For the money-rich and time-poor white collar workers of Dubai, chores are largely a thing of the past.
For several years at least, domestic workers and laborers have done the errands and duties in and out of the house that make it possible for business people to work around the clock to keep the city growing.
But the service industry is changing. Like San Francisco’s tech workers before them, Dubai’s wealthy immigrants are turning to the internet and their smartphones to get things done more than ever before. Not only are there startups (in addition to traditional companies) in nearly every category of household chores – from grocery shopping, laundry, maid service, personal grooming and beauty, taxi service, and courier – there are competing startups in each of these categories.
Nearly 78 percent of UAE residents now own smartphones, Nielsen estimates, and the entrepreneurs of both early stage and growth stage service-oriented companies in the UAE are adjusting their business models accordingly – often on the fly.
“This has mostly happened within a year,” says Rocket Internet Entrepreneur in Residence Nicole Abi-Esber, a former Dubai startup employee who ran a pilot project a few months ago for her own concierge service startup called Yalla Dubai. “Dubai is catching up really quickly and is able to apply best practices from other markets to skip the mistakes and leapfrog over the hurdles that startups in other markets faced.”
Maids.ae is firmly in the growth stage, but that doesn’t mean it has abandoned the lean startup approach. Launched five years ago, the company (which allows users to book cleaners on or offline with a variety of options) has expanded from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Qatar, and Kuwait, as well as a recruiting office in the Philippines. Maids.ae now employs 250 people in those countries, over 200 of whom are cleaners.
Judging from at least 25 percent year-on-year growth, customer satisfactions figures exceeding 90 percent, as well as an 80 percent returning customer rate, cofounder and managing partner Samer Alamuddin says Maids.ae is now the “largest company in this industry”.
Over the course of the last year, the team has switched half its programming staff to developing algorithms for the online product, whether that’s desktop ordering, the mobile site, or the mobile app (pictured left).
As a result of the collective switch to mobile, “the importance of customer service and satisfaction has become much more pronounced. Social media advertising has become much more important for a company like ours,” Alamuddin said.
Rocket Internet throws its hat in the ring
Helpling – ‘Uber for cleaners’ as the marketing strategy would have it – is a Rocket Internet company that first launched in Germany in January 2014. The company launched in Dubai in February on the strength of a $17 million investment announced last December.
While also a company that allows users to book cleaners online, Helpling operates with a somewhat different business model than Maids.ae. Working with individuals directly proved too difficult from a legal standpoint, given laws in the United Arab Emirates against freelancing, says Helpling Middle East managing director Manar Alkassar.
“We work with existing cleaning companies and agencies [like Maids.ae]; we’re an online platform providing cleaning services,” he clarifies.
What differentiates Helpling from the competition, he says, is the “60-second, 4-step booking process,” whereby people (having previously set up an account) enter their location and type of clean needed, as well as desired appointment time.
“Every month we’re growing at a two-digit rate,” Alkassar says. He won’t clarify whether this is 10 percent or 99 percent, but insists that things are going well for the company, which has now launched a mobile app (pictured above).
The payments question
The Maids.ae app is launching “without a credit card payment option”, says Alamuddin, who adds that the team is waiting to see whether Apple Pay and other online payment options pick up. At the moment, 90 percent of customers pay cash, and the rest pay in checks, but, “if a customer wants to pay with a credit card, we can process that manually.”
“We believe that in five years’ time it’s going to be all credit card payments. So we’re getting ready for that.”
Rocket Internet’s Helpling, on the other hand, as a rule doesn’t accept cash payments from its users. However, “we’ll accept cash payment if it’s a first-time customer,” Alkassar says.
“Our target group are people who are already tech savvy and are OK with using credit cards online.”
Zooming out, he reflects on the evolution of the internet. “First, we used the internet to get information, back in the 90s. Next, we turned to the internet for products. Souq and Namshi localized this for the region. Now, it’s all about services.”
“Every company that provides a service for consumers is big business at the moment.”