Interviews

Idriss Al Rifai, Founder & CEO of Fetchr talks about early days, challenges, competition, expansion and more [Interview]

Idriss Al Rifai co-founded Fetchr with Joy Ajlouny in 2012 to solve the ‘no-address’ problem of Middle East. Since launching its services in Dubai, Fetchr has grown into a regional logistics giant with 9 different offices serving customers in UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain & Egypt. In the process, the startup has secured $52 million in funding with $41 million of it coming in its Series B round earlier this year. It was the largest Series B round investment scored by a regional startup.

Offering different delivery solutions through its mobile apps, Fetchr has been able to win trust of both regional and international investors. The company that started with a small office in Dubai now employs more than 1,500 people in 9 different locations.

We had a chance to speak with Idriss Al Rifai, company’s CEO and driving force behind its amazing success in such a short time, to learn about company’s early days, challenges, competition, expansion plans and a lot more. Here’s everything he had to say in this exclusive interview.

Early Days, Naysayers & Initial Investment

Zubair: Can you share the story of Fetchr in early days? How did you get the idea? What’s the founding story?

Idriss: Prior to starting Fetchr, I was heading operations at Marka VIP, a leading e-commerce company in MENA back in the day. The company faced several issues with customer complaints about delayed packages or sometimes packages not getting delivered at all due to drivers facing issues finding addresses in the region, leading to high return rates. The industry did not care about the customer, did not take them seriously. I built an in-house logistics department to expedite deliveries. While working on this, I realized the potential impact a customer-centric, technology backed delivery solution could have for ecommerce and all deliveries across the region. In 2012 I decided to start Fetchr with Hassan Al Sayegh, Omar Yaghmour and teamed up with Joy Ajlouny, Co-Founder and Creative Director.

Zubair: Who was the first person to believe in your idea. Did you come across any naysayers?

Idriss: The first persons who believed in the story were my family members. It is always difficult to find the difference between the reasons for their support: unconditional support because they are family members or the support because they truly believe your idea has potential. It is always a thin line. I really believe that it’s your inner conviction as an entrepreneur that allows you to go beyond the naysayers and the doubts people can have about your business. I am still however incredibly thankful to the first investors that believed in me and in the idea at a time where disrupting the giants was a crazy idea. Thank you especially to Diego Cortese and Kushal Shah for their help.

Zubair: You met Joy at a conference in Silicon Valley. How’d she become the Co-Founder? Were any of you two afraid getting into this partnership?

Idriss:
Joy came with an amazing background: she had already experienced a fund raise in the Silicon Valley and managed to exit the company and got acquired. She also experienced the same type of frustration I personally faced when I was working for an e-commerce company. She understood the problem and she became quickly as passionate about solving it as I was. After a few discussions we decided to pair up and she became a co-founder. It was a natural discussion based on her background and we were really happy to have found someone as driven and excited about building this venture.

Zubair: How much was the initial investment and where’d it come from?

Idriss: My wife and I were the first ones to put money when nobody was comfortable enough to put money in the venture. I put all my savings and then my wife decided to support me and put a large part of her savings. Then came other family members and friends. We raised 1.2 m usd for our seed round. I am very happy that the people that believed so early stage got rewarded for their investment.

Zubair: Have you ever made a Fetchr delivery yourself?

Idriss: Of course! I remember the early days of fetchr where our intern was ou call center manager, account manager and finance department by itself! Omar, Hassan and I – all of us did deliveries to our end customers. But it does not apply solely to the early days. Even today we are having rounds with drivers just so that we always understand the job of the drivers and how difficult is their job. It is important to stay grounded and understand the problem we are solving at the grass root level of it.

In-house Fleet, Challenges, and Work Culture

Zubair: Fetchr gradually has been building its own fleet and hiring drivers to deliver things. If it continues, you would become a conventional courier company, no?

Idriss: It’s true that we are focused in the logistics sector, primarily package deliveries. I don’t think that what defines a logistics company as “traditional” is the mere fact that it owns or rents cars or trucks. I believe that the initial hype around outsourced model and the “uber of” faded down and what matters more now is the economics of the deal, the business model. What we are doing at fetchr is unique, nobody in the world works on the type of issues of problems we work on both mathematically, operationally or technically. We are far from being “traditional”.

Zubair: What is one thing about Fetchr that sets it apart from other regional startups?

Idriss: What differentiates us from other regional startups is our strong focus on technology and our ability to distinguish from our key competitors using our technology. I would like to think that in a span of just four years we have accomplished a significant amount- from being the first company in the MENA region to raise funding from a top Silicon Valley VC, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), to now being the start-up in the MENA region that has raised the largest round of funding, till date, from the Valley (Series A & B of 52M USD). I feel our impact has been far reaching- beyond where we have operations. We have helped opened the door for a whole generation of entrepreneurs to secure money from top Silicon Valley investors- a huge feat for us but also a lot of pressure. We want to tell the world that we have incredible talents locally and that the Middle East can breed very talented individuals and unique technologies.

Zubair: Was there any point in your Fetchr journey where you thought this is not going to work, let’s just pack our bags and go home?

Idriss: Doubt is always in your head but you have to keep pushing. As the founder and CEO of the company, you are the face of the company and you have to constantly sell: to your employees that took the risk to join you, to your investors who need to believe in you but also to potential clients and potential employees. Your ability to generate passion around you for people to follow is critical. But this is just the façade and there are many days where you face the harsh reality of cash flows and where the odds are not with you. Entrepreneurship is a tough journey.

Zubair: What has been the biggest challenge in your entrepreneurial journey and what’d you do about it?

Idriss: Being a tech start-up in the Middle East can be an uphill battle sometimes, especially back in 2012 when Fetchr was first founded. I faced a number of challenges when first starting out with Fetchr- from attracting and making clients think ahead of the curve, to making sure the product and software improve at the right pace, sourcing key people and talent, fundraising etc. Raising funds in the Middle East too was not an easy task, with a lot of people being risk-averse to investing in an early stage start-up. Raising funds in the Middle East too was not an easy task, with a lot of people being risk averse to investing in an early stage start-up. He put all his personal and family money in the venture- all in! Only after sheer determination, a belief in Fetchr’s vision and teaming with Joy Ajlouny, Creative Director and Co-Founder of Fetchr, that we were we able to secure the first Series A funding from a top-tier Silicon Valley VC firm, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), making us the first start-up to be backed by a Silicon Valley VC in the Middle East.

Zubair: Building great work culture is one of the most important criteria for any startup’s success. Do you think you have that Fetchr?

Idriss: I would like to think that we have a great work culture at fetchr! In my opinion the key step to building a positive work culture is to have trust in your people, always have an “open door” policy and most importantly empower them! Being a start-up I think it is of immense value to build a culture that focuses on trust and empowerment, without these two elements it would be very difficult to scale your business. As we have grown, I am proud to say that we still maintain a very open culture, we place emphasis on every employees input and I personally encourage everyone in our team to provide consistent feedback to each other (including me!). Open communication is also a key part of our culture here. I think what has helped us build this team spirit and strong culture is acting on it and diffusing this throughout the organization via this approach.

Next unicorn, Governments, and MENA Ecosystem

Zubair: How do you feel about being referred as region’s next unicorn?

Idriss: I think it’s a combination of pride, but also immense responsibility to grow the company at an even greater trajectory than where we are currently. As one of the first start-ups in the region to raise money from Silicon Valley and now earn this title I feel we have a greater responsibility to set the tone and keep building this bridge between the Valley and the Middle East: there is a whole eco system here that needs breathing space and the hope to secure non-regional money. On a day to day basis, it changes nothing until we accomplish what we are here for. And so far, we have only scratched the surface.

Zubair: It’s not very easy to work with governments in this region. How did you deal with this challenge?

Idriss: The entrepreneurial environment in U.A.E has come a long way since I first started here. We now have plenty of resources available for emerging startups in the region. I think the biggest challenge that remains here is the high costs associated with launching your business- from license fees, to visas to dealing with all the paper work before you can even begin! Overall though, the start-up community here is burgeoning and there are plenty of opportunities for great ideas in this region.

Zubair: What do you think is the best thing about MENA’s startup ecosystem and what do you think needs improvement?

Idriss: The best part about MENA’s startup ecosystem is the stage at where the region is currently- we are still a very young and nascent ecosystem that is ripe with opportunity for entrepreneurs who have the right idea to tackle a challenge that is prevalent in the market. The government too has recently placed a lot of emphasis in building the start-up eco-system by investing in innovative ideas, building accelerator programs and offering various other resources.

An area though, that still needs improvement is the speed at which things get done here (visas, licensing etc.) and the cost associated with them. Additionally, access to a strong talent pool in the region remains a challenge and hiring the right people can sometimes be a long process in the region.

Careem & Competition

Zubair: Careem wants to be the biggest mover of people and things in the region and they’ve recently stepped into delivery businesses in Saudi & UAE. What do you think of that?

Idriss: Entering the on-demand delivery space is definitely a significant move for Careem. However, I believe the core of their business is moving people and not packages from point to point. There is a significant learning curve in the delivery industry and I believe Careem will have to catch-up with this. If I were an investor in Careem I would also be concerned when reading about the take aways from Uber now that they consider “Uber Rush” a failure and are shutting it down city after city. It is a very different business case, a different set of constraints and it should not be underplayed. That being said, Careem is a strong brand name in the market which works to their advantage and at the same time they have the operational infrastructure and the right funding to try new things.

Zubair: There are different regional entrepreneurs who have launched their startups around the idea of Fetchr and some of them have been doing really well. I know at least three of them in Saudi. What do you think of that?

Idriss: When Fetchr was first launched, we innovated a first of its kind delivery service in the MENA region, powered completely through an app and capturing the customers GPS location to overcome the “no address” problem in the Middle East. However, as the market for on-demand delivery services has grown, so has the competition. We definitely have more competitors present in the market now, though I believe we maintain our competitive edge by continuously innovating, responding to user behavior and adding new features and innovative products to our service offerings. Moreover, I think competition is always a good thing, it strives you to think bigger to stay ahead of the curve and allows you and me, customers to have options between different product offering!

Future Plans

Zubair: What are the future plans about expansion, technology & team?

Idriss: 3 to 4 billion people live without an address: this is the market we want to address. Expansion is therefore key in our plan and we are going to tackle multiple markets in the near future. My ultimate goal is to make address obsolete and empower customers to receive anything, anywhere on the go, even at the coffee shop! People are mobile now and don’t want to be stuck at home for 6 hours to receive a package they bought yesterday. I think that the mere concept of “address” will become obsolete in a world that is now defined by its mobility and the prevalence of mobile technology. In terms of technology, improving our existing products and innovating with new ones that tackle delivery challenges is key for me.

Zubair: Anything about the future plans that the world doesn’t know yet?

Idriss: Our key focus in the next year is going to be to spread our geographical reach beyond the MENA region. That’s as much as I can disclose at the moment! We are also attracting tech talents from Facebook, Google, Amazon, hoping to contribute as much as we can to make this region a key place for tech talent worldwide.

Work-Life Balance, Favorite Startups, Role Models & Advice

Zubair: Being an entrepreneur is not easy. How do you manage work-life balance?

Idriss: Yes- it definitely is not easy and the truth is sometimes there isn’t really a work life balance that you can achieve, especially in the early days of starting your company. Early mornings at work turn into late nights, and sometimes the challenge comes in when you are working across time zones. I actually think that the concept of work life balance and start up do not go well together mainly because your company becomes you and you become the company. Both elements become very difficult to separate from each other making the concept of “barrier” between “work” and “life” irrelevant and obsolete. That being said, “work” is not “work” when you are with friends and building something that everyone is excited about.

Zubair: Name your favorite regional and international startups.

Regionally I have the utmost respect for what Ronaldo Moushawar built with Souq.com. His persistence across over a decade is amazing and should be taught in schools. Beyond the region, I am amazed by AirBnB stories: from subletting air mattress space to becoming a multibillion dollar company.

Zubair: Have you had any mentors or role models that have influenced you?

Idriss: My parents are a great part of what made me who I am right now. They always have been present by my side and helped me dramatically when things were extremely difficult and when we had no money to keep the company afloat. I will always be thankful for that. On the business side, I am a big fan of what Ronaldo Mouchawar did with Souq.com. After more than 15 years of hard work he managed to sell his company to Amazon a few months back. I can’t imagine what he has been through while growing the company in a nascent ecosystem. I also a huge admiration for Rabea Attaya and the story of Bayt.com. They were the very first mavericks in the internet economy in the region and managed to build a strong and international business.

Zubair: What would be your advice to young entrepreneurs of the region?

Idriss: Believe in your vision and think ahead of the curve. You have to be a forward thinker to thrive in today’s environment, and this requires a strong vision and persistence under all circumstances. Speak passionately about your idea and build a strong team of talented individuals who will help you grow fast.

Zubair Naeem Paracha

Founder at MENAbytes
A tech and startup enthusiast based in Riyadh. Zubair apart from leading MENAbytes is also building Qraar, a career discovery and development platform for millennials in MENA. He can be reached on Linkedin, Twitter or zubair [at] menabytes [dot] com.

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