How Locking Phones is Boosting Higher Education in the UAE

Anna Bradley-SmithFeatures

The Lock&Stock Executive Team. Courtesy of Lock & Stock

Phone addiction is on the rise globally.

Families, schools, and workplaces have all had to deal with the issue, but as new mobile developments hit the market each day, finding a solution only becomes more difficult.

As a student in Dubai, Mustafa Zubair Ahmed saw the issue as something that needed solving, especially for the country’s young people. He says although phones in primary schools are a big no-no in the United Arab Emirates and treated almost as though they are illegal, once students get to college, phones go straight back in hand.

“The moment you hit university and no restrictions are applied on using your phone, people just get addicted and start using it day in and day out,” he says. “It's definitely something that we saw that needs to be killed.”

Ahmed, along with co-founders Craig Fernandes and his father Ian Fernandes, as well as CMO Hussain Ali Asgar, launched Lock&Stock in 2017 to combat phone addiction in the classroom by incentivizing students to lock their phones in return for rewards.

Path to Higher Education

At first, the company offered students partnership rewards such as restaurant discounts in exchange for points earned for every minute they locked their phones through the app.

The team then scaled up and added a job platform to tackle the lack of employment and job opportunities students face in the UAE market. During that first year, Ahmed, who is CTO, says the focus was primarily on user acquisition.

“We were in month 12, had a meeting between the partners and myself, and were like, ‘Guys we've got two months left in the bank, what are we going to do?’,” he says.

After trialing a number of models, they found one that clicked – working with universities to offer scholarships. The pivot changed the company’s course, and two years later, Lock&Stock is working with more than 600 universities offering scholarships and discounts to students looking to enroll in higher education.

Ahmed says unlike the U.S., the UAE does not offer student loans, and students and their families are left to foot the entire bill upfront.

“The student demographic has kind of been battered, and in a way punished, by the actions of those currently in the workforce,” he says, adding education costs are rising and there are increasing barriers and unrealistic expectations on students searching for jobs and internships.

How it Works

The model has been so effective that the first university to partner with Lock&Stock brought the school more than 10% of their total enrollments.

In order to join the platform, universities have to offer students a scholarship or fee waiver they couldn’t access anywhere else. That scholarship or fee waiver is added to whatever merit or other scholarship a student may have acquired, Ahmed says.

Students can unlock those scholarships and deals with points earned through the free app -- for example, if a student wants to apply for a scholarship, they need 150 points, and those points can only be earned by having the phone locked for 150 minutes. And then they can browse through a catalogue of universities to see which best suits them.

If they have questions they can talk to Lock&Stock’s chatbot and, when ready, students can complete a university application through the app, and book an appointment with one of the company’s education counselors if needed.

“This may be just clarifying any additional doubts, any other questions and queries,” Ahmed says. “Because through the application form, if you've collected the information, we're golden.”

Matrix for Growth

Lock&Stock works with an agency model, getting a commission from each student it enrols in a university. One drawback is it’s highly seasonal with September and January intakes. This year, he says, the company put 2.7 million dirhams (approximately US$735,000) back into the hands of students and their parents.

“This year we've grown nearly 150%, that too in a recession year,” he says. “For us, we've grown like crazy.”

Worldwide, Lock&Stock has almost 51,000 users, and last month they enrolled a student from Sudan and one from Colombia, countries they don’t currently advertise in. For the team, that organic expansion was a big metric of success.

Although the company’s focus has largely been in the UAE, it has recently launched in Pakistan, partnering with local recruiters, universities and restaurants to bring deals to students in the country.

Leading with Transparency

Ahmed says Lock&Stock’s success in the region comes down to its transparent operations, both in marketing and in direct communications with students and parents.

Key to that is storytelling, where testimonials show users how the app works in their best interests and detail the mechanics and reality of the process.

“When we first launched, it all just sounded way too good to be true to most people,” he says.

Additionally, knowing the demographic was integral to cracking the market, and in the UAE, that meant showing families that what they could get through Lock&Stock was the best deal.

“It's a lot about less effort for the customer and more value they get out of it by going through us, really playing on that basic human psychology of customer value is what we've been able to do.”

The team has been lucky enough to receive the support from local media, given how important personal connections are in the region. In the UAE market, Ahmed says 70% of downloads come through word of mouth, which catapults growth and means the company doesn’t have to pour money into PR.

“You find ways to exploit and extract the most value you can based on the cards that you're dealt,” he says. “I honestly believe that's what we've been able to do, 100% bootstrapped to this day and achieve what we've done in the last three years.”

What the Future Holds

In 2021, Lock&Stock plans to expand into six more strategic locations surrounding the UAE, grow to include 1,000 universities, and keep working towards becoming the largest education marketplace in West Asia.

The company will stay focused on students and doing whatever it can to propel them into their future careers, and it has ambitions to dominate at a global level by, “Becoming the largest education marketplace for a student anywhere in the world, and then beyond that, becoming the ultimate millennial application.

“Our ultimate goal is to be this number one go-to application or platform for all things student,” Ahmed says.


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