Better Together: Co-Founders Of Dubai-Based Startup WakeCap Hassan Albalawi And Ishita Sood Talk Partnership Pros "Until we formed the company officially, our relationship was based just on trust."

By Megha Merani

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WakeCap co-founders Ishita Sood and Hassan Albalawi.

Most people aren't inclined towards applying for a job that advertises that it can't really pay you at the moment, but promises equity someday in the future. But not only did Ishita Sood apply to it immediately, she also accepted the role as a co-founder of WakeCap without putting anything on paper, and before the company was officially formed.

"It was just instinct," Sood said in an interview, as she recalled her first meeting with Hassan Albalawi, founder and CEO of WakeCap.

"It was just an opportunity that sounded very good. I had no idea about construction at the time. I had no idea how this would work, how I would be able to contribute, and whether I'll be able to get paid or not."

WakeCap is a Dubai-headquartered construction technology startup, and its innovative IoT-based enterprise solution connects workers to site and project managers for safer and more efficient project delivery. The company's IoT device comes integrated with construction helmets that make it possible for management to access workers' attendance, location, and accidents in real-time.

Sood jumped in as co-founder and Chief Operations Officer (COO) back in mid 2017, a few months after she'd moved to Dubai, and began applying for jobs on popular startups platform MAGNiTT.

"I know that I'm not a good fit for corporate, so I wasn't really applying to those [jobs] very aggressively, [which is why] I was focusing more on startups," she said.

In 2018, WakeCap raised US$1.6 million in seed funding from a group of global and regional investors. The startup also includes three other founders, two who work remotely from the Netherlands, and one who works from Lebanon.

"Until we formed the company officially, our relationship was based just on trust," Sood said, adding that Albalawi's passion and dedication towards making the idea work was simply "contagious" as they began to apply to accelerators and incubators, as well as exploring how to setup the company.

WakeCap's pitch earned recognition and $175,000 in funding from global entity HAX Accelerator, a seed stage program focused on hardware startups that selects startups for investment and offers onsite support and mentoring in Shenzhen, China.

The startup was also declared the top winner of the third cycle of the Dubai Smartpreneur Competition, organized by Dubai Startup Hub, the entrepreneurship development arm of Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Additionally, WakeCap scored $25,000 at the Start-up City Pitch Competition at The Big 5 last year.

Related: Innovators Invited: Dubai Startup Hub Launches Fourth Edition Of Its Annual Smartpreneur Competition

More importantly, accelerators also helped the founders figure out how to make things official.

"We didn't know how to do all this," Sood said. "This was all suggested by HAX. They helped us a lot with company formation, and they also push you towards having more co-founders, because they know a sole person cannot function in all ways."

The COO added that venturing into a new territory of so many unknowns together is a crucial challenge for startups, and has been both the source of many a conflict as well as a huge factor in fortifying the bond between the founders.

"We have disagreements every now and then," Sood said, adding that disagreements between her and Albalawi have even got heated at times.

"We've had arguments where I've been like "no, you listen to me first,' and he's said no and that I need to listen to him first. [But then we] talk about it or take some time to think about it and come back and share, sort of like "ok, you're right about this one.' This is where a level of maturity comes in. The good thing about Hassan is that he's very open with each and every employee and if I don't agree with something, he listens. He doesn't impose his thoughts on me and vice-versa, so our dynamics overall are very good."

Albalawi added that conflict and debate is "normal" not just with his co-founders, but also with team members because everyone is in unchartered territory.

"How can we do things the right way when none of us actually know what the right way is?"

However, he added, it's important to put aside egos, and focus on the greater good.

"Sometimes, maybe we try to prove something to the other, but this is when I really had to be clear with Ishita that it's not about us, it's about what's right, so we have to admit that we don't know and seek the right answer. That actually put clarity in a lot of things. It's about getting the job done."

Video: WakeCap winning Dubai Startup Hub's Smartpreneur Competition in 2018

Sood added that WakeCap also deals with division of work and mistakes in the same pragmatic get-the-job-done manner.

"We don't define to each other that this is mine and this is yours," she explained. "You have to take accountability. We understand we're going to make mistakes, but it's just about being accountable and understanding that you made that mistake, and this is how it can be solved or we come together and solve it."

Do mistakes happen? "Oh yes, of course," she said. "Because we're still in early stages, sometimes we miss out on things or it's about how we should have done something this way instead of that way. It can be something as small as a decision about buying a computer or a car. There are so many things you have to come to a conclusion about so sometimes you have say "ok, that's my fault, I was supposed to complete it, but I didn't do it.'"

So instead of "coming up with a lame excuse," she added, members of the team work with a "just accept it, and see how to get it done together, or individually" attitude.

"It's just about being responsible and accountable, because somebody has to just do it."

The best thing about having a co-founder, Sood said, is having someone to count on especially on the more challenging days.

"I think it's very important to have someone to talk to and vent to, and somebody who understands what is going on and can listen to you and calm you down. I just feel that in this overall journey, you need at least one person who can just listen, if not advise you. There are times where we both don't know what to do about something, but then, we have each other to talk to and decide what we think is the right thing to do."

Of course it's fun too, she added, to share ideas and talk about vision and future goals. "He can take a joke on Arabs and Saudis too," she joked, commenting on the unique Indian-woman-Saudi-man co-founder dynamic that she's often asked about.

"I went to an angel investor's network, and twice, the investors asked me whether he gets too aggressive or is he imposing his thoughts on me– because that's the stereotype or perception they had of Saudi males," she said.

"But he's so calm, and I can get aggressive, so I think this perception of Saudis is incorrect, and you can't really generalize. When I met him, it didn't feel like he can intimidate me or boss me around. He's very open to discussing things, not just with me, but with everyone."

Meanwhile, Albalawi's advice to founders in search of a co-founder is not to "get stuck" with the legalities and formalities.

"You have to look at the future," he advised. "Look first for a team member or co-founder who believes in your idea, and not worry how much work he or she already did. Look forward at how much work he or she is willing to contribute in the future."

Recalling his first meeting with Sood, he shared: "She basically expressed her interest, and was on board from the first meeting. For me, that was more than enough for me to hit the ground running. So, if you believe in the idea and you're on board, then just do it."

This article was originally published on Dubai Startup Hub and has been reposted on Entrepreneur Middle East based on a mutual agreement between the websites.

Related: Dubai-Based WakeCap Focuses On The Wellbeing Of Construction Workers To Improve Industry Productivity

Megha Merani

Independent Journalist

Megha Merani is an independent journalist based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Her stories have made headlines across a number of publications including Reuters, Associated Press, Entrepreneur Middle EastBloomberg Middle East, Arabian Gulf Business Insight, Arabian Business, and former local daily 7DAYS.

Megha also produces editorial for government platforms including the World Government Summit and World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting of the Global Future Councils. She has been a grant winner of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Global Initiative Against Organized Crime funded by the government of Norway to report on the online trade in illegal wildlife.

Megha is also an Associate Fellow (AFHEA) at Murdoch University in Dubai and leads its Digital Newsroom course unit. In addition, Megha serves as a United Nations Women mentor to support equal opportunities for women entrepreneurs, and supports various other programs including TIE Women, 60 Day Startups, and the Watt Inc. Business Incubator.

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