Scale-up survival guides

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It’s 4am and the phone is ringing. Noor Sweid picks up, and a voice on the other end tells her the news: a fire has erupted at the Atlantis on Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, only weeks before its scheduled grand opening.

Sweid’s company, Depa Ltd., had just spent 14 months fitting out the hotel’s ornate interior lobbies. “We finished eight days before our deadline…36 hours later...the entire lobbies and the public areas burnt down.”

“I have a full house next week and I’m not going to delay the opening of my hotel.  Fix it.”  The voice on the other end was Sol Kerzner.

Company culture

Sweid was one of over 20 entrepreneurs and investors who came with anecdotal advice at Endeavor’s Scale-Up UAE event on March 1.  

Figureheads from leading businesses in the region gave valuable lessons that were rooted in their own experiences as entrepreneurs looking to scale-up and beyond their initial UAE markets.

The Endeavor Scale-Up panel
Sweid and Olsson to the far right discussing their stories. (Image via Jacqueline Sofia)

Sweid, who currently holds a seat on Endeavor UAE's board of directors and is managing partner at Leap Ventures, made her first mark on the region as strategic director of the Dubai-based Depa United Group.  

Depa is one of the world’s largest interior contractors and specializes in high-end interior fit outs and turnkey solutions. “We take the building, it’s just concrete and steel, and we do everything.”

When Sweid first joined Depa in 2005, their footprint was a fractional presence limited to the GCC and Egypt. “The company was run much like a typical family business. My father had founded it, and one of the first things we did was sit down and have a vision…and his was global domination.”

Sweid wasted no time in putting together a strategy that she believed would secure Depa’s place as an international leader. “In 2005 everybody thought it was impossible to build a global company out of Dubai.” With doubts circulating, she plowed ahead. “I spent the better part of my life in 2006 implementing processes, policies and procedures that reflected intrinsically the culture of the company, thereby enabling growth while maintaining the culture even though it was 9,500 different people.”  

At the time of the Atlantis fire in 2008, Depa had grown “ten fold” in revenues and held a presence in 22 countries. “From Angola all the way to Singapore.” And when Kerzner made that middle-of-the-night phone call, Sweid began making phone calls herself. She was ready to test the processes, policies and procedures that Depa had perfected over the past three years.

Sweid mobilized 6,000 people from nearly 14 countries worldwide.  

Depa’s team completed the reconstruction with six hours to spare, and the Atlantis hotel is as you see it today. “When everybody across the world does everything in the same manner, you can all come together and pull through.”

Regional culture

Depa’s uniform company culture may have been key to their rapid scale-up, but regional culture isn’t something one can manipulate for the sake of their company’s existing procedures, policies and protocol.  

Careem’s cofounder, Magnus Olsson, argued that scalability translates to a startup’s readiness to learn and adjust based on the needs and maturity of any given market they enter.

“There is no such thing as a region. Saudi is very very different than Egypt. Pakistan is very different from the UAE or Morocco.” Olson went on to emphasize that cities within countries can also show significant contrast, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi being prime examples. “Acknowledging that and catering to that in rolling out your services is very important.”

Founded in 2012, Careem has since scaled from one city (Dubai), to a sprawling 10 countries and 24 cities. Olsson admits that starting out in Dubai was a “blessing”. Similar to the Uber model, Careem would require users to enter their credit card information into the app, and purchase a ride on-demand without any cash exchanging hands.  

“And then we came to Saudi.”  

Cash continues to dominates credit card use in the Kingdom. In a 2013 study, it was estimated that 93.4 percent of all transactions in Saudi were made with cash. Compared to the UK’s 53.2 percent. “We know that credit card penetration is not very high, but we still said ‘No no, we’ll stick to credit cards.’ ...Everybody said, ‘Come on, you guys are stupid. Accept cash payments!’”

Careem listened to their customers on-the-ground. They ran a pilot, accepting cash payments in Saudi. After only a couple weeks, the people had spoken, cash was the way to go, and Careem learned a lesson in winning over local markets. “We believe the way that we will win in the markets that we are playing in - again it’s a very city-by-city play - we need to live and breathe these markets day in and day out.”

Olsson claims that Careem has also begun working with the Saudi Government in order to better understand the market when it comes to the needs of women. “[Women] would work if they had a way to get to and from work. That’s a local problem.” By applying specific cultural sensitivities, trust and safety, as well as an affordability component, Olsson is confident that Careem will be able to challenge and overcome any international giants of the industry. Uber being one of them.

“Solving local needs…that’s how you run a business.”

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