The Unicorn State Of Mind: It's Not Just About A Company's Valuation
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It is no doubt that the Middle East, and the UAE especially, is recognized as a potential breeding ground for new startups and budding entrepreneurs. An unsaturated market which has an immense scope for growth, supportive government regulations and initiatives, and a rich pool of talent eager to drive the region’s startup landscape to new heights. According to MAGNiTT, the MENA startup ecosystem witnessed a record high of US$188 million in total funding in 2020. With two UAE-born unicorn startups, Souq and Careem, paving the way and inspiring young entrepreneurs as well as more established companies to join their journey, the country is well on its path to becoming a goldmine for new ventures and tech innovation.
So, what is a unicorn company? By definition, a unicorn company is one that has a valuation of more than one billion dollars. However, in my opinion, the definition of unicorn entails so much more than a company’s valuation. The company’s mindset, the people, the culture, the operations, how it optimizes data, and combines it with learnings– each and every aspect of a startup needs to be streamlined to work towards the ultimate North Star, becoming a unicorn company. Achieving the status of a unicorn startup is definitely a moment of pride for any company, but on a much bigger scale, it sets off a series of chain reactions that in turn impact and contribute to the national economy.
Success is directly associated with becoming a unicorn. The more unicorn companies that are born out of the country, the more attractive the country becomes to new entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. As more and more startups kick off and succeed, the country establishes itself as a rising hub for new professional opportunities, further attracting top tier talent from around the world. The UAE has created an ideal and nurturing environment for startups, which range from long-term visas and startup incubators, to Abu Dhabi’s reduction in tech startup licenses, and a series of funding and support programs. While a handful of brands have achieved the unicorn status by collaborating with leading global companies to widen their offering and scope, what the country lacks is companies that evolve into unicorns independently, without being acquired by bigger players– and this, is the true North Star for my company, Property Finder.
We have been at the forefront of tech innovation and advancement, and in 2020, the company welcomed a fresh leadership team to accelerate its journey to becoming the region’s first ever independent unicorn company. Each of the five key appointments (President, Chief HR Officer, Chief of Strategy and Transformation, Chief Commercial Officer, and Chief Financial Officer) come from leading international companies, and bring with them a wealth of knowledge and decades of experience across varying industries and departments. Having served at Google and Facebook myself, I have witnessed the mindset and the culture adopted by theseglobal players to ensure that all their operations and employees collectively align towards achieving one unified goal.
However, startups enjoy certain advantages and they can leverage on their capacity to be more malleable to change. Established corporates have rigid structures in place, ensuring minimal error, but at the same time, also limiting the scope for creativity. It has been eight months since I joined the team at Property Finder, and every day since has been an incredible adventure. Global corporates and their well-defined systems certainly have their perks, but having reached the peak of my professional career, I was excited to join a homegrown startup and exercise my expertise to drive the company to new heights. Startups encourage employees to take calculated risks and completely own their decision- we encourage our teams to develop strategies and give them the bandwidth to spread their wings and soar to their full potential. If you have an idea that is well-backed by data to succeed, there is a sure chance that you will be given the responsibility to lead on it and take it forward.
At senior management level, day to day decisions are easier to execute, without having to go through layers of approval. When I joined the company, we were following a corporate mentality, and my first goal was to transform this into a startup mentality– everyone is approachable, all our doors are open, and we are keen to hear all ideas. Each employee is valuable, and all of their views will be heard. Once we were on track progression, operations started flowing smoother than ever before- a simple example is the introduction of live-viewings on our platform. Earlier this year, we implemented “Ninja,” a month-long sprint to develop new products and tech. This resulted in the launch of live-viewings within two mere weeks during the lockdown from the conceptualization of the idea– a timeline like this would be unimaginable at a global corporate.
That being said, regional startups also enjoy the advantage of adopting well-established global models to suit their goals. My advice to young entrepreneurs aiming to eventually grow into a unicorn company would be to first validate the business model, and find a niche that makes you stand out from the rest, find out what makes your product or offering unique, and build on it. If I were to narrow it down to three fool-proof routes to success, these would be:
1. Adapt and replicate a successful global model to suit regional demand. Check out the likes of Careem, Souq, and Property Finder, who noticed a gap in the market, and introduced a globally-recognized model to solve this.
2. Observe and develop a specific solution that caters to a national challenge. Egypt’s Swvl would be a great example here– a transportation solution designed to facilitate and simplify commuting within the city through a network of bus routes.
3. Develop a product that contributes to global challenges. Consider Instabug, which is a platform developed in Egypt that helps app developers resolve their issues by offering curated bug and crash reports and user surveys to create a seamless end product.
Second, and I can’t stress this enough, understand the importance of data and research– the Googles, the Facebooks, and the YouTubes of the world, none of them would be where they are today without their wealth of data. Data forms the very backbone of every business– it allows you to predict trends and develop products and services, specifically designed to align with the customer’s needs.
Finally, talent– your aim should be to recruit leaders, achievers, and mentors. Even if they may be starting off in their career, the attitude and energy of an individual holds the power to drive the company to incredible heights. Bring these wonderful brains and personas into a room together, and you have created the nerve center of your company. At the end of the day, a company’s success lies in the hands of its workforce– make sure your team shares the same drive and aspiration for success, and everything else will eventually fall in place.