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A Decade In Review: Morrad Irsane And Sharene Lee, Co-Founders, Takadao "There were many ups and downs in the past 10 years; I truly know what it means to be a startup entrepreneur now."

By Aby Sam Thomas

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Morrad Irsane and Sharene Lee, co-founders, Takadao

With its February 2024 issue, Entrepreneur Middle East celebrates its 10th anniversary! To mark this milestone, we revisiting 10 entrepreneurs and entities that we featured in the publication a decade ago- we find out how far they have come, and what's next for each of their stories.

In the MENA entrepreneurial ecosystem, Morrad Irsane and Sharene Lee are today perhaps best known for being the husband-and-wife duo behind the Saudi Arabia-headquartered insurtech startup, Takadao, which has been making a name for itself with both its pioneering offering (a blockchain-native, Shariah-compliant insurance alternative), as well as its impressive list of backers, which includes names like Tim Draper, BIM, Core Vision Ventures, Prince Sultan bin Fahad bin Salman Al Saud, and, most recently, Adaverse.

However, back in 2014, when we first featured them in Entrepreneur Middle East, Irsane and Lee were driving an entirely different enterprise, Melltoo- a UAE-based online marketplace for second-hand items, which went on to be acquired by fellow UAE-based reverse logistics platform Cartlow in 2022.

"Time flies!" says Lee, as she recalls the journey she and Irsane have been on since stepping into the region's entrepreneurial ecosystem. "There were many ups and downs in the past 10 years; I truly know what it means to be a startup entrepreneur now. Melltoo was acquired in 2022, and it was truly a good end to an important chapter in my life. It taught me the key ingredient to building a startup, resilience, and it opened my eyes to the power of technology in shaping lives. Today, I've taken those learnings, and am applying them to Takadao, the company we founded after the exit of Melltoo. Takadao builds Web3 protocols for community-owned financial services. Our flagship product is Takasure, a shariah-compliant life insurance fund that is owned by the insured. Takadao feels to me like my life's mission; like, everything that has happened to me has led me to this moment. I sincerely believe that what we are doing will have an immense impact in tipping the scales of power, and bringing balance to the financial lives of many billions of people worldwide."

Related: The Startup Rollercoaster: An Entrepreneurial Story; From Inception To Exit

The entrepreneurial duo have spent a year and a half building Takadao, an alternative to traditional financial systems. Source: Takadao

Given that they are operating in the nascent but bustling space of Web3, both Irsane and Lee are excited about what the future holds for Takadao. "It is an exciting new journey where everything needs to be built," Irsane says. "We were sick of institutions like banks and insurance companies taking us for a ride. Decentralization is what we believe in, and what we are betting on. It has its own set of challenges, and that is what we entrepreneurs love to do- fix problems. Plus, being in an industry that is the fastest growing in history is exciting. We are building for now and for the coming generations."

Lee agrees with Irsane, noting the potentially transformative impact of what they are building with Takadao. "We've spent the last year and a half building Takadao," Lee shares. "Our vision is to create alternatives to traditional financial systems that prioritize profit over consumer well-being. A lot of what has transpired in the world in the past two decades has shaken my faith in the current financial system. The majority of the world has to contend with high inflation, high indebtedness, and uncertainty in our money. Add to that the fact that I'm a Muslim, and, as such, I'm excluded from most financial instruments due to the banking infrastructure being based on interest. Something's got to give, and being an entrepreneur, it's my job to find solutions."

Lee is quite confident about the road ahead for Takadao, and as far as she is concerned, the future is set to be a bright one. "I certainly believe that Takadao will be a rousing success, and that we will be the technology that powers the world's largest self-insuring communities," she declares. "However, even if that doesn't transpire, if we simply manage to lay the groundwork for other such alternative financial products to exist, that would be a world-changing achievement."

Related: Married To The (Startup) Mob: Couples As Co-Founders

Hindisight is 20/20: Then-Versus-Now With Sharene Lee

Looking back at the stage of your entrepreneurial/career/business trajectory you were in 10 years ago, is there anything you'd do differently knowing what you know now? Alternatively, what's the biggest lesson you wish you'd known 10 years ago?

"When we had founded Melltoo, we were already entrepreneurs two times over, and we had built and exited businesses in the past. Nonetheless, we were poorly equipped for what lay ahead. Tech startups are very different from SMEs and traditional businesses. They play by a different set of rules that don't always make sense in the traditional business sense. For example, why are the most valuable startups the ones that burn the most cash, and are the least profitable? But the only way to learn these rules is to learn them while doing.

However, there isn't anything that I would have done differently. All the mistakes made were formative experiences that make me who I am today. Fortunately, I have another go at it with my current startup, and I'm applying the hard lessons learned. My mental health is also in much better shape now, having been toughened by the previous experiences."

Hindisight is 20/20: Then-Versus-Now With Morrad Irsane

Looking back at the stage of your entrepreneurial/career/business trajectory you were in 10 years ago, is there anything you'd do differently knowing what you know now? Alternatively, what's the biggest lesson you wish you'd known 10 years ago?

"There are many things I would have loved to know and do differently! For instance, one of them is knowing that great products don't get built in one day, and that product-market fit takes time. Another is knowing the importance of building an early community, and sharing more in the open. I would have connected with potential investors as early as possible to build relationships early on; even if I didn't get their money, I would have gotten their advice.

The biggest lesson is knowing that you are in this for the long run, and that applies for everyone involved- team, customers, investors, mentors, etc. Remember that the first round of funding is the easiest one; celebrate quickly, but start to build relationships to grow your network, and prepare for follow-on investment. Second biggest lesson: choose your investors carefully, and do due diligence on them by speaking to other founders. Not all money is good money. Look for investors that are believers, just as you would search for team members that are believers. Search for the ones who understand what you are doing, the ones who will support you through good and especially through bad. I have been super lucky to have had many great investors; though not all.

As the saying goes: alone, you go faster, but together, you go further. Surround yourself with the best in the industry, and pay well- or at least try to! There are no shortcuts in building great digital products. Venture-backed startups are a whole other game that both venture capitalists and founders learn as they go along. The notion of scaling, burning, and growing at all costs was either the right strategy or the wrong one, depending on market conditions. We were working through a newfound land of opportunities blindly, while often being led by the blind. As such, stay true to yourself, listen to all advice, and decide for yourself. Once you decide, no regrets. Alhamdulillah,we were able to get acquired in a region where exits are rare, and for that, we are thankful."

Related: A Decade In Review: Soukaina Rachidi Alaoui, Founder, RisalatComm

Aby Sam Thomas

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.

Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.  

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