Riding The Wave: Zbooni Co-Founder And CEO Ramy Assaf Is Capitalizing On The Surge Of Digitization In The MENA Region
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All too often, entrepreneurial ideas spark from a personal experience or observation about a particular gap in a given industry. Such was the case of Ramy Assaf, co-founder and CEO of Dubai-based social commerce platform, Zbooni.
“Around 2016, my wife had started her own small business selling hats via an Instagram page," he recalls. "And if customers wanted to order from her, they would send a message either by direct message or through WhatsApp." For Assaf, who, at the time was working with venture capital firm Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP), it was his wife’s online millinery that showed him an untapped opportunity in the business realm.
“A few things stood out to me about the state of commerce, and how it was evolving rapidly into new social channels,” Assaf remembers. “Digital platforms were able to reduce the barriers to entry for small businesses. If you could set up an Instagram page and use WhatsApp, you could be in business. However, the notion of accepting payments, tracking orders, and managing customers, all remained pain points. Zbooni was born out of observing these experiences, and finding solutions that would help people start, run, and grow a business.”
The initial concept for Zbooni, therefore, was quite straightforward: a digital marketplace for microbusinesses. And, thanks to Assaf and his team, Zbooni (which means “my customer” in Arabic) quickly progressed from being just an idea, to a startup that very recently raised US$5 million in a Series A funding round by an undisclosed London-based investment fund.
Officially launched in 2017 by Assaf and Ashraf Atia, Zbooni aims to help small and medium enterprises to solve two major issues related to setting up an online presence: the need for a direct connection with a bank, and the requirement for specific software to enable digital payments. Resolving each of the two issues was a process Assaf likens to having been as tedious and turbulent as “building a Frankenstein’s monster."
He explains, “Firstly, when a business wants to go online, that means that they need to have a direct relationship with a bank or a payment gateway, which can be a painful process. It takes way too long, and the requirements to set up are structured in a way that is just very complex to deal with for an average SME. If the business gets past that part, they then have to obtain and use software that their customers can pay through. They need an interface, like a website or an e-commerce page, or a point-of-sale solution. It’s far too complicated! Our business model is to provide a bridge for SMEs, enabling them to get online painlessly." With this idea in mind, Assaf and his team have designed Zbooni as an app-based platform that needs to be downloaded only by merchants, not end customers.
However, it is key to mention here that Zbooni is not a payment gateway in itself, but that it enables access to one by partnering with leading payment gateways. “We built an app for the merchants to use,” Assaf elaborates. “This gives them the ability to control and manage their store, create orders, manage their product catalogs, create invoices, etc. For merchants’ end-customers, it is easier to check out from mobile websites, because it’s frictionless, and provides a more seamless customer experience.”
The Zbooni Team. Image courtesy: Farooq Saliq/Entrepreneur Middle East
As of January 2021, Zbooni has enabled its merchants to serve more than 150,000 end-customers. The start-to-finish process for a given transaction is quite simple to understand: the merchant’s digital store, or “eStore”, is available for the end-customers to view from any browser. When a purchase is made via Zbooni, the merchant sends a link to his/her customers, and they will then be brought to a payment checkout page that is also workable on any browser. Finally, in order to complete a payment, the customer can pay using a Visa, Mastercard, Apple Pay, or Mada card without having to download any app.
However, the firm does not offer delivery services; the onus for that lies only on the merchant. “We use a marketplace model, which means that they (the merchants) are selling through Zbooni,” Assaf says. “They don’t have to go through all the hoops. We provide a store within our marketplace, and payments are managed by us as the operator. We take a very small commission per transaction, and relieve a lot of the pains involved for our merchants.”
Having been incubated at Facebook, the startup is today backed by regional and international organizations, including Chalhoub Group, MEVP, and B&Y Venture Capital. As a company that is entirely dependent on merchants shifting to online selling and/or mobile-first commerce, the global coronavirus pandemic that kicked off in 2020, despite being a dark and ominous cloud for several businesses, provided Zbooni with multiple silver linings. “What we had been preaching for the previous two years, about going cashless and digital, suddenly became front-and-center for most businesses,” Assaf notes. “Prior to the pandemic, the region was behind the rest of the world when it came to using cash. Now, the Middle East’s consumers have caught up and graduated to contactless forms of payment– that is a trend that is irreversible.”
The hastened shift to cashless payments and online selling, amid increased social distancing measures nationwide, meant that there were an umpteen number of microbusiness merchants that could’ve potentially been rendered jobless if they didn’t quickly adapt to the new technological changes. But that’s where Zbooni came in and changed the story- from brick-and-mortar merchants who had never sold online before, to startups and well-established businesses that needed better digital tools to adapt to the ever-changing business landscape, the startup’s offerings proved to be a lifeline for all of them.
At the same time, Zbooni also upscaled its team by bringing in newer members, and its technology was upgraded to better serve its merchants and their end-customers, without having to make major changes to its overall model. “We had ambitious plans going into 2020, but of course, we didn’t anticipate a pandemic,” Assaf says. “It created a giant tailwind to our business through the acceleration of demand, as businesses realized that they needed to be better equipped online.”
The subsequent measures taken to ensure increased ease and better performances were aplenty. “When the pandemic began to take hold, we provided our merchants with certain relief, such as waiving fees for their first AED5,000 in sales,” shares Assaf. “Most importantly, Zbooni enabled local businesses to interact and transact with their customers digitally, without having to invest heavily into tech infrastructure, web design, or costly payment systems. We’re really proud that as a team we could positively support local businesses, and help them through their time of need.” The results of such minimal but quick pivots reflected in Zbooni’s 2020 performance. From increased customer growth, to more demand from merchants, to a considerable expansion of services, the startup was able to thrive in a pandemic-stricken year. “We accelerated rapidly over the course of the year and experienced customer growth of over 600%,” explains Assaf. “An interesting pattern we have seen amongst SMEs is the increase in businesses providing services and products aimed at health and wellbeing. Three of the top five biggest sellers on Zbooni in 2020 were diet products, self-improvement workshops, and fashion styling. We also took the opportunity to expand the services we offered and truly become a hub for SMEs to start, run and grow their businesses. Zbooni has flourished as a result of the entrepreneurial spirit of the merchants who we are partnered with.”
Ramy Assaf and Ashraf Atia, co-founders, Zbooni. Image courtesy: Farooq Saliq/Entrepreneur Middle East
But while Assaf may point toward Zbooni’s partners to explain his startup’s growth in an otherwise tumultuous year, one cannot discount the role the CEO himself played in attaining the same, especially when it comes to spearheading the company’s culture during this period. “When it came to managing as a leader during a time of crisis, I clearly wanted to ensure that employee health and safety was a priority,” he explains. “We have always been flexible in terms of allowing a work-from-home culture, and so we were well adjusted to operating that way going into the lockdown. We don’t force people to be in the office at all, but we did expand our physical office space in 2020. This included doubling the office size, so when people do choose to come to the office, then they feel more comfortable.”
In a year that saw hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, and the very fabric of team cultures being scrutinized more deeply, it is heartening to see that the team at Zbooni weathered the storm successfully- and together. “The challenges presented in 2020 ultimately brought us a lot closer as a team. We let people spend time with their loved ones and have some space, and we trusted them to continue to deliver– which they did.”
The leadership skills of a CEO are undoubtedly what furnish the various facets of a given company’s culture, and Assaf’s expertise in this domain can perhaps be attributed to the lessons he learnt working in the venture capital industry. “Working at MEVP, or any VC firm, is a very interesting dynamic,” he explains. “You have the privilege of seeing hundreds or thousands of businesses and entrepreneurs pitching their plans. You get exposed to ideas, problems and solutions you wouldn’t have ever considered before. It’s like a crash course that sharpens your business senses.”
But not everything about the VC culture could entice Assaf to carry on with a career in it. In a strange and almost ironic turn of events, it was precisely Assaf’s role as a VC that led him to becoming an entrepreneur. “You’re expected to provide some 'filter,' and give a recommendation on why a business idea is a good opportunity, or not a good opportunity to the firm- I hated that part,” he says. “Mainly because it assumes the VC somehow knows more than the rest of the market. At the end of the day, it’s just opinions about the future, which nobody knows. I feel more comfortable as an entrepreneur, because it’s more fulfilling to operate a business, and get your hands dirty solving real problems, rather than just talking about them.”
The Zbooni team. Image courtesy: Farooq Saliq/Entrepreneur Middle East
Unleashing his entrepreneurial spirit is thus what has helped Assaf shape Zbooni into the startup that it is today. Having been in the startup ecosystem for a good few years now, Assaf has had a first-hand view on how the landscape has changed over time. “In terms of the MENA’s overall investment/startup landscape, it’s a complete 180-degree-turn from where it was a decade ago- running a startup now or starting your own business is the norm!” he observes. “People are fully awakened to the fact that a corporate gig isn’t as stable as it once seemed. Losing your job, or having your company fall from grace, can happen very rapidly. The only security you have is to control what you can, and that’s to be in the driver’s seat of your own career. I expect we’ll see this manifest into a lot more talent having the courage to start their own businesses, which in turn will result in much more investment into the region.”
Given this viewpoint on the future of the MENA entrepreneurial landscape, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Assaf and the Zbooni team have very clear goals for their own future as well. “As with all online businesses, there is a continuous need for improvement– every opportunity must be used to enhance the experience for our customers,” Assaf says.
With the aforementioned $5 million investment now at their disposal, the team is looking to further develop its team and services, while also working on expanding into the region. “We have a series of plans for Zbooni,” Assaf says. “It mostly involves making more significant investment into the product itself. We believe that as our customers evolve, and as their needs mature, the product should as well, so we continue serving them as their business grows. We’re upholding our promises to merchants to continue to innovate, and provide the solutions they need, which truly drive positive impact to their business. We are also looking at geographically expanding our presence in Saudi Arabia, and see that as an opportunity to drive a lot of change and transformation.”
With the sudden surge in the digitization of SMEs over the course of the COVID-19 crisis last year, and the SME industry itself gaining high prominence in the MENA region, it will be fascinating to see how Zbooni further evolves in its efforts to make e-commerce more accessible for microbusinesses. “Over the past 12 months, we’ve gone from primarily being a payment solution for businesses, to now offering a broad suite of tools that enable merchants to better understand, engage and transact with their customers,” Assaf says. “This is the focus for us over the coming months– to continue to develop best-in-class products that help SMEs start, run, and grow their businesses.”
‘TREP TALK: Zbooni co-founder and CEO Ramy Assaf shares his tips for entrepreneurs looking to pitch their ideas to investors
1. Be clear and concise “Focus on being very articulate about your value proposition and business model. Give them the information they need in a concise and clear way. If they pass, just move on quickly. The right investor will emerge.”
2. A “no” isn’t the end of the road “Don’t get too downbeat if investors don’t get onboard. They don’t necessarily know more than you. If you really believe in your idea, then keep going. Always remember that what your customers think is more important than what investors think.”
‘TREP TALK: Zbooni co-founder and CEO Ramy Assaf shares his tips for small businesses wanting to make it big in the market
1. The customer comes first “Focus on delighting your customers- even if that means doing it the old-fashioned way, like writing ‘thank you’ cards.”
2. Never lose sight of the customer’s needs “Focus on what your customers are really looking for, even if others are advising you to do differently!”
3. Test, test, and test again “Be willing to test your ideas (and embarrass yourself in the process)!”