In May 2021, StarNews Mobile welcomed Zaré Baghdasarian as its new Acting COO to help lead the company in its mission to be a leading digital media platform for mobile-only markets starting with Africa and to revolutionize digital content distribution and monetization worldwide.
Baghdasarian, an award-winning global technology leader and serial entrepreneur, says he believes the sky is the limit for StarNews as it is quickly growing to reach a global audience while bringing African content creators to the world stage.
We spoke with Baghdasarian to learn more about the expertise he brings to the StarNews team and his plans to help the company scale.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What experience do you bring to StarNews?
I’m a serial entrepreneur. I have built companies from early startup days, co-founded companies, and have had many successful executions and failures which give me the roadmap to know what it takes to build a company and how to scale it. I started with the telecom world, very heavily built an internet backbone, and worked with telco systems worldwide to most recently in artificial intelligence. So I have a very diverse background all the way from engineering by training but then going the business route; I have global business degrees. My key expertise is in execution, and I’ve raised a lot of money from venture communities, as well.
Why did you choose to join StarNews Mobile?
I knew Guy Kamgaing from over 10 years ago. There are a couple of things that are very interesting about what StarNews is doing. As an entrepreneur, you always want to know where is the next frontier? Where is the next growth coming from? What are the challenges? Africa as a whole presents very, very, very unique opportunities from many angles.
First of all, the growth rate there is growing tremendously. It is the next frontier. It is where India and China were ten years ago or faster. The infrastructure is getting built and a lot of times when you’re going into environments that are growing, there is a perfect opportunity to innovate. They are very open to new ways of doing things. They don’t have any legacy to build on top of.
I’ll give you the perfect example – one of the toughest challenges for cell phones in the U.S. and everywhere was there were landlines and buildings. You could not put cell towers anywhere. So there were limits to what could be done. In Africa, you can just build it. So there’s a lot of opportunity for innovation, especially in the area of consumers. In Africa the growth of millennials is tremendous. They are very open to new technologies and new ways of doing things. They want all of the latest stuff, but there are economic challenges to that.
I like to solve challenges. I like to build companies that address massive issues, massive problems.
The other angle is the interest in African culture and the African way is growing worldwide. So if you put all that together, we can do great work, especially with the market StarNews is targeting.
What else drew you to StarNews? Is there something unique about the company that sparked your interest?
The diversity of the team. Usually with startups, there are a lot of tech people. I think StarNews in all the other aspects, from their marketing, from the product planning, from the people on the ground like content manager, business development, it’s a very diverse team, not just culturally but also in know-how. That creates the all-star team that you want to join, the dream team.
What is your role at StarNews?
My specific role within the company is to work with the team to scale because if you don’t scale, someone else will scale. Scaling starts with the core of the tech. You have to get your foundation right. If you’re building a 100-story building without a strong foundation, after the tenth story, it will collapse.
There’s a lot of things that we have to learn. Learn from the way that the market thinks, operates, values. So data will become a key. We must build a platform for monetization and content distribution and content creators. That has to have solid ground. And we’ll be building some of the latest artificial intelligence and using data mining techniques to make it scale fast and reach everyone.
We work as a team throughout our markets, through our product launch, through our HR. We have a great team, we just have to work together to make sure our foundation is strong.
It’s about pouring the concrete. I’m here to pour the concrete for the foundation. I see tremendous opportunities for us to become the leader in the growing market of digital social media and content delivery, as well as growing the local economy.
With so many great opportunities to innovate, where do you begin?
There are two areas of StarNews’ specific focus.
One of them is creating content that can be shared by the masses in scale and providing the opportunity for content creators to create a new economy for themselves. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. Everyone’s a star. Everyone can make money.
The other angle is to monetize that through payments or billing. Africa is a true digital economy. It is a true digital currency. People pay for everything with their cell phones. So to provide a digital platform that can be monetized and be adaptable is basically bringing two fundamentals of a growth economy together. It is an emerging environment for the next generation of social media engagement by subscription. It’s like what Netflix and others did in the U.S. They changed the way that we watch content and TV. Use the same analogy and [StarNews] will change the way content gets distributed and watched within social media or create a new one in Africa.
In the U.S. the digital environment is what they call an attention economy; it’s based on ads and everything. In the digital domain in Africa, it’s different. It’s less about the ad model for digital.
There’s a new article from MIT about the way we do social media engagement. It’s going to be more subscription-based with content creators who are motivated to make money.
What are some of the main goals StarNews is working towards?
One goal is with the mobile-only market, which exists not just in Africa but other places globally like Latin America (but Africa is one of the biggest and growing). The goal is to monetize and distribute both in the African market and cater to those outside Africa who are interested in African culture and content. Our goal is to make sure there is seamless customer onboarding for all those interested in the product and the same model should apply when being deployed on other continents like Latin America or all the emerging markets.
What are some of the challenges StarNews is facing and overcoming?
There are typical challenges whenever you work remotely. With being a startup you have the growth challenge and things are happening faster than you can digest. On top of that, you have one interesting challenge – a good challenge – which is the cultural diversity. The company is headquartered in the U.S. but you have people working all over the world, and the market you are serving is totally different.
The other big challenge is the business itself which has grown faster than the tech has grown. Usually, it’s the reverse. A lot of people build the tech and struggle with revenue. For StarNews, the revenue and customer demand is growing, so we have to really be innovative and grow our tech to surpass the demand of the market.
Do you find there is a challenge in getting outside markets interested in what’s going on in Africa?
Yes and no. The challenge is always there. But one example I always use is you always want to talk to your teenagers. I have two boys very much into music. They’re Millennial and Z Generation. They play African music! They like it, they know the artists, and I see that trend with others their age. There are even artists I like that I discover are African artists. You have Anglophone Africa, Francophone Africa, Lusophone Africa and American-African – the culture is getting a lot of interest.
On the opposite side of the coin, because of the nature of the market, the generation growth in Africa, there is also interest from content creators in the U.S. to reach that audience. We have more than 13 million subscribers on our platform and that creates interest for someone who wants to capture a wider audience.
I see both sides and that’s where our challenge is. How do you build a digital platform that handles both seamlessly? And we are doing it.
What do the next 5 years look like for StarNews?
I see StarNews having two really dominant roles in digital content delivery and digital billing. As we roll the products out, I see content diversification, starting from music to sports, food shows – multi-content. The roadmap is to just add and maybe become the key media delivery and digital payment system in Africa. The sky is the limit for us.
There are many economies emerging worldwide that have similar challenges. Not everybody has iPhones, but everybody wants the same thing. Why not? Why shouldn’t everyone have iPhones? And that segment of the market is growing faster and we are going to be there to deliver and create new economies.