#55 - 'Mentors have been My Key Influence In the development of Nabbesh.com'. with loulou Khazen Baz - Founder & Chief Owl of Nabbesh.com - the Middle East's only virtual skills marketplace.
The Learning Curve Podcast - THE Podcast for Women Entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa Region:
Back in 2012 Loulou won the UAE reality TV show, 'The Entrepreneur' - her prize was Dhs. 1,000,000/- (US$272,000). This took her on the path to creating the Middle East's only virtual skill market place. Nearly 4 years on she has amassed a community of 70,000 freelancers, 5000 customers and over 9000 posted jobs. In 2013 she signed up with Eureeca to help crowd finance the next stages of development of her business. With their help she generate over Dhs. 368,000/- (US$100,000) in funds which was part of a larger round of Dhs.1,1m (US$300,000) raised through private investors. Her ambition didn't stop there. In Feb 2015 Loulou raised another US$1.5m. She plans to see Nabbesh be a billion dollar business within the next 10 years. This is her interview of her entrepreneurial journey, her top business advise and what she is doing to keep herself being inspired and moving forward.
The Audio Interview
The Transcript for the Interview.
1. Was being the Entrepreneur Show in 2012 the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey or were you already on it?
My entrepreneurial journey had already started to towards late 2011 so before the entrepreneurial show I was fully funding it myself at the time and working on building a viable product for the concept. I had done a lot of outsourcing at the time obviously I got to a point where I had to start looking for additional funding because my funds were running out. In February 2012, I was on twitter and I saw a tweet by Du Telecommunications saying there was an entrepreneurial programme for the region so I thought it was phenomenal. I looked it up and thought it was interesting and the prize money was a Dhs. 1,000,000/-. That got me excited so I participated thinking probably I won't win but it would be a great experience but it turned out to be a fantastic one because I won it. It was a launch pad for Nabbesh and me.
2. Tell us a little bit about your business and your vision for your business?
We started off in June 2012. Nabbesh.com is a marketplace that connects entrepreneurs, start-up and small businesses with contract or project-based talent (freelancers). We were the first in the region and the largest at the moment. We have around 70,000 registered freelancers and over 5000 customers that have the jobs posted. We've had over 9000 jobs posted on the platform. Our vision is to become the go to place for talent sourcing, management and payment so we go beyond the traditional recruitment side in the sense that we don't stop at the job post we actually follow through and ensure the client finds the right person and the freelancer complete the job and gets paid for it.
3. So you have a much larger involvement in the process that what your competitors do?
Yes absolutely because if you're a freelancer it is a very difficult world out there, you don't have a lot of legal recourse and so when you're doing virtual work say you are in Beirut and you're working for a client in Dubai, how do you guarantee that you are going to get paid for your work and how do you get additional business? So what we are doing is we provide protection for both sides. We ensure the client gets the work and the freelancer get paid on time . There is a whole rating system at the end and that insures the freelancer can go on and secure additional jobs, make more money and have better reviews. We are like eBay for services.
4. So is that your big distinction from your competitors?
The traditional model here is the job posting model which is what you get on some of the global as well as local platforms. You post a new job and then you start receiving applicants but the platform's role has stopped at this point. Whereas we continue with the post through the journey. There are some global players that offer the same service and they focus on completely different markets, our focus is on the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region. Our role is to provide the people of this region with job opportunities, we are also distinguishing ourselves by moving towards quality and we feel that if you want to hire a freelancer for your project you really want that person to be of great quality because as a small business owner time is very valuable and if you spend the time hiring the wrong people you are wasting your money so we are investing heavily toward quality and screening. This is something that distinguishes us from even the global players. Another distinction is that we communicate both in English and Arabic for the Middle East and Africa and no one is catering for this audience at this time so we are in Arabic now.
5. Your business was funded using Eureeca. How effective was this method for you in generating funds?
It was a great way for us to raise money. We raised a portion of the funds via Eureeca.com and also in parallel we had a private round of funding with angel investors from the region. I think Eureeca was great because at the time they were new one of the first to close US$100,000/-. It is a great way to raise funds and you get a lot of people paying $1000, $5000 even a few hundred dollars. These people become shareholders in the business so there is a professional transaction happening versus borrowing money from family and friends. It is also a great way for brands to get potential customers as investors.
6. How did Eureeca support your efforts and what stood out for you in terms of the support they gave you.
They helped me a lot with putting together the investors pitch at the beginning because all our documents were live and visible to all registered investors on Eureeca. There was a lot of legal questions and they helped me clarify a lot of the legal questions because as an entrepreneur the worst part about being an entrepreneur is the whole admin/legal angle that takes a lot of time and no one really understands it so that was really helpful. They introduced me to some of their investors so through their platform I got access to a wider network of investors
7. Would you recommend this type of service to entrepreneurs out there that need funding.
Yes absolutely. Its definitely a starting point to raise funds at the beginning.
8. Can you give us an insight into day to day business activities? How do you organise your day and how do you prioritize?
You learn to say no to a lot of things and this is something that has changed a lot since the day I started the business to where we are today. At the beginning I was doing what needed to be done from visas, to offices, to hiring, to investor relations and so on. So as the role matures and you have more and more people on board. Prioritising for me is a challenge because once you set your priorities there's always something else that comes up. Start-ups are extremely fluid so normally I look to a period of 3 to 6 months ahead in terms of what on the progress of the company and so on and then obviously sometimes there is time left for PR and talking to media or writing articles so that is how I spent my day. I spend quite a bit of my time on management, recruiting & interviewing. Right now I three openings at Nabbesh so that takes a big chunk of my time. I manage the team and make sure they have what they need and make sure the company is on track in terms of the KPIs we have set for ourselves and then I also manage investor relations so I prepare for my next round to update the current investors.
9. How Did you get your credibility quickly with your freelancers and customers?
We walk the talk. We have a lot of emphasis on customer support, we are extremely responsive, we collect feedback, we take feedback very seriously and we try to move as fast as possible to improve things. We listen to our customers so the quality just didn't come out of the blue. When we launched the marketplace it was a very open marketplace and we had a lot of people saying for example how do I know this is a good freelancer?, how do I trust that the client is going to paying me? So by listening to customer feedback we understood we had to intervene and create some initial screening to help people connect with the right people. So we listen to our customers a lot and when we do and people use the platform and see results that it works, we start building our credibility. We pay on time all the tim, we try and answer every query and we are very transparent. We seriously want to have a positive impact on the community and a lot of the projects we do revolve around is this going to help the local community or not. So for example we signed a partnership with a Qatari NGO called Silatech, it's all about employability in the Middle East. We are running a great project in the next couple of months called Fursati, which means 'my opportunit' which is going to be about job opportunities for youth in the Middle East so that also helps build our credibility within the local community.
10. How important has collaboration and partnerships been with the success of your work? Do you think you can had the same success without them?
Partnerships are important. You have to think about the time investment you put into building these partnerships and make sure it doesn't take away or divert you from what you need to do as a business. Partnerships are great and take time to happen and normally if you are an early stage entrepreneur it could put a time strain on you. l we have worked with partners before and we work with them now but you need to be careful between the actual business and how much that this partnership brings to the business and be very careful with companies that have big names. Be really clear about what value does it bring to their business. Entrepreneurs have to be very careful about that and not to be too impressed by having a big name associated with them.
11. Is social media a large part of your business and what tools are working for you right now?
So where active on Twitter, not so much on Facebook and we have a company page on LinkedIn for our corporate followers. Frankly we're not as active on social media today as when we first launched because social media is very performance marketing so there is a lot of testing and trying and a lot of social media has changed so in order to get some kind of benefit you have to pay a lot of money so it's not what it used to be so we focus on our existing community and using word-of-mouth strategy to get more jobs and repeat business versus focusing on social media. We do do marketing so we do Google adwords and we do run Facebook ads which work well but in terms of using media social media for community management we are not really doing that.
12. Would you consider other social platforms?
It is off our radar at the moment. We are very much more focused on building value to our existing community and getting referrals. Most of our business is through referrals but again we do run paid marketing campaigns it is just that we're not doing social media.
13. Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?
There are a lot of things that are in play for example there is the timing of when you want to start your business, the people that you surround yourself with, This is extremely important to your success there is a lot of perseverance and not taking no for an answer and not giving up. These are cliché but still valid. Be careful about money and cash, how you spend, on what you spend your money on and if that is yielding the best return on your investment. Most importantly is hiring the right people. Initially when I started Nabbesh, when you are early stage and someone comes and says they want to work with you it's like Christmas you are very excited that somebody wants to work with you, so you don't really look into their qualifications and how good they are and if there is a fit but you want them to work you want them to work with you. Remember people at the early stage of the business are not necessarily the same people one or two years later so there are a lot of generalists in the beginning and then you move to experts as the business grows but having the right people is extremely important
14. Has your motivations changed over the course of running the business?
No not really. We mature but we still have the same objectives. We want to push Nabbesh out there, we want to build a huge marketplace and offer great value to our customers. The business is fundamentally the same it's just the way we go about it. The way we go about it comes from maturity of me, the business and of the team as you start to see things differently but we still have the same motivators.
15. What is the best piece of business advise you have ever been given? And how is that working for you right now?
I do you get a lot of advice because I am blessed to surround myself with some great mentors and entrepreneurs and this is something that is super important to be a successful entrepreneur. I started seeing mentors and successful entrepreneurs even before I started my business, they helped me take decisions and do what's needed and that was crucial. One great piece of business advice I have had is one Mentor told me I could allow myself to have one day per month being pissed off and feeling sorry for myself about something. The message is you are going to have problems all the time and start-ups are always full of ups and downs but don't allow yourself to get dragged into a bad mood or a bad phase for a long period of time because it becomes unhealthy for you and the business because you affect your team and your investors. So it's interesting that I do get upset more than one day a month but I always have this in mind so when I do feel like something is dragging I do try and stop myself and remind myself to say it doesn't matter and move on and what's next just keep moving.
16. Where do you see Nabbesh in 10 years? And how do you think it would have evolved?
Well hopefully Nabbesh will be a billion-dollar business. I think there is a lot of talent in the region and a lot going on in the region and I do think we do need success stories for other people to feel encouraged to start their own businesses. I firmly believe that businesses Nabbesh can become a business billion-dollar business because talent is a huge market opportunity but freelance work is a global trend. Everyone is moving towards virtual employment to get a better work/life balance. Businesses are looking more to optimise their costs to be leaner so remote work as well is being adopted globally there is a huge opportunity in this region for companies to become a lot more leaner and to hire people on demand.
17. Do you have offices in other parts of the region or just in Dubai?
We only have an office in Dubai but we have clients customers from all over the world. The team is only nine people on a full-time basis and we have a number of contributors. At present it is best to keep the team together while it's this size and then we can look at other offices as we grow
18. What books or resources would you encourage other women to explore to help them learn more about entrepreneurship and strategy?
Losing Your Virginity by Richard Branson
Business Model Canvas
The Founder Dilemma
The Start Up of You
19. If you could time travel back to your younger self, say 16 years old and have 15 min with your former self to communicate any lessons you've acquired with the intention of saving yourself mistakes and heart ache, what would you tell yourself?
Be careful who you spend your time with and the people you surround yourself with. I think is very important how to save, I was never very good with money in my younger days. And just chill and keep going and don't get upset over things that aren't worth it.
20. Closing question: What would you say to those ladies out there that are on the edge of taking the plunge into being an entrepreneur?
I would say, first of all be 100% sure you're doing this for the right reasons and not because you're bored and you want to do something or your friend has a start up and you want to do the same or it is cool to be an entrepreneur. You have to be 100% convinced and extremely passionate about it have a lot of perseverance. It teaches you, in my opinion, humility. You have to go around basically convincing people, begging people and asking people to try your products and services, to give new investment money. You're always out there asking people for things it is tough and people do say no. Some people don't believe in what you doing and it does depend on where you are in the business but its all worth it.
Connect with Loulou Khazen Baz
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