Next Up: Fouad El-Masri is a young entrepreneur with a business on the rise
How standing in line helped one businessman achieve success
by Alexandria Eldridge
Photograph Ashley Champagne
For most people, waiting in line is a nuisance to be avoided. For a young Fouad El-Masri, though, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
He grew up in Dubai, and he watched as the housing boom of the mid-2000s turned condominium units into objects of near universal desire. People would line up, often waiting for days, just to get the chance to buy one.
And because many of the people who wanted to buy those units were the kind who lacked either the time or the patience to stand around in a lineup, El-Masri and a few of his friends decided to do it for them. They skipped school, brought sleeping bags and camped out for three or four days before selling their spot to someone –often for a very tidy sum. “I don’t even know how I get into these things,” El-Masri says.
He may not know how he gets into them, but it’s readily apparent to those around him. El-Masri, who now owns a growing advertising business called Visio Media, is a natural entrepreneur. He’s not afraid of risks, for one thing. Take his decision to move to Edmonton at the age of 16 to attend the University of Alberta’s petroleum engineering program. “I’m not going to lie and say I’m a macho man and I wasn’t scared. It was actually very scary. You’re in a new city, you don’t know anyone and it’s different than what you’re used to,” he says. But El-Masri learned how to live on his own, and he learned a bit about himself in the process.
He’s persistent, too. After realizing that engineering wasn’t for him, he transferred into economics and started working for a real estate company. But that opportunity only came about because of his unwillingness to quit – he submitted plenty of job applications to Dansol International to get the company’s attention. “I actually got a call from the president of the company saying, ‘Stop submitting here,’ ” El-Masri says. “But I ended up becoming really close friends with him. He’s like an older brother to me.”
Today, while most of his peers are searching for entry-level jobs, the 24-year-old El-Masri owns a growing business. Visio Media is an Edmonton-based company that installs LCD screens in elevators that broadcast advertising messages – and use facial detection software to gather data about the people looking at them. As such, the company can help clients tailor their ads to particular demographics and even destinations.
“We need to be able to show the advertisers how many people saw their ads – breaking it down by age, average duration, average glances,” El-Masri says.
The key was getting the price of installing the screens low enough that Visio was able to offer them and the space they occupy in elevators as a cheaper alternative to traditional advertising. The challenge was getting Internet into a moving elevator, but Visio was able to do it. “Because of our hardware, we’re able to do this in a very cost-effective way, which is what we’re working on getting patented,” he says.
Masri didn’t create Visio with the intention of becoming an advertising company. Instead, he wanted to help property managers to communicate better with their tenants, a desire that sprung from an experience El-Masri had with his own landlord. “I got my car towed once because there was a parkade cleanup that I didn’t know about, and it was just a big mess,” he says. “That was my moment. I thought, ‘I’m going to make something better.’ ” Visio approaches property managers and offers to install its screens for free. Managers can either take a cut of advertising, or use Visio’s announcement service in which part of the screen is reserved for notices or classifieds.
While that part of the business has now taken a backseat to the advertising, it’s still something El-Masri thinks is important.
For property managers, installing Visio screens in their buildings is a no-brainer. “It’s just unused space in elevators – it’s untouched. You have a lot of waiting time [in elevators] where you just don’t know what to do with yourself,” El-Masri says. And for Visio, expanding its base of properties will allow the company to sell more advertising and make more of a profit.
It’s a business model that has worked well so far. Visio launched its screens in February, and already has a presence in 12 properties, most of them downtown and residential, along with over 25 contracted advertisers. El-Masri has enjoyed both the company’s rapid growth and its unexpected evolution. “I have a passion for taking a risk in that sense and not knowing what’s next. Here at Visio, we started out doing bulletin boards and now tablets, and this has all happened in a year, so it’s always fast-paced,” he says.
El-Masri has big plans for the business in the future. The company has already branched out from elevators, providing screens for Edmonton’s Southgate Mall and Millwoods Town Centre. But it’s the elevator screens El-Masri wants to take nationwide. “We want to build a very scalable model in Edmonton [in order] to be able to duplicate this over again in other cities like Calgary and Vancouver,” he says. He’s also hoping to improve the company’s screen technology. He wants to integrate Twitter and Facebook, and to improve the facial detection software by making it responsive so that, for example, if a middle-aged man enters the elevator it will display advertisers that are targeting that demographic.
And even though he wants to expand, El-Masri is happy he’s made Edmonton his home base. Visio is run out of Startup Edmonton’s office space, and El-Masri says he’s made relationships at Startup that have proved invaluable. Visio actually partnered with GeniePad, another Startup company, to provide its online archive of building notices. “My plan was to just get my degree and go back and work [in Dubai],” El-Masri says. “But honestly, I fell in love with Edmonton, with the people. It’s very business-friendly – I’ve never seen any community more like that.”