Ten years ago, the digital floodgates burst open when Apple officially launched its App Store in 2008. This gave software developers a new way to monetize and bring their projects to a global audience.

Among the first few hundred programmers who joined the digital fray was a bright-eyed iOS developer named Erwan Macé and his small team of three.

Two years after the App Store launch, Macé’s company Bitsmedia made a breakthrough. It released what would eventually become the most popular and downloaded app for the Muslim community – MuslimPro.

The start of something career-defining

Years before Muslim Pro blossomed, Macé held his own in the world of app development, spending over 20 years in senior positions for companies like Alcatel, Akamai, and Google.

Muslim Pro wasn’t the focal point of Bitsmedia at the beginning. Instead, Macé and his team built applications for top-level clients like Universal Music, Singapore Telecom, and Vivendi.

Though business was good, Macé knew that in order to prevent his and his team’s skills from going stagnant, they could not rest on their laurels.

“In between clients and enterprise projects, we were always trying our own little ideas as well, building our own apps on the side. While client projects were paying the bills, these smaller, pet projects were keeping our excitement high.”

It wasn’t until August 2010, roughly a year after Bitsmedia was established, that they found a hit.

The company had been looking into Indonesia as Macé believed that the country would become the next goldmine for the mobile internet.

He realized that Indonesia was the largest Muslim country in the world, home to 12.7 percent of the world’s Muslim population – about 225 million people.

He wondered whether there were any unmet needs in this group. At that same time, the month of Ramadan was underway, and Macé’s curiosity helped him notice a few things.

He saw that during this period, his Muslim friends were always asking about when they had to break or start their fast. That’s because fasting times depend on the position of the sun, so most Muslims find out through the local mosque, the radio, or newspaper.

This observation led Macé to think, could there be an easier way to track this fluctuating schedule – all in a single app?

Bitsmedia began to develop this idea, eventually creating a feature that calculated prayer times. However, Macé spotted an opportunity to level up. “The fasting times are just two of the five prayer times. So we thought, rather than build an app that people would only use during the months of Ramadan, why not make an app that [could] calculate prayer times five times a day for the entire year?”

Trial and error – from Indonesia to the West

Not long after, Bitsmedia released the app globally. To Macé and his team’s surprise, the response in the Indonesian market was muted.

Upon reflection, they realized that even though Indonesia was the biggest Muslim country in the world, there were almost no smartphones in the market.

While their original hopes were dashed, they quickly discovered that the app took off in Western countries instead, where iPhone penetration had surged. Countries like the US, UK, and France played a large part in the initial popularity of Muslim Pro, as the Muslim communities in those countries were relatively big.

Through sheer accident and a stroke of luck, Bitsmedia stumbled upon this niche market of Muslim minorities in the West. It was a blue ocean the startup had not accounted for.

Spending zero dollars on marketing

The following year, Bitsmedia ported the app into Android. After that, Muslim Pro began to rise in developing countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and India.

By July 2012, roughly two years after the first version of the iOS app was released, Muslim Pro reached about 1 to 2 million downloads.

It was at this point that Macé and his team pivoted their focus entirely on the app.

Because it was serving a niche so well, Muslim Pro grew organically in numbers for the first five years. By 2015, the app had reached 20 million downloads.

“We honestly spent zero dollars on marketing. It was basically app store optimization and virality – we encouraged our users to share with their friends. In a way, the product was marketing itself,” Macé recalls.

As Muslim Pro became more prominent, however, more competitors popped up. As such, Bitsmedia finally invested a bit of money into marketing from 2016 onwards so it could stay ahead and maintain its credibility.

“We had gained a lot of credibility over the years. That is something that is very difficult – in terms of new competitors – to come by. No matter how much they spend on marketing, getting that name and credibility is not easy. That is something that comes with time, and this is where our advantage is,” Macé explains.

Searching for partners to scale

Muslim Pro’s numbers eventually doubled, reaching 45 million downloads by 2017.

It had grown the business quickly. But with aspirations to turn MuslimPro into a multi-utility platform for the world’s Muslim community, Macé realized it was time to find help. So he started a search for potential investors.

In July 2017, Macé sold a majority stake of Bitsmedia to Singapore’s CMIA Capital Partner and Malaysia’s Bintang Capital Partners of Affin Hwang Asset Management for an eight-figure sum in US dollars.

“Looking back, we were very happy not to have raised money prior to this transaction. The later you raise your funds, the less you are going to dilute your capital. When you exit, you are happier, since you haven’t diluted too much too early,” says Macé.

Scouting around and waiting for the right offer was also a decision that pleased him. “We must’ve talked to at least 15 or more interested buyers. This gave us strong negotiating power in those discussions because we were not begging someone to buy us. Instead, we were able to turn the situation around and get the really interested buyers in a sort of auction process.”

Muslim Pro’s iOS app rankings via Applyzer

Muslim Pro’s iOS app rankings via Applyzer

However, choosing a partner is not just about how much money is in the deal.

“It was very important for us to feel like the person partnering with us was sharing our vision. It’s like finding a business partner or co-founder. We picked the two companies that we were the keenest to work with. On both a professional and personal level, we had a strong connection with these people. We enjoy working and meeting together. I think that is very important. You really need to have synergy.”

Macé remains a shareholder in the company. The days of him writing most of the code himself are now gone; his team is now made up of 20 people. Bitsmedia recently opened a regional office in Kuala Lumpur six months ago and in Jakarta two months back.

Beyond religion

Generating millions of dollars in US dollars per year in net profit, Bitsmedia is zeroing in on its goal of providing an all-encompassing app for Muslims.

While religion will remain the core pillar of the app, the firm hopes to address broader lifestyle needs like travel, media, food, and ecommerce. Last month, it tested a halal food directory. Although the startup hasn’t set an exact release date, it’s aiming for a global launch in 2019.

At present, Muslim Pro has 2 to 3 million daily active users and 12.5 million monthly active users. Its top markets are Indonesia, US, France, Malaysia, and India, with Southeast and South Asia being the fastest-growing markets. MuslimPro is seeing about 1 million downloads per month, most of which are acquired organically.

When it comes to monetization, 90 percent of its revenue generally comes from ads, with the remaining 10 percent from premium subscriptions. Bitsmedia is also looking into ecommerce and digital wallets to make more money.

As an advocate of data privacy, Macé says the company will never monetize user data, especially when dealing with religious preferences.

Developers need to pick a horse

While Muslim Pro originally started on iOS, its data showed that two-thirds of their users come from Android. Yet the app’s revenue is split down the middle between those platforms.

Even though Android usage may be higher than iOS in developing nations, the cost per impressions and price of a monthly subscription is ultimately lower in comparison to developed countries. Also, the conversion rate from the free tier to the paid tier of an app is lower in developing countries.

Whether iOS or Android, the bottom line for any developer is knowing which route to take. “Pick your horse. If you are an iOS developer, then invest all your time in building a beautiful iOS app. Find an Android developer that you can trust to do the same on Android,” says Macé.

What’s important isn’t necessarily which operating system to go with, but sticking with the path you’ve chosen and becoming good at it. Once you’ve managed that, the next thing to keep in mind is to write code that is secure and scalable.

“If the app becomes something big, you need to make sure it can sustain growth in terms of performance, especially on the server side. Writing code for 10 people is far different from writing code for 10 million people.”

Macé acknowledges that cases like his are rare: a mix of hard work, timing, and luck played a huge part in MuslimPro’s phenomenal growth.

Also, the App Store is no longer the same as it was a decade ago. Today, there are over 2 million different apps to compete with, and this number will only continue to grow.

While the prospects may seem grim for aspiring entrepreneurs, Macé believes there are still opportunities out there.

“If people want to do an app just because they think it’s the quick way to success, I’d rather they become a trader, investment banker, or a neurosurgeon. They will probably make more money that way, and with a better chance of stability. But if you are really passionate about coding – so much so that you think and dream about it constantly – then I say, go for it! The best developers are those who love to code in their free time.”

With so many changes happening in tech every single day, it can be hard to keep your head straight. However, Macé remains hopeful for developers. “Smartphones may have reached a plateau in terms of technology – they already do so much for a small computer that fits in your pocket – but the creativity of the developers are limitless. From a hardware point of view, the evolution [of a smartphone] may slow down, but that leaves more opportunity and responsibility on the developers to come up with new features for the software.”

He adds, “To be honest, I think there are many more years ahead of great opportunities when it comes to apps. The computing power in the modern smartphone is quite crazy. More and more, we are seeing basic AI capabilities that can run locally on the phone itself – the chipsets on the phone itself are becoming quite powerful. So all of this is opening new opportunities for developers.”

Original article published by Tech in Asia.

Community Writer: Aaron Chi
Editing by Terence Lee

There’s a great romance about youthful founders. Startups must be full of adolescent dropouts who’re writing code, changing the world, and worrying about zits. You can hardly blame anyone for lionizing the young; Mark Zuckerberg, the preeminent founder of our time, launched Facebook when he was only 20 years old.

But the adoration doesn’t match reality. According to the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank focused on entrepreneurship, the average age for a successful startup founder is about 40 years old.

And a recent study (PDF link) from MIT, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and the U.S. Census Bureau also found that the most successful entrepreneurs are middle-aged. They discovered that startups with growth in the top 1% of their industry had founders with an average age of 45.

The study found that correlation between success and age had a simple explanation: experience matters and older people have more of it.

Why experience is golden

Anna Gong, CEO of Perx Technologies

Anna Gong, CEO of Perx Technologies

It’s a perspective that Anna Gong, in her early 40s, CEO of Perx Technologies and a veteran of working with four previous startups in Silicon Valley, agrees with. “The mature executives have experience that’s immensely valuable. Back in my Silicon Valley days, many startups hired senior executives to help young founders scale and exit profitably.”

It’s all about execution, Gong says. “The startups we built that had traction were mostly run by seasoned executives who’d left companies like Intel, IBM, and Sun Microsystems. It’s not about if you dropped out of school, it’s about the management and the leadership. Experience is immensely helpful when guiding a growth stage company.”

How founders don’t have to take big risks

“I have a risk-averse approach to entrepreneurship. I did it in my free time, which is a lot of work, but it’s something I recommend.”
— Erwan Mace, Founder and CTO of Bitsmedia

But you don’t have to be a serial entrepreneur and eat ramen from age 20 to 40 to become an experienced founder. Erwan Mace was the VP of Technologies at Vivendi Mobile Entertainment, a large multinational corporation, before he moved back to Singapore. “I didn’t want to rush into a new job,” Mace says. “So in the meantime, I started a company.”

That was the birth of Bitsmedia, a startup that built apps for mobile. But two years into running Bitsmedia Google approached Mace with a job offer.

“We were still small,” Mace recalls, “and none of our apps had really taken off. The Muslim Pro app had been launched the year before, and although it was showing some traction, it was still slow. So I joined Google, and in the evening and weekends, I continued working on Muslim Pro by myself.”

After a year at Google, Muslim Pro gained momentum, and at the age of 39 (editor’s note: close to 40!), Mace left Google to focus on Bitsmedia and Muslim Pro. “The decision was easy enough to make,” Mace says. “The revenue from Muslim Pro became equal to my salary at Google, so there was little risk. I have a risk-averse approach to entrepreneurship. I did it in my free time, which is a lot of work, but it’s something I recommend.”

But Mace was clear he didn’t start his own company just for the money. “I’m a hands-on guy,” he explained. “I had high-profile jobs, which meant less of that. I missed getting my hands dirty, creating something of my own. So no matter what, whether it was a viable business or not, I felt the need to work on my own stuff in my free time.”

What mindset can tell you about success

I distinguish between people with internal and external motivation.
— Hon Meng Moh, Co-Founder and Director of The RightU

This internal drive is something Hon Meng Moh feels is essential for older founders. At 50, Moh has been a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded iFast Corporation at 31, which listed on the SGX in 2014. At 43, 45 and 47, he co-founded three more companies and has invested in several others.

“I distinguish between people with internal and external motivation,” Moh explains. A person who’s attracted by the image of being an entrepreneur, for example, or someone who wants to make a lot of money, is externally motivated.

“When the going gets tough,” Moh says, “and the going will really get tough, these guys are going to think of easier ways to make money. As opposed to people with internal motivation — entrepreneurs who are so passionate about an idea they can’t imagine doing anything else — who tend to persevere longer.”

This inner drive fuels the decisions an older entrepreneur will make. “For someone with internal motivation, age becomes less of a thing, and I find they’re able to take quite a bit of suffering.”

Hard-won wisdom from founders over 40

So what can founders and entrepreneurs of all ages learn from founders over 40?

Don’t do it for the money.
“A lot of people think it’s easy money because you keep reading about successful apps,” Mace says. “They couldn’t be more wrong. Only people with passion, a lot of work, and also a bit of luck, might turn a startup into a successful business. In most cases, it won’t be successful. But if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you won’t be wasting your time.”

Build your network.
“The number of contacts is more important than your idea,” Moh says. “You can access capital and people from your contacts, so your network must be wide. If you sit there thinking your idea is great but you have no network and no money, I don’t think it’s going to do well. You’ll find that ideas aren’t worth that much, it’s whether you have the network and the capital to pull it off.”

Find the fire.
“I came from China to the US and struggled through all sorts of trials and tribulations,” Gong says. “You have to stand out from the rest, but how do you stand out when you’re a minority, female, and in tech; where there aren’t that many females? My upbringing taught me grit. For me, it’s about where you come from, what struggles you’ve experienced, and what’s that fire in your belly that makes you strive for excellence?”

This article was originally published on ConnectOne.

BITSMEDIA Pte Ltd, the Singapore-based company behind the world’s most popular lifestyle application (app) for Muslims — Muslim Pro — is on a roll. It just expanded its operations to Malaysia, the first stop of its regional expansion plan.

Things have been moving at a fast pace ever since two private equity (PE) firms — Malaysia’s Bintang Capital Partners (BCP) and Singapore’s CMIA Capital Partners — jointly acquired a controlling stake in Bitsmedia in July last year.

BCP is the PE arm of Affin Hwang Asset Management Bhd.

The transaction marked the first buyout in the world of an Islamic app by a PE firm.

“It was our maiden deal, When we bought Bitsmedia, it was really to buy Muslim Pro,” Johan Rozali-Wathooth, executive director and managing partner of BCP, tells The Edge, elaborating on the transaction for the first time to the media.

Barely eight months later, in March, the Malaysian subsidiary, Muslim Pro Technologies Sdn Bhd, was set up.

The growth potential for the app is tremendous considering there are some 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide, says Nik Emir Din, country manager for the Malaysian operations.

With 55 million downloads worldwide currently, Muslim Pro is used by Muslims in over 200 countries. It offers, particularly for travellers, useful features such as accurate prayer times, Qiblat directions, lists of halal restaurants and mosques, as well as various translations and recitals of the Quran.

“What is interesting about this market — and I think many people don’t realise this — is that when you talk about the Muslim population, you tend to think of them as very traditional, wanting to practise their daily religious duties and all that. But what a lot of people are not picking up on is how quickly the community is adapting to a modern lifestyle, to technology. So, there is this whole niche market. This is the market that we are trying to tap, which is really the growing Islamic consumer lifestyle market,” Nik says at the joint interview with Johan.

The Islamic consumer lifestyle market is still a “sleepy” market but it holds much potential, he says. “If you think about Muslim Pro, it did not have a team in any of the other countries and in a matter of a few years, it hit over 50 million downloads. This shows you the power of the market and the fact that people are really requiring modern tools to help them with their lifestyle,” Nik, who previously worked at Khazanah Nasional Bhd and a banking group, says.

Expanding into Malaysia made perfect sense as the country accounts for about a tenth of its overall user base. “It’s quite sizeable. If you look at it, we still have over 20 million Muslims here and growing, so it is definitely a market we can grow in,” he adds.

According to Johan, there are no plans to introduce other apps, with the focus being entirely on Muslim Pro for the duration of the PE investment. There are many more features and products to be introduced within the app, with the idea being to grow scale first before potentially embarking on more ambitious plans, he says.

“There is still so much we can do … we have barely scratched the surface. At the moment, we have 12 million monthly active users, conservatively. We are looking at a seven-to-eightfold uplift in the user base before we have the kind of scale for us to consider things like an online marketplace,” he shares.

While there are other similar rival apps, Muslim Pro stands out as being the one with the most global reach. “Most of our rivals are very localised … so we think that is what sets us apart,” says Nik.

In Malaysia, the standard pricing for the app, which can be downloaded on Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store, is RM3.90 a month, or a yearly rate of RM19.90. There is also a lifetime version, which costs RM114.90.

It is actively seeking partnerships with local corporates and government agencies that can leverage the app’s strong user base, Nik says. So far, it has struck partnerships with two major household names, namely Malaysia Airlines and Celcom.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, is high on its list of countries to expand into next.

What is interesting about Bitsmedia is that, unlike other tech start-ups, it has been profitable right from its first year of operations. The founder and developer of the Muslim Pro app, Erwan Mace — a French national who lives in Singapore and is a former key member of the Google team in Southeast Asia — set up the company in 2010. Mace remains a minority shareholder in Bitsmedia.

Johan declines to go into the specifics of Bitsmedia’s shareholding, saying only that Mace can potentially take his ownership up to 15% of the company, with the remainder shared between BCP and CMIA. BCP holds a slightly larger share than CMIA, he says. He also declines to disclose the value of the buyout deal, citing commercial sensitivities. It is understood to be an eight-digit figure in US dollars, based on a media report last year citing Mace.

Up to 95% of Bitsmedia’s revenue is through advertising on the Muslim Pro app, a business model Johan believes is sustainable.

Bitsmedia grew better-than-expected last year, he says. Its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (Ebitda) last year stood in the “single-digit million US dollars”, Johan says.

Ebitda grew 20% more than originally expected, despite tough targets, he reveals.

It is no surprise then that, in less than a year since the PE firms took control of Bitsmedia, they have already received three unsolicited offers to acquire the business and one approach by a bank to potentially provide financing for the business. All were turned down, for now.

“When we looked at Bitsmedia in the beginning, the first thing that struck us was the fact that Mace had never taken external funding for this business. It was completely bootstrapped from Day One. And No 2, that the business actually generates very strong cash flow and is profitable, unlike a lot of start-ups that were basically bottomless pits for money,” he says.

“Muslim Pro generates cash flow on its own … so they didn’t really need capital from us to expand. One of the important hallmarks of this transaction for us is that we did it as a buyout … we acquired vendor shares, we didn’t inject new capital into the business. And thus far, the business has not needed any additional capital from us to grow. It is still completely 100% bootstrapped,” he adds.

He says the company will look into obtaining financing, if needed, for its growth only much later.

On exit plans, he says the ideal investment horizon for both the PE firms is three years, with an option to extend for a further year. This could be extended if market conditions are not conducive for an exit. He says they will be open to all exit opportunities, including an initial public offering.

This article was originally published by Adeline Paul Raj on theedgemarkets.com.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 11, 2018 – June 17, 2018.

A popular Islamic app plans to grow its regional presence, starting with Malaysia.

Apps are a good mechanism to help Muslims perform their religious duties, especially during Ramadan.

One such app is Muslim Pro, used by Muslims in over 200 countries, with downloads reaching 53 million globally.

Malaysia is currently among the top five key markets for the app. This has encouraged Muslim Pro to incorporate a local Malaysian entity and set up its first-ever dedicated team to grow its presence in Malaysia.

Muslim Pro Malaysia’s country manager Nik Emir Din says that when its parent company, Singapore-based Bitsmedia decided to accelerate the growth of the product last year, they also inked partnerships with two big companies.

Affin Hwang Asset Management and CMIA Capital Partners of Singapore jointly acquired a controlling stake in Bitsmedia, while founder Erwan Mace, a French national and former member of the Google team, continues to hold a minority stake in the company.

“As one of the major shareholders is based in Malaysia, it is also timely for Muslim Pro to execute its regional expansion strategy, starting with a local entity here,” Nik Emir says.

FEATURES

Muslim Pro is an all-in-one application. It features accurate prayer times, qiblat directions, various translations and recitals of the Quran, halal restaurants and mosques locator, zakat calculator and a host of other useful community and lifestyle features.

Ramadan is a very important month for Muslim Pro, not only in Malaysia but globally, as the app will see a big spike in activities from downloads to usage as more users log in to check the sahur and break fast time.

Nik Emir says that although there are no features that are unique for Malaysians, the content and language have included Bahasa Malaysia to make it more accessible.

Another interesting feature, he says, is the Duas, which allows users to ask others in the community for support.

“For example, if a person is about to sit for an examination or someone in their family is not well, that person can ask others to pray for them.

Other users who see it can click a Love button once they have set a prayer for that person.

“It is a way for us to empower the community in spreading positivity. Another well-received feature is the Fasting Tracker.

“We just rolled out the feature this Ramadan, and interestingly, it is something that was requested by our users, especially women, who often lose track of their missed days of fasting.”

LOCAL PARTNERSHIPS

Muslim Pro Malaysia recently partnered with Celcom to launch a special offer for Celcom subscribers to enjoy the app’s premium version.

“Being a Premium user means having no ads, and no data will be used when listening to the Quran recitation. Users can also customise their own tasbih beads, colour of the app or the qiblat indicator,” says Nik Emir.

Muslim Pro Malaysia also signed a memorandum of understanding with Malaysia Airlines under Project Amal, its wholly-owned pilgrimage charter business catering to passengers wishing to perform their haj and umrah.

The partnership, according to Nik Emir, is aimed at enhancing Project Amal’s passenger experience through the Muslim Pro mobile app.

“For a start, we hope to see pilgrims, who are travelling with Malaysia Airline, to be able to use Muslim Pro either on their phone or in the plane.

“At the same time, the agreement allows both Muslim Pro and Malaysia Airlines under Project Amal to tap on each other’s global brand presence and international reach to expand and improve their existing product offerings as well as grow their respective customer base,” he adds.

The MoU signing ceremony between Muslim Pro Malaysia with Malaysia Airlines under Project Amal. Image via New Straits Times

FUTURE PLAN

Moving forward, Nik Emir says Muslim Pro aimed to provide additional value to users.

“Now that we have a database of halal restaurant nearby, we plan to add a feature where users can give reviews and suggestions on places, something like a TripAdvisor of the halal food industry.”

Malaysia, being the first to have a local presence of Muslim Pro, will be a pilot and test project.

“The company will focus on two things: understanding the local market better, and find the right partnership opportunities like Islamic Development Department or Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation.

“If this model proves to be successful, then there’s no reason why we can’t replicate it in other key markets such as Indonesia,” says Nik Emir.

As the local face to a global brand, Nik Emir has the responsibility to grow Muslim Pro’s brand and market presence in Malaysia.

There is a significant opportunity for Muslim Pro to play a leading role in the development of the Islamic Digital Economy, which has been built on the growing demands of the Muslim lifestyle.

Macroeconomic and demographic trends strongly favour continued growth in the medium and long term both in the region and globally.

“This is especially true in Southeast Asia where the number of Muslims is over 250 million coupled with the fact that roughly 90 per cent of Southeast Asia’s internet users are smartphone users. Muslim Pro is actively looking for partners to help us capitalise on this attractive megatrend,” he says.

Copyright New Straits Times

The parent company of the Islamic economy’s most downloaded mobile app went from bootstrapping and organic growth to getting snapped up by heavy-hitting private equity players. There’s promise of more to come as the company is planning to expand into new verticals including halal food, haj-related services, and e-commerce.   

By now you’ve probably heard about the acquisition of Muslim Pro, the most downloaded Islamic app to date. Details of the deal are undisclosed but it is reportedly an eight-digit buy-out of between 85 and 95 percent of Muslim Pro’s parent company Bitsmedia, a Singapore-based business specializing in mobile app development and “early-stage angel investments.” It has also built mobile apps for Universal Music, Singapore Telecom, and Ogilvy, to name a few.

The buy-out of the bootstrapped start-up is likely one of the larger exits to date for an Islam-focused technology company – a possible sign that digital businesses operating in the global Islamic economy are becoming more mature. Alternatively, the deal may also be seen as a prelude to heavy-hitting investors taking a more serious look at the market potential of the digital Islamic economy.  

The buyers were Singapore-based CMIA Capital Partners and Malaysia-based Affin Hwang Asset Management. Bitsmedia’s founder Erwan Macé claims that prior to acquisition, the company was fully self-funded since 2009, meaning it simply propelled the operation with revenue since its inception.

Muslim Pro – Bitsmedia’s flagship product – offers a host of features to help Muslims practise their faith. It shows prayer times regardless of where the user is in the world, features an in-app Quran, and offers suggestions for halal restaurants and mosques located nearby. While having a global footprint (and showing content in 15 languages including Arabic, English, and Mandarin), Muslim Pro clocks in among the top 10 mobile lifestyle apps in Indonesia and Malaysia.  

PRIVATE EQUITY IMPLICATIONS

With the information available, we can determine that ex-Googler Macé and his team of six at Bitsmedia were able to create a valuation of more than $10 million without any help from venture capitalists. This is by no means the most impressive thing ever done in the consumer tech game, but for a company whose flagship product is for the global Muslim population, it is a big deal.

Private equity investors typically do not get involved in start-up deals until companies reach a certain level of promise and stability, and also show what the investors believe is empirical potential for winning a multibillion-dollar market. In other words, they like large and proven market opportunities, write big checks and have lower risk tolerances than early stage investors. For tech companies like Bitsmedia, private equity usually only joins the fold after multiple rounds of smaller and relatively high-risk VC investments.

“Prior to CMIA and Affin Hwang’s investment, there had been no external funding,” Macé told Salaam Gateway in an interview. “The company remained completely bootstrapped and we managed to grow Muslim Pro to 45 million downloads and 2 million daily active users over the past seven years.” As an indication of its growth, Macé told Salaam Gateway in 2015 that the app hit the 21 million download mark in Ramadan of the same year. Currently, Muslim Pro claims to have 10 million monthly active users.

Macé said that the business was enjoying “very healthy double-digit growth” of both revenue and profits, but the product reached a certain level of maturity that spurred the team to want to “accelerate growth” and more aggressively attack the global market of tech-savvy Muslims. 

INVESTOR APPETITE

It’s safe to say that the buyers of Bitsmedia are big fish. Affin Hwang’s pedigree can be traced back to one of Malaysia’s leading government-linked investment houses. The firm itself has $10 billion in assets under management.

Affin Hwang Capital is a group that creates and purveys capital markets advisory intelligence and executes services in investment banking, institutional and retail securities, and asset management. Its parent company Affin Bank is a wholly owned subsidiary of Armed Forces-linked Affin Holdings Berhad, which is publicly traded on the Bursa Malaysia stock exchange.

Affin Bank has multiple subsidiaries actively participating in the Islamic economy. Its subsidiary Affin Islamic Bank Berhad provides enterprise and consumer banking services, and it also engages in the debt and capital market.

From a business-to-consumer perspective, it seems likely that Affin Islamic Bank sees an opportunity to capitalize on Muslim Pro’s reach to 45 million faith-practising smartphone owners. Macé told Salaam Gateway: “CMIA and Affin Hwang did not only see the pure financial appeal of this transaction, they have expressed a strong interest in our existing business and in the new opportunities we are seeking in the halal food and travel industries, e-commerce, and even potentially Islamic finance.”

THINKING CHINA, GLOBAL

Looking at the deal from the outside, the acquisition made clear strategic sense for Affin Hwang, but for CMIA, the logic is seemingly less obvious. The Singapore-based private equity firm – which was founded in 2003 and launched its fourth fund in 2011 to the tune of $200 million for bets in China and Southeast Asia – claims to focus primarily on food and agriculture sectors.

The bulk of its published portfolio reflects this. Past investments for CMIA include vegetable company China Minzhong, which IPO’d on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2010; and Haikui, a China-based seafood processor and exporter that listed on the Prime Standard of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in May of 2012. CMIA typically invests in both minority and majority stakes of small and medium-sized companies.     

In a press statement, CMIA’s managing partner Lee Chong Min expressed interest in Muslim Pro’s “collaborations with halal food vendors” and is likely taking an interest in the fact that Muslim Pro could be the key to cornering China’s underserved halal market – a space that pundits are calling one of the fastest growing in the world, representing an untapped $21 billion opportunity. In this sense, Bitsmedia’s acquisition may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Islamic tech investment activity.

The app runs on a freemium model, meaning all the features are available in the free version of Muslim Pro, which is supported by mobile advertising. The $4.99 premium upgrade allows users to remove ads completely and have additional customization options such as a larger selection of voices for the adhan and Quran recitations, as well as various color themes. Mobile advertising accounts for 90 percent of Muslim Pro’s revenue and in-app purchases make up 10 percent.

Macé remains tight-lipped about the app’s actual revenue, but adds, “Both CMIA and Affin Hwang have been very proactive in contributing ideas and strategies which could take Muslim Pro to the next level – this was one of the qualities which most attracted me when engaging with them during the deal process. They really took time and effort to understand our business and its challenges and opportunities, and together we have developed some superb ideas which could really change the Muslim app landscape once we roll these out to the user base.”

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CMIA Capital Partners and Affin Hwang Asset Management (AHAM) have acquired a controlling stake in Singapore-based Bitsmedia, the parent company of Muslim prayer app Muslim Pro. The buyers are based in Singapore and Malaysia, respectively.

Bitsmedia CEO Erwan Macé told Tech in Asia that the firms decided not to disclose the value of the transaction. “We can only communicate that it is an eight-digit figure in US dollars, for an 85 to 95 percent stake.”

Macé remains as CEO and will lead the development of Muslim Pro going forward.

The app provides Muslims with accurate prayer times regardless of where they are in the world and other features that help practice the Islamic faith.

After the acquisition, Muslim Pro plans to expand into new verticals, exploring collaborations with Halal food vendors, Haj services, religious authorities, and ecommerce partners.

The app grew to substantial popularity over the past few years.

At the time of the acquisition, it had been downloaded a total of 45 million times, up from 850,000 downloads when Tech in Asia first covered its progress in 2012.

Muslim Pro claims to have more than 10 million monthly active users on average now, and 2 million daily active users. It’s available for iOS and Android.

In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, it ranks among the top 10 highest grossing lifestyle apps, beating others that address Muslims, according to data from app analytics firm App Annie.

It’s among the top 10 lifestyle apps in 13 countries globally, including France, Tunisia, and Qatar. While other prayer apps exist in different markets – Al Moazin, for example, is popular in Saudi Arabia – Muslim Pro stands out with its broad global footprint.

It positions itself as neutral to different Islamic teachings and offers content in 15 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Indonesian, Malay, and Urdu.

“Bitsmedia is a highly profitable business, with current earnings primarily derived from digital advertising and paid upgrades,” CMIA managing partner Lee Chong Min stated in the release.

Bitsmedia originally developed a range of apps, but decided to focus on Muslim Pro as it was gaining significant traction, Macé told Tech in Asia in an interview a few months ago. At the time, the app introduced a slate of new features, including a social networking aspect.

There’s an estimated 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide, and it’s the fastest-growing religion. Islamic food, fashion, travel, entertainment, and finance are expected to constitute a US$5 trillion opportunity by 2020 (pdf).

This Article was originally published on Tech in Asia.

SINGAPORE: Singapore-based private equity firm, CMIA Capital Partners, in partnership with Affin Hwang Asset Management (AHAM) on Tuesday led the acquisition of a majority stake in Bitsmedia Holdings Ltd.

The combined stake purchased by CMIA and AHAM is about 90% but the value was not disclosed.

Headquartered in Singapore, Bitsmedia is the company behind Muslim Pro, the world’s number one mobile application (app) serving the global Muslim population.

The mobile app provides Muslims with accurate prayer times regardless of where they are in the world, as well as features such as qibla, Quran, supplications, zakat calculator, and even includes a community forum, among others.
To date, Muslim Pro has achieved 45 million downloads, more than 10 million monthly average users and more than two million daily average users.

According to Bitsmedia’s founder and chief executive officer, Erwan Mace, there were about 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, with Asia having by far the largest concentration of Muslims.

“The Muslim Pro app seeks to meet the needs of this community, providing them with accurate and good information,” he said in a statement.

The mobile app is available in more than 15 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Indonesian, Malay and Urdu.

It is available on both Android and iOS devices.

Meanwhile, CMIA managing partner, Lee Chong Min, said the partnership represented a tremendous opportunity for Bitsmedia to take its business to the next level.

“Bitsmedia is a highly profitable business, with current earnings primarily derived from digital advertising and paid upgrades. We are open to exploring win-win business partnerships with other organisations and digital businesses,” said Lee.

CMIA focuses on control and growth capital investments in mid-sized businesses in China and South-East Asia and has to date leads more than S$1bil in investments across various industries and sectors.

AHAM deputy managing director, Johan Rozali-Wathooth, said the company was pleased to be in partnership with Bitsmedia and CMIA in its maiden private equity transaction.

“We are especially looking forward to helping Erwan, who will stay on as a substantial shareholder and key executive of the business, to develop the Muslim Pro platform further.

“AHAM hopes to leverage our deep ties both in Malaysia, as well as the South-East Asia region to help Bitsmedia execute its growth strategy,” said Johan.

This article was originally published on Astro Awani.