CNME Editor Mark Forker secured an exclusive interview with Jonathan L. Hasson and Lara Varjabedian, the co-founders of new social media application UBQT, to learn more about the mission statement of the new company that claims its platform can truly ‘reconnect’ people by putting the ‘social’ back into social media.
Lara Varjabedian and Jonathan L. Hasson are the charismatic and dynamic entrepreneurs behind a new social media application called UBQT, that has been tipped to transform the way we connect with our network of people, be it friends, family, or business.
Varjabedian spent 13 years in the corporate insurance industry, and worked across multiple business lines on several continents.
However, she got the entrepreneurial itch and joined a Hong-Kong digital health start-up in the London office.
It quickly became Hong Kong’s first unicorn, and eventually had an IPO on Nasdaq.
She then ventured into consultancy for InsurTech and Health-Tech start-ups, but over time she said she became ‘industry agnostic’ – and then through reconnecting with Hasson launched UBQT.
Hasson has also enjoyed a remarkable career in business, and he began his journey in Shanghai in 2000.
He was in the business of textiles, and sold the company in 2016, but in parallel with that entity he also had established a hospitality business in 2006.
That company provided bespoke experiences for inbound travellers in China, and was a huge success.
Hasson packed his bags and based himself in Brussels in 2017, where he began investing in disruptive tech start-ups, but admitted that after a while he became bored, and wanted to get his ‘hands dirty again’.
Hasson and Varjabedian have known each for over 30 years, and their paths have crossed several times, however, on a trip back to Brussels, he found out through mutual friends that Lara was also living and working in Dubai, it was here that the idea and concept of UBQT was born out of.
“Lara and I have very similar backgrounds having lived on a few different continents during our careers. Our paths crossed multiple times during the last 30 years, and we did reconnect here in Dubai, but it was completely coincidental. I moved to Dubai around 6 months after Lara did, and when I was visiting family and friends in Brussels during the first summer that my family and I had moved to the UAE, somebody randomly said to me that Lara was also in Dubai. I was shocked, so the second I got back from Dubai I reached out to her, and to make an endlessly long story short we reconnected, and we thought how can we help other people avoid the same thing that happened us,” said Hasson.
Hasson said that UBQT wants to serve as a ‘digital companion’.
“Now we know that there are well-established social media apps on the market like Instagram and Facebook, and they all serve a purpose. However, we figured that there wasn’t really an efficient digital companion that enables you to reconnect with people in real life, and in real-time, and that’s exactly what UBQT does, but most importantly of all to know who is where, and when,” said Hasson.
Hasson then highlighted how the foundation of the application was built on three key functionalities, which are; near you now, near you soon, and catch me status.
“We focused on essentially three key functionalities, and the first one was who is ‘near you now’. Now you could challenge us and say that there is not much originality there because Snapchat does it with maps, but we’ve taken a more private approach to it in the fact that you don’t have the maps, so you don’t have that element of voyeurism. However, we think there is huge value in knowing that one of your friends is going to be in Abu Dhabi, you get a notification that he’s going to be near to you soon, and that enables you to potentially catch up with them in-person. The next functionality is what we call ‘near me soon’, and by soon is anytime in the future, so it could be in an hour, a day, a week, a month, or even a year. There are no limitations, it all depends on you adding your trip, and then anyone that will be at the same location as you will be notified whether that person lives there, or whether that person is going there coincidentally at the same time as you,” said Hasson.
One of the many criticisms levelled at applications like Facebook and Instagram is the addictive nature of them, and the fact that it leads to a lot of screen time and endless scrolling, the third functionality of UBQT is designed to completely remove that.
“The third functionality is something that is very disruptive in our humble opinion, and the app is designed for you to spend as little time as possible on it. We are very old school with our philosophy in terms of less screen time, and more life time. The third functionality is what we have designed as a ‘catch me status’, which essentially simplifies spontaneous socialising, now what do we mean by that? Maybe tonight you want to grab a beer with your friend, or you want to go and watch a movie, you’ll spend an endless amount of time exchanging WhatsApp messages, or whatever medium you use to communicate, but it becomes complex because you’ll say 8pm tonight for Mission Impossible, but your friend will say, ‘No let’s go tomorrow and watch another movie’, and this back and forth goes on, so this becomes a status, it’s not a discussion. ‘I’ll be at the cinema tomorrow at 8PM to watch Mission Impossible’, and with one click your network can join you there, plain and simple, none of the noise, seamless and easy,” said Hasson.
Varjabedian disclosed that UBQT are working on new features and are adding a whole universe of gamification later this year, and in 2025, will add a whole travel tech angle to the application, but stressed that the first phase of UBQT 1.0 was all reconnecting you with your contacts.
IN A BUBBLE
Varjabedian explained that the privacy element of the application was of key importance to them, and said that again unlike other applications, UBQT gave end-users full autonomy to shape and tailor an experience specific to what they want.
We were very conscious of the privacy of the application. For example, if I am going to Abu Dhabi for a work trip in two weeks, when I add my trip to Abu Dhabi on UBQT, I can select the category that can see my trip. I can decide to select “everyone can see”, select business category only, or decide to select only friends
One of the categories is called ‘The Bubble, which is a category that I have created myself that is made up of my closest people, such as friends, family, and work colleagues – and they don’t know that they are in my bubble. One of the key benefits of the UBQT is app is nobody knows what category they’ve been put in. Now if I was going to Abu Dhabi for 1 day, and for just one meeting then I wouldn’t divulge that information, but if I’m going for a business lunch and would be happy to meet people from my business network before or after to make my day more efficient then I would definitely add my trip on UBQT,” said Varjabedian.
Varjabedian also highlighted the customisation aspect of their notifications, and provided an example of how effective the ‘near to me’ soon category can be.
In terms of the notifications, you’ll receive a notification “Nisrin will be near you soon”, but also on the homepage of the application you will see the ‘near me soon’ category and you can see the dates that your friend is going to be near you. We can customise the push notifications. Although the whole purpose of the app is to have it on, so you don’t miss an opportunity to catch-up with your contacts, it is more like if you were deciding to put your calendar invites off. It would not make sense. For example, in the ‘near me soon’ category, I can see my friend from Hong Kong is coming to Dubai from January 31st to February 6th, so I can book a catch-up with him when it is convenient for us both. It’s very seamless, there’s no scrolling on an app, or sending endless messages, it’s concise, and to the point. Today, my 1pm catch-up is with the brother of one of my best friends, who lives in Antwerp, but is on his way to Mumbai and is having a stopover in Dubai, so this morning I received a notification saying that “David is near you”, so we arranged to meet, and that’s a perfect illustration of a spontaneous catch-up,” said Varjabedian.
Varjabedian also outlined the benefits provided by the ‘catch me status’ on UBQT.
“The catch me status is brilliant, so let’s say you’re going out for some drinks, then for example you can put your catch me status as ‘Join me in McGettigan’s JLT for some drinks to watch the football from 8-11pm’, so you can also put the duration of how long you’re going to be there for, and you’re happy to extend it to everyone in your network if you wish, it’s up to you who you want to see your catch me status, and then those who see your status can click to join, and then you know they are going to come, but there’s no pressure on anyone to come, you’ve just put an invitation out there casually to see if anyone wants to join you for a few drinks,” said Varjabedian.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
In terms of monetising the application, Hasson said that UBQT are looking to avoid the traditional methods of monetisation pursued by other social media companies.
“We’re looking at a premium model ideally, but what we would like to do is avoid all the noise that you have on some of the other platforms in terms of advertising, so we’re staying away from that. However, we will have a very simple model where it will be quite inexpensive, so we’re looking at positioning it as a cheaper than the average price of a Starbucks. Your monthly fee may be 5AED, which is nothing, but we have to monetize this, but we don’t want to sell adverts. We didn’t want to become fixated on the price point, and we know it is cheap, but ultimately what we are doing is reconnecting people, so we didn’t want to just enable ‘some people’ to connect, we wanted to give everyone accessibility, and we think the price is fair for what we have to offer. I think when we add the other features such as the gamification and the travel tech, we can then review the pricing model, and modestly increase the price, but it’s always going to stay at a price that is very fairly priced,” said Hasson.
Varjabedian concluded a brilliant and fascinating conversation by highlighting that for users to get the best possible experience out of the application, then they ultimately need to get their network to download the app.
“UBQT allows people to catch-up on their terms, but the reality is that the reason I’ve been using it so much of late is because I’ve got a lot of people connected to me, so when you download the application, you really need to bring your network with you in order for you to get the experience that we want to deliver in terms of really reconnecting people. We don’t only need people to download the app, we need people to invite their friends, family, and business contacts to also download the app in order to build that ecosystem. Together, we can get people meeting more face-to-face, without the hassle of multiple messages, and trying to make busy schedules fit around each other, UBQT can really put the social back into social media,” said Varjabedian.