Reclaiming Your Entrepreneurial Dreams: Searchie's Sahiqa And Harvey Bennett
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When Sahiqa Bennett was growing up in Milton Keynes, UK, her career dreams amounted to making people, especially women, “believe in themselves more and know they can do anything they want.” From there, as per an unwritten plan, her story has unfolded to include moving to Dubai, and disrupting the recruitment and talent industry.
Sahiqa and her husband and business partner Harvey Bennett have been furiously busy since March 2018 when they launched Searchie, an AI-based tech platform aimed at revolutionizing the talent industry through smart matching.
While the scale of their ambition is clear -"Transforming the industry not just from a technology perspective but from a planning, strategy and process perspective,” explains Harvey- the huge investor interest in their business did come as a surprise, forcing them to accelerate the company’s growth plans. Namely, the Searchie co-founders have already closed a US$500,000 part of their $2 million seed round with Hackers & Founders, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, within their latest $250 million fund, making it the fund’s first MENA investment.
“My dream was to raise money from Silicon Valley, and I just didn’t realize it would happen as fast as it did,” explains Sahiqa. “Having said that, we’re also currently in talks with venture capitalists from the US, the UK, the GCC region, as well as Asia, and I think there are advantages to having both local and international VCs. Our business is global so having a Silicon Valley investor has and will continue to open up doors to large potential clients as well as local VCs. The US investors tend to think big which is in line with our mindset. These days you need investors who add value and take you to the big stage.”
So, how did they come this far so quickly? Sahiqa explains that recruitment has traditionally been done in a very reactive way, and that the agency model had not been challenged for decades, which resulted in them wanting to bring it more in line with today’s market needs that were not being fully met globally. To put their knowledge of the industry into perspective, it must be noted that the Bennetts have been running a traditional recruitment agency -Searchie & Searchie- for the past four years, which “is a long time to go through market research,” Harvey notes.
He adds that Searchie has a three-sided business model, meaning that his team first created multiple personas to understand the pain points from all three sides of the canvas -employer, candidate, recruiter- and, consequently, developed three options: a success-based model (when the employer and candidate reach an agreement to work together, they get paid a success fee, which is about 40% cheaper than using a typical recruitment agency), a recruitment as a service offering (a softwareas- a-service) model for recruitment, where a client pays a monthly subscription, and gets an allocation of candidates that can be screened, interviewed, and shortlisted), and a psychometrics- as-a-service offering (a monthly subscription that allows employers to plug the interview and psychometric tech directly into their careers page).
Sahiqa Bennett with global members of the GSN from Pakistan, Mexico, Serbia, UAE and France at UN HQ
At the heart of the Searchie solution is a proprietary mechanism for sourcing and matching candidates on values, needs, culture, and skills. “Every candidate takes a video assessment which is led by our virtual recruitment assistant, Sarah, who asks 10 questions which range from, ‘Tell me about your career so far?’ through to technical questions which are specific to the role and employer,” Harvey explains.
“Our machine learning algorithms analyze the videos, and we use this data to visualize how and why a candidate is a suitable match to the employer based on their brief. Nobody else in the world is combining the gig economy and AI to help employers and people find suitable positions, and subsequently boost engagement and productivity.”
Being the pioneers in their recruitment approach has posed another challenge, Sahiqa adds. “The challenge is to communicate what can be done for companies through smart hiring,” she says. “AI is not a threat, but it helps the recruitment teams hire faster and spend less time sourcing. It also saves a ton of wasted money on job boards, CV databases, job postings. So, if companies are going through digital transformation, Searchie would help transform the way they hire.”
Since launching the minimum viable product at the end of March 2018, the Searchie team tested the solution on a handful of potential employers, and took their feedback into consideration when developing the first version, which was released at the beginning of May 2018. Before long, the company started making revenue and expanded into 10 countries. The reason for this, Harvey explains, is that Searchie’s two main USPs –“a global network of recruiters and a good use of emerging technology”– have led to them onboarding clients very quickly.
“Just from March to November, the business has grown to over $300,000 in the pipeline per month, and on average, we realize about 50% of that,” he says. “The next few months will see us close an opportunity that will increase our global footprint to over 28 countries, and grow our revenue significantly. So, until now, we were self-funded and reinvested the money we made back into the business, but now we are presented with a growth problem, and in order to scale fast we need to take external investment.
Fortunately for us, we have backing from an investor in Silicon Valley, who has both the gray matter and the capital to deploy with us and help scale the business.”
All of this must be the reason why their office in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers looks so typically like a San-Francisco tech startup– white surfaces, wide tables, glass-walled rooms, and inspirational quotes scribbled on the walls. However, their entrepreneurial journey in Dubai had a stage far different from this one. In 2012, the Bennetts co-founded RBBi Performance, a digital media performance marketing agency, with two other partners, and with the mission to raise the bar for digital transformation, digital media/marketing, and design across the Middle East. Sahiqa remembers, “It was founded in the same year as our son was born, 2012. Harvey and I sat in the Burj Khalifa, having dinner, and decided to start our own digital media company, drawing the logo and writing potential names on napkins. At the same time, two of the partners of an existing media UX agency asked us to start and run the performance division and become partners. I remember feeling excited at the prospect of going for it. Our clients were Atlantis, ADIB and a big regional airline, amongst many others.”
In hindsight, Harvey says that in 2012, the support for startups founders in Dubai came from fewer sources than today. “There were lots of new entities coming up who were making moves, but our difficulty was in convincing the larger entities to take us seriously. However, I remember pitching at a regional airline, and their immediate feedback being, ‘You were only invited to make up the numbers, but you’ve ended up putting the other global agencies to shame!’ Then procurement got involved and legal, and it took over 12 months to exchange signatures. Following that, it became harder and harder to compete for large contracts, as the appetite to support young companies was not what it is today.”
Recalling that period, Harvey adds, “Setting up was easy enough, because of our agreement with our partners. However, this came back to haunt us when the business became viable. The big lesson from that experience was, don’t cut corners, don’t expect other people to do what you should be responsible for. You’ll pay for it in the end.” The only moment in our interview when the Bennetts did not show anything of their boundless energy and enthusiasm was when asked how and why they exited RBBi Performance.
“Actually, we are still exiting the business, and this is with legal right now,” Sahiqa says. “My advice [to other entrepreneurs] is be careful with everything. If there is more than one partner, and they say they added you to the trade license, ensure that they did do it. Get all your contracts checked by your lawyer, and not theirs. Otherwise, you may end up working hard for years without realizing all the benefits. We were too new to Dubai and naive, but lessons are learnt, and one day, we will fully share our story.”
Searchie co-founder Sahiqa Bennett speaking at the UN Headquarters on how humans and AI can help create jobs
Interestingly, this experience has not derailed their entrepreneurial ambitions, but has inspired the carefully crafted Searchie mission, of which Harvey says, “We believe in the triple bottom line, meaning that a company should be profitable, should give back to society, and should not harm the environment. This is a big part of our DNA. It keeps us all engaged with the world around us and motivates us to tackle bigger problems than recruitment.” Furthermore, the wife-and-husband duo have become active members of a Global Sustainability Network (GSN) network of over 700 global change-makers across the government, business, faith, media, community and NGOs, and academia sectors committed to achieving Goal 8 of the United Nations 17 Sustainability Goals, with special emphasis on Goal 8.7, which is to tackle modern day slavery through technology.
“We are making sure jobs are created in local markets, especially those in poverty, to help abolish human trafficking and modern-day slavery,” he says. “Technology and innovation are changing the way people work, and I believe we can train many people around the world into being freelance recruiters. If we can give people access to Wi-Fi and a laptop, and train them, then they only source. Sarah, our AI, then takes over, and does the interview, and once hired, we give 18%- 30% commission to the recruiter. We also launched a CSR as a service platform which posts challenges we need to solve and invites companies to allocate time and resources to help achieve this. This is modern CSR, and helps us make a change without donor fatigue, it’s about action."
"We want to change the lives of many people and enable those with special needs, women, single parents and give all humans a chance. Searchie is a social impact company which is about the triple bottom line, sustainability, profit and helping society.” In conclusion, if you are looking for either a job, a good cause to support, or even just a worthy business to invest in, Searchie does appear to tick all the boxes.
Searchie's Sahiqa Bennett sounds off on being a a female entrepreneur (and shares lessons for her peers)
“Women are the backbone of society while raising children, being a boss, and being a wife. I want to help women believe in themselves more and know they can do anything they want. When women develop businesses, they are sprung from a need and a gap in the market, but they do need to take more risks, and not be so afraid. I did empower some women a bit too much, and they tried to overpower me, but these are all valuable lessons. We need to set boundaries, and follow our gut feeling, it’s pretty powerful.
Also, I think women can be their own worst enemy. In fact, I didn’t feel any different being a woman, until I became a mum. At that point, I realized that my children are also a priority, and that it was my duty to do something for the mums. I was the first one in the region to offer mums a flexible way of working and to be an understanding employer; a few other companies popped up afterwards, which is a good thing, because, at least, the initiative started to spread.
As women, we are also guilty of being hard on ourselves and try to do everything- stop! People often ask how I do it all, and my reply is as follows, ‘I have an amazing team at home, and an incredible team at work, which allows me to work the way I do.’ If you don’t like where you work, then change it, because we all deserve to be happy, and during the dark times, we realize how damn strong we are as women.”
The Searchie team
Searchie's Harvey Bennett on how to build great teams at startups
1. BE THE REAL DEAL “Don’t just demonstrate empathy- but really be empathetic with people.”
2. GET YOUR MESSAGE ACROSS “Communicate your long-term vision in a way which is understandable to your audience.”
3. BUILD TOGETHER “Involve the team in the ideation process as much as possible.”
4. CELEBRATE TOGETHER “Share praise.”
5. LEAD THE WAY “Take responsibility.”
6. TAKE OWNERSHIP “Don’t let anyone other than yourself feel like it is their fault if something went wrong. Even if you don’t believe it, protect your people from negativity, so you can encourage them to be disruptive.”