How has Majid Al Futtaim’s approach to startups changed?

How has Majid Al Futtaim’s approach to startups changed?
Joe Abi Akl, chief corporate development officer at Majid Al Futtaim Holding

As a large corporate, Majid Al Futtaim (MAF) was ahead of the curve when it came to engaging with startups. The Mall of the Emirates operator has over the past few years, invested in and partnered with global and regional startups, incorporating their products and services into its ecosystem of offerings. While some of its investments like Fetchr failed to pay off, MAF has not shied away from making further investments, acquiring startups and launching its own accelerator – the MAF Launchpad to identify home-grown businesses in proptech and the health and beauty spaces.

We spoke with Joe Abi Akl, chief corporate development officer at Majid Al Futtaim Holding about the company’s ongoing efforts to work with startups. 

Why is MAF engaging with startups?

We’re an organisation that understands we need a long-term outlook, so even during the pandemic, when others were trying to focus on surviving and managing costs, our focus was dual – we wanted to ensure sustainability and survival of the business but we also started a more ambitious plan which was, how to grow by 10x and taking advantage of challenges facing the global economy.

Growing 10x doesn’t mean just on the top or bottom-line growth, but also in terms of presence and footprint. This means we need to promote entrepreneurship and engage with startups. We aligned on an open ecosystem approach, meaning we work with startups, government entities, public and private sector parties and the customer to enrich our ecosystem and offerings.

How has the Launchpad shifted MAF’s approach to startups?

We’ve historically never engaged with early stage startups because they couldn’t accommodate a large company like ours with their limited resources. The Launchpad adds a more structured way to engage with early stage startups. We identify our own business needs or customer challenges and pain points and then bring the startups to help us deliver this agenda. We’re looking for home-grown health and beauty and proptech startups.

This year we had 200 applications in total for Launchpad, we shortlisted 23 ideas and the whole premise is to test the concept and keep scaling and moving forward. We support startups with something more valuable than money. Startups usually need funding to get access to customers, to scale, we can give them physical access in our malls, we can offer our analytics, fintech and digital capabilities and we can allow them to understand their customers. We can co-market with them to reduce their customer acquisition costs and in return we’re going to be adding more interesting offerings to our ecosystem so we can provide our customers with a better experience.

Why is it important for corporates to engage with startups?

We live in an age where everything is happening so quickly. The things corporates can do inhouse will become obsolete very quickly. It is very important to operate with this open ecosystem mindset because it will get you access to the latest and greatest in terms of innovation and it will allow you to expand your own offerings.

You will also get your talent and people to rub shoulders with entrepreneurs and that mindset is what you want to keep reinjecting into your own organisation. You don’t want a team that is complacent, that knowledge sharing is very important. Customer needs don’t wait for an organisation, we’re no longer at a place where organisations decide what the customer sees. You have to deliver the needs of customers or someone else will.

How have customer needs changed since the pandemic?

Customer needs have been evolving. They want to visit the mall for different reasons. Before, customers used to come to the mall to transact, today they want to collaborate, they want to engage, be entertained and get a real life human experience which means malls have to evolve and experiences have to evolve so more food, more leisure, more culture. The mall set up has to change, they need to be more focused on culture and F&B experiences to drive these real life engagements. At the same time, we need to adopt technology in a hybrid way, to offer the best of human experiences and adopt technology in terms of ease of use and the sophistication it brings. Whenever they are in the mall, they have to feel this omnichannel, or “phytigal” experience.

There is a lot of hype around Web 3.0 and the metaverse at the moment, what is MAF doing in this space?

What’s happening today with the evolution of Web 3.0 will be a game changer for companies, customers and brands. The only way to ensure you’re ready for it, is to start experimenting. We’ve defined a strategic ambition in this space firstly by bringing educational sessions to the whole orgranisation. You need to raise awareness and make sure people understand what it is otherwise we will always feel it is abstract.  

The second is building talent. We have set up a Web 3.0 studio, attracting and upskilling talent to be proficient in Web 3.0 and they’ve been experimenting with a few things like NFT marketplaces and designing in the metaverse.

The third area is partnerships. We’ve made an investment in Dreamscape, which is one example of what a metaverse company can do. We also have a partnership with Binance to create a wallet and for crypto acceptance.

The fourth is that we are starting to experiment. In the virtual world, we are trying to create a presence in some of these metaverses and see if some of our brands could have a presence in the metaverse and secondly we’re looking at how you bridge the physical and virtual worlds.

How is MAF’s Share loyalty platform evolving?

Share started as a loyalty platform. It is a digital ecosystem for the group and the intention is to allow you to do real time earn and redeem. You will also be able to pay bills, transact and experience things, order food. It could even expand beyond the MAF ecosystem. Everyone is coming at [super apps] from a different angle, car hailing or fintech or e-commerce and trying to add services to cross sell to their customers.

What we are doing is building a digital ecosystem to allow you to do your daily activities in the most seamless way. We’re offering the customer a virtual assistant and lifestyle proposition in one place. Share bridges the physical and digital and the anchor is loyalty. We’re not trying to replace anyone, we want to have a platform that enables others in the market. 


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