About nine out of every 10 startups in the Middle East fail, yet failure remains to be viewed with disdain. But with each failure comes an opportunity to learn and to start again. Serag Meneassy and Taymour Sabry are now on their third venture together, Wasla Browser. We spoke with them both to get an insight into their journey and how they managed to stay resilient.
The pair were school friends in Egypt and both knew from a young age they wanted to become entrepreneurs. Meneassy studied engineering in Boston and Sabry studied international business in California.
“Life drifted us apart but then by coincidence, we both moved to Dubai after graduation,” says Meneassy who worked as a consultant while Sabry interned at Taskspotting a tech company which received funding from Wamda Capital.
“I was responsible for trying to build different businesses to complement the initial product. It was a very difficult, different and eye-opening time because you were basically hunting for opportunities,” says Sabry.
The pair then joined Germany’s Rocket Internet, known for building startups based on successful models seen elsewhere in the world, where with another two co-founders they launched Foodora, a food delivery company.
“Their approach at Rocket was very fast-paced, we were able to see how to take a startup and scale it. You have the finances and the proper team. We did not own it, but technically we did everything. Only the four of us,” says Sabry.
The four of them launched the business and within six months, they had 30 drivers, reaching up to 500 orders a day. Rocket Internet ended up shuttering Foodora’s operations and merged its clients with Talabat, after it acquired the Kuwait-based food delivery app for $150 million.
“The decision came literally overnight. I remember that day. I was coming back from a meeting and I had just closed a deal with one of the big restaurants in Dubai. I went into the office and I found chaos. We were told, "we are closing",” says Sabry.
“That is the bad thing about entrepreneurs, they are sometimes very optimistic,” says Sabry. “You could dream about a project and you put a lot of effort into it and then it doesn’t work out.”
Not wanting to go back to corporate life, Meneassy and Sabry decided to launch their own startup from scratch. Realising that the biggest issue with their first project was customer service, they launched Botler, a startup that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots to automate conversations in Arabic.
Botler was accepted onto the Startupbootcamp in Istanbul and received a grant from the Dubai government.
“All that was in less than a month, so we got overwhelmed and high on success and we started to lose focus,” says Sabry.
“Building the product was very difficult and we never did that because the product was already ready in Foodora and that was our first challenge,” says Meneassy. “The second thing was that it was very difficult to land a client…the economics did not make sense.”
It would take them up to six months to get a client who paid around $200 a month only and on top of that, their customers wanted Botler to build the chatbots for them which meant that they no longer became a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, but “merely a service provider or a software house”, according to Meneassy.
The money then ran out. For a few months the pair paid company salaries out of their own pockets and did not pay themselves anything for several months.
“That is when it becomes very dangerous, when you believe so much in your idea that it ends up affecting you negatively. You never know if something is going to be successful. You just believe it will. We were very dependent on only one enterprise company that we spent months negotiating with but did not sign the contract eventually,” says Sabry. “Never depend on one customer.”
But instead of giving up on Botler, they pivoted, using the technology to develop a tool for social media monitoring. The tool tracked user posts on social media regarding companies and so enabled brands to develop campaigns and advertising tailored to customers.
However, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook updated its application programming interface (API) and the data Botler needed to function was no longer accessible, forcing the pair to shut down their venture. They kept their investors involved throughout the decision-making process.
“It is always good to keep [investors] aligned because you might need their help. It is not only about the money. Throughout the journey, they witnessed our struggle and were understanding,” says Sabry. “It was very tough. It was a financial roller coaster and an emotional roller coaster. I remember getting a lot of calls from my family asking me to stop.”
Over the six months that followed, Meneassy and Sabry developed a matrix with a list of checks, plotting several ideas onto it, this time with no emotions and only focussed on ideas that had the real potential to work.
One idea, to provide free internet, scored very high on their matrix and so they launched Wasla Browser in May 2018, a mobile browser that subsidises data costs and provides free internet for users through advertising. A third co-founder, investment banker Mahmoud El-Said joined them and they closed a seed round of $200,000 and the company was recently chosen as one of the top 100 Arab startups by the World Economic Forum.
Speaking of the experience, Meneassy refuses to view as a failure.
“I think it is not failure. It is experience. Experience is what you get when you do not get what you want. It did not matter to me if people think I failed, but what mattered most was how my family viewed me or if they were ashamed of me,” he says.
As for the main lessons the two learned Sabry believes it is important to “surround yourself with people who are better than you are and whenever you start something, do lots of research. You are not going to understand what you are doing if you are sitting [at] your desk”.
“Hire people who are better than you. The first three or four people in a team make the biggest difference. Also, it is very important how you quickly change directions and adapt in the market,” adds Meneassy.