After finding it difficult to search for extracurricular activities in the UAE for her children on the Internet, Joanna Santillan decided to fix the problem herself by devising a solution through her startup, Afterschool.ae. As a one-stop platform that gives parents access to search, compare and book activities based on category, location and pricing, Afterschool.ae has a simple business model. Funded through bootstrapping, parents can register for free, while businesses on the website pay a fee to list themselves, with two different pricing packages depending on their preferences. Launched in April 2014, the online resource released mobile versions of its platform for iOS and Android devices in January 2015.
Commenting on the startup ecosystem in the MENA region, Santillan notes that Flat6Labs and Impact Hub are initiatives that are great in giving a helping hand to new businesses, while companies like Eureeca and Beehive are encouraging enterprises to raise capital for themselves through crowdfunding. With respect to being an entrepreneur, Santillan says “starting up is a challenge, but following through is even more challenging,” adding how it’s all about being persistent in seeking people who can help you out. She also says while funding and licensing has been a hurdle, it’s gotten better now as there are now agencies that assist in setting up in UAE. “I [also] like the fact that there are choices which one can choose from when it comes to the structure of the company- you can be in [the] free zones or otherwise, as you prefer,” she adds.
Santillan considers Afterschool.ae to be in its “most ripe stage,” noting its current presence in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, and Qatar is next on their agenda. As for what drives her to run her enterprise, she says, “When I meet fellow parents and they tell me how helpful Afterschool.ae is for them, it motivates me to just get better and better.”
What have been the biggest lessons from your endeavors?
One of the key lessons I have learnt is that you have to believe in your vision. If you doubt it, no one else will have a reason to believe it. There is a thin line between being positive and being bashful. One has to believe in it and hold on till the end. I remember Afterschool.ae starting with signing 10 providers a month, and now we are growing [at a] rate of 92% month on month. People said it’s a difficult space, they said it will be difficult to get people to use an online platform when they can just make calls, and that is exactly what we made work in our favor. The booking management system is why most providers want to come on board now.
What’s one thing you make sure you do for your company to run efficiently?
I don’t believe in micro management. Yes, you have to be aware of what’s going on in every department and make decisions for the team. But one thing that works for Afterschool.ae is that we give responsibility and ownership to the people in the team. When the team is happy and they are encouraged to perform, the company will inevitably grow.
What do you look for in a team?
It is very important for all the team members to be aligned with the vision of the company, and have the same passion towards reaching the goals. I look for passion, hard work, sincerity, and most importantly, patience in my team members. You need to be very patient with providers and parents and guide them to use the platform, which can be difficult sometimes, but you have to do it! I like to motivate the team by listening to every person’s suggestions and see how best we can work it. I motivate them to think of Afterschool.ae as their own.
What are your top three tips for an entrepreneur to start a business in MENA?
The idea is the core of any business. Get a good idea, think over it, and think hard. Most people jump into things too quickly. Work around your idea to understand if it will work in a market like MENA, do your research and then move forward from there.
Plan your funding. It will be an issue at some point, especially if you are bootstrapping initially, and [you] want to expand quickly.
Get the right team. It will eventually be the core of your business. You cannot micromanage once you expand. Get people you can trust on board early on, and keep them happy.