Acquico Founder Sultan Al Masri Wants To Make It Easier For Middle East Startups To Connect With Investors
Sultan Al Masri on his newest startup, Acquico
Acquico –an amalgamation of the words “acquire” and “company”- is the latest in a string of online marketplaces launching in the Middle East region, with this one focusing particularly on connecting startups with investors.
Founder and CEO Sultan Al Masri explains that with Acquico, he aims to create complete transparency in the deal flow process, because “entrepreneurs should focus less on chasing investors, and more on running their businesses.” While many marketplace entrepreneurs focus on technology, the most difficult part of getting these types of businesses off the ground is often a non-technical aspectwhich, in Acquico’s case, is building a community. “The way Acquico is set up guarantees good value from the connections to both investors and startups,” Al Masri says. “For investors, Acquico captures all the necessary information they need in order to make a solid decision about an opportunity, and for startups, Acquico acts as a one-stop global stage for exposure and valuable connections.”
Al Masri’s journey to Acquico is conventionally linear for today’s startup founders, as it involves having an idea and failing at it, then having another idea and failing at that too, then coming back to solve a problem that caused all of the previous failures. “Acquico is the result of being an entrepreneur that could not connect with investors,” Al Masri says. “And [one] who has spent time and money to get on stage in front of what turned out to be a booing crowd.” Al Masri’s first entrepreneurial attempt happened while he was still studying business management at the University of Dubai. It was a car rental platform that he struggled to market properly and raise the funds to develop. “Young age and inexperience could be attributes as to why I was not able to raise capital and build this market, but I also remember how difficult it was for me to connect with investors, mentors, people that could help guide and advise me on how to move forward.”
In 2011, he tried again with another idea. Having realized the potential of what near field communication (NFC) meant on the Blackberry Bold at the time, he connected with a NFC-enabled point of sale (POS) provider called VIVOtech and signed an agreement to supply NFC-enabled POS machines, and, later, mobile wallets to the region. “At the time, all the wireless payments and mobile wallets were technologies unheard of by us. But, as soon as I got the go-ahead from VIVOtech, I made my way down to the Spinneys head office in Dubai to sell this idea for their checkout counters, and they were sold!” Then, it was time to raise funds to build the business. “I was introduced to one veteran investor who was well-established, knows the market, and has an eye for successful ventures,” Al Masri recalls. “I had put my time and money into getting as far as I could with this, to then receive a relatively quick shutdown by the said investor. The amount of time put into getting this investor’s contacts, the effort that was made to get him to meet me, only for him to spend 30 minutes with me before shutting me down, was one of the most frustrating things I’ve been through. I remember having neither energy nor drive to move forward. I shut down the entrepreneurial spirit in me then, and became a corporate employee.”
Al Masri joined the financial trading industry, first with IG as a premium client manager looking after high-net-worth clients in the region, and then with London-based One Financial Markets. However, the entrepreneurial urge was back in him soon enough, and dropping the comfort and support of his job (which included salary, commission, title, paid expenses, benefits, and more), he launched Acquico in January 2019. “There is an undeniable gap in the market, because founders spend way too long trying to connect and meet investors that may not be a match for them, and investors are overwhelmed with funding applications. Now, more than ever, with all the initiatives in the region catered towards entrepreneurs and building a healthy market for startups, a streamlined service connecting both is necessary. We are working towards achieving transparency in the deal flow of startups, allowing maximum exposure in exchange of 5-10 minutes for each application.”
The Acquico model charges a one-time fee to startups to get listed on the platform indefinitely (“We consider this a self-vetting process by the startups themselves,” Al Masri says), while they can opt to add their profile to a special list to be shown to investors curated by the Acquico team on the basis of their investor preferences. For this, Acquico charges a success fee percentage when closing a deal. On the investor side, Acquico is planning to charge a monthly subscription for investor accounts, which are currently free. “We’ve created a customized profile form for startups that captures the critical seven to eight data points that investors need to make a solid decision. This eliminates the need for a long process of analyzing before establishing primary interest. Our customized form is a five-minute read to investors, and a solid source of information directly from the founders.” In addition, Acquico is open to sourcing co-investment deals (“To help close standing deals that are missing out by a few more dollars,” he notes), which also comes with charging a success fee percentage.
There are a number of competitors globally, Al Masri says, but Acquico is setting itself apart by focusing on the value of connections made, and on closing deals through the standard structures, curated lists, or co-investment deals. “All our efforts are catered towards enabling the ecosystem as a whole, rather than a primary focus on one side of it,” he explains. Going forward, Al Masri sees an advantage in global investors increasingly eyeing opportunities in the MENA region, and to seize these future opportunities, he is focused on removing obstacles as they come his way. “The main challenge is credibility in the market,” he says. “Because of how Acquico is set up, startups are reluctant to add their profiles on the platform, without knowing who’s on the other side viewing them. Initially as a typical marketplace, we would not disclose our investor network; however, after some discussions with our network investors, we will now disclose the VCs in our network while keeping the angels anonymous.”
As someone who is on his third entrepreneurial attempt, Masri shows an indefatigable attitude that should be quite inspirational for his peers in the ecosystem. “Take advantage of everything provided to help you grow and succeed,” Masri says. “If you are not successful at your 100th time trying to secure a contract, a partner, an investor or whatever it is you’re trying to do, then maybe 101 is your lucky number. It’s easy to give up, it’s hard to soldier through. Be a soldier."