In conversation with Tarek Ghobar of PointCheckout

Image courtesy of PointCheckout

Tarek Ghobar is the co-founder of PointCheckout, an online payment gateway that enables consumers to use their loyalty points and air miles to buy goods online within the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. Founded last year with co-founder Bashar Saleh, the company recently raised $600,000 in a seed round and has more than 1000 merchants signed up to its service in the region.

School friends Ghobar and Saleh studied in the same high school in Norway and 15 years later, convened in Dubai where they were both working in the entrepreneurship sector.

Ghobar founded his first company, IcySolutions while still at university studying aerospace engineering in The Netherlands. After raising almost EUR500,000 and scaling to 15 countries, he sold the company to one of its investors. Ghobar eventually joined Rocket Internet in Berlin where he worked within the Hellofood group, leading the company’s expansion to five countries in the Middle East.

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

I am definitely a believer that entrepreneurs are born. The passion of building companies is a lot closer to the heart for me than the passion of designing airplanes. But, the importance of my engineering education was super critical in trying to build a company, everything we’re approaching is from an analytical angle and I think an engineering background is very much key for entrepreneurs. I got involved with my first company before I even graduated, so entrepreneurship felt much more right.

You were the startup manager at the 1776 incubator in Dubai, what was that like?

I did that for two years, we got to a point where we had about 35 startups incubated and I was responsible for mentoring them, helping them raise funds and develop strategies day to day. It was an eye-opener. It gave me a lot more exposure to startups and their problems in the region. One of the main lessons I learned is there is no formula, every business is unique.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?

From day one, surround yourself by people who can help you out, engage with everybody you can think of, investors, other entrepreneurs. Tell them: this is what we’re building, how can we work together, how can you help? It is better to engage with ones who will not copy your idea than fear the ones who might.

What were your main challenges in setting up PointCheckout?

A lot of the challenges were to do with the industry. The fintech and banking industry is a headache, that has a lot to do with the fact you’re dealing with banks and regulators. These are monsters that don’t move, if they do then it’s definitely not at your pace. The biggest challenge is to get the right partner on board fast enough. This is by far one of the things the fintech industry needs to get better at.

It takes four to five months for procurement, then security clearance which takes another three to four months and then the decision making which can take up to six months.

What is the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in becoming an entrepreneur?

I lost my hair, that’s one. You make sacrifices every day, but it’s a measured sacrifice – things you’re willing to let go, like stability, for that big reward and that’s not money, it’s the satisfaction of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

What will your industry look like in the next decade?

Both the loyalty and digital payment industries are growing at more than 20 per cent year on year globally. One of the core things we are changing is personalisation of the loyalty world using e-commerce. In the future, you will be rewarded in real time for things and brands you want. It’s about the small non-core experiences that will make customers loyal rather than ‘use my brand and get rewarded’.

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