In5: Enabling Innovation
Dubai Internet City’s In5 startups incubator has been rapidly expanding this year, tapping the best local startups while fostering an ecosystem for innovation in the city. In the final part of a series, Michael Dickison looks at how innovators have benefitted
Startups who have joined In5, Dubai Internet City’s startups incubator, say the experience has been instrumental in letting them find their feet — without it, they would be much more likely to be mired in paperwork, administrative and legal struggles, high costs, and maybe even on a path toward falling under.
Ibrahim Colak, founder of MrUsta, joined In5 in January. He said the incubator took care of many difficult details for him, leaving the firm to focus on growth and innovation.
“It’s not easy to be an entrepreneur in Dubai. There are renting costs and other costs, and you need networks to reach the right people,” Colak said.
“When I heard about In5, the location and idea attracted us because we needed that kind of support.”
Registering the company went smoothly with In5’s help — and being registered with Tecom or at Media City was a great prestige for a budding business, he said.
Most of all, the extra support let the company focus on its core business, Colak said.
“We don’t need to think a lot about administrative things, we can just focus on our business. It’s very good for us.
“It saves a lot of time, because we are a small team: four people. We are overloaded already. If we have these kinds of problems, it will take more time to grow our business.”
In5’s Knowledge Village campus
There were small experiences that could be valuable knowledge for other startups, he said. MrUsta has put banners on a car for marketing; having gone through the registration process, it could now offer advice over lunch for others wanting to do the same.
Guillaume Arnaud, co-founder of Carpoolarabia.com, said he tried twice to get into In5. Now that he is inside, he said it’s a great community of startups sharing their varied and sometimes common problems.
A monthly lunch organised by In5 in particular was a place where all the member teams of the incubator would gather and find fresh perspectives.
Arnaud said Carpoolarabia.com also got invaluable legal advice from In5, because many people often confused carpooling — in which there is no profit for the driver — with illegal taxis. “They helped us from A to Z — including getting the licence. It was a bit difficult [for us] because they had to check the legality of carpooling. When you say ‘carpooling’, a lot of people get afraid, but [In5] talked to lawyer to lawyer and got cleared. And when you have a question, there are companies who have been there. Doing what you are doing a month before. So experience is very valuable here. It’s not experience from five years ago — these companies did what you’re doing just three months back.”
Muhannad Ghashim, CEO of Shopgo, recently shifted his business from Jordan to join In5.
He said the move was almost effortless thanks to the incubator — he arrived, and was getting stuck back into his work the next day.
“I noticed e-commerce was booming mainly in the UAE, and KSA… It’s very important for us to be in the region where all the action is happening,” Ghashim said.
“For me, it was the soft landing of coming to the Emirates. I didn’t need to worry much. It was plug-and-play. I came here and everything was ready. I started the next day I arrived.
“When I first went through the idea, I knew it would take a lot of paperwork and preparation, which is something I didn’t need to worry about.”
Fishfishme.com founder Abdullah Alshalabi was one of the first to join when In5 was starting up, entering the incubator programme last year.
The place had grown dramatically even in just the past few months, he said.
“Now it’s more alive, it’s more dynamic.
“Three, four months ago, there wasn’t that much happening. There were startups, but they didn’t always come. Now we see it’s almost always full. It’s really good.”
Being a part of In5 was instrumental in making the business sustainable, he said.
“Without them I think we would be facing a lot of troubles, especially in terms of saving costs.”
Through In5, he was also able to connect with one of the best advisors the startup now had, he said.
Ustad Mobile chief executive Mike Dawson said it was vital that an initiative like In5 was based at a physical address.
“It doesn’t work without that. I think there’s just no alternative to having [this space]. You have to have a low barrier to entry in order for this type of business to start off.
“When we originally set up two years ago, this stuff didn’t exist. We had to pay the full licence fee, and pay the full rent upfront — which is obviously not a position either I or most startups are in. It makes life a lot easier.
“It’s reducing the barrier to entry, the risk of entry — if you have to take the risk of a full year’s lease at the beginning, when you know full well that most startups fail.”
5 (more) ventures now hatching
Walied Albasheer, founder
“As a purely online player we don’t see any [competition] in the entire region: right from India to Morocco”
Walied Albasheer lists a series of figures showing the vast potential of his idea.
Worldwide, online shopping is already worth $1 trillion. And of the top 10 online retailers worldwide, two are school and office suppliers.
In the UAE there are about 800,000 school students, about 108,000 university students and 240,000 SMEs. “We estimated the total value from this segment about $430 million,” Albasheer says.
“This is what we’re looking to target.”
Stationery Inc is Albasheer’s fifth startup, having begun a string of entrepreneurships since 2004. This time, he has partnered with two others who bring expertise from finance as well as the stationery industry.
Stationery Inc is poised for a launch campaign coinciding with the new school year, to offer boxes with a full year’s supplies depending on school, grade and teacher — letting parents order everything they need in one hit.
Albasheer says that many expats in the UAE still order stationery from their home countries. There is an opportunity for a well-stocked online shop, he says.
Ibrahim Colak, founder
“You know the service quality, you know how much they will charge, and there are no tricks”
All recent — and even not so recent — migrants to Dubai have had the experience: you need a job done for yourself or your home, maybe some painting, fixing, moving house or some extra pet care, but it’s almost impossible to know who’s the best person to call.
“I’ve had this situation too,” says Ibrahim Colak. “A man came to fix my washing machine, and he said it would be Dh500 to Dh600. I said I could get a new one for that… then he told me it would be Dh200.”
MrUsta (“usta” means master in most of the region’s languages) encourages UAE residents to recommend handymen and other service providers from those listed on the site. Categories of current listings span plumbers to cake decorators, with the businesses racking up a growing cache of user ratings.
The site is free for customers, while businesses can pay to receive unlimited extra services, such as receiving messages whenever a user is looking for a quote for a particular job without specifying a provider.
Abdullah Alshalabi, founder
“I was frustrated: why don’t we have one platform? So I took the step of starting one myself”
Abdullah Alshalabi describes Fishfishme.com as “like a hotels website, but for fishing trips”. Simply, he wanted something for himself. As a keen fisherman, Alshalabi often sought out marine excursions whether at home or when visiting other countries. But it was difficult to find good information online to book trips, he says.
“When I was living in Kuwait I had this problem, in Hong Kong I had this problem, and then I moved to Spain and had the same problem.”
Now the site has more than 350 fishing charter partners in 20 countries around the world. It only lists trips with licensed captains, to ensure safety — though many boat owners are always wanting to host trips, he says.
Alshalabi says fishing is quite a specialist activity — and he needs staff with some of that knowledge. So whenever someone joins the growing business, “you have to take them fishing with you to understand what fishing is”, he says.
Vineet Budki, co-founder
“What Guiddoo does is basically replace the tour guide”
A labour strike caused a cancellation of a Parisian tour Vineet Budki had planned with his wife. When the couple returned the next day, every tour was already booked out.
So they talked about it: “Why don’t we make something?”
They came up with Guiddoo. It isn’t a tour guide that suggests places to eat or visit; instead, it gives you guided tours of particular monuments — currently 60 locations around the world, including the Burj Khalifa and Shaikh Zayed Mosque.
Now “the space is heating up”, Budki says. As competitors abroad raise funds from investors, Guiddoo is looking to push Guiddoo’s technological capabilities, such as adding augmented reality features. It aims to have 300 locations in another year and a half, targeting museums and tours following the paths of famous people, such as Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi.
Rana Tarakji, co-founder
“It’s like a magazine, but very social: you can send a message to the dealership and ask, ‘Hey, how much does this cost?’ ”
Rana Tarakji says Cary is the world’s first social media app for buying, selling and exploring cars.
Car lovers set up their profiles, join groups and follow brands, and can browse dealerships for their offerings or for even a chat.
“People in the Middle East love cars, and they want to show off cars… but there was really no mobile app for buying and selling cars in the Middle East — let alone one that’s social,” she says.
The firm’s immediate focus is Dubai and the UAE, before a planned expansion to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East. More than 6000 cars have already been uploaded, and international features are being built into the app. Tarakji notes there’s still nothing like Cary worldwide.
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