More than 7,000 miles separate California and Iran, but one Los Angeles-based tech entrepreneur is trying to close the gap.
Mehdi Yahyanejad is the founder of Balatarin, which he describes as the Persian equivalent of Reddit. Yahyanejad started the company in 2006 and it’s now one of the most popular Persian news destination sites, serving Iranians worldwide.
How people get their news is a key question in the run up to Iran’s presidential election on May 19. Voters will choose between incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, who brokered the nuclear deal with the Obama administration, and his main rival, Ebrahim Raisi.
The election is widely considered a referendum on the nuclear deal, with Iranians expected to vote depending on whether they’ve felt the economic benefits of the lifting of sanctions on Iran.
While in Southern California, home to the largest Persian population outside of Iran, Marketplace Weekend’s Lizzie O’Leary sat down for a chat with Yahyanejad. He shared his view on the election, and what the result could mean for entrepreneurs like himself trying to build a business in Iran.
Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation:
Lizzie O’Leary: How’s business?
Mehdi Yahyanejad: So we have our ups and downs like any other media web websites. Of course we feel the pressure from Facebook and we are trying to get our audience engaged and not to lose them to Facebook.
O’Leary: Have you seen, in a moment like this, in the run up to the elections… has your traffic changed?
Yahyanejad: Yes. Actually our traffic has increased within the past few weeks. In Iran, candidates are not allowed to run, have a campaign, more than months before the election. So everything picks up right before the election.
O’Leary: What does that mean for you right now, you know, if I were to go on your site and look at what people are talking about — what are they talking about right now?
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Yahyanejad: So right now the focus is the Iranian presidential election and there’s a lot of discussions from people living in Iran and people from outside Iran who have an opinion about the election inside Iran. Of course this is an important election because as you may know in past four years Iranian President Rouhani tried to make the nuclear deal work. The question is if Rouhani can get reelected or if a hardliner will take his place.
O’Leary: Where does your traffic come from?
Yahyanejad: So half of our traffic comes from Iran; people who are posting from Iran about the news in Iran. The other half are Iranian expats living in the U.S. or Europe. Some of them have been here for decades. There are others who are more recent immigrants or refugees who are active on the website.
O’Leary: And for the people using it in Iran, how are they getting online?
Yahyanejad: So the website has been blocked for years in Iran and people have to use proxies and VPN to get around the censorship and access the website.
O’Leary: Does that make it hard to build a business?
Yahyanejad: Actually yeah, as an entrepreneur whether you live in Iran or you live outside you run and work on issues related to Iran, there are huge challenges, especially online. Internet censorship is a big issue in Iran for web entrepreneurs. There’s also government monopolies on pretty much everything in Iran, including telecommunications, that’s impacting the business and internet entrepreneurship.
O’Leary: How do you make money?
Yahyanejad: So we can make money from advertising, so there are there are other web sites who want to advertise on our site or businesses and also Google Ads. That’s our main source of income.
O’Leary: Are they advertisers who are trying to target Iranians or the diaspora?
Yahyanejad: Actually we have a number of customers who are publishers of some sort, either news agencies or human rights organizations, who want to reach audience in Iran. Since we have a lot of visitors in Iran, of course, this is a useful website for them to post their ads on.
O’Leary: How big is your audience?
Yahyanejad: Our audience is about half a million unique visitors monthly and tens of millions of page views a month. Actually the audience are often people who are influential within Iran. So these are journalists, student activists, even politicians. Even members of the government are readers of the website, based on the comments they’ve made. So we know that they go on the website and track what’s going on.
O’Leary: When I think about say, 2009, access to information is obviously so important not just as a means of doing business for you, but really as a means of communication and for people talking to one another. You have this sort of strange dual mandate where you’re a businessman, but you are working in an area that has a much broader purpose in a country like Iran.
Yahyanejad: Right…business and politics are intertwined and I would even say freedom of information, freedom of knowledge is intertwined with business and politics. My passion is of course internet technology but at the same time I see that I have to focus on means of getting access.
O’Leary: You know there’s an interesting question. So let’s say that that things do become more open, right, and and more websites can be used. Is there a potential for that to hurt your business, let’s say, that suddenly Iranians are using Facebook?
Yahyanejad: Yes. That could happen. Actually I think I actually welcome this kind of competition and I would love that to happen. I think Iranians having more access to information is good for everyone. So that’s something I’m looking forward to.