Most graduates like to ease their way into employment, starting at an entry-level position to gain experience and work their way up. But for Hamdi Tabbaa, founder of Jordan-based edtech Abwaab, such a conventional route was not to be as he embarked on opening a chain of supermarkets as soon as he graduated from the London School of Economics in 2009.
“I was really impressed by Tescos and I wanted to bring organised retail to the region,” he says.
Besides Carrefour, supermarket chains are not very common in most cities in the Middle East and people mostly rely on small grocery shops, known as baqala for their everyday needs.
Armed with determination and a sense of hope, Tabbaa thought he could change the way Jordanians shopped. He overcame his lack of experience by doing some groundwork and research. He met with vendors and learned the way they did business. He spoke with the cashier at the baqalas and “threw [himself] into the scene”.
“My dad supported me and to start, but I had to take some debt on to finance this thing which turned out to be very difficult. I tried to raise funds as a 22 year old from private equity. I didn’t know different investors had different investor mandates, I didn’t understand it,” he says.
There were many challenges along the way, as well as failures, but despite that, Tabbaa managed to open two supermarkets and keep the operation running for over six years.
“I tried to sell groceries online in 2011 and 2012, I didn’t know how to operate a tech product, operationally I didn’t know what it took. I started to do F&B distribution to hotels which started generating income. After a few years, we entered negotiations for an exit, but it failed,” he says. “I thought it would be a failure, that I would never make it. At the time it’s difficult to know that you’re learning lessons.”
These were lessons he took into his next role, as the regional operations manager at Uber. What he did not reveal to his new bosses was that he was still heading up his supermarkets.
“My first day on the job I was in a small office with no one with me. I was used to seeing 10 to 20 vendors a day and all my employees. I left the Uber office and went to my supermarket, I found it difficult to tell my team I had this new job,” he says. “I felt like I was failing them, they knew I went through a failed exit, yet they supported me.”
He hired a manager for the supermarket, until he found a buyer a year later. While his job at Uber provided him with a stable income, the company’s foray into new markets was far from easy. Uber was often seen as a pariah, destroying the traditional taxi systems and replacing them with a solution that irked many people globally.
“In the first couple of weeks I was onboarding people and going to rental companies and begging them to work with us. There were taxi protests and death threats, it was very challenging but given how much of a challenge my previous experience was, I had built so much resilience. When the government told us we had 48 hours to shut down our operations, I didn’t stress out,” he says.
Tabbaa scaled Uber across Jordan, and eventually to Lebanon and Qatar and then to the rest of the region.
“I wanted to prove to myself first and then to my immediate circle and the world that I’m not a failure,” he says.
While at Uber, Tabbaa saw firsthand how much impact could be achieved through technology.
“I saw the impact, scale and growth and going onto the tools of Uber, the dashboard and seeing the immediate data, you have 500 drivers waiting to be employed for the week, you’re the one creating these jobs,” he says.
Prior to joining Uber, Tabbaa had hoped to open a small tutoring centre to help children with physics and economics, but this idea eventually evolved into a tech-enabled platform, a pre-cursor to Abwaab, as he incorporated the ideas and experiences he had learned at Uber.
“I started doing a lot of research, talking to people, doing focus groups. At the time I was very busy building Uber so the time I spent on flights, I was forced to go offline and would write tonnes of notes of what I envisioned this could be,” he says.
In 2019, he met with Hussein Alsarabi, who at the time was building an edtech startup that was close to failing. Alsarabi had previously headed up the product and technology department at Jordan-based Mawdoo3.
“I was waiting to be introduced to the right CTO and I realised we complete each other. I got a tonne of learnings from his failure, we had a couple of angel investors and took his tech as a core and built on it,” says Tabbaa, who had one key priority – to secure funding before he left Uber, in order to avoid the stress that had plagued him when he was running his supermarkets.
He raised $2.4 million in a pre-Seed round, one of the largest investments in an edtech at the time with Adam Tech Ventures, Endure Capital, EQ2, and several of his former Uber colleagues making up his cap table. His investors also had some sage advice for him – to focus on one thing and to do it well.
“I was naïve to think you can teach anything on a platform. I realised the highest pain point is for high school students. Parents are spending a lot of money on out-of-school tutoring and I wanted to build a product that focuses on tutoring at a much more affordable price,” he says.
So Abwaab launched its online learning platform offering video lessons and performance tracking to allow secondary school students to learn at their own pace, test themselves and receive tuition. The platform launched initially with a focus on maths and science.
“I learned a lesson that you can’t assume what the market wants. We launched six weeks before Covid and then when Covid hit, we collaborated with the Ministry of Education [in Jordan] for a distance learning initiative and created content, running it in parallel with our own product. The government forced us to do all the subjects. We saw a lot of traction in languages and as we grew, students started demanding more subjects,” says Tabbaa.
Abwaab relies on a subscription model, where a $15 subscription unlocks the entire learning journey for a specific year, matched with the national curriculum.
Since its launch, the startup claims to have grown its userbase ten-fold, raised $27.5 million in total, and scaled to five countries – Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where in 2021 it acquired Edmatrix, a social learning platform, founded by a former Uber executive. The network Tabbaa had acquired while at Uber not only provided an investment and hiring base for Abwaab, but also the ability to expand its operations.
“We scaled to Egypt in less than a year, it wasn’t intentional or planned. It was when Uber Eats shut down in the region, the head of operations was a friend and I told him I had a great job for him,” says Tabbaa who hired Abdelaziz El Hakim to launch Abwaab in Egypt.
In the short term, Abwaab’s aim is to establish a strong presence in its five markets. Eventually, the team hopes to build a platform that uses the power of technology to build adaptive and curated experiences to match a student’s own learning ability.
“Globally, edtech is still in its very early stages. We give the example that when TV launched, it used to broadcast theatrical plays. We feel edtech is in this stage, digitising the offline world onto laptops. The true innovation hasn’t started, we are still in the building phase,” says Tabbaa. “The region is extremely fragmented in terms of edtech, there are a lot of problems to solve, it’s not like mobility where you’re taking someone from A to Z, which makes it even more challenging.”