Football expat
How Abu Dhabi-based Palestinian expat Mohamed Kilany, 39, transforms his passion for football into a business. Image Credit: Supplied

“A failure is not the end of the journey; you always need to continue trying until you master something you are attempting to do.” This is what Mohamed Kilany, 39, a Palestinian expat residing in Abu Dhabi, tells his three kids when teaching them the value of never giving up and learning a skill.

Kilany brings home a new challenging game, like Jenga, to play with kids each week. "When the kids first played Jenga and knocked down the blocks, they would cry. After hundreds of attempts and not giving up, they eventually beat me," he said.

Life Lesson: The best investment is investing in children's future

"I play with my kids, and we watch movies that have lessons to be learned. I let them explore areas they don't learn in school, including vlogging, robotics, and others that enrich their creativity."

He recalled that his daughter Lamar, nine years old, once asked him how much pocket money his father gave him when he was of her age. "She wanted to know if it was the same amount she receives now. She gets - Dh6.60 daily.

"I laughed and told her that what I received every week was equal to what she received in one day. I could barely manage to buy a chocolate bar or a sandwich at that time. After that story, she felt sorry for me and started to save her money, only spending a small amount of what she gets daily."

Kilany’s challenging upbringing

Kilany grew up with six siblings in a very low-income family, where his family had sold belongings to secure education for kids.

"Even though my parents did not have the privilege of continuing their education, they strongly believed in investing in our education. They always taught us that education is the true investment for the future."

Kilany had faced a hard time during university because he wanted to pursue his degree in IT but realised that his parents could not secure more than 30 per cent of the tuition.

At that time, he had two choices, to give up on his dreams or stand up and find alternatives. "I chose the latter. I started looking for jobs to help pay for my tuition, eventually working three jobs simultaneously.

Each time I was about to give up, I would remind myself that no one would do it for me if I didn't solve this problem

- Mohamed Kilany

"On the weekends, I picked fruit as a source of income. I was a waiter at a restaurant in the evenings, and I also worked as a tutor for students to improve their computer skills. These three jobs helped me pay for the remainder of my university fees."

Life Lesson: Instead of complaining, try finding solutions to life's problems

Although Kilany was an IT student, he didn't own a computer for four years of university. "Each time I was about to give up, I would remind myself that no one would do it for me if I didn't solve this problem."

Instead of complaining about not having a PC, he convinced his friend in his village who had a computer to start studying together. "I would help him with homework, and we became seminar partners. I managed all my computer-related tasks by doing this and going to the university early in the morning to use the computer lab before my classes. "

These experiences made him stronger and taught him a valuable lesson that innovation is the key to solving challenges, and during a difficult time, you have two options: to complain or to act. He confronted those challenges, which ultimately helped him build an entrepreneurial spirit.

How did your first job experience help you in the journey of being an entrepreneur?

Kilany's first job was at a telecom company as a software engineer. He realised that all the employees leave at 4pm; while they were finishing their day, he had the energy after 4pm to learn new things.

"I would see if I could make the traditional process more straightforward by building software that could do that job more effectively. After five months of working there, I noticed that 15 employees were doing a data entry job that could be automated."

"I started to stay after all the employees had left to learn new programming languages and search online for other global solutions that could automate the process. After another six months, I surprised my boss by presenting a robust application that I had developed that could achieve five times the customer orders we were handling daily.

"I was awarded the Employee of the Month and given a promotion to team leader, the youngest there. I also received a financial incentive that I was proud of, which unlocked my thirst to build, grow, and sell tech solutions."

It was the first time Kilany realised that nine-to-five jobs were not the best fit for his personality. "I quit my job without hesitation, shocking my family and colleagues, and decided to take the risk and move into the world of start-ups."

After leaving his job in telecommunications, Mohamed Kilany started a company that provided a platform to help photographers sell their photos.

Business Lesson: Failure in a business does not mean the end of your entrepreneurial journey


After leaving his job in telecommunications, he started a company that provided a platform to help photographers sell their photos. "It was a new concept at the time, and unfortunately, the company failed due to my lack of experience in space. I launched a second start-up that failed, but that did not discourage me.

"I was determined and confident, knowing that failure is not the journey's end but a new beginning. I believe that for entrepreneurs, failure is where you learn from your mistakes and work to overcome them in your next venture. I noticed myself becoming more knowledgeable about entrepreneurship and decided to complete my MBA."

While Kilany worked on his MBA, he started another venture with a Harvard founder to help solve the problems job seekers face during their search. This is was the launch of ‘Souktel’, a Middle East-based online platform that connects job seekers with employers via mobile phone.

“Our company Souktel hit incredible milestones and grew a user base of hundreds of thousands of job seekers. We scaled the business to seven countries in the Middle East region, raised a couple of investment rounds, and the start-up raised ‘series-B’ funding."

What is ‘series-B’ funding?
Series B financing is the second round of funding for a company that has met certain milestones and is past the initial start-up stage. Series B investors usually pay a higher share price for investing in the company than Series A investors.

Series B investors typically prefer convertible preferred stock versus common stock due to the anti-dilution feature of preferred stock. (Convertible preferred stocks are those that can be turned into a number of shares of the firm's common stock after a predetermined time span or on a specific date.)

Beginnings of a serial entrepreneur

After four years with the company, Kilany searched for a new adventure and a problem to solve. "I took all the lessons I learnt to start Fanera in 2019, a platform created for and by football fans."

Fanera is a crowdsourced and multi-lingual social platform designed for and by football enthusiasts, helping fans to connect with their friends and influencers that share the same passion for football.

"We conducted feasibility studies asking fans to validate the problems they were attempting to solve with the app. We then ran several customer discovery experiments with fans to help us ideate around what solutions could alleviate these problems.

"We were doing all this work ourselves as we did not hire any employees at that time. When we were ready to build and register the company and start establishing ourselves as a social network, we began to hire freelancers to assist us in implementing our growth strategy."

I believe that for entrepreneurs, failure is where you learn from your mistakes and work to overcome them in your next venture

- Mohamed Kilany

This is when Kilany decided to focus his energies and investments solely on this new start-up, given his passion for football, and this meant dissolving or liquidating his stakes in his other ventures.

Focus shifts to running one business

"I decided to move on to this new project, one that I was more passionate about. At the time, I was a founder and chief technology officer (CTO) of another start-up and I used those shares to bootstrap the birth of Fanera,” Kilany revealed.

With an initial investment of Dh275,482 [$75,000], Kilany incorporated the company in the US state of Delaware, renting an office, hiring developers and paying for the domain and service side of the business.

"Six months later, we launched our Minimum Viable Product (MVP). We needed a solid marketing budget to acquire users and launch in the MENA region since proper fund allocation is necessary for early-stage start-ups."

What is a ‘Minimum Viable Product (MVP)’?
A minimum viable product is a version of a product with just enough features to be usable by early customers who can then provide feedback for future product development. A focus on releasing an MVP means that developers potentially avoid lengthy and unnecessary work.

"We were excited about the early adopters who loved our fan engagement app, so we entered the ‘Challenge 22’, a competition sponsored by the host of the FIFA World Cup 2022; the challenge was to find start-ups with innovative ideas to implement for the World Cup," he added.

"We were fortunate to win the $100,000 [Dh367,000] cash prize that allowed us to improve our product, build additional solutions to connect and manage fans based on demographics, and even hire an in-house development team to accelerate the business growth."

What were the challenges in running a distinctive business?

Challenge #1: No direct competitors

Although being a trend-setting business, Kilany reveals how having no industry competition doesn’t work out in their favour when it comes to understanding the market and foresee challenges that peers would have faced.

"It made it difficult to learn from other similar businesses and see how best to shape our competitive advantage," noted Kilany.

Challenge #2: Getting funding isn’t easy in the sports tech start-up industry that isn’t as developed

As the sports tech industry isn’t as advanced compared to other start-up markets, investments don’t come easy for entrepreneurs venturing into the field. So seeking alternate means of funding is key.

"It is not a familiar industry to investors and many are not willing to risk their money in such an industry. All our founders believed in what we were building that we doubled down, investing our savings in the business during the early stages. We also began participating in international accelerators for sports, allowing us to learn more about the industry."

What are accelerators? How do they help business owners?
Accelerators are entities that focus on speeding up the growth of companies that already have a minimum viable product (MVP) in the hands of early adopters with an established product-market fit. Start-up accelerators typically engage with early-stage businesses for three to six months.

"We learned early on that it wasn't the end of the start-up if we could not raise funds. It meant we needed to find alternatives to get the job done without cash. So, we utilised our network, reached out to our friend's networks to invest small tickets in the company and took advantage of football influencers as a go-to-market strategy. We reached out to top influencers in the region, convincing them to join the business, all without paying them," Kilany explained.

"The strategy worked. We built a massive network of influencers who supported the growth of our user base and motivated their audiences to join the platform. The power of inbound marketing helped us overcome the need for a marketing budget."

(While ‘inbound marketing’ is the process of helping potential customers find your company, ‘outbound marketing’ is a traditional method of marketing seeking to push messaging out to potential customers.)

It is not a familiar industry to investors .. We also began participating in international accelerators for sports, allowing us to learn more about the industry

- Mohamed Kilany

"We aim for the business to have the option to be acquired by one of the large sports or social media companies for twenty times our present valuation. This is the savings plan where the founders can earn what they have invested,” he added.

When asked about what his next venture would be and what his long-term plans are, Kilany revealed that after exiting the current business, he plans to wear the angel investor hat and begin investing in other start-ups as part of his long-term investment goals.