Ask Iranians about the lifting of economic sanctions and many of them will tell you it’s too early to judge the impact this will have on their country’s economy and their everyday lives.
But as we found out on our recent visit to Tehran, some tech entrepreneurs are not waiting around to find out what comes next. They’re getting started already.
Takhfifan, which means “discount” in Farsi, is an online retail startup run by Nazanin Daneshvar.
The tech venture is a lot like an Iranian version of Groupon. Takhfifan brokers steep discounts with a variety of Tehran retailers on everything from sunglasses to candy to knock-off Starbucks mugs.
Consumers order online, and they appear to love the deals: Daneshvar’s startup has seen 100-percent annual growth.
“Basically we are offering deals, daily deals, coupons vouchers, flash sales, promotions, anything that is related to discounts,” Daneshvar says. She wears a long black cardigan over a white blouse, with a hijab that looks more decorative than obligatory.
Daneshvar went to grad school in Tehran, then landed a job in London as a developer with a company trying to break into the Iranian market. But Daneshvar says economic sanctions killed any chances of that happening.
“So, I moved back,” she says. And she got her first idea for a startup.
“My parents were living in a flat on the third floor and they were carrying all these groceries [up and down the stairs] all the time," she says. "And I just thought, ‘Maybe we should do something similar to Europe.’ So, I started the first online grocery shopping.”
Daneshvar’s maiden voyage as a tech entrepreneur took off so quickly it crashed and burned.
It was a simple home-delivery venture: A customer orders groceries through an app, and they get delivered to the customer’s home. But lots of media attention made things complicated.
“We were on all the big brand newspapers,” Daneshvar says. “In one hour we got over 5,000 orders from everywhere in Tehran. And then it was just myself with one delivery guy, and it was just, ‘Oh, my God, this is just not going to work.’”
After that trial, Daneshvar took another job outside the country, this time in Germany. And that’s where she dreamed up the idea for Takhfifan.
She thought an Internet-based shopping program of some sort would work in Tehran.
Four years ago, Takhfifan went online. As of a year ago, the startup used one corner of a four-story building in north Tehran. Now it's using the whole building, including the basement, which functions as a warehouse for goods on sale.
Last year, Daneshvar was invited to California for a tech conference. She even got to meet with an executive from Groupon.
“I started explaining, this is how we do it,” she says. “And then it was, ‘I can’t believe it. You are exactly copying us.’ And I was just joking with them, ‘No, you are copying us!’”
At this point, the company seems unstoppable. And Daneshvar says the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions is one reason the future looks so bright from her perspective.
“We have been approached by tons of investors in the last couple of years,” she says. “Because Iran has the biggest Internet population in the whole [Middle East and North Africa region]. We have an Internet penetration of 42 percent, which leaves around 35 million people — and they’re young.”
Daneshvar says Takhfifan was named one of the largest startups founded by women in the Middle East region, and the company just secured its first round of financing.
She appreciates the recognition, but says it doesn’t address how challenging it is to be a woman in Iranian business culture today.
“If you would have come [to our office] an hour ago, we had the head of a company that knows that the founder is a female in here,” she explains. The executives of the company showed up in conservative religious attire and Daneshvar says they refused to even look at her during negotiations over a business deal.
“I always take one of our male managers and he always talks on our behalf,” Daneshvar says, but “the fact is, it has got much better than four years ago.”
“We have to deal [with] it,” she adds. “Hopefully, through the years, it will continue to change.”
Like most of her fellow startup entrepreneurs, Daneshvar is an unapologetic optimist. And she says change will come even faster to Iran if more young, savvy Iranians living abroad decide to come home.
Whenever she meets one of them, she tells them to move back to Iran: “Look guys, we are the ones who are going to change this country. Otherwise who's gonna do it?”
Daneshvar's employees exude the same can-do spirit as their founder.
Two quotes in English on the office walls sum up Takhfifan's work culture. One of them is Gandhi's famous “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Another sign, hanging over the heads of a couple of coders' desks, just says “Get sh*t done.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Marco Werman and Matthew Bell from PRI's The World spent seven days in Tehran, Iran, around the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution