Homegrown techie talents – Four successful UAE startups lead the way

Dubai techie talents

The UAE is fast becoming one of world’s most attractive locations for tech startups. A young population and a growing digital economy provide a wealth of opportunities for innovative and forward-thinking companies.

Let’s look at how your company can benefit from the lessons of the UAE’s most successful startups, whether they’re industry giants or newcomers who have just hit the big time.

Souq.com – looking for a gap in the market

Bought by Amazon in 2017 for US$580 million, Souq.com is the ultimate success story that startups in the UAE refer to when asked about their business aspirations. The largest e-commerce platform in the Arab world, Souq.com – now Amazon.ae – has grown from just five employees to more than 3,000, operating in seven countries, and providing e-commerce services to over 135 million people.

One of the main reasons for Souq’s success was co-founder and CEO Ronaldo Mouchawar. Mouchawar’s ability to understand the mindset of consumers and adapt his e-commerce business to meet their needs was his main success factor.

Aware of the growing use of smartphones, Souq launched its first app in 2012, when mobility and shopping via phones was still a relatively new concept. Following Amazon’s success in responding to a consumer-driven market, Souq later moved away from B2B to B2C and focused on connecting customers with retailers.

As a result, in 2010, Mouchawar took a massive risk by re-launching Souq and announcing it as a B2C e-commerce site, through carefully targeting smaller retailers and offering services such as enabling online payments and managing deliveries, which soon paid off.

Unable to secure local funding, Souq.com looked for international investors interested in internet startups in emerging regions. Mouchawar chose Tiger Global, a New York-based venture capitalist, to enable Souq to tap into its expertise and gain valuable advice from expert investors.

What can you learn from Souq.com?

Souq.com is now the global giant Amazon.ae, but entrepreneurs can still take away some key lessons as follows:

  • Look for a ‘gap in the market’ and always be prepared to take risks and experiment.
  • Seek collaboration with scalable companies – offer something that they’re lacking, so that you can benefit from each other, coexist in the same market, and grow together.
  • Seek out investors who share your values and can offer not just funding but expertise.
  • Focus on current and future consumer needs. As people become more digitally-savvy, be prepared to change and adapt according to their habits.

Careem – standing out against global giants

Acquired by Uber for US$3.1 billion, the Dubai-based vehicle-for-hire company is the first unicorn in the Middle East. Launched in 2012, the idea was not just to create a big business, but one that would have a game-changing impact, and most notably, improve people’s lives.

Listing out various challenges in the Middle East as part of their launch strategy, Careem’s founders, Mudassir Sheikha and Magnus Olsson saw a gap in the corporate transportation market coupled with a high level of demand. They used the opportunity to strike before Uber got in on the act one year later.

As the global transport giants quickly started gaining ground, Careem needed to do something different to remain competitive. The solution was to tweak the product and tailor it to suit the needs of the local Dubai environment.

Careem’s edge over the competition is its dedication to customer service. Customers are able to schedule rides well in advance and can talk to a customer support agent over the phone – something that Uber didn’t offer.

Another notable feature is Careem’s dedication to employee care and well-being – it offers training and development with a focus on team culture, in a bid to improve the lives of its drivers. Ultimately, Careem excels because of its hands-on approach and human touch towards both its customers and drivers.

What can you learn from Careem?

Here’s how Careem was able to carve out its own market share despite growing competition.

  • Offering something different. It can help you stand out, even against global giants. Just a small tweak or value-add could make your product or service more attractive.
  • Customer service – focus on delivering a great customer experience and a human contact source. Even in the digital age, most consumers prefer to speak to a real human being.
  • Taking care of their employees – by giving them opportunities to learn and grow, Careem improved the working and personal lives of its employees, while building trust and loyalty in the brand.

YallaCompare – using your personal experience

When YallaCompare founder and CEO Jon Richards moved to the UAE in 2011, he saw a gap in the market that existed for people like himself keen to compare financial products online.

Today, YallaCompare is the leading UAE financial comparison site, helping users to compare credit cards, loans, mortgages, bank accounts and insurance products – accounting for more than 75% of online insurance transactions.

Funding has allowed the company to expand and diversify into not just comparing, but also selling insurance products directly. The company now operates in nine countries across the Middle East.

But it hasn’t been an easy journey. Richards was working full time for Property Finder when he set up the financial comparison website with colleague Samer Chehab. Initially, the duo took content from bank portals and posted the information on their website. Juggling two jobs, working 12-hour days and weekends, Richards had to sacrifice family and social time to achieve his goal.

What can you learn from YallaCompare?

Here’s how YallaCompare was able to think both locally and regionally:

  • The success of YallaCompare began with Richards’ own personal experience. He saw the need for a service that was everywhere in his native UK, and developed the idea to suit the needs of UAE consumers.
  • Investors are more likely to be attracted by a scalable business that can expand throughout the region.

 ShortPoint – the value of simplicity

ShortPoint has grown from a two-person setup in a small classroom to become a worldwide name in the intranet design software industry.

The appeal of ShortPoint’s product is simplicity through innovation. Aimed at consumers with limited tech-knowledge, its intranet design software enables users to create engaging intranet platforms without coding expertise.

To date, ShortPoint has raised more than US$800,000 in funding from investors, including Dtec Ventures and Dubai Angel Investors.

What can you learn from ShortPoint?

Key takeaways from ShortPoint:

  • The value of simplicity – ShortPoint created a truly useful and user-friendly product that could be scaled globally, catering to all types of businesses and geographical locations.
  • The right choice of investor is crucial – in ShortPoint’s case, a young, talented, driven team coupled with the mentorship and guidance offered by VCs such as Dtec, proved to be a winning combination.

As Dubai and the wider UAE continue to gain global acclaim as a leading hub for startups – early-stage startups account for nearly 50% of all companies registered in Dubai, according to the Dubai Centre for Statistics. Meanwhile, the UAE Ministry of Economy has reported that more than 94% of companies operating in the UAE are small and medium enterprises – the conditions are welcoming and the prospects are bright.