Home Startups How Kosovar startup Gjirafa became the Amazon of the Western Balkans

How Kosovar startup Gjirafa became the Amazon of the Western Balkans

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The Western Balkans were heavily neglected by tech giants like Google and Amazon, when Mergim Cahani, founder of Gjirafalaunched his company in 2011. His goal: to use the Albanian language (his native language) in the digital market and build the Internet economy in the Balkans by focusing on key services that were missing in a market of around 12 million people.

Even today, the Balkans’ broadband infrastructure remains relatively poor, with a significant coverage gap between rural and urban areas. According to the EU, the region needs large-scale investments to catch up with current trends and meet the EU’s 2025 targets.

However, the founder of Gjirafa, along with co-founders Ercan Canhasi and Diogjen Elshani, were determined that the Balkan internet economy would only grow if they created a service digitization company. This is why Gjirafa came to life. “It all started in a dorm room at New York University, when our CEO Mergim Cahani was studying and working with his professor – who was one of the lead scientists at Yahoo.com – to create the New Zealand search engine “, explains Doresa. Rexha, one of Gjirafa’s first seven employees, who now runs Gjirafa Studio.

“I remember our first meetings, Mergim started each one with the same quote”: “It’s okay to make mistakes and we have to make mistakes to grow. But don’t forget that tomorrow we will have to make new mistakes. We continue to grow by repeating this quote to ourselves and our new members,” she told Trending Topics SEE.

From seven to 200 employees

Gjirafa’s team in 2019; image: Mergim Cahani on ©FB

Gjirafa is considered one of the most successful startups in the Balkans. At first, they mainly hired young students aspiring to careers in e-commerce. Doresa Rexha was one of them.

“I am an actress by profession. Seven years ago, I was still a student when I started my internship at Gjirafa. It was something completely different from all my previous experiences: how a start-up works, big changes, rapid growth, adaptation to new circumstances, technology development and many other factors. To be honest, I felt like Alice in Wonderland,” says Doresa.

The company offers a variety of Internet services to offline and online consumers in the Balkans and within the Albanian diaspora. It is the fastest-growing internet company in the Balkans and one of the best-funded venture capital startups in Europe, thanks to fundraising from world-renowned investors.

“At first there were seven of us. Then our number increased to 20, 50, 130, and now Gjirafa has around 200 members! “, remembers Doresa Rexha.

Doresa Rexha, an actress by profession, is one of Gjirafa’s first seven employees. She now runs Gjirafa Studio. Photo: personal archive

The first platform launched by Gjirafa was gjirafa.com – the first Albanian language search engine. “It continues to be our first love,” says Doresa.

In 2014, the company joined Starter yard. Mergim Cahani continued to be a mentor and advisor to startups and caught the attention of one of StartupYard’s investors – Rockaway. In 2016, Capital Rockaway invested $2 million in Gjirafa.

StartupYard said the deal was closed during the recent aggressive evolution of European investments in e-commerce, and followed previous investments in Gjirafa from angel investors, including Yandex. Esther Dysonpartner of Credo Ventures Ondrej Bartos, and Roland Berger, managing partner (and former StartupYard menter residence) Philippe Staehelin.

With this capital, Gjirafa was able to expand more aggressively into the Albanian regions of the Balkans. The agreement also called for Rockaway to commit considerable resources to offer other Internet properties to Albanian-speaking audiences and businesses, thereby strengthening the Internet economy in the region in partnership with Gjirafa.com, StartupYard said.

+++Albanian startups and innovators are making their way through traditional business models+++

A small market with various services

From bus routes, weather forecasts and daily news to the latest electronic and video content. Gjirafa has it all. Operating in a small market like the Balkans, Doresa Rexha explains, makes you think in different ways.

I think the beauty of startups is that there is no comfort, and when there is no comfort, there is growth and success. From there, taking inspiration from the evolution of the global market and familiarizing ourselves with the Balkan market, which is small and therefore we cannot offer a single service, we started to grow vertically and provide different services for the region,” Doresa explains.

Gjirafa.biz was one of the expansions undertaken by the company, improving access to information for more than 80,000 businesses in Kosovo and Albania by digitizing their profiles. After that, the company launched the Gjirafa.50 online store, the first in Kosovo and the entire region.

“In the beginning, we only had 50 products and all the staff were involved in different responsibilities. One day, I went to deliver an order and the hostess insisted on inviting me for coffee. I will never forget the moment a child jumped with happiness when we delivered his new headphones. It made us proud,” Doresa recalls.

Give back to the community

©Gjirafa Studios

“Our Cafeteria” is one of the most popular television series produced in Kosovo since war. The show was released in 2004 and aired for 13 years. However, the producer then decided to abandon the project due to lack of financing. In 2017, Gjirafa decided to bring it back to life, thus reviving good memories. “The premiere was extremely successful, in three hours it reached more than 200,000 views and after 10 minutes, due to the high audience, the channel went down,” says Doresa Rexha, explaining how Gjirafa Studio started as a new platform for artists like her. “The platform at that time was not stable. but we kept saying that “done is better than perfect”.

Today, the department she heads produces three television series and also collaborates with the Kosovo Film Center. It also streams Kosovo-produced films online. Some of them were even nominated for an Oscar.

Despite Gjirafa’s commitment to the service digitalization program in the Balkans, the market in the region is changing very quickly and this has its own impact. Doresa Rexha, however, is convinced that the key to success lies in hard work, love and dedication, as well as a lot of patience in the face of challenges. If they follow this recipe, every startup can become a million-investing company. Or, in the case of Gjirafa, from zero to the Balkan Amazon.

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