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Gulf’s digital start-ups find ways to your mobile screens

A new generation of apps and online marketplaces want to be where the action is

Image Credit: Supplied
Businesses are coming up with different strategies to work their way into their audiences’ minds and one of these is through apps. Picture used for illustrative purposes only.
Gulf News

Dubai: Is there room for another app to make it to your smartphone screen?

Or is it already quite crowded with all the social media (despite any delete campaigns going around), music/video streaming, Google Maps and other daily use apps you just can’t do without?

And what of the chances for a new web portal to be saved in your “favourites” list? Do they even stand a chance?

Whatever be the outcome, a wave of start-ups in the UAE and the Gulf are trying to get a spot in consumer minds and, just as important these days, on their mobile and computers. Because if you are not there on those screens, chances are that consumers may not know about the business. Or worse, chosen to ignore it.

Businesses are coming up with different strategies to work their way into their audiences’ minds. For Golden Scent, which focuses exclusively on fragrances and beauty products, that meant taking the better part of two years to build up an exposure. And it did so through the portal and only then did it venture into launching an app.

“It was well after that initial period that we came up with the app — an app-first strategy could have taken longer to connect,” said Malek Shehab, co-founder of Golden Scent, which recently pulled in funding support from Saudi Aramco’s Entrepreneurship Ventures, Equitrust (the investment arm of Choueiri group), Wamda Capital and Raed Ventures. The Series A funding round opened in December last.

“The other thing we did was stick to a market that we knew best — Saudi Arabia. We didn’t want to be all over the place as that would have diluted our focus.”

Shehab says the business has built up a fair degree of traction with women shoppers in the kingdom. The numbers seem to suggest so — around 1 million visitors a month. It now claims a double-digit million dollar revenue.

The next plan of action is to expand the product mix. (Saudi Arabia leads the region by far in beauty and personalcare merchandise, with an estimated $5.3 billion.)

“GCC women spend six times more than French women on cosmetics per year and four times more than German women, given that the German market is Europe’s biggest cosmetics market,” said Shehab. “With those kind of numbers available, I believe that a good portion of this buying can be translated online.

“We operate on the direct e-commerce model ... I don’t think we will change it into a monthly subscription model. What we have works for us quite well.”

Market sources say that digital-focused businesses are exploiting gaps because brick-and-mortar providers are still not rushing in to fill the spaces with their own online ventures. Plus, funds are also becoming relatively easy to source as Middle East investors scale up on tech-related opportunities.

Entities such as Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) have become particularly adept at scouting out investment options in relatively early stage digital ventures or even in those that are inching closer to profitability. Saudi Aramco’s Entrepreneurship Ventures is the other player to watch out for when it comes to seeding investments.

Outside of beauty and personal care, grocery could be the next big thing on the digital start-up plate. There was an impression that online grocery order and delivery’s time had arrived some two years ago when acquired InstaShop. But things have been relatively quiet since then, but there is talk of online retailers wanting to make a big play on grocery.

In the UAE, Geeta Pahlajani, CEO of Goodness Cart, wants a niche role for her venture within that space and in daily consumables. “From eating organic, natural, and preservative free foods to taking vitamins, following special diets (paleo, vegan etc), participating in fitness and wellness activities, the consumer is taking a very holistic approach to overall well-being,” she said. “This trend is specifically prominent among millennials.”

Pahlajani reckons Goodness Cart as being the first regional portal “to facilitate a fresh products supply chain”.

“We offer farms, local food and beverage producers, suitable retailers, and manufacturers a platform for ecommerce expansion and this is currently not possible through any other large online marketplace [souq, noon, etc]. Merchandising is part of our long-term expansion plan once we have built significant scale and equity.

“Our current USP is to offer products across the health and wellness realm — not only gluten-free or organic products. The portfolio is being expanded to include athleisure and wearables before moving into experiences over the next 18-24 months. Our core proposition is to be the destination for health and wellness.”

In the Gulf’s digital universe, more such “destinations” are being created ... and with a chance to show up on your mobile screens.