Having been raised and educated in Germany, Muhammad Chbib describes himself as someone with “German thinking paired with Arab passion”, a duality that he believes has served him well as an entrepreneur.
He has set up several businesses but is perhaps best known for founding and formerly running online travel site Tajawal as its chief executive officer (CEO). Tajawal is a corporate startup, part of Saudi Arabia’s Al Tayyar Travel Group and according to Chbib, Tajawal and its sister brand Almosafer managed to generate sales of $1 billion within three years.
Prior to this, Chbib worked on two of his own startups and has also worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company. He joined Sukar as its CEO and scaled it from a $200,000 to $2 million before it was sold to Souq.com
Today, Chbib is undertaking a new venture, one focused on the Muslim travel market.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
The first business I set up was at the age of 12, I told my dad I didn’t want any more pocket money. He used to give me 10 Deutsche Marks (DM). I had a little bit of savings and I purchased a bike forDM40, I sold it for DM70 so I bought two bikes, one I rode and the other I sold.
I became a bike dealer, I would fix them and sell them and at one point I figured if I go to this factory close to my house, I could buy the parts and assemble the bike myself. Once I assembled one for DM300, I put it in the newspaper and this guy came with his son and he said “We’re interested in buying this bike”. I was 14 and my response to him was “get out of our house, this is not a bike, it’s a racing machine, if you’re not going to appreciate that you cannot have it”. I sold the bike to him for DM1200. This was the starting point of my entrepreneurial journey.
I have intrinsic sales skills that are the basics of any type of entrepreneurship. When you don’t have sales skills, you’re not a great entrepreneur. You need to sell your company idea, your concept to investors and to employees.
You founded a company with your wife, what was that experience like?
We launched a modest fashion business called Citra Style. My wife is paediatrician and it’s a tremendous value add when you have someone with you who is female and understands the product you’re about to launch.
How do you tell investors your co-founder is your wife? In Germany I saw no issues, as a person you can wear many hats. But in the Middle East we’re judgemental and generalise.
But it’s a challenge to start a company with someone you live with. In business, you have tough discussions, how do you turn off those discussions in private?
I’m extremely good at switching off my brain when I get home. Switching off makes me a better performer. I know I will not save the world or my business in those 2-3 hours.
Why did it not work out?
The funny part is it was working, we did a funding round but the problem was the investor structure, it was not good enough so I decided to give up the company. It wasn’t easy. The much bigger emotional attachment is to the people who work for you. I had 25 employees when we shut down. We placed everyone in a new job and some of them came back to work with me. That’s what hurts the most when you stop working with talent. This region is not blessed with tech talent, when you find people and you have to let go of them, it’s a big disaster.
What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?
Being an entrepreneur in this region is much tougher than anywhere else, the infrastructure, funding and talent are not as advanced.
When did you realise it was time to leave Tajawal?
Once a quarter, I question the incremental value I add to a business, if I hire a full time CEO, will he or she be able to do the exact same performance as me or better? The moment I can answer yes, then it’s time for me to leave. After three and a half years of running Tajawal, the profile that was required was much more corporate. Exposing yourself to other people in other environments helps you grow further. You don’t want to reach a plateau, you need to continue learning.
What are you working on now?
I look at the global 200 most impactful brands and not a single one caters to Muslims who have specific needs that are very common from China to Canada. There’s a huge opportunity there if you do it right, the point is not to just target Muslims, but to service everyone else. So, we’re working on a travel business, a customised marketplace. We’re creating a front end that enables users to set up trips with the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) and on the backend side, we’re onboarding existing offline travel agencies to regain business from the online space.
You could book a bespoke Hajj or Umrah trip or you could book a 12-day trip to Sri Lanka with a component to help you find the halal food options and dry hotels, or packages that explore the Muslim heritage of Andalucia – both Muslims and non-Muslims will be interested in that.
What will your industry look like in the next decade?
There will be moves towards consolidation. There will be three global players and they will own everything of relevance. There will be a big Chinese player, the second player will be a booking holding and the third player has yet to emerge. If you look at the online travel space, it hasn’t been fully disrupted. Offline players will vanish in a few years.