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Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs
News blog26 January 2023Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs

‘Invest in yourself!’

An interview with 33 Under 33 entrepreneur Zach Ciappara

Secrets of Success Zach Ciappara 33 under 33

On the Promoting Enterprise portal we are talking to all the entrepreneurs on the 33 Under 33 list. This Secrets of Success initiative aims to shine the spotlight on a selection of successful young entrepreneurs, documenting their stories in an effort to inspire others to consider entrepreneurship as a career path. Today it is the turn of young Maltese entrepreneur Zach Ciappara.

Tell us about your business.

FreeHour can be defined as an “everything student and youth brand” application, offering a mobile app tailored to all student needs, whilst also offering a media arm which offers valuable daily content to anyone aged 13-25.

The free mobile app offers students at college and university an easy to use timetabling solution, with the added innovation of allowing students to share their schedules with their friends, to facilitate meeting up on campus by comparing and showing common mutual free slots. On top of this, the app offers a wide range of features that make it “the go-to app for students”, solving day-to-day problems that students encounter whilst also giving additional value. These include lecture reminds, a student jobs portal, student discounts, tasks and exam trackers, and much more.

The media side primarily exists on Instagram, whereby over the last few years we have built a following of over 50,000 followers, providing students and youths aged 13-25 with wide ranging content specifically curated for them. This includes local and international news, fun video content, interviews, deeper articles, opinion pieces, online competitions and much more. Students use the FreeHour Instagram as their main source of information for anything student and youth related. We are always exploring new ways to use our platform to educate, inform and initiate debate amongst the younger demographic.

As a business, we monetise purely from adverting. This is done by providing innovative ways for brands to tap into the younger demographics, using our mobile app and Instagram platform. We currently serve over 200 local and international brands for anything related to brand awareness, employer branding and youth recruitment, all through the FreeHour platform.

Where did you get the idea from?

In 2015, when I was 16 years old and studying business and marketing at college, I experienced the problem of finding free time with friends on campus, as all my friends had different schedules and timetables. This would always result in lots of messages and calls asking "Who's free to meet" multiple times a day, as there was no centralised way of comparing and finding free common time.

A year later, I decided to scratch my own itch by creating a mobile application that solves this exact problem. It all started by crowdfunding a few thousand euros from friends a family in order to fund the project. I then proceeded with finding the right people to help me develop the complex mobile application and, after months of lots of thinking and planning, development started and the app was set to launch in just a few months.

Founded in 2017, FreeHour is a mobile application that allows students to add friends, share their timetables and find mutual time that they are both available to meet in to hang out, grab a bite, or study.

As time went on, FreeHour developed further into “the go-to app for students” offering everything students need in their day-to-day life, including student offers, a student jobs section, an exam and task tracker and many more services pertaining to students at 6th form/college and university.

How old were you when you first decided you would start your own business?

From the age of 13, I always knew I wanted to own my own business. At the age of 15, I decided to start working on this project in my free time, which came to fruition when it was launched on the local market (Malta) in 2017 at the age of 18, during my first year at university.

How did you get it off the ground?

After doing the costings of what it would take to launch my app into the market, I then decided to pitch the idea to friends and family, and use the crowdfunding model to collect the necessary funds to launch the project as a “soft launch”. After a few months of pitching to many individuals, offering to pay them back with a small percentage interest in 2 years, I was able to collect enough funds to develop the mobile application and launch publicly with a small marketing budget. This was the first step in the app’s success, which was later followed up by applying to acceptor programmes and winning multiple national grants to further develop the app and brand.

Who did you turn to for help?

In the early days, I would turn to my parents, a small business network, and university professors for direct assistance. I would also absorb a lot of content from YouTube and learnt a lot about what it takes to scale the app further, employ people and run the day-to-day business.

Describe some of the obstacles you faced as a young person starting out in this business.

At the beginning, it was difficult to be taken seriously considering I was only 18 years old. This being said, as a few months passed by and I had tangible results to show, slowly I was able to show my value through my achievements, and be taken more seriously by the businesses I was pitching to. Lack of experience is also another challenge, however here it is your responsibly to expose yourself as much as possible in order to absorb as much content and knowledge as possible, and learn fast as you advance in your start-up journey.

How do you define success?

I define success as building something around things you are truly passionate about, making a difference and having an impact on the people around you, and challenging yourself by constantly pursuing your potential in that particular area.

What was the most challenging aspects of setting up your business?

Whilst most people think that the most difficult aspect is the original idea, from my experience, building and managing your team is the most challenging aspect. This is an area that requires a lot of emotional intelligence, empathy and strategy in order to find and retain the right people for your company, whilst building a company culture that is sought after.

What has been the most rewarding part of your journey so far?

For me personally, growing a start-up with many of my friends involved in the company and achieving national success has been the experience of a lifetime. Having such an impact on my team’s personal and profession development is extremely fulfilling. Also, having such a large positive national impact with our audience of 50,000+ students / youths in Malta is very rewarding, as it shows our product and service truly bring value in the day-to-day lives of the tens of thousands of people engaging with our brand.

What are the future goals of your business, and how will you go about achieving them?

The first future goal for my start-up is to continue growing the business locally and retaining the early success which we have had in Malta. This will be achieved by exploring new innovative products and services to offer to our audience and partners, whilst also growing our talent further, to level up the business. Secondly, my dream is to scale the business to an international level, and replicate a version of what we have done in Malta in several countries around Europe and beyond. This will require further talent acquisition, funding from investors and a strong roadmap for the years to come.

What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs out there?

My advice to younger aspiring entrepreneurs is to invest in themselves as much as possible. This comes in the form of knowledge, personal development and self-care. As the founder of your business, you are the ‘make or break’ of the start-up, especially in the early stages. Take risks, constantly learn and take things systematically to avoid being overwhelmed.

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