Benchmark chats to Mona Ataya, the CEO of www.mumzworld.com, a Middle East online marketplace catering for mother, baby and child products from newborns to 12-year-olds, about how she created the start-up business that has now become the most-visited online baby retailer in the region.
As a mother-of-three, entrepreneur and CEO of a phenomenally successful start-up, Mona Ataya knows a thing or two about juggling a work/life balance.
After graduating with a dual honours degree in marketing and finance, Ms Ataya worked with medical and pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson in both the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and Europe.
It was during her time with the global company that she first found her feet as an entrepreneur joining the then start-up Bayt.com.
“It was new to the region at time time,” said Ms Ataya. “The idea was the revolutionalise recruitment in the Arab world.”
The success of the company – now the largest recruitment site in the Arab world – speaks for itself.
It wet Ms Ataya’s appetite as a female leader in business.
When she gave birth to twin boys, then had her third son a short while later, Ms Ataya felt there was a gap in the market that provided mothers with easy access to good quality products.
“As a mother I experienced firsthand the many many frustrations mums have in the region,” she explained. “One is access to quality products. Another is right information about products. Convenience of shopping. Knowing where to find what you need – and what is it you actually need. The lack of transparency of pricing. The very expensive pricing compared to the rest of the world. All of that created a very frustrating and inconvenient shopping experience.
“On one side I was a consumer and on the other side I was an entrepreneur and had been part of a start up and knew what it meant to bring something important into the market and really change the playing field.”
Ms Ataya drew up the Mumzworld business plan in July 2011. Four months later the company became a reality.
“The vision was very very simple; to empower mums to make the most informed purchase decisions for their children,” said Ms Ataya. “As a mother myself I did not feel empowered. I bought products that I didn’t not feel was the highest quality. And I was paying more. I always felt cheated as a consumer.
“So the idea really was to make sure that mothers were empowered. That they were buying the best possible products for their children. That they had access to choice and to transparency in information and in pricing and that convenience was a core part of their shopping experience.”
In 2012, a year after its launch, Mumzworld was the most-visited online baby retailer in the Middle East with more than 1.2 million unique visitors to the site.
“We have grown 500 per cent since we set up.”
The company now has a staff of more than 50 people, predominately women, and more than 100,000 local, regional and global products for families across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the rest of the Middle East.
The website also offers information and reviews on toys, books and clothing for babies, pre-schoolers, up to the age of 12.
“I think with all businesses when there is a need that is important you will see growth quickly,” said Ms Ataya. “We have grown 500 per cent since we set up. We have access to more than 650,000 mothers on our database of mums in the regions. We want to make sure mums come to our website and 365 days a year she will have access to the best prices and the highest quality of choice of products.”
As with any other new venture, the e-commerce business faced challenges.
“I think e-commerce in general is very difficult because its a logistically complex business and in this part of the world e-commerce is still very immature,” said Ms Ataya.
“Things are only now developing. In November 2011 when we started there was only one payment gateway.
“Now there is four. But even with four payment gateways that is still very little compared to most parts of the world.”
Sending goods to customers via courier also presented difficulties in a part of the world that was not ready for e-commerce, said Ms Ataya.
“When you ask a courier to deliver a product or a letter it would take them sometimes weeks to do it. The infrastructure in the region was not ready for e-commerce – the market was not set up. So when we would tell our mums we would deliver within two to three days that is fine if you had two to three drivers and you are small but when you have thousands of products being delivered on a daily basis you need an infrastructure in the region that caters to that. Similarly you need reliable payment gateways. You need technology that understands the fluidity of e-commerce.
“It continues to be challenging. But now that has changed and we see it evolving and improving every year.”
Another challenge was finding a talented workforce that understands e-commerce.
This led her to make some of her wrong decisions Ms Ataya feels she has made to date in business – hiring the wrong people.
“In e-commerce you are always reactive rather than proactive in hiring,” explained Ms Ataya. “Today if your business reaches a peak and you need to hire people you can not wait. You hire someone quickly and you end up not making the best decisions.”
On the flip side, the best decisions Ms Ataya has made was always giving things a go.
“I always say just do it,” she said. “You can take years studying something and still find fault or you can say you know what I am just going to make it happen. My general attitude of just doing something when I fundamentally followed my gut has really paid off.”
Ms Ataya does not feel that being a women in a traditionally male-dominated industry has hindered her success.
“Whether I did or didn’t it as not something that was overt,” she said. “For me the greatest challenges are that I am a mother and am constantly juggling between work, my family and all my responsibilities. That is a constant daily struggle to make sure you are balancing properly and to ensure you are giving everything that is due.
“Work/life balance is a constant battle. It is constantly going to be a learning curve for me. It is not easy.”
It is that work/life balance that Ms Ataya feels is the biggest challenge facing women in business today.
“This is because you have many priorities that you can not compromise,” she said. “The other challenge is in non-traditional industries, whether that be in technology or e-commerce where it is less traditional to find women in senior positions. There is this constant notion that you have to assert your knowledge or your know-how and what you will find is that women probably go the extra mile in order to assert themselves.”
However this can ultimately shape great female leaders, she said.
“What always going the extra mile results in is women with skill sets that are fantastic,” said Ms Ataya. “For example, heading our Saudi Arabia operation is a woman, our logistics manager is a woman, heading our technology department is a woman. We found that with a lot of trial and error that these women sitting in these top levels are very hard workers.
“They have built their skills set over years of working the extra mile so you find women who are exceptional.”
Women in business should be doing more to help each other, said Ms Ataya, a Palestinian American expatriate.
“For me it is imperative and I really do believe women can and should support each other and I do not think think it is happening enough. There are lot of women in businesses who are not supporting each other and we should and allow women to grow and thrive and learn from each other.”
Ms Ataya is modest but proud of the success Mumzworld to date. But she has big dreams for the baby retailer which, in her own words, is her own baby – a business that is in its early days but one which she believes will continue to thrive.
“It is still early days. We have just really touched the surface on what we can do.
“There is a lot we have still yet to do including content development, creating a much stronger community of mums and really become that go-to destination for the baby and child needs. We want to become the indispensable, online extension of a mother’s life.”
Finally, any advice for women wanting to climb the corporate ladder?
“I do not think it is for everyone to have this constant juggle between home and work,” she advised. “I really think that different women have different needs and abilities or different dreams.
“You need to have a very, very strong support structure whether it is your direct family or very close friends that will support your work. You need to be willing to work seven days a week, 365 days a year and 18-20 hours days because that really is what it takes.
“|It is really about putting in everything you have, working a lot of hours and just having the gut to say I believe in this vision and will compromise and sacrifice to get to that vision.
“Go in with open eyes.”