Murshed Mohammad Ahmad cofounded Yebab.com in 2008 with his sister Mareyah Mohammad Ahmad. Yebab started in the UAE and soon expanded to Saudi and Egypt and is now the Biggest Online Wedding Directory in the region, featuring products and services from over 4,000 stores. With the fast growing traffic of around half a million monthly visits and millions of page views, it serves a real and complex cultural need. Arabic weddings are elaborate and multifaceted events that happen over many days and need to be orchestrated and choreographed to jell.
Yebab enables brides’ self-plan weddings; Yebab is a tool box that helps manage budgets, time, and effort spent on weddings. Murshed Mohmmad Ahmad spoke with Dubai SME’s executive director, Manoj Nakra.
Nakra: How did Yebab begin?
Ahmed: ‘Wedding planning’ as a business idea came up in a conversation with friends in 2008. Wedding planners sit with a bride, understand her needs, and organise the wedding. A good wedding planner needs to understand the psychology of women, and know fashion and the market, well. The planning of a wedding takes a lot of time.
I reflected on doing the planning online. A website could collect and present a lot of information enabling a bride self-plan her wedding. I first spoke to Mareyah, my sister, about a website with shops that could perform the role of a wedding planner. She said, ‘Yes. It will work. People are always searching for good wedding planners. They are beginning to search online.’
Nakra: How did Murshed understand the customer — the decision making of brides?
Ahmad: Mareyah joined me to cofound Yebab. She added the customer perspective — what brides look for, which shops they visit, and their choice making. My wife also played a big role in that part as well.
Nakra: How did you start?
Ahmed: We prepared a low-cost simple website using open source programs. Our first site had four pages. We believed that customers would be ‘forgiving’ of the design because we were going to give unique information.
Nakra: How did you go about detailing the website?
AhmAd: The website had to be out-of-the-ordinary to be noticed. We first identified selection criteria for stores serving the wedding market. I shared product category and shop ideas with Mareyah. She would agree (or disagree), and identify the information needed from the shop for listing. Take wedding venues, like Dubai World Trade Centre is a very well known and established place for wedding venues. We had to attract them (category leaders) to the portal. We then needed information customers’ use for choice-making. We discovered that customers need surprising details of products. Customers wanted to know about the proximity of the ‘Bride preparation room,’ a room where a bride gets ready before entering the venue, to the venue. We focused on every simple detail of every product and category. Nothing was unimportant when we went to the businesses we worked with. Mareyah and I went for shop meetings together. I presented idea. She convinced the business owner that we knew what we were doing. I was able to convince them from a business and technical point of view. She convinced them from the customers’ point of view.
Nakra: How did you convince suppliers to partner with Yebab?
Ahmad: The business model we followed included receiving money in advance from the businesses and then creating pages for them in the directory to promote their services to the brides. Based on my experiences from earlier projects, i realised the need for credibility, so i took a trade license and became a member of Mohammad Bin Rashid Establishment for Small and Medium Enterprises (Dubai SME). This empowered me to open doors. We collected business cards at the Bride Show 2008 to identify vendors. We started contacting and meeting businesses throughout Summer of 2008. Some shops didn’t believe in the idea but played along, I guess they must have felt, ‘Let us support them and see how it evolves. Dubai World Trade Centre was one of the first listings. We showed their page to a competitor. They felt, ‘Yes, if they are on the site, we too should be there.’
Nakra: When did you know that the site would become a business?
Ahmed: I knew the business would work when the first supplier paid. We thought of twenty categories to list. We needed shops in each category before we could announce Yebab. We established a deadline which was three months away. We were working on the project in the afternoons because both of us had jobs. We had client meetings every day. We had a bank account so that we could ‘tell’ people that we are a real business. We picked momentum and the website increased a page at a time. We built the site with about 30 shops and launched Yebab in October 2008 with a press release. The website traffic immediately shot up. We emailed all our vendor partners and told them that their membership had started on that day.
Nakra: How did you establish price?
Ahmed: We had no idea how to price. It was a learning struggle. We started in a basic way. Big amounts of the wedding budget are spent on few categories like the wedding dress, jewellery and the venue. We put premium prices for these categories. Some wedding services are provided by freelancers. We kept those prices low. We decided to give three prices for different categories.
After a while we found that only two out of ten customers from the expensive categories were joining. We realised that we need to change this pricing model. We then quickly changed to charge based on exposure, no matter which category the business falls under, this controls the level of exposure businesses will get by the type of membership they purchase, which was flexible and affordable for many businesses.
Nakra: How has Yebab changed over the years?
Ahmed: Yebab has changed in all aspects — website interface, business process, data analytics and marketing. Yebab started as a directory and content site, we focused on Search Engine Optimisation and ranking high on different search keywords. We expanded to Saudi and Egypt in 2012 after receiving investment from N2V, the region’s biggest Internet holding company. Today we are more of a social site where brides and non-brides can get ideas and get inspired by creating their own albums and adding pictures to them and get to know where they can buy these beautiful items from. People & Businesses register in Yebab from all over the Arab World and today its the biggest wedding directory in the region. The nature of customer interface and user experience is evolving and visitors use pictures to absorb information. We are also able to track pages, identify visitors interests, and send weekly newsletters. Our marketing emphasis has shifted to online marketing — Facebook and Google. Earlier, marketing created awareness. Many knew Yebab as a name, as a logo, but did not visit the site, we moved towards online marketing and traffic has increased many times to reach around half a million monthly visits.
Nakra: How did you go about creating a team?
Ahmed: I focused full time on Yebab in November 2010. My sister joined full time in April 2011. Before that, we used to work four to five hours every day after work and full day on weekends. Learning to manage people is a continuous process. The first employee joined in 2009. She stayed for less than a month. Then we didn’t hire immediately. When we raised capital, took the new office and hired again in sales, operations, editorial, development and design. Managing the team gets interesting when part of the team is also in Egypt and Jordan. Technology plays a big role in enabling the seamless flow of communication and getting things done. A big part of a successful remote management is the team members passion and involvement.
Nakra: What worries you, keeps you awake about the business at night?
Ahmed: Growth. Revenue. Traffic. My focus is on traffic. If real traffic is there others will follow.
Nakra: What part of your education prepared you for entrepreneurship?
Ahmed: I always had an interest in business. I was always trying new things. I implemented and tested ideas, waiting and watching if they attracted customers and picked momentum. I based all my college projects on computers & Internet. This helped me understand the use of computing power. I was always thinking of starting an online business; using internet as an opportunity. I started two sites as a hobby before I started Yebab. My first experiment with business was in 2004-05. I found an adapter to link computers through electricity wires. In those days wireless networking was poor. I had a website, which was a famous forum for computers, and used it to promote the adapter. I continued to get calls even two years after the listing was removed because the idea was exciting and people were curious. I stopped selling it because the profit margin was low and the price was a bit high for the average person.
Nakra: What is unique in you that made you an entrepreneur?
Ahmed: I take action. I think, and if I am convinced, I act. I don’t just talk. I am exceedingly focused. I block out distractions, other opportunities and business ideas, when I sit in front of the screen. Close friends see me now as more mature, more restrained, more controlled.