Recruitment: Working for a UAE start-up

AstroLab founding partners Muhammed Mekki and Louis Lebbos

Ask the average person what it would be like working for a tech start up and many would probably conjure up an image of a young guy – sadly it’s usually men – hunched over his laptop or mobile phone for all hours as they strive to become the new Mark Zuckerberg.

But to succeed, the region’s entrepreneurs should be working smarter, not longer hours, even if Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey claims to put in 18-hour days.

“I don’t think you should work crazy hours – people who do are doing it for the wrong reasons,” says Louis Lebbos, a founding partner at Dubai co-working space AstroLabs, which is home to about 150 tech start-ups.

“You’re probably able to achieve a lot by focusing on the priorities and not wasting a lot of time. You can then afford to have a decent lifestyle. Focus is more important than the number of work hours – a lot of these start-ups could be run doing just 2-3 hours a day.”

For most start-ups, a lot of the preparatory work will have been completed before its founders go full-time so those few hours a day fulfilling tasks for their fledgling firm are often on top of a full shift in another job.

“It’s a huge challenge,” said Mahmood Jessa, 38, a co-founder of Dubai-based NgageU, which has built a proprietary mobile platform that allows restaurants to better manage their operations.

“It puts a strain in the sense you’re building something for tomorrow but you’ve got to work really damn hard today to do it,” said the father-of-two, who quit his job as head of strategy at a design consultancy a year after NgageU launched.

“Dubai offers a lot of networking opportunities and you feel you need to meet with everyone to cast your net wider and wider.”

Maek Digital co-founder Ghazwan Hamdan
Maek Digital co-founder Ghazwan Hamdan

The UAE – and the Middle East in general – is taking strides to reduce the obstacles to launching a business, with Dubai in particular setting objectives to become a smart city. Yet the bureaucracy can still be archaic, as Ghazwan Hamdan, co-founder of Maek Digital Design Agency discovered when he launched operations in the emirate in 2010.

“In some European countries everything is online, but the UAE [is] a young market, they’re learning, it’s still paper-based,” said Hamdan, 41, whose firm already had offices in London and Bangkok but started from scratch in Dubai.

“We’re still using a rubber stamp to sign off certain documents, but it’s changing and improving each day. Either be patient and go along with the processes or get frustrated. I prefer to go with it – if you want my passport copy another time I’ll give it to you.”

Today, Maek employs six full-time staff worldwide and its Middle East clients have included Nokia, Microsoft, BBC, Dubai Municipality and Mercedes-Benz. It also has a ‘ventures’ division that takes equity stakes in select start-ups, in return providing these firms with digital design, marketing and branding services.

“That’s a real betting game because you don’t get anything back for a long time. You have to believe in that person, make sure they deliver and be patient with returns,” said British-Iraqi Hamdan.

Maek’s most successful venture of this sort is Snap Card, a mobile loyalty card for restaurants, cafes and retailers. The app stores a user’s loyalty cards so no cards are needed. It has now received investment, has been running for four years and is available in Europe, the Middle East and Turkey.

Successful entrepreneurs have come from myriad professional and educational backgrounds, so there’s no list of ideal personality traits a founder should possess, but there is one prevalent attribute.

“They have to have an obsessive, compulsive attitude toward solving that particular problem,” said Dany Farha, co-founder and chief executive of BECO Capital, a firm whose investments include Propertyfinder, ride-hailing app Careem and sports events firm Duplays.

“They can’t be just wanting to make a bit of money because when they hit a big road block they give up and those are the guys we define as mercenaries, versus the missionaries who have seen or experienced a problem and it frustrates the daylights out of them and can’t understand why the world works that way.”

That was true for Kerem Kuyucu, 27, when his newly married business partner Ali Cagatay Ozcan forlornly sought a reliable cleaner in Dubai before his bride moved over from Turkey.

“He was staying at mine so his place wouldn’t get dirty before she came and he was trying to find a maid continuously,” said Kuyucu.

“There was a quality problem because we tried 6-7 different companies and there was a systems problem because cleaning companies were incapable of managing their operations efficiently.”

That observation led the Turkish pair to launch Just Mop in February 2015, an app-based cleaning service that now operates in Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and will soon expand into other Middle East cities.

“There have been times when I haven’t said hello to my parents for a couple of months,” said Kuyucu, who previously helped start online classified car sales portal carmudi.com.

“It’s not about how much you work, but how efficiently you work. You have to find whatever makes you more efficient in your daily operations, so if spending time with your family and friends gives you more motivation to push harder definitely do it.

“You have to be fully focused on one mission. You cannot do a couple of things under the same umbrella because it’s very tough in a start-up.”

Of the 121 UAE start-ups surveyed in a September report by entrepreneurial platform Wamda, 40 percent had one founder, 34 percent two founders, 19 percent had three founders and the remainder had four or more.

Those firms having a single founder could face difficulties, according to NgageU’s Jessa, who takes care of his firm’s strategy and operations while his business partner Mohamed Ali is responsible for sales.

“There are very few people who would know everything they need to for a particular business,” said MBA graduate Jessa.

“The key thing when you’re starting up is to have a co-founder – it should be the ying-yang style, somebody who is not exactly like you but someone who complements you.”