Parents would know how kids often come up with questions that leave them stumped. We can say with some measure of surety that the parents of now-acclaimed entrepreneur Mohammed Al-Shaker, would have had many moments of head scratching coming up with answers simple enough for a child to understand.
As a four-year-old little boy, Al-Shaker had all sorts of questions. He would ask what makes clouds rain, where does snow come from and other exploratory inquiries.
Unusually for a child, he would have no interest in the comic strips or sports section. Instead, he would rather read his dad’s newspaper just for the sake of indulging in the weather news on its last pages.
In the years leading up to internet connectivity, young Al-Shaker finally started learning how to read weather charts accurately and filling his diaries up with quasi-professional meteorological algorithms.
A major change in his life occurred on February 2, 2006, when a flash flood killed 15 people in Jordan’s top tourism destination Petra. Amid an atmosphere of sadness, Al-Shaker saw his amateur appreciation for natural phenomena quickly veer into something very purposeful.
Public awareness was a key to disaster preparedness (and possibly prevention), he argued and to that effect, launched an online blog called Jordanweather.jo.
Al-Shaker had quite a grand idea in mind—to disseminate reliable real-time weather forecasting. And he was pretty good at it. Calling the attention to some heavy rains and thunderstorms, the website soon began to thrive. Jordanians, he says, have a near-obsessive need to constantly know and monitor the weather, and that lent itself to the brand being built up smoothly.
It didn’t take long before Jordanweather.jo grew in popularity scoring millions of viewers per day.
By 2007, Al-Shaker finished high school and decided to take his childhood fascination to the next level. “Unfortunately, there was no meteorology faculty in Jordan at that time. So I enrolled at UK Met Office College in Exeter, where I obtained a certificate in Advanced Forecasting and Aeronautical Aviation Meteorology in 2010,” he says. This after pursuing a degree in pharmacy to follow in his family’s footsteps, heeding to their wishes as every Arab boy is expected to.
A second pivot to Al-Shaker’s life and career came after the 2009 floods in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was time, he figured, to go beyond Jordan. ArabiaWeather made its formal debut in 2009. As Al-Shaker puts it, a makeover of the brand—from niche to a geographically broader identity—was but a natural osmosis.
Checking on nature
Today, ArabiaWeather is built on a foundation of three different cornerstones. The first consists of technologies adopted by the company to predict weather patterns, a machine learning (AI) plus a weather network with more than 300 automatic stations searching ground-truth across the whole region. The second is a customized product delivery, meaning that products are tailored to suit the needs of the end users. The last, and equally important, is the distribution of video clips and graphics tools to TV broadcasters, media outlets, mobile devices and so forth.
The company operates through two segments. From the consumer side, ArabiaWeather allows end users to browse hourly forecasts. “If you think about it, weather plays a big role in defining nearly everything in our lives. It impacts our well-being, our buying habits, our activities, and our daily chores.”
Aside from all that, weather forecasting is particularly relevant to today’s highly mobile society. It should come as no surprise, then, that the chief market is Saudi Arabia, making up almost 50%. “Here people are used to traveling domestically, but the climate is pretty changeable, to say the least. Having a solid grasp of the weather conditions is of paramount importance for them.”
To further distinguish its business model from the rest of the pack, Al-Shaker has recently gone the extra mile with a service which offers hourly hyper-local weather reports, meaning that climate predictions are delivered not only to big cities but also down to districts and tiny neighborhoods.
But weather forecasting is not just important to people. Al-Shaker has made its disruptive potential available to corporations as well. “Construction, aviation, agriculture and also government: Practically anyone having to deal with sky, sea or land is a potential customer, each with a strong economic interest in knowing what the weather will be,” he says.
“What we do is we take the weather data, and then build customized climate products for to help [firms] make better business decisions. Enterprises can minimize weather-related vulnerabilities, drive efficiency and ultimately gain a valuable competitive advantage over their rivals.”
Airlines, for example, demand constant weather updates to feed into their forecasting system and best plan their flight paths.
Al-Shaker seems confident that the number of market segments with an interest in the weather would continue to emerge and companies will be more willing to spend money on it. The market, indeed, is expected to grow to $2 billion by 2020, according to the Weather Forecasting Systems Report.
Clear skies ahead
ArabiaWeather has brought in significant numbers to tap that opportunity. In 2015, the company registered a total of 35 million users across its online multi-platform suite: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and, of course, the official website. Lately, most of the efforts have been dedicated to the implementation of an activity-based mobile application that already boasts over one million active users.
It’s well funded too. Dubai-based Jabbar Internet Group is one of the firm’s most prominent investors, along with Wamda Capital and DASH Ventures.
Last year, venture capital firm Silicon Badia led a $5 million series A round for ArabiaWeather. The firm had also raised $2.1 million at the end of 2014.
But however bright and sunny it all may seem, putting the model on the right track was not without its trade-offs. The reign of weather forecasts in the MENA region had long been confined to government-run national weather services and left little room for privately-owned businesses.
Many have eyed such services distrustfully. When ArabiaWeather came along, it had to join forces in new partnerships to peacefully co-exist. “Our mission is to empower well-established practitioners with our technology, who share with us the aim to impact communities.”
So how big can ArabiaWeather get? Today, the company provides weather information and solutions to consumers and businesses from 5,000 locations across 22 MENA countries, collecting weather information of up to 2 terabytes per hour.
According to a 2016 assessment, Al-Shaker tells us, the company is growing much faster than even investors had hoped. As it evolves further, so have its objectives.
“We are now looking to target the lucrative market of renewable energies, expand geographically and also extend the enterprise offerings.”
At the time of writing, over 50 people are located among offices in Amman, Riyadh and Dubai, the last one being a commercial hub with 12 employees. Al-Shaker himself splits his time between Amman and the UAE metropolis.
A full decade has passed since Al-Shaker started making a name for himself as a meteorological virtuoso for the Middle East. What’s the secret behind his startup success, though, he won’t tell.
“I’d rather talk about my achievements as the result of a collective effort: Nothing would be the same without the team.
Together, we know how to prioritize things. To try and lead our business into the future, I encourage every one of us to step back and look at the big picture at the end of each day.”
But we can gather that in a world filled with surprise and uncertainty, being able to anticipate needs is certainly an unmatched asset. For such businesses, the sky truly does appear to be the limit.