Leap of faith

Mohamed El-Fatatry ditched his cosseted Dubai lifestyle to move to Finland and launch a Muslim web portal.

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By  Richard Agnew Published  December 31, 1969

Mohamed El-Fatatry ditched his cosseted Dubai lifestyle to move to Finland and launch Muslim web portal Muxlim.com. But with start-ups suffering from a difficult investment climate, has the risk paid off?

A few years ago, Mohamed El-Fatatry was living the life of a normal UAE student, working towards an IT degree in Dubai. He had landed a job at Digital Globe, the satellite imagery company, and his studies were going according to plan.

But something was wrong. "I came from a privileged family, like all my fellow students," he says. "I didn't work because I needed the money. It was something to fill my time. Everything was going great, but I felt that my life didn't have enough of a challenge. I told my father that I wanted to move to Finland to do my degree and that I never wanted to ask him for money again. I started from scratch."

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Five years later, and the risk appears to have paid off. The move abroad presented initial challenges - including the need to do a newspaper round to make ends meet - but also brought new opportunities that El-Fatatry says he wouldn't have been able to pursue back home.

In 2006, for example, he linked up with entrepreneur Pietari Päivänen to launch online community Muxlim.com, after discovering a lack of social media services for Muslims in Islamic-minority countries.

"When I came to Finland, I thought the internet would be a good place to find people from my background, but when I went online I could not find any site that offers what Muxlim.com offers," he says.

"So I had to give it a shot at creating it myself."

So far, the idea appears to be working. The site - which offers discussion forums, blogs and social networking services, as well as a Habbo Hotel-style virtual world called Muxlim Pal, which launched in December - has now grown into the world's largest "Muslim social media portal", according to El-Fatatry. He says Muxlim has signed up around 130,000 registered users so far, as well as attracting an average of 1.5million unique visitors per month.

Its growth has also seen El-Fatatry becoming a well known name in Europe's Web 2.0 community, with Red Herring magazine featuring Muxlim in a list of 100 promising European tech start-ups in March 2008.

El-Fatatry is confident he has found a gap in the market. "We don't really see a social media website that is taking on the Muslim market like we are," he says. "There is a saturation of religious sites out there. We have 26 categories on the site and only one is religion."

While Muxlim is yet to turn a profit, the next few weeks will see El-Fatatry stepping up efforts to do so. As well as selling virtual and physical merchandise to consumers, he says much of the site's future revenue will come from advertising and sponsorship deals.

He points to Islamic banks, which are particularly keen to exploit digital channels to acquire and retain customers, as an example of potential targets for commercial tie-ups. He plans to open a sales office in the UK in early 2009, followed by a similar move in the US later in the year.

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