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Finding the Freedom to Fail

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Like many of us, Ritesh Tilani long thought about quitting his day job and becoming a full-time social entrepreneur to help give back to his community.

The only difference between Tilani and most of us is that he actually went for it.

In 2010, after working at Nokia then co-founding a cross-border business development company called EXA Partners, Tilani turned nearly all of his time and personal savings to launching CareZone, a Dubai-based for-profit business with a feel-good spin.

Through a mobile app that formally launched about a year ago, CareZone has allowed socially conscious consumers to donate a portion of the rewards they earn from shopping directly to their favorite causes. The program has garnered attention from media such as The National and PCWorld Middle East, earned nominations for a couple of business awards and won a couple of others, including the best charity app for 2012 from a technology-focused site.

"It wasn't something I could do on the side even if I wanted to," says Tilani. "I do believe quite strongly if you want to do something very well you do have to give it your undivided attention."

But giving it his all wasn't enough to guarantee CareZone's success.

The longevity of Tilani's business model hinged on attracting enough consumers, but just as importantly, creating a robust network of companies willing to advertise via the CareZone app.

"Most people I spoke to weren't open to considering new channels of marketing, and mobile marketing is one of those channels they haven't given much thought to yet," says Tilani.

The mobile advertising market is certainly seen as a massive opportunity, but in the Middle East and North Africa it is still only in its infancy. Spending on digital ads in the mobile space was only estimated to have reached $175 million last year. That compares to nearly $1.23 billion in anticipated spending within the United States last year, according to data from the consultancy eMarketer.

Encountering a nascent sliver of the advertising market was only part of Tilani's challenge, however.

Another difficulty was obtaining external funding from investors, who like elsewhere in the world wanted to see proof of concept before they would open their checkbooks. "The mentality in this region has been, 'let's take something that has proven to work in the West and copy and paste it here,'" says Tilani.

"I wanted to do something different and innovative, and that was the driving force behind something I've wanted to do in the past year," he adds. "I've always wanted to question the status quo and [examine] why is something done in a way that's less efficient given the access to resources and technology that we now have, especially in this region where consumer behavior is changing more so now than ever before?"

But consumer behavior hasn't evolved fast enough to save CareZone, which no longer works in app form and is set to have its site shut down.

So where does that leave Tilani?

In some ways, like many of us -- fighting to get back into the corporate world full-time, while at the same time aspiring to break free eventually with a new social enterprise.

"I need to get myself back into a position where I can afford to take risks again and launch something of my own again," he says. "It's building up that reserve of savings so I can be an entrepreneur in the future and launch something all over again."