Ramallah or Cupertino? Inside Palestine's swankiest startup

When you think about Palestine, you probably don’t immediately think of startup culture. But, if you look past the screaming headlines about occupation and politics, there is a thriving tech startup scene here. Leading the charge is Yamsafer

Yamsafer is an online booking platform that, for the most part, targets an Arabic-speaking market. The company was the first Palestinian startup to secure venture capital and to date, they’ve raised over $10 million. They helped pioneer features like cardless booking (credit card penetration rates aren’t that high in many of the areas where they operate) and developed their own, culturally-appropriate version of home-sharing.

We were lucky enough to meet up with Faris Zaher, Yamsafer CEO and co-founder, who showed us around their super-swanky headquarters in Ramallah. Once he coaxed us off the company’s massive balcony overlooking the city, he was nice enough to answer some of our questions. 

Here's what he had to say: 

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This place is huge! How many people are working here? We're 80 strong. 

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The terrace looks like someplace Batman would hang out. Have you been in the space long? We've been here for two and a half years now. 

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I’ve heard Yamsafer described as Booking.com for the Arab World, but that can't be the whole story. What makes you special?  We offer better rates all over the world, sometimes the difference is as much as 40 percent. That part appeals to all travelers regardless of where they're from and has been organically driving strong growth from outside of the Middle East.

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You've managed to solve some unique problems for the Middle East market too, what are you up to there? Regionally, we are solving problems around payments and inventory. As an example, we allow you to make certain bookings without a credit card — using your reputation as a user is a sufficient guarantee for certain hotels (depending on the season). We're also closing many gaps on the supply side — one particularly good example is Yamsafer Homes, which is a collection of branded vacation rentals addressing the lack of high-quality apartments available for daily rental in the Middle East.

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You've been very successful with Yamsafer Homes, what are some of the cultural barriers to home sharing in the Arab World, and how have you managed to overcome them? 'Sharing' is actually part of the problem. Arab travellers don't want to share an apartment with strangers or wait for a host to approve a booking. They don't want to carry their own towels or have to figure out where to pick up the keys from. While Airbnb is essentially booking you an experience, we focus on booking accommodation because this is what we're good at. We leave the experience part to you as a traveler. So, our focus with Yamsafer Homes has been to deliver the privacy and pricing of an apartment while maintaining "hotel-like" perks such as room cleaning and amenities, 24/7 on-site key handover and immediate confirmation. 

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You've put together a really impressive team, has it been difficult to find so much talent in Palestine? I think it's difficult to build a team anywhere. At the end of the day, the difficulties of building a company all boil down to that. Palestinians are impressive people, so the talent pool is there. Once you do attract top talent, then you're essentially using a rare national resource. It then becomes our responsibility as founders to maintain an environment where people are continuously becoming a better version of themselves and delivering more than they would have elsewhere. Talent attracts more talent and if you're able to keep the culture right then it just snowballs.

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Ramallah is home to a small, but thriving startup scene. Are there any unique challenges companies face working here that they wouldn’t if they were based in Amman or even San Francisco? I personally think San Francisco is overrated and comes with its own set of problems... every place does. Ramallah's not for every company. If you're doing hardware or need good logistics then you're better-off elsewhere because you can't easily move things in and out. If you're in enterprise then you want to be close to your customers and they're not here because this is a small market.

Our employees could be anywhere, but they've decided to stay in Palestine or come back because they want to help build something for their country. Sure there's better Sushi in Dubai and nicer parks in London, but there's no sense of national pride in what you do. All in all, we at Yamsafer feel lucky to be here.

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Besides this view, what’s the best part of running a startup here? It's winning for your country. Each person contributes in their own ways and the best that I can do is help build the knowledge economy.