Tarek Sakr is the founder and CEO of Kuwait-based e-commerce startup, 4Sale
Building a tech startup in Kuwait is no easy task for an entrepreneur. I know the challenges well having dealt with the Kuwaiti market for nearly two decades, but also the opportunities. Kuwait is a fascinating business environment, with a particular learning curve for ambitious entrepreneurs.
My experience - in building 4Sale from a tech startup to a pillar of Kuwaiti e-commerce - has taught me much. Here are the main lessons I have learned:
Finding top talent is tough
One of the initial hurdles I faced was sourcing high-tech talent within Kuwait, given its stringent immigration policies. It was clear that importing external expertise was not as simple as it might be elsewhere. This prompted me to adopt a pragmatic strategy - outsourcing - albeit this required meticulous consideration. I chose to outsource operations to a location where I had established connections and a semblance of control. With my personal heritage there, Egypt was the logical choice, offering a workable framework and a launchpad to build from.
Locals are key
Kuwait's business landscape is different in various ways from its GCC neighbours, such as Dubai and Qatar. A major differentiator is the sway held by Kuwaiti locals in the market. They have the real money, whereas foreigners are more of an add-on. By contrast, if you are able to attract the expats in other markets, that is key to building a really big business.
We figured this out early on. After very initially focusing on expats, it became clear they were secondary players in the market. If you get local Kuwaitis on board, others will follow. Everyone benefits from this approach, as Kuwaitis buy from each other and also from expats. At the same time, expats can sell to a much stronger audience when local Kuwaitis are on the platform too.
Market off and online
In Kuwait's technologically advanced atmosphere, evolving our marketing strategy was imperative. Online marketing was very good, but offline marketing was still necessary. A blended mix was ideal to use their respective strengths optimally.
Online marketing engaged tech-savvy audiences, while traditional channels remained relevant for segments with different preferences. This pragmatic blend ensured our messaging reached a diverse consumer base, acknowledging that while Kuwait may be digitally sophisticated, other regions might be more fertile for digital initiatives.
Navigate Kuwait's market cycles
A fundamental lesson was understanding Kuwait's cyclical market nature, shaped by political decisions and climatic factors. The ramifications of parliamentary changes and elections were palpable, even if transient. Unpredictable elements such as dust storms could impact business operations significantly, so adapting to these various undulating cycles was pivotal. Kuwait's penchant for holidays also had an effect on business rhythms.
A nuanced understanding of these patterns, and an awareness of the broader socio-economic ecosystem, allowed us to navigate these fluctuations smoothly.
Stay agile and on the ground
To run a business in Kuwait, your ears must be very close to the ground. You need to have a feeling for what people are doing and keep plugged into the social ecosystem, especially in a business such as ours - that serves everybody.
Currently, it is a turbulent time politically - so we always need to understand what is going on. If you are sitting in a room far away from it all, you will only be able to make partly-informed decisions. Fully-informed decision making is only possible with a sense of what is actually happening on the ground.
A lot of companies make this mistake by deciding things based solely on data, but if you don’t understand the climate of the country, you open yourself up to risks.
While data might guide decisions, understanding the broader context is critical. The pandemic's repercussions showed the significance of understanding the societal landscape when steering the business through extreme challenges.
Give your market what it wants, not what others want
Our journey at 4Sale underlined the importance of carefully balancing familiarity and innovation. Our initial decision to maintain a simpler platform, deliberately catered to segments used to a simpler user experience - via their familiarity with perusing newspapers’ classified sections.
As technology evolved, and users acclimatised to more sophisticated platforms, we gradually introduced enhancements. This approach ensured a seamless transition while enhancing the overall user experience.
Stay on top of the regulation
Adhering to the law and seeking sound legal counsel were vital aspects of our journey. Navigating administrative requirements - including residency processes - posed challenges. Our approach involved meticulous diligence and a commitment to respecting Kuwait's regulatory framework.
In conclusion, the path to developing a tech startup in Kuwait can be complex. But with the right entrepreneurial approach, it is possible to thrive. As 4Sale continues its journey, we know the key to success is understanding Kuwait’s unique character.
Amid the challenges, the rewards are abundant for those who embrace the intricacies of this vibrant country and its market.