exited with his companies multiple times. I didn't even have an idea. We tend to overthink and overcomplicate, but oftentimes the roadmap is already paved for us, and we simply have to replicate a process that's proven successful.
People often think that they have all the answers, but nothing can replace the human experience of someone who has been in your shoes. You'd be surprised how many people are willing to help.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We will help you find great candidates through our jobs page! Most of our readers are aspiring entrepreneurs, but some are also just looking for a change of pace in their careers…
At the moment we are not but we hope to soon, as we continue to grow.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you'd like to contact me, you can reach out to me on my email: [email protected] or via mobile: (562) 325-3985.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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