Good Things Come In Threes: JustClean's Management Talk Running A Scalable Business JustClean co-founders Athbi Al-Enezi and Nouri Al-Enezi, and CEO Mohammad Jaffar talk about running a scalable business.
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Here's something I've come to realize in my time working at Entrepreneur Middle East: you can tell a lot about entrepreneurs by the way they behave in a photoshoot. For instance, the ones who make an awful hassle about how they are snapped are often those who have let success go to their heads- they turn what should have been a rather simplistic process into a painful parade of their egotistic attitudes and whims. In stark contrast are the humbler entrepreneurs, who are always a lot more pleasurable to work with. It's endearing to see them get embarrassed when the spotlight is on them (both literally and figuratively), and they are very adamant about sharing time in the limelight with partners or teams. It's simple why: they want the focus to be on the business they run, and not on them per se.
It is in this latter category that I put the entrepreneurial trio leading the Kuwait-headquartered startup, JustClean: in the discussion of how we'd position co-founders (and brothers) Athbi and Nouri Al-Enezi and CEO Mohammed Jaffar for a photograph that'd feature all three of them, they made it clear that they didn't want a picture that showed any of them standing ahead of the others. The reasoning was simple: by having themselves showcased in line with each other, the three entrepreneurs wanted to show that they are all equal when it comes to their work at JustClean, and that it is their united front that makes them so impactful.
In this startup, no one is more important than the other, but it's their united front that distinguishes this ambitious enterprise keen on making a dent in the business realm. Now, given that we work in a region where numbers (arguably) matter more than words, know that these Kuwaiti innovators are aiming to solve what they claim to be over a US$2 billion dollar problem in the GCC- and they are setting themselves up to be the trendsetters in this arena.
JustClean started out with a different name- the Al- Enezi brothers launched the company as Masbagti (meaning "my laundry" in Arabic) in 2016, billing it as Kuwait's first on-demand laundry service marketplace app. "Our journey started with a common pain, relatable to many- the indefinite woes of doing laundry," Athbi remembers. "When I returned to Kuwait after being in the UK for several years, I secured a 9-5 job where wearing a suit to work every day was part of the description. One unfortunate day (or so I thought), I was in a state of panic because my work suits were all at the cleaners, and the cleaners had decided to close on the day that I was promised their return. So, at 10 pm, with no suit to wear to work the next day, I did as any rational person would do: I took the day off. The subject of my leave was titled "personal reasons.' The next day, I drove to the cleaners with my brother in the passenger seat of my car, and we couldn't help but notice the amount of laundries that surrounded us. Our entrepreneurial eye kicked in, and I vividly remember looking over at my brother, and saying "Quit your job. We are starting our own app.'" Nouri's response? "I remember staring Athbi dead in the eye, and saying, "We are about to start the journey of our life.'"
JustClean CEO Mohammad Jaffar with co-founders Athbi Al-Enezi and Nouri Al-Enezi
And that was it- the Al-Enezi brothers' entrepreneurial careers began at that moment in the car. Once Masbagti came into being in April 2016, it quickly found favor with consumers, who were only too glad to find a faster and more convenient way to get their clothes picked up, cleaned, and delivered back to them. Laundry service providers also came on board the platform to gain access to a potentially larger customer base for themselves. "Wherever there is a pain, there should be a solution to fix it," Nouri notes.
"And what better way to help your community than solve an inconvenience people may and may not be aware of. My brother and I knew we wanted to follow the innovators in the market, and lead in their steps. We knew we were the youth of tomorrow that could take a risk, drop the secure 9-5, and jump into the dynamic startup life." And to their credit, the Al-Enezi brothers moved Masbagti quite quickly along its business trajectory- besides working on rapidly increasing the number of customers as well as the number of laundries that were on their platform, they also managed to get the startup noticed in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. For instance, in October 2016, the company was declared the winner in the Startup Battle contest at ArabNet's inaugural conference in Kuwait.
Masbagti continued to grow- in just a year's time the platform had enough laundry partners on it to cover the whole of Kuwait. The co-founders were validating their enterprise's business potential with, as Athbi put it, "every closed sale, every order that came in, and, most importantly, every frustrating no that turned into a yes. We tested our assumptions of the market through our personal network. We didn't approach any consulting companies or conduct any formal tests; our single validation was the belief that success came from the Almighty, and if we worked hard enough, with His blessings, we would succeed."
It was this style of thinking by the Al-Enezi brothers, along with the staggering growth they had managed to achieve for their enterprise, of course, that managed to garner the attention of a fellow Kuwaiti entrepreneur: Mohammed Jaffar. Perhaps best known in the MENA startup ecosystem for being the CEO of the Kuwait-born food delivery app Talabat.com (which he led to its acquisition by the Berlin-headquartered Rocket Internet for $170 million in 2015), Jaffar had moved on from that role to become the Deputy Chairman and CEO of the Kuwait-based venture capital fund, Faith Capital. He had been keeping an eye on the Al-Enezi brothers and their enterprise- and he had an inkling that the business was going to go places.
Athbi Al-Enezi, co-founder, JustClean
"When I met Athbi and Nouri, I really liked them, right from the first day," Jaffar says. "I liked their honesty, I liked their transparency, and I liked the trust that they gave me. I liked the challenge as well- I liked the problem they were trying to solve with Masbagti." As a potential investor, in order to understand the potential of the business, Jaffar engaged one of the Big Four companies to conduct a feasibility study for the enterprise, and to better understand the size of the problem Masbagti was aiming to solve. As it turned out, the Al-Enezi brothers had made inroads into what was found to be over a $2 billion market- and given that the laundry service sector was almost completely offline, Masbagti had the unique opportunity to bring an entire industry online.
"I shared that information with both the founders, and I said, "You know, guys, there's a very big problem to solve here,'" Jaffar recalls. "And I would love to do it with you- to do it together with you guys." The proposition Jaffar gave to the Al-Enezi brothers was this: Faith Capital would acquire Masbagti, and for the first few years of the business, Jaffar would lead the enterprise, and in the process, groom the Al-Enezi brothers so that they could take lead of it later in the future. Of course, Jaffar's track record with Talabat made him a great candidate to take on the mantle of CEO at Masbagti- but were Athbi and Nouri willing to let someone else other than themselves to take the lead of the startup they had founded in the first place?
It is here that the brothers showed what I consider to be some exceptional wisdom and maturity for people within the entrepreneurial realm- Athbi and Nouri decided that they (and Masbagti) would be better off in the long run with Jaffar as a guide along the way. The Al- Enezi brothers believed that they would be getting a lot more than just investment if Jaffar and Faith Capital took over the enterprise they had founded- and so they decided to move ahead in that particular direction.
"Every startup should focus on choosing a partner, and not money," Nouri says. "It is crucial that entrepreneurs select a mentor, and not just someone who will finance them. This investor should understand the business model, and assess specific gaps that may be lagging the business, or pulling it down. Athbi and I saw a mentor in Mohammed Jaffar. We had observed him, alongside many pioneers in the industry, completely revolutionize the dynamic between e-platforms and consumers. Our society had shifted their behavior from the offline norm to online. What was once a unicorn thought of ordering anything online has become a tangible reality. His belief in advancing our society to a more modern and capable one that has the ability to compete internationally on an e-level has inspired us as entrepreneurs. We wanted to be one of those entrepreneurs, who took the risk of entrepreneurship headstrong, while maintaining a firm belief of our ethics and morals."
Nouri Al-Enezi, co-founder, JustClean
"Like my brother said, before anything, we chose a mentor, not just an investor," Athbi adds. "We wanted more than monetary assistance. We wanted someone who carried the beliefs that we carried, and would empower us not only as entrepreneurs, but in our personal lives as well. When you're searching for an investor, pursue advisors who share your same vision. You want someone who is just as excited and dedicated to your product as you are. Find those advisors who bring value- a type of value that is intangible and not monetary. If they share the same value as you, the money will follow. With the Almighty's plan, He brought us together, not only as colleagues, but as brothers as well. We each have our own role that completes the others, and we are all integral components in the decision-making process."
From his perspective, Jaffar points toward the trust the three of them have in each other as the integral reason for why they all came together to work on Masbagtiit was a meeting of minds, so to speak, and as such, there was an easy alignment of values between him and the Al-Enezi brothers. "They know the difference between right and wrong," says Jaffar. "They're not money-driven… They're very good listeners. You know, when it comes to entrepreneurs, sometimes, they can become very stubborn and they don't listen or they think that they know it all. But the brothers trust me very much; they are very good listeners. At the same time, from my side, I've given them their space. I am always pushing them to take on more responsibility, and being entrepreneurs, they are always hungry to take on responsibility- and they don't shy away from it."
Once Faith Capital acquired Masbagti, and Jaffar came on board the company as its CEO, the startup started going through a lot of changesmaybe the most pronounced of which was its rebranding as JustClean, which was a strategic decision for the enterprise that was getting set to grow beyond its home base in Kuwait. But that's just one aspect in which the company transformed. "Three years ago the company had two founders only, and their office was their car," Jaffar explains.
"Thanks to God, today, we are made up of 91 employees, and we believe by the end of this year we will be having over 110 employees at JustClean. We are, at the moment, in three markets -Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE- and we expect to be covering more of the GCC by the end of this year. God willing, we are planning to enter other geographical areas in the MENA region as well in 2020. So, the business has grown quite a lot in the last two years. It's still small, but it's growing fast, month on month. When we as Faith Capital invested in the business in 2017, the business was a marketplace application. Today, we are a marketplace application, plus we're a logistics business, as well as a SaaS (software as a service) business. We're currently three businesses in one."
Faith Capital office
JustClean's accelerated growth got a further boost in February this year when Faith Capital announced it had closed a $8 million Series A round of financing in the startup. That round will enable the enterprise's growth across the GCC region, while also expanding the logistics and SaaS arms of the business. While it may have started out with a B2C model, JustClean has since decided to invest in its B2B outreach as well, by rolling out a laundry management solution, as well as logistical support for the vendors in its marketplace. This is one of the ways in which JustClean plans to distinguish itself from the competition it may face in this sphere as it expands across the region.
"As JustClean, we welcome healthy competition, as it benefits everyone in the market," Athbi says. "With that being said, Sugar Ray Robinson once said, "Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that's in rhythm, or you're in trouble.' When you are competing in the market, it is better to be the leader than the follower, i.e. the trendsetter. This way, you control the tides that everyone else rides on." Nouri adds, "At JustClean, we listen to our partners and clients and move faster than the market. We are always quicker to respond to changes and faster at adapting to them. We recognize the value of our users and partners all the same. We are not afraid of competition; we embrace it."
Jaffar echoes the brothers' sentiment when I asked him as to what drove him to take on an entrepreneurial role again at JustClean, following the success he had seen in that space with Talabat not too long ago. According to him, if JustClean were able to move the offline laundry service industry into the online world that would be an achievement that would almost certainly rival (if not surpass as well) what he and his team had accomplished in the food delivery space with Talabat. "My target now is to do something bigger than I did already," he says.
"It's just natural; it's human progression. You know, you do something, and the next time you want to do it more." But Jaffar makes it clear that this is not an exercise in selfa-ggrandizement either. "I truly believe that Talabat's success didn't come because of me- it came because of God's blessings," he says. "You just have to do things right, treat people well, and work really well. You have to leave the rest to the Creator. I truly believe in all this, and that's what gave me the confidence to start something from scratch again. And, really, starting something from scratch is super difficult, super challenging, because the risk of failure is immensely high. And if you fail, people will forget that you did Talabat! So, how do you combat the fear of failure? By praying to God, and working very, very hard. God will give you success if you do everything right."
A JustClean team meeting
This statement by Jaffar is a testament to the integral role his Muslim faith plays in his personal philosophy as an entrepreneur. Throughout the course of our conversation, he kept referring to the Islamic principles that he believes in, and how applying those in his day-to-day life had helped him attain success in the entrepreneurial realm. It's a way of life that he has learned from his own family- as an example, he pointed toward the religious ideals espoused by his late grandfather, Mubarak Al-Hassawi, a successful Kuwaiti businessman in his own right, whose biography refers to him as "a man ahead of his time."
"When he passed away in 2005, he was worth over three or four billion dollars, and he had thousands of people working for him," Jaffar recalls about his grandfather. "But the reason why he became successful is because he was a very humble, religious, kind person, and people always wished well upon him. And God blessed him. So, for me, I looked up to that, and I said to myself, "I will apply myself in the business world the same way my grandfather did.'" That, according to Jaffar, is the primary reason why he has been able to find success in the business world, and he is eager to have the rest of the world around him realize this as well, which is why he continues to espouse the same values in his work at JustClean as well.
"One of the things we did at Faith Capital is that we have taken out 10% of the profit, and given that to the team," Jaffar reveals. "So, if, in the future, God willing, we end up achieving success, 10% of that success will go to the team. At the same time, we give the chance to our team and colleagues: if they would like to invest in us, be shareholders, they are allowed to. It makes them feel that this is their business as well; they're not just employees working for a salary. We do all these initiatives to make people feel that this is not Mohammed's company, or the brothers' company- it's everybody's company. And again, this is part of our Islamic values. It's not about belittling people, or putting ourselves up on a pedestalit's about making them feel that they're also part of this equation, and give them chances to benefit as well."
This focus on the tenets of Islam can be seen in the startup's socially responsible initiatives as well- JustClean has a JustGood program that is centered on making sure the company gives back to the community, be it through its sponsorship of charity events, or collaborations and collections to help the underprivileged on a regular basis. The Al-Enezi brothers stand by Jaffar's philosophy, and this shows in the way the trio work, as well as in the policies they have put in place at their enterprise.
"Our overall vision at JustClean is to revolutionize the laundry industry by creating products that help all stakeholders in the process of garment care through solutions that address the needs and wants of the laundries, customers, and market at large," Athbi says. "In order for us to accomplish our goals, we invest in our most important asset: manpower." Nouri adds, "When we started our journey, we wanted to give others the opportunity to work in an environment that was unbiased and humane. We wanted to create a culture where individuals felt appreciated, and their absence would be recognized. An organization that promised employees the ability to break away from conventional chains, be creative, and challenge themselves to think outside of the box. A place where, with mistakes, comes progression, not judgment. By the grace of God, we are blessed to work alongside JustClean champions today."
It should be rather evident by now that as ambitious and motivated the entrepreneurs behind JustClean are, they are driven by some deeply personal values that is centered on a purpose to do (and enable) good through their business. "Success for me is to be remembered," Jaffar says. "How would you be remembered when you are no longer here? I think about that a lot. What legacy would I leave behind? These are the kind of things that go through my mind every day, and kind of keep pushing me forward and forward." The Al-Enezi brothers echo this sentiment when I ask them about what they hope the next few years will look like for JustClean.
"There is no end to JustClean, and the potential that will arise from it," Athbi says. "We will, with the blessings of the Almighty, be the trendsetters. We would like JustClean to be live all around the GCC, and the leader in the cleaning sector for users and business owners." Nouri feels the same way, adding, "With the growth of JustClean, our plan to give back to our communities will grow as well. Our JustGood program will expand to sponsor more charities, collaborate with more organizations, and directly help more people with donations. The more our orders increase, the more users like you will be contributing to a person in need."