Pradeep Menon, part investor and part entrepreneur, is the founder of Deal Gobbler, a Dubai-based daily deal website. Menon is also among a growing number of successful entrepreneurs that abandoned a successful professional career late in life to take a hands-on approach to entrepreneurship.
As I wait for Menon in the lobby of the Media One hotel, sitting on the curved, modern white furniture, it feels like the appropriate venue to meet a tech founder. When we spot each other, Menon looks like he has stepped straight out of Silicon Valley. Sporting longish hair flecked with grey, a sport coat and stonewashed jeans, he exudes an aura of dot-com warrior, ready to conquer the digital Middle East. When he speaks, his passion about the regional start-up scene lends the feeling that it would be nonsensical to be doing anything but this.
In a former life, Menon was a successful banker based out of London and Tokyo, who visited the Middle East frequently for commodities deals. His first web venture was a promotion platform for unsigned musicians in India and the UK. However, it failed shortly after launch, as, he confessed, it “had no real business model.”
His foray into group buying started in London, when Menon was searching for his next venture. When he heard of the initial success of Groupon, he immediately loved the business model and the fact that it suited the recessionary economy of the time. He also liked that the daily deal business model generates value for all stakeholders. Menon chose to setup shop in Dubai, seeing that the UK market was already oversaturated with Groupon clones. Shortly thereafter, Deal Gobbler was launched as one of Dubai’s earlier daily deal sites.
After a year of successful business operations in Dubai, Menon says “it’s challenging at first – but once you learn the process, all you need is a little determination and a lot of hard work.” He runs the business with a lean team consisting of technology, business development, operations and customer service, while taking a very hands-on approach. He visits key merchants on business development excursions, and helps in all internal aspects of the business from campaign design to customer service.
Menon is eager to tell me about how, to this day, he helps in all aspects of the business. In fact, he had just finished calling an upset customer prior to our meeting. “A customer was unable to use her voucher before expiry, and was now looking for reimbursement. I called her myself to tell her DealGobbler would refund her money. I want to provide an experience, not just sales,” he recounted. Menon firmly (and wisely) believes his differentiator is service, and recounts stories of merchants applauding DealGobbler for their refund management process and customer service.
When asked to share any lessons learned for other aspiring entrepreneurs, he says, “if you have the entrepreneur itch, invest a small amount, launch, learn, and then build.” He also has a message for investors, saying “stop speculating in real-estate, which doesn’t build societal value, and instead help entrepreneurs grow the startup economy in the region. “
While GoNabit clearly made a big splash in the sector last year with its acquisition by LivingSocial, Menon is undeterred when it comes to maintaining a healthy relationship with its customers and owning market share in the UAE. “Currently we are only in the UAE and we work with a small team. We are good at keeping merchants and customers happy and we are able to transmit that philosophy within the company very quickly because of our small size. Only time will tell whether big is good or small and niche is better.”
On the subject of whether DealGobbler is seeking a similar exit, Menon defers. “We are cash flow positive and more than breaking even. I am not in a hurry to exit unless I have to commit my time to roll out another idea.”
Discussing what those next ideas might be, Menon gets excited, speaking rapidly about a number of untapped opportunities in the region. “We have barely scratched the surface. E-Commerce uptake is small compared to GDP, so there is lots of potential for growth,” he predicts, pointing out that he focuses “exclusively on areas where there is excess demand with arbitrage opportunities.” Noting that prices are high in Dubai, Pradeep believes e-Commerce can service the masses well. He says there are opportunities in many verticals for e-Commerce, highlighting travel as something that he is jumping into next.
Menon is a believer in regional entrepreneurship and in taking risks. What he doesn’t mention explicitly but is evident throughout the meeting is his hard work ethic. Whatever he invests in or starts next, one can be sure he will be there to see it through until the successful end.