After Jihad Kawas graduated from high school in his native Beirut, Lebanon last spring he moved, not to a university dorm, but to San Francisco to follow his dream of running his own tech start-up.
Now, less than a year later he is the recipient of a $100,000 fellowship named after and chosen by Silicon Valley backer Peter Thiel.
“I was here in New York watching [the HBO show Silicon Valley] and there was this character who was giving out $100,000 for people to drop out of school or college and work on their businesses,” Kawas told Yahoo Finance. “I thought it was a joke. Four months later, I was telling this joke to someone in San Francisco. He didn’t laugh. He told me, ‘That’s not a joke, that’s real.’ I applied, and I made it.”
Some 3,000 applicants vie for one of Thiel’s fellowships, and since becoming one himself, Kawas has met with the mega-backer on multiple occasions.
The idea that won him the money is his company, Saily. It just released the second version of its app that allows users to buy and sell goods with others geographically close to them.
“We took the problems that are happening on online classified sites, say like Craigslist ... and we make it way more easier and simpler and more social for people to actually interact on this platform,” Kawas said.
Rather than the eBay model of packing up sold goods and heading to the post office, Saily uses GPS to sell to people nearby. Buyer and seller meet to exchange the goods, and Saily aims to make sure it is done safely. Kawas says that is key to his idea that the marketplace can double as a social network, bringing people together in the app, but also in the real world.
Generally speaking, the business is fraught with potential issues, as competitors like Craigslist have found out the hard way. Saily attempts to circumvent those issues with technology. According to the company, “Saily detects hot items with very low prices, understands the text in their descriptions, and aggregates multiple factors to help determine if the user is a scam or not. Saily is focused on having only real quality content on the platform, hence Google images are not permitted either.”
Kawas says the company has 140,000 registered users in the U.S. and is growing at a rate of 1,000 new users per day. He hopes to hit a million by the middle of next year. Transactions are free for both the buyer and seller, as money is handled outside the app. Kawas says that may be the key to monetization going forward. “Potentially we can make money through in-app transactions.” Citing Paypal and Venmo as examples, the growing payment space will be key for Kawas to take his project from a Silicon Valley learning experience to a big money maker that can attract funding from others like his current benefactor.