Interview with Julian Issa - Cofounder and CEO of fethr
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
Julian Issa is a Cofounder and the CEO of fethr, a friend finding app with a twist. fethr uses AI and machine learning to connect members based on their personality and varying social needs. It is the ideal way to find a meaningful connection. Whether you’re looking for a fellow online gamer, or a fun night out, fethr is a friendship app you should really try out. fethr was launched in April 2020, by Julian and his fellow cofounders, Miguel Bravo and Gerardo Rodriguez. It has since been featured by media outlets such as Techround and BBC.
In our interview with Julian, we explore his origin story and entrepreneurial journey.
Hello Julian. Thank you for participating in this Q&A session. Firstly, tell us a little about yourself, your background and your origin story in general?
Julian: Thanks for having me! I had quite a unique upbringing. I was born in Cheltenham to Lebanese immigrant parents who came to the UK at the height of the Lebanese Civil War. I was raised by a single mum along with my two sisters before heading to Westminster Cathedral Choir School where I sung as a chorister for five years.
Singing has stayed with me since. At the University of Bristol, I became really involved in opera before heading to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a scholar. I’ll save the rest for later but my family is now based across Madrid, Athens, Beirut, Manila and London.
I find your career journey very interesting. You’ve worked as a Financial Executive, an Opera Singer, and now you are the Founder of a friendship networking company. Please give us an overview of your career journey and help us connect the dots?
Julian: Just like being an entrepreneur, the life of a performing artist is tough. Actually much more tough than of a founder. I decided to temporarily pivot from opera when I was 24 but the experience of working across the world as a business analyst in places like the U.S., Australia, Singapore, India, Southern Africa and Peru, eventually drew me away from singing. Wedding requests from family and friends remain popular but it is mainly a hobby.
I have always been drawn to doing things I am passionate about, whether that is singing or travelling. After working at a tech consulting firm for a year in London, I had the itch to dive into something more purposeful. Since becoming a founder, I feel very confident to say this is what I will be doing for a while.
In Angela Duckworth’s fantastic book, ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’, she talks about the importance of exploring a few passions before focusing on one. For me, entrepreneurship is definitely that.
Has your entrepreneurial journey been influenced by any present or past business leaders, and how?
Julian: I am fortunate to have come from a family of entrepreneurs – all incredibly determined, optimistic with a high-level risk appetite. My grandfather was a soldier who set up a convenient store in his garage, which eventually became a distribution centre for consumer goods. He, along with my uncles, saw the demand for nappies was not being met in the domestic market as they kept running out of stock. They decided to start importing nappies from Europe. These nappies had slight defects – a strap was slightly misplaced, for example. So they would fix the defect and package them up. Demand was so high that they became producers, and eventually specialists in the space, producing everything from wet wipes to adult pull-ups. They have had their highs but lows as well. Lebanon is now going through one of the worst economic crises the world has seen. Their ability, in the face of such adversity, over the years to keep going despite the unstable market conditions is inspirational.
To get to the point, a quote I live by is “a smooth sea never made a skilful sailor.”
What key challenges have you faced in your entrepreneurial journey, and how have you navigated these?
Julian: My entrepreneurial journey is a rollercoaster. You’re going to fail, every single day. Whether that’s trying to get to product-market fit or raising money.
When the times are good, don’t get ahead of yourself, and when the times are bad, the times will get good soon.
Weekly therapy, and a morning routine of meditation, Wim Hof breathing exercises and HIIT do help a lot.
We would like to explore your friendship app startup in more details. Please tell us where the idea for fethr came from, what‘s its value proposition, and who‘s it’s target market?
Julian: As a business analyst I would move to a new city every three to six months, and building community every time was difficult and time consuming. By the time I had met my people I was on the next flight to the next destination with the same problems. So fethr is a friendship app for meaningful connections. We use AI techniques like natural language processing and machine learning to enhance friendship compatibility. In plain English, we make it much easier for you to find that ideal connection.
There is a big market gap at the moment in the friendship space. A lot of dating apps have started to look at it but suffer with the problem of transitioning their current solution to the friendship space.
Finding a friend and a romantic partner are different and so need different approaches to both product and branding.
The current solutions for making connections out there are outdated, and are not addressing the market need, or more specifically, the need for meaningful connection. Our target market at the moment is very much newcomers to cities. More specifically, digital nomads, a fast growing market who underline loneliness as their key reason for returning home.
On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being Facebook and 5 being Tinder, where would you say fethr lies in terms of market similarities and value proposition?
Julian: On this scale, I’d say we are a 3.5, although Lunchclub and Hinge are two companies that we would prefer to align ourselves with. fethr is “Lunchclub for your social life.”
What is it about fethr’s value proposition that makes it unique when compared to its competitors?
Julian: We reduce the time it takes our members to find that ideal connection by using AI techniques like machine learning and natural language processing to enhance friendship compatibility. We are also creating an environment that is all about meaningful connection. Really excited for how we are crafting our product into 2022 to address our customers’ problem.
How have you gone about building brand awareness and business credibility for fethr?
Julian: As a first-time founder, I think it has been a bit different to what it will be like in the future when raising further rounds or as a more experienced founder. Founders should focus on building the best product for their customers’ needs. As first-time founders we have to build our own credibility, network and reputation, so that we could have the runway (money from investors) and acquisition channels (partnerships and press) to build the product and get it to our customers. In terms of business credibility for the customer, that has been driven by partnerships with venues and universities, and brand awareness through our social presence and press campaigns.
What are the future expansion plans for fethr?
Julian: We are very much focused on building on from the MVP we just launched with. Plans for 2022 include expanding outside of London and also some really exciting product updates.
Before we conclude this interview, is there anything else you would like to add?
Julian: It would not be a founder interview without shameless plug. So, if you’re new to London or are looking for more in your social life, download fethr!
Thank you Julian for participating in this Q&A session. We wish you all the best.
Julian: Thank you.